Choreographing the Dance of the Vampires

Red Storm Rising’s Game Plots

Contributed by Matthew Kirschenbaum Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, MITH at University of Maryland
February 24, 2012
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Part of the Cluster:

Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process

Red Storm Rising, which shot to the top of the best-seller lists when it was published in August 1986, may be the most widely-read work of procedural fiction ever written. Co-authored by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, the techno-thriller put its readers on the front lines of a conventional Third World War between NATO and the former Soviet Union. It contained some of the best military fiction writing in a great while, the prose laced with acronyms and technical specs whose precision helped propel the moment-by-moment accounts of cruise missile strikes and high-tech engagements. As a character on the bridge of a US Navy frigate opines, “What modern combat lacks in humanity it more than makes up for in intensity” (469).

Procedural texts are usually associated with avant garde writing experiments such as the Oulipo. They involve formal, algorithmic production of their content through rule-based manipulations of text. So what does it mean to describe a best-selling novel as a work of "procedural fiction"?

Cover of Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond           Cover of Harpoon, second edition by Larry Bond

The answer is that portions of Red Storm Rising were plotted using the modern naval warfare simulation game Harpoon (thumbnail cover images above), which Larry Bond had developed and published several years earlier with Dave Arneson’s Adventure Games. A copy of Harpoon consisted of a set of rules coupled with a data annex compiling statistics for hundreds of different ship classes, aircraft, weapons systems, and sensors, with all of the world’s major navies represented. Though it has since seen a variety of computer implementations, at the time it most resembled a tabletop RPG, played with a referee, dice, charts, and one or more players on each side. And while the game is acknowledged in the foreword to the book, specifics about what it meant to employ it as a (literal) plot device—that is, the precise nature of the relationship between the game play and the prose it facilitated—were never detailed. In fact, many of the novel’s tactics, strategic concepts, and narrative events were rehearsed with Harpoon. The outcomes of the game sessions furnished “a matrix of detail within which our characters will operate,” as Clancy himself put it in a letter to an editor at Putnam, who had grown nervous about the role gaming would play in the book (which had just been given a widely publicized million-dollar advance).

One of the most dramatic episodes in Red Storm Rising concerns a strike by Soviet bombers against a NATO task force in the North Atlantic using long-range missiles, an air-sea match-up that many at the time assumed would be one of the set-piece confrontations of any conventional conflict between the superpowers. It is depicted in a chapter that takes place on the second day of the hostilities entitled “The Dance of the Vampires.” (A “vampire,” in military parlance, is a hostile incoming missile, so-called because of its representation on radar tracks with a “V” symbol.)  The prose here was as stirring and cinematic as anything my then-sixteen year old self had ever read. At one point the USS Nimitz has five incoming missiles homing in: “Number three was decoyed by a chaff cloud and ran straight into the sea half a mile behind the carrier. The warhead caused the carrier to vibrate and raised a column of water a thousand feet into the air” (232). I devoured these action sequences the same way I devoured new Infocom titles for my Apple II and Rush albums.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011 when, as part of the research we’re doing for the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Larry Bond. He had lent me several boxes of Harpoon development material to examine as part of our work, and these contained, I was delighted to discover, the original scenario design notes and “after-action reports” for one of the Vampire sessions.

In fact the battle depicted in the book—in what by all indications became one of the most difficult chapters for the pair to plot and write—was gamed out in three separate Harpoon sessions, designated Vampire I, II, and III between December 1984 and July 1985. Vampire I is documented in a thirty-page report that contains briefing materials for both sides, detailed tables listing the ships in the NATO task force, the aircraft and ordnance available to the Soviets, diagrams of the ships’ formation, weather conditions, and so forth. There then follows a blow-by-blow account of the battle, which moves through several distinct phases, from the Soviets’ attempts to locate and “fix” the course of the NATO warships to the “outer air battle” as fighters from the carriers scramble to intercept the incoming bombers to the missile launch and resolution of the strike—which ends up leaving the NATO formation decimated. Vampire II, played in March 1985, yielded even more extensive documentation; in addition to an after-action report similar in format to the previous, there are copious players’ notes as well. This time the game appears to have moved more slowly, with the battle never reaching its climactic end-stage (despite the session lasting into the early hours of the morning). Nonetheless, the materials suggest that much of the “play” consisted in the preparatory activity by which plans were laid, forces tasked with missions, and contingencies evaluated. Clearly by this point the scope and complexity of the scenarios were straining the Harpoon system (and Bond, as the referee) to the limit. Vampire III, played out over multiple game sessions several months later, concluded with the spectacular destruction of USS Nimitz by missiles launched from a Soviet submarine.

Scrutiny of the game materials makes plain that none of the three Vampire scenarios provided the storyboard for events precisely as they unfolded in the book chapter. None were narrativized whole cloth.[1] (Notably, the Soviets’ use of drones, a tactic which seals the fate of the NATO ships in the novel, does not appear in the game materials.) Yet the details regarding weapons systems, ranges, the relative positions of ships and aircraft—all necessary for lending consistency and coherence to the fictive engagement—were fully articulated as operable elements in the Harpoon simulation, and in that respect the game functioned as exactly the “matrix of detail” Clancy said it would.

The level of granularity required to produce a credible account of modern naval warfare is daunting. The fighting usually occurs at great distances, the combatants beyond visual range of one another. In Harpoon, the interplay between sensors, targets, and the actual launching of weapons is intricate and multi-layered, and, as Bond’s referee notes reveal, taxing to track even with the aid of a computer. The referee must know, for example, which ships and planes are “radiating” electronic emissions (i.e., actively utilizing their sensor capabilities), since these emissions are subject in turn to detection by hostile forces who may or may not be radiating emissions of their own. Each set of sensors has unique capabilities and characteristics, and attempting to develop a narrative account of their performance absent an explicit background model is all but impossible. Thus the course tracks and calculations required by the game became invaluable scaffolding for the prose depictions in the novel, many of which are given over to the elaborate task of plotting the location of the American task force: “The raid commander compared this datum with that from the reconnaissance satellite. Now he had two pieces of information. The Americans’ position three hours ago was sixty miles south of the estimated plot for the Hawkeye [aircraft]. The Americans probably had two of them up, northeast and northwest of the formation … So the carrier group was right about … here” (223).

Red Storm Rising gives us an explicit linkage between plot in the narrative sense and a “plot” as a means of navigation, with both of those meanings facilitated by the Harpoon game system. The novel is thus not only a landmark of a certain type of genre fiction, but an artifact of procedural approaches to fiction writing. The middle-state materials I’ve selected to illustrate this point are six pages (available as a .pdf here) reproduced from the Vampire I after-action report to give the flavor of the game session and the documentation it generated. Included is the opening page (Figure 1, below), which describes the exercise as “an attempt to determine in a general manner the events that would take place in the chapter Dance of the Vampires from our book” [emphasis added]. This is followed by the visual plot depicting the complex movements of the various air units involved (Figure 2). Next are two representative pages from the game’s chronology, showcasing the critical moments of the battle group’s detection and the Soviets’ launch of their air-surface missiles (Figures 3 and 4). (Note that one of the US carriers here is Eisenhower, not Nimitz as it became in the novel.) The final two items are from the appendices: a roster of participating players (we see Clancy was in overall command of the Soviets) and a table recording the outcome of the missile strike (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

The pages I’ve selected, unnumbered, are not sequential in the original. I am grateful to Larry Bond for permission to reproduce them, and to Chris Carlson for furnishing the scans. I am grateful to Tom Clancy for permission to quote from his personal correspondence.

Works Cited

Bond, Larry. Harpoon II: Modern Naval Miniatures Rules. Second edition. Minnesota: Adventure Games, 1984.

–. “[Vampire I] After-Action Report.” Unpublished ts. 2 Jan. 1985. Possession of Chris Carlson.

Clancy, Tom. Letter to Neil S. Nyren. 20 Feb. 1985. Possession of Larry Bond.

Clancy, Tom and Larry Bond. Red Storm Rising. NY: Putnam, 1986.

[1] The official version of the “Dance of the Vampires” scenario for play with the current iteration of the Harpoon rules was published by Larry Bond in The Naval SITREP 34 (April 2008): 3-10. In the introduction to the scenario, Bond comments: “Many people have assumed that we simply took the game’s proceedings and used them in the story, but that is completely wrong. As storytellers, Tom and I knew what was supposed to happen in the chapter. In fact, the good guys had to lose” (3).

Red Storm Rising
Harpoon II