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General An Appreciation of David "Zeb" Cook

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Given the recent furor over AD&D's rulebook, Oriental Adventures ("OA"), I wanted to dive briefly into the legacy of David "Zeb" Cook. Almost everyone, today, can quickly think of the founders of D&D- Gygax and Arneson. Most people have some familiarity with the people who came in a little bit later- individuals with names like (Monte) Cook, Crawford, and Mearls.

And yet I noticed with all the fighting and debate over OA, no one has been discussing the author- Zeb. So, with the full knowledge that he is still alive and can speak for himself, I thought I'd prepare a brief appreciation for him. I'll use "Zeb" as a matter of convenience.

Two notes w/r/t the OA controversy.

1. OA is "credited" to Gygax, but as a matter of historical fact Zeb wrote it.

2. I think that there will come a time, as there is more scholarly interest in the "second wave" of D&D products, that people will begin to focus on Zeb's contributions, and some of the systems and ideas he introduced in OA, especially given his later work.


For those of you following at home, you might be aware that EnWorld has been publishing the thoughts of Owen Stephens. One of his thoughts is that almost no one can list the people in the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design.

Sure, you might recognize a Gygax, or a Steve Jackson. But do you know who else is in there? Zeb. And why is he in there?

Because everywhere you look in the 80s through 1994 (when he left TTRPGs to work in the CRPG industry), you will find Zeb, that's why.

Arguably the best, simplest ruleset for D&D was B/X. Everyone remembers Moldvay, but Zab wrote the "X." But that's not all; anywhere you look, from Star Frontiers (Alpha Dawn) to Conan you see Zeb credited.

And it didn't end there; he wrote numerous modules. One of the greatest two-parters, X4 & X5 is a Zeb creation, as well as the classic I1 and numerous others.

I could keep going on with credits, but there are so many (as you might expect).

IMO, his true brilliance can be seen in the following trifecta:
A. Oriental Adventures.
B. 2e. Zeb was the lead designer of 2e.
C. Planescape.

With those three, we see his brilliance as a game designer. In so many ways, Zeb is the bridge from Gygaxian D&D to 3e. At some point in the future, as the gaze of the community moves from the dawn of D&D and begins to contemplate the next wave (in terms of history), the contributions of David Cook, and the design influences that can be traced from Oriental Adventurers, through 2e, and into Planescape, will make for a fascinating history ...

Which I will let someone else elaborate upon. :)
 
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You're talking about Zeb Cook and you're skipping over Taladas, Snarf? C'mon. You're more of a historian than that! :)

Zeb Cook is an amazing designer, and Planescape was his peak design, just astonishing. However, Taladas was ridiculously better than Oriental Adventures, which was more a sort of simple attempt to codify tropes and a bit confused in where it was going (even leaving problematic elements aside), whereas Taladas demonstrated something truly amazing, a sort of remix of real-world history, particularly the poor-utilized sort of 400-900AD period, together with using AD&D's races in an extremely daring way, and topped off by bringing in cultures and areas often ignored by D&D and using them in a way that worked, and adding with some tremendous outright-fantasy cultures, including what I think may be the first mainstream depiction of competent engineer-gnomes.

I often wondered why such a daring and weird book was the first setting book for 2E - but given he was 2E's lead designer, that makes a lot of sense.

I think Zeb Cook's genius was in cultures and the specificity of them. I think he started learning about that with OA, maybe (hard to say), but certainly by Taladas he'd really nailed it, and was going kind of "no fear" with it, too, and then Planescape, he took it to whole other level, looking at subcultures, the cultures that could develop around not just places and peoples, but ideas, and thoughts, and concepts.

(Which is why I particularly frown at Monte Cook for ruining all that with his terrible second part in his alleged Planescape trilogy of adventures, which remains unfinished - he replaced these brilliant and daring factions with leaden three-letter-acronym organisations, which had no specificity, no subtlety, not touch of magic or humanity or understanding. Leaden.)
 
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With OA, 1985 was a different time than it is today, for right or wrong, its plain and simple. I read the book years ago, dont recall much of it. With the people who are offended at it, I think it comes down to intent of the author(s), Looking at their body of work on D&D, I honestly believe that their was no intention of discrimination or racism when the book was produced. Personally I think that are more important things people can spend their time and energy on than a fantasy game book written 35 years ago.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
You're talking about Zeb Cook and you're skipping over Taladas, Snarf? C'mon. You're more of a historian than that.
I couldn't cover everything, and this is the space for people (like you!) to describe what you like. I think most people should be able to see the design from the early genesis of NWPs in OA to 2e and later kits. IMO.

I don't think a single post could do any of his products justice; I could probably write a series just on the "X" in B/X ... and don't get me started on Star Frontiers!
 

With OA, 1985 was a different time than it is today, for right or wrong, its plain and simple. I read the book years ago, dont recall much of it. With the people who are offended at it, I think it comes down to intent of the author(s), Looking at their body of work on D&D, I honestly believe that their was no intention of discrimination or racism when the book was produced. Personally I think that are more important things people can spend their time and energy on than a fantasy game book written 35 years ago.
Yeah so maybe discuss that in the thread about it? Eh?

This thread is about Zeb Cook's work generally. Certainly OA seemed like a rookie piece with limited ambition next to Time of the Dragon (Taladas) or Planescape.
 

darjr

I crit!
Zeb Cook is a great designer and great person. He is, in my book, one of the pillars of D&D, even if he did 2e (I kid, I kid!), and deserves the credit and lauding. He’s also the one who insisted that actual people from at least one of the cultures be a part of vetting the OA book. Which is amazing for the time. We need more of that. That book was a product of it’s time and on the whole, isn’t something I appreciate. It just goes to show that if even David Zeb Cook could stumble more work should be done, IMHO. He also was a part of this video, which is good.
 

I think most people should be able to see the design from the early genesis of NWPs in OA to 2e and later kits. IMO.
Definitely agree. You can see a lot of ideas in a sort of basic stage in OA that are then vastly better developed in 2E and Taladas. And again a lot of it I think is coming back to this theme of specificity, things not being generalized excessively, to your character being a specific person in a specific place, time, and culture and so on, which and it's hard to express this exactly, I think has been kind of lost in later editions. 3E lost it, despite PrCs, in part because they were post-generation and so mechanical. 4E scrabbled at it, but in a sort of broad, almost comic-book-ish way. 5E sort of nods at it with backgrounds, but there are so few, with so many holes, and they're most either ultra-vague or ultra-specific, but where they're the latter, they're still leaving big gaps, so it doesn't quite work (Backgrounds feels like a 50% developed system to me).
 


Jack Hooligan

Explorer
Oh man, I was a big DL head back in the 80s-early 90s. That Taladas box blew me away. It was so foreign and different to anything I knew about Krynn. I loved those little culture sheets and I made so many characters for that setting...but never actually got to play there.

Where there ever any adventures published for it?
 

Oh man, I was a big DL head back in the 80s-early 90s. That Taladas box blew me away. It was so foreign and different to anything I knew about Krynn. I loved those little culture sheets and I made so many characters for that setting...but never actually got to play there.

Where there ever any adventures published for it?
There were, and they had kind of an exciting theme, like about becoming a dragon rider (can't remember if it was just one PC or what). I still have the first one around somewhere.
 

darjr

I crit!
He’s still an avid wargamer and I think that is his primary hobby. It strikes me as strange sometimes when I hear folks point out the wargamimg roots of D&D as to why it is the way it is, and then laud the story and RP aspects of it especially in the light of 2e. I guess Mr. Cook is a renaissance man.
 

Jack Hooligan

Explorer
There were, and they had kind of an exciting theme, like about becoming a dragon rider (can't remember if it was just one PC or what). I still have the first one around somewhere.
Recall the names?
I'm coming back to D&D after about 25yrs+ away and having the best time running LMoP and SKT, but I would drop it all if I could run 5e games in Krynn. The conversion work is just too much for me atm.

Anyway, yeah, that Time of the Dragon box left a long, lasting impression on me. I might need to pick one up again just for old time's sake.

Cheers for bringing it back up!
 

He’s still an avid wargamer and I think that is his primary hobby. It strikes me as strange sometimes when I hear folks point out the wargamimg roots of D&D as to why it is the way it is, and then laud the story and RP aspects of it especially in the light of 2e. I guess Mr. Cook is a renaissance man.
I mean, he definitely is. Taladas and Planescape are probably two of the most RP-centric, RP-friendly, least-dungeon-oriented settings D&D has ever had. I can't offhand think of any D&D settings which are further from the "dungeon-bash" roots of D&D, not even third-party ones. What's shocking about both as well is the level of erudition involved in creating them. The complexity of a lot of the ideas, and the extremely broad and in some cases deep knowledge of history, anthropology and philosophy he was clearly drawing from is truly remarkable. I suspect he is the most erudite designer/writer D&D may ever have had.
 

Recall the names?
I'm coming back to D&D after about 25yrs+ away and having the best time running LMoP and SKT, but I would drop it all if I could run 5e games in Krynn. The conversion work is just too much for me atm.

Anyway, yeah, that Time of the Dragon box left a long, lasting impression on me. I might need to pick one up again just for old time's sake.

Cheers for bringing it back up!
Listed here: Taladas & Otherlands Product List - The Piazza

DLA are the ones I'm thinking of.
 


Kobold Avenger

Adventurer
I've heard that Taladas was quite a unique setting book, but didn't it unfortunately get disowned and excised from Dragonlance by Hickman & Weiss?
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
1. OA is "credited" to Gygax, but as a matter of historical fact Zeb wrote it.
The inside credits are kind of interesting in that they do credit it appropriately:

Original AD&D Game: Gary Gygax
Original Oriental Adventures Concept: Garyygax with Francois Marcela-Froideval
Oriental Adventures Design: David "Zeb" Cook

This thread is making me think back to how much the folks I played with loved 2nd edition. It really feels to me like we never would have gotten to 3rd or 5th without it.
 
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Jack Hooligan

Explorer
Top Secret, now that I did play! It was as close to a GI Joe RPG as we had at the time...that I was aware of.
I'll have to look at this Commando supplement.
 

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