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General An Appreciation of David "Zeb" Cook

Wasn't Dark Sun written as Brom's work arrived across the TSR desks? I feel like I read that they built a setting around his art. 4e probably had the benefit of being developed with plenty of lead time and around solid rules.
Here is a direct quote from Brom:

"I pretty much designed the look and feel of the Dark Sun campaign. I was doing paintings before they were even writing about the setting. I'd do a painting or a sketch, and the designers wrote those characters and ideas into the story. I was very involved in the development process. I've been fortunate to be involved in the development end of a lot of projects I've worked on, from role-playing games to computer games."
 

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mach1.9pants

Adventurer
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'.

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I remember also being confused on the description of that^ being a Silver Dragon...
I loved that cover, I hadn't seen the Dragon Mag. But (like a lot of 2E) the mushy internal art by Fabian is a real turn off for me. But the cards in the box set were totally inspring! For ex, DEATH GNOMES:
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TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
He has done some D&D 5E work for Kobold Press!
Good to know! Where should I look for his design credits with KP? I own Creature Codex, Tome of Beasts, Midgard, Midgard Heroes, and DC&SS, but none of those lists him as a designer.
A search of Kobold Press' website produced these results: Search for "david cook"

It's mostly articles in the "Kobold Guide" series and a foreword. I may not have found everything, though.
 




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.
Didn't I explain that here?

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.
To put it another ways, his ideas about cultures, subcultures, histories, movements, and so on were far deeper and far more nuanced and backed by a far great amount of learning about human history and culture than any other D&D author (and indeed most RPG writers). Other people just couldn't have written Taladas or Planescape. It wouldn't have been possible. Nor could they have given 2E the tone it had.

Re: mismatch between rules and setting, Planescape is 1994, AD&D 2E is 1989 (as is Taladas). Whilst today it is very common to see products where the rules and setting/fiction are in complete alignment, in the 1980s and particularly the earlier half of the 1990s, this was pretty rare. The vast majority of products had them out of alignment, to a greater or lesser extent. In many cases there was a huge misalignment. The examples are countless - as a kid the first one where the mismatch was so obvious I couldn't ignore it was Champions, where you have a game allegedly about 4-colour superheroics, but the rules made for a drab, crunch-heavy, simulation-oriented game where actual heroics (rather than "impressive builds" or the like) were a distant afterthought. I could go on but I don't want to make the this thread from one about Zeb Cook, to one where me and other grogs argue about my perceived disses to RPGs from the 1980s and

Whereas one of the examples of good alignment from that era was Call of Cthulhu, which wasn't perfect, but certainly did the job pretty well. When the same system was extended to other settings and scenarios though, you started to see the mismatch.

And that was the general pattern of a lot of the 1980s and 1990s, because the concept that rules and setting even needed to be aligned was hotly disputed. You're taking it for granted as something that's good, and should be happening, and I agree with that, but it's not until after 2000 sometime that becomes the "default" take. I mean, I had the same view as you when I started discussing RPGs on with people on the internet in 1993/1994, and I was astonished to find that huge numbers of people, initially a majority, outright rejected the idea. Instead the idea was that any system could run any setting, perhaps with a few tweaks (except actually people always said "[system I like] can run anything!" whilst admitting some others couldn't).

The RPGs of the era certainly largely seemed to follow a pattern of a system being designed for one specific RPG, then being applied to many others, without real regard for how well it fit them, or how well it supported the fiction. This Ti continued into the 2000s with the d20 era, where pretty much everything under the sun got some kind of d20 version, many of which had a horrific rules/fiction mismatch (though some heroic efforts basically re-wrote d20 entirely to avoid that).

In that context, the mismatch you're describing, whilst real, wasn't that pronounced. 2E certainly has issues if you look back at it. But at the time, it didn't stick out as one of the RPGs were the mismatch was severe. Likewise Planescape. If you only read the fiction, say you totally avoided even knowing what rules-system it was for, and you did so now, in 2020, I'm pretty sure you'd assume it was some sort of Powered by the Apocalypse or similar narrative-heavy system. In 1994, did it stick out as a rules/fiction mismatch? Not really. I can totally see what you're saying, but context matters. Even today we still see a lot of games which had a rules/fiction mismatch. Arguably 5E has some significant rules/fiction mismatch issues (c.f. endless debates on HP, giant threads on falling, etc. etc.). Perhaps not as severe as 2E but not a million miles away.

Back on Zeb, I don't if his rules-design was particularly amazing, as it's hard to say what rules he put in and what he didn't, but his setting/world/culture/detail design was extraordinary. Unmatched in D&D, I'd suggest (Nigel D. Findlay might have been as good in Shadowrun - probably others too, just not in D&D). I think to really see this, you have to read the products. I can tell you that it's there, but it's like me saying "Mozart am write sum gud musiks", I can't convey necessarily all of why they're good to you. One thing that was a rules/setting crossover that I did really love and wish more settings had was in Taladas, there was a full-page diagram showing the relationships between the languages of the setting, and how well someone speaking one language could be understood by another (by default, barring mime etc.). That sort of thing adds a real depth and sense of place to a setting.

There's a real contrast between this and a lot of other writers, both old and new, who often just put stuff in on what seems to be a rule-of-cool basis, and don't think about the history and culture and people who lead to a thing happening or a place being built/shaped (if there is history to a place it's usually "A scary dude built it" and there's no sense of the culture or history that lead to said scary dude). That's not without value - it's often all you need! Why waste time on details the players will probably never know or care about? I've heard major designers suggest precisely that. One designer, I forget who, even outright argued that creating this sort of depth was outright wrong (almost in a moral sense). But I don't agree - these are people who couldn't have written Planescape, because they couldn't have imagined Planescape.

See the "Monte Cook ruins Planescape" discussion above. I'm probably being somewhat unfair on Monte (and I have enjoyed a lot of his work), but what he did there, removing the philosophical and nuanced Factions and replacing them with dull, trite, overly practical three-letter acronym organisations redolent of Washington D.C. bureaucracy rather than a wild and changing 1700s/1800s-ish fantasy city, is exactly what many designers who aren't Zeb Cook would do.

I don't to praise Zeb by tearing down others, note. These other designers are good designers - rules-wise they may well be better designers than Zeb, I don't know. But in terms of setting? I believe he remains unmatched within D&D, and unusual within the RPG industry. He was particularly good at painting settings in such a way that, whilst they contained wildly disparate elements, they really did appear to be a single, unified setting, rather than a hodge-podge of elements. Making Planescape work was an absolute triumph.

As an interesting aside re: generic systems, Cook did design one himself - Amazing Engine, which was a pretty daring one, conceptually, in that you had a sort of "template" character you could use in multiple, unrelated, campaigns/settings. Unfortunately I never actually got to play it (I think we briefly ran Bughunters, but only very briefly, because it was in the main White Wolf era), so I can't comment on how well that worked. It certainly wasn't marketed aggressively by TSR, and didn't seem to sell, so was soon cancelled, though some of the concepts came back in later TSR and WotC products (including d20 Future).

Unfortunately after Planescape, he moved into computer games. He seems to have had a successful career there and is quite senior in the Elder Scrolls Online team these days, but I haven't seen any actual interviews with him or anything, and have no idea of exactly what his contributions have been. I bet he's been paid a hell of a lot better than in tabletop RPGs and had much more stable jobs though!

I never heard of Taladas. Sounds cool. Is it available in pdf anywhere?
Specifically this is the core setting/rules for Taladas:

 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Unfortunately after Planescape, he moved into computer games. He seems to have had a successful career there and is quite senior in the Elder Scrolls Online team these days, but I haven't seen any actual interviews with him or anything, and have no idea of exactly what his contributions have been. I bet he's been paid a hell of a lot better than in tabletop RPGs and had much more stable jobs though!
"Thank goodness I'm in the stable industry of drug dealing! My last job was way too tumultuous."

"What was it?"

"Oh, I worked in the computer game industry."


....Sorry. But it really says something about TTRPGs when people are like, "Hey that computer game industry sure is stable." :)
 

Jack Hooligan

Explorer
All of this talk of Taladas....and I'm having more fun than ever with 5e...so what would it take to spin Taladas up for a 5e game? Any ideas? Maybe that should be a new thread...
 

All of this talk of Taladas....and I'm having more fun than ever with 5e...so what would it take to spin Taladas up for a 5e game? Any ideas? Maybe that should be a new thread...
I mean, I've run Taladas in 5E. I didn't need to do anything, really. I guess if a player really wanted to play a race I didn't have 5E stats for, or where the 5E stats were too conceptually divergent, I'd have had to come up with something, but otherwise you can use most D&D settings pretty easily with 5E (the one glaring exception being Dark Sun).
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
All of this talk of Taladas....and I'm having more fun than ever with 5e...so what would it take to spin Taladas up for a 5e game? Any ideas? Maybe that should be a new thread...
Do it. Just having read the DMGuild description, feels like it wouldn't be too hard, at least for creating the PCs.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
There's a real contrast between this and a lot of other writers, both old and new, who often just put stuff in on what seems to be a rule-of-cool basis, and don't think about the history and culture and people who lead to a thing happening or a place being built/shaped (if there is history to a place it's usually "A scary dude built it" and there's no sense of the culture or history that lead to said scary dude). That's not without value - it's often all you need! Why waste time on details the players will probably never know or care about? I've heard major designers suggest precisely that. One designer, I forget who, even outright argued that creating this sort of depth was outright wrong (almost in a moral sense). But I don't agree - these are people who couldn't have written Planescape, because they couldn't have imagined Planescape.
What you describe about Zeb and Planescape is exactly what I love about Eberron, where Keith Baker has built up a ton of lore explaining how things fit together and how to integrate things into your campaign. But while I prefer Eberron to Planescape, I have to admit that Baker had an enormous advantage in being able to build the setting from scratch instead of having to build on the hyper-shaky foundation that is Gygaxian cosmology.
 

What you describe about Zeb and Planescape is exactly what I love about Eberron, where Keith Baker has built up a ton of lore explaining how things fit together and how to integrate things into your campaign. But while I prefer Eberron to Planescape, I have to admit that Baker had an enormous advantage in being able to build the setting from scratch instead of having to build on the hyper-shaky foundation that is Gygaxian cosmology.
Baker's Eberron is definitely from a similar school to Planescape, and it's why it's a setting I like a lot. Baker doesn't quite have the same flare for cultures and groups that fundamentally think in different ways that Zeb Cook did, nor the eye for customs and trends and so on - he does attempt both (unlike a lot of D&D writers) but he doesn't commit as hard or land them as well, and he tends to ground his organisations and make them a lot more "adventurer-friendly" than they strictly need to be, but he does think things through, does consider history, does think about how different cultures regard things, and so on. He also has a little bit of that "weird fantasy" stuff going on rather than just the High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy most D&D runs on. So I'm always excited to see more Eberron. I'm hoping the new book for it will amp up the strangeness factor and specificity of some people/places even more.
 

Jack Hooligan

Explorer
There’s another 5e book for Eberron coming out?

I want around the game for 3e and 4e, so missed Eberron. I’m not a big fan of steampunk stuff, but is the setting worth a look?
 

dave2008

Legend
There’s another 5e book for Eberron coming out?
There is a book on the DMs Guild: Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron. Most of this book is re-created in...
There is a book from WotC: Eberron: Raising from the Last War. This basically has everything you need to play, and then.
There is a forthcoming book on DMsGuild by Keith: Exploring Eberron. This is going to be a large book with a lot of lore and new options as well (like PC Gnolls) from the original author himself. He has share a lot of bits on his blog and it looks really good. I've never played an Eberron campaign, nor do I plan to, but I am going to pick up this book.
I’m not a big fan of steampunk stuff, but is the setting worth a look?
YEs
 

I want around the game for 3e and 4e, so missed Eberron. I’m not a big fan of steampunk stuff, but is the setting worth a look?
It's magitech rather than steampunk, and it's not excessive - it's more a few specific, major inventions (which arguably largely exist to provide dramatic locations and get the PCs around faster), rather than a constant hail of random steampunk devices as most "steampunk" settings seem to have.
 

Jack Hooligan

Explorer
Last Eberron question, as not to derail this too much, what’s the adventure support look like? I have no time to write my own, so just run tweaked published adventures.
 

dave2008

Legend
Last Eberron question, as not to derail this too much, what’s the adventure support look like? I have no time to write my own, so just run tweaked published adventures.
There is an "official" adventure included with Eberron: Rising from the Last War, but it only goes to lvl 3 or 5 I think. On the DMGuild there are 191 Eberron Adventures available. You might have to do a little research to determine which are the best fit, but I would say the support is pretty good.
 


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