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General An Appreciation of David "Zeb" Cook

Bitbrain

Black Lives Matter
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?
Don’t know about it getting disowned, but Taladas was definitely unique. Almost like a prototype Eberron.
 

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Kobold Avenger

Adventurer
Don’t know about it getting disowned, but Taladas was definitely unique. Almost like a prototype Eberron.
Eberron reminds me of the 2e DMG description of a highly magical setting where a bunch of vehicles are powered by spirits or something. I can't remember what it was exactly, but I'm sure someone can dig that paragraph out.
 

humble minion

Adventurer
Oh, and it's worth mentioning that his book Soldiers of Ice is quietly one of the best in the FR novel line, and did the 'not all monstrous humanoids are evil' thing long before it was cool.

Though it did it with gnolls, so maybe not exactly compatible with 5e standard lore any more...
 


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 actually quite a few. In fact it seems clear that Taladas was meant to be the 2nd edition soft reboot of Dragonlance, TSR realising that had to escape the shadow of the novels to have it be a viable setting.

But despite its quality, they may have had sales problems, because they pivoted back to Ansalon in Tales of the Lance (1992) and the world got stuck in "let's keep redoing the War of the Lance".

It was even there in the SAGA game, plenty of the new spins on the Dragonlance races came from concepts originally in Taladas (Imperial League -> Empire of the Minotaurs, Marak Kender -> Afflicted Kender.)It even added a place for Illithids on Krynn.
 

As a huge fan of 2e, you can bet that I'm also a huge fan of David's work. It's a pity that he's not doing more D&D work these days. Most stuff I've looked at/purchased from current designers is not as creative or exciting as his work. Looking at his list of credits, at the d20 Era, it's interesting to see that even when not perfectly balanced (maybe that would be a development concern), the books from Green Ronin where he gets author credit are full of interesting ideas.

Now, thinking about Planescape, or even dated works like Oriental Adventures or The Isle of Dread, you can say that picking classic themes and giving a very authorial take, even improving upon the basic tropes, is one of the points where he truly excels. Personally, while I know that 2e is usually seen as the redheaded stepchild of the D&D editions, I think his work there is part of that excellence. Yes, many will disagree, but I don't think any amount of gygaxian prose is enough to cover the fact that 2e is a much better designed game.

Awesome thread! I just wish he was doing more D&D work right now. 5e would certainly benefit from the input of a guy with his vision. Thanks for taking the time to celebrate Zeb Cook, @Snarf Zagyg! Many people in our community are right now heavily involved in the issues related to one of his most famous works, it would be a shame if younger gamers came to only know about Zeb Cook as "the guy who wrote Oriental Adventures". I'd be fine with "the guy who created Planescape", though.
 

Aldarc

Legend
(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.)
For what it's worth, Monte Cook would frown at it too, as he was not happy with how it ended.
 

Coroc

Hero
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. :)
He is big part of the Eye of the beholder CRPG Series (at least part ?1? but 2 definitely), which brought me into the hobby, specifically the AD&D part of it, and an awesome writer. He really deserves appreciation!
 

For what it's worth, Monte Cook would frown at it too, as he was not happy with how it ended.
Yeah, he mentioned this in some article of his I read, that's where I found out it wasn't mere vandalism, but rather intended to be part of a process, where "some" of the Factions would come back, but equally he didn't seem to see what he did as a problem at all, just that he didn't get to finish. To me the whole thing is a bit like this:

restoration.jpeg


Except no middle bit, and Monte left it with the right-most one, and he says if he'd been allowed to finish he'd be as good as the original, but I rather suspect it would still be the right-most one, just maybe with a beard drawn on it.

But despite its quality, they may have had sales problems, because they pivoted back to Ansalon in Tales of the Lance (1992) and the world got stuck in "let's keep redoing the War of the Lance".
I feel pretty certain it did have sales problems, and I suspect wasn't sufficiently marketed, either. I think there may have been an assumption that, as the first new setting for 2E, and as a Dragonlance relative, it would automatically have huge sales, but this was a different era, and loads of people saw the box and thought it was just an adventure, or an add-on for existing Dragonlance (rather than a stand-alone setting), and I don't think it helped that the box cover was an androgynous youth playing a harp to a dragon, which whilst lovely didn't exactly scream DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS WOOO YEAH. If they'd had a dumb-but-conventional picture with say, a Minotaur legionary, an Elf steppe barbarian, a Bakali Lizardman, an Goblin, and a human (of one of the more generic nations, maybe the trading one) all adventuring together, maybe say menacing a dragon (all them were playable, note), then I think this might be a much better-remembered setting.

Whilst it had some slightly outdated elements, and arguably a whole lot of cultural appropriation (probably enough from enough different cultures, most of them dead, that no-one is likely to care, though), I feel like a lot of Taladas was actually ridiculously ahead of its time, not least the trope inversions and broad range of playable races and so on (to be fair, Krynn was always a bit easier on the playing odd races deal).
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Except no middle bit, and Monte left it with the right-most one, and he says if he'd been allowed to finish he'd be as good as the original, but I rather suspect it would still be the right-most one, just maybe with a beard drawn on it.
I suspect differently given the quality work of Monte Cook, but I suppose it's easy to have a scapegoat.
 

I suspect differently given the quality work of Monte Cook, but I suppose it's easy to have a scapegoat.
Scapegoat seems a bit much given he actually did what he's accused of, and has basically just said "But I was going to put it back together better than before, honest!". I'd be more inclined to believe him if he outlined his specific intentions as to where it'd have ended up (perhaps he has, but I'm unaware of it). Plus the end result was that the only significant detail on Planescape since then (in the 4E DMG2) relied on the state of play as Monte left it - all the Factions gone, replaced by a few three-letter acronym organisations. If they continue that vision into 5E, well, good grief, what a betrayal of what Zeb Cook did, and what an endorsement of what Monte did. Let's hope they go back to basics on PS, and forget the whole Faction War deal entirely.

Re: quality of work, I'm generally a fan of Monte Cook, but one place he's repeatedly fallen down is in making the detailed bits of settings interesting. Numenera and Diamond Throne both have this a bit. Big picture, they're amazing. Moderate picture, they're cool. But the detailed setting bits? Dull, uninspired, somewhat generic. It's the opposite of Zeb Cook's work, where the close-in work is often fascinatingly complex or unexpected.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Except no middle bit, and Monte left it with the right-most one, and he says if he'd been allowed to finish he'd be as good as the original, but I rather suspect it would still be the right-most one, just maybe with a beard drawn on it.
That was funny!

I tend to think D&D editions (and the designers associated with them) tend to be a lot like Bonds; people will always have a strong attachment to the Bond they grew up with, and while they can learn to appreciate (or even love) the current Bond, or a past Bond, there will always be that unshakable love for Roger Mo.... um, the edition you started with.
 

Bitbrain

Black Lives Matter
That was funny!

I tend to think D&D editions (and the designers associated with them) tend to be a lot like Bonds; people will always have a strong attachment to the Bond they grew up with, and while they can learn to appreciate (or even love) the current Bond, or a past Bond, there will always be that unshakable love for Roger Mo.... um, the edition you started with.
I started with 3.5/Pathfinder 1e. I hated it then, and I still hate it now.
 


Yeah, he mentioned this in some article of his I read, that's where I found out it wasn't mere vandalism, but rather intended to be part of a process, where "some" of the Factions would come back, but equally he didn't seem to see what he did as a problem at all, just that he didn't get to finish. To me the whole thing is a bit like this:

View attachment 123480

Except no middle bit, and Monte left it with the right-most one, and he says if he'd been allowed to finish he'd be as good as the original, but I rather suspect it would still be the right-most one, just maybe with a beard drawn on it.



I feel pretty certain it did have sales problems, and I suspect wasn't sufficiently marketed, either. I think there may have been an assumption that, as the first new setting for 2E, and as a Dragonlance relative, it would automatically have huge sales, but this was a different era, and loads of people saw the box and thought it was just an adventure, or an add-on for existing Dragonlance (rather than a stand-alone setting), and I don't think it helped that the box cover was an androgynous youth playing a harp to a dragon, which whilst lovely didn't exactly scream DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS WOOO YEAH. If they'd had a dumb-but-conventional picture with say, a Minotaur legionary, an Elf steppe barbarian, a Bakali Lizardman, an Goblin, and a human (of one of the more generic nations, maybe the trading one) all adventuring together, maybe say menacing a dragon (all them were playable, note), then I think this might be a much better-remembered setting.

Whilst it had some slightly outdated elements, and arguably a whole lot of cultural appropriation (probably enough from enough different cultures, most of them dead, that no-one is likely to care, though), I feel like a lot of Taladas was actually ridiculously ahead of its time, not least the trope inversions and broad range of playable races and so on (to be fair, Krynn was always a bit easier on the playing odd races deal).
I feel the cover for "Taladas: The Minotaurs" was probably better suited.

 

That was funny!

I tend to think D&D editions (and the designers associated with them) tend to be a lot like Bonds; people will always have a strong attachment to the Bond they grew up with, and while they can learn to appreciate (or even love) the current Bond, or a past Bond, there will always be that unshakable love for Roger Mo.... um, the edition you started with.
Tell me about it - for me the "real" Bond is Timothy Dalton.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Tell me about it - for me the "real" Bond is Timothy Dalton.
I will say this one thing- if he had better scripts, and been in movies with better budgets, and had better co-stars, he could've been a good Bond.

Which is kind of the "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" for Bond compliments.
 

Zeb Cook is an amazing designer, and Planescape was his peak design, just astonishing.
I'd be interested in learning more. 2e has always struck me as the least well designed version of D&D (Zeb Cook's hands were tied there admittedly) because it's a mismatch between a game that was designed for gritty dungeon crawling, a DMG that tries to point you to heroic fantasy, and an XP system where killing monsters is the only type of XP the party shares leading to a much more murder-happy game than even 1e. And Planescape, while a great setting appears to me to be an even bigger mismatch between rules and setting than the rest of 2e.

I'd be delighted to find out that I was wrong and that there's more to learn - but could you tease out some of how he was a great designer rather than just listing some of his products please.
 

Jack Hooligan

Explorer
I feel the cover for "Taladas: The Minotaurs" was probably better suited.

Yeah, I the cover for Time of the Dragon is a reused piece that was the cover to a 1985 issue of Dragon Magazine. Reused artwork doesn't exactly scream 'major new setting launch'.

3-00-97-monthly-adventure-role-playing-aid-using-ordinafy-weapons-42364353.png


I remember also being confused on the description of that^ being a Silver Dragon...
 
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