D&D General Zeb Cook and the Evolution from OA to 2e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Eh, so much for theory.

A while back I had a thread about David "Zeb" Cook, who I consider the greatest under-recognized designer in D&D history. That thread is here, if you want to catch up on it. As to why he is unappreciated, I think there are two main reasons-

1. Everyone recognizes the founders of D&D- Gygax and Arneson. And people generally know about the more modern designers, people like Monte Cook, Crawford, and Mearls. But Zeb fell into that weird period- the post-Gygax, pre-3e period that a lot of people remember fondly, but generally isn't separated out for special recognition in terms of design principles, as opposed to "cool settings" and the like.

2. Unlike many of the famous designers, Zeb left TSR and TTRPGs in 1994 and has since worked almost exclusively (and successfully) in video games.

If you're unfamiliar with the history of Zeb, a brief refresher of his notable hits, and why he is so important to the history of TSR and D&D. Again, I would say that he is probably the singular notable TSR-era figure, after Gygax. Let's check out some of the greatest hits (note- this isn't everything, and some of this includes work that he collaborated on, and I am also including work that he did but didn't necessarily get the title credit for):
The X in B/X.
Modules, including classics like X1, X4/5 and I1.
Taladas (I remembered this time, @Ruin Explorer )
Planescape.
Oriental Adventures (and later, Kara-Tur).
And, of course, 2e.

This only scrapes the surface (work on Alpha Dawn, Amazing Engine, Conan RPG, etc.) but gives you an idea of his importance to the time. But the thing I wanted to examine today was the evolution of some concepts from Oriental Adventures ("OA") into 2e, given the role that Zeb played in both of those products. In short, some of the ideas that we later saw as major differentiating factors in 2e were first raised by Zeb in OA.

Please note that this is a historical discussion about the evolution of some game concepts into 2e. This is not supposed to be a conversation about whether the title of OA is appropriate, whether some of the material in OA is appropriate, or whether OA was generally "better, worse, or of its time" for both TTRPGs and American culture in general. People can, and do, have very strong opinions about this that should be respected, but try not to get the thread derailed or locked. Thanks!

1. Start from the end.


I'm going to start with the endpoint. The Second Edition of AD&D. In February of 1987, there was published a short, yet insanely controversial, article in Dragon Magazine- Who Dies?. It might help to remember that this was a different time- no surveys, no ensuring that only broadly popular options get preserved. Instead, in two short pages, Zeb did his best to anger pretty much every single person currently playing D&D. Good times!

The basic gist was this- My name is Zeb. I'm designing 2e. And I'm going to be changing and killing off a bunch of those classes you like. Because books have limited space. And because I can. How you like dem apples?

Anyway, we already see the genesis of some ideas- you have to keep the core four. Probably. Maybe change the cleric a lot, make them more bespoke, because clerics suck and no one knows how to play them correctly.

Then he says that there are too many subclasses- the assassin will be toast. The monk will be toast. The bard doesn't work, and will be either be gone or heavily re-designed. Cavaliers and barbarians are unbalanced and unplayable. Paladins should stay because they are ... good role models because they are the ultimate heroes (huh). The illusionist is "little more than magic-user with different spells ... he could be become an example of a school of magic-users..." The jury is still out on the druid.

The most interesting comments are about the ranger. Zeb isn't sure what to do- noting that many of the ranger's powers are learned skills- with a strong proficiency system, a ranger is just a fighter with outdoors-y skills and you wouldn't need a different class.

Right there, we already see the genesis of not only some of the class concepts that made it into 2e and the reasoning behind it, we also see Zeb's thoughts about NWPs (non-weapon proficiencies) as well as what possible place the ranger might have. But what work, what antecedents, did Zeb draw on when designing the 2e changes?

2. OA and the work.

OA was released roughly contemporaneously with UA (Unearthed Arcana). However, it made much less of a splash in the overall D&D community at the time- UA was a grabbag of insane and overpowered class options, new spells, new races, and new abilities for classes that could be easily introduced into any campaign; OA ... wasn't. But OA was the area where Zeb worked on a few concepts in "beta" form that we would later see fleshed out and fully developed in 2e. Steve Winter, who also worked on 2e, acknowledged this debt- "Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA. We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

A. Weapon Specialization. Yeah yeah yeah. This optional rule in 2e was also in UA. But the OA implementation is there as well, and meshes with the choice of NWPs.

B. Non-weapon proficiencies. This is the big one. Gygax always fought against the introduction of NWPs. With OA, he was able to introduce NWPs- skills, but without the name. While this was later picked up in AD&D's core rules (kinda sorta) in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide.

C. The proto-Ranger. Nearly forgotten today is how strength was much more useful in AD&D (1e). Two-handed weapons, or sword & board, were common builds given the exceptional bonuses you could get for strength, as well as the need for certain non-melee classes to have high dexterities (Thief, Assassin, Monk, Illusionist). While a high dexterity was awesome for melee characters (because of the improved 'to hit' for missile weapons as well as the bonus to AC), it wasn't necessary. There wasn't a specific melee dex build. But then came the Kensai. A fighter (d10 hp) with dexterity as a prime requisite. They also gained the ability to ... use two weapons simultaneously without penalty. The 2e Ranger was massively different than the 1e version- notably, he couldn't use some of his abilities in heavy armor, and gained the ability to use two weapons simultaneously without penalty when not in heavy armor. While different in some ways, the kernel of the dex-build and the differentiation for the Ranger, and the prototype Ranger that still carries through today, can be seen in OA.

D. Generally, tying classes more into the setting. This may seem obvious now, given OA was also a "setting book" in many ways, but Zeb very much looked to both expand classes and tie them into the world in 2e- that's why there are NWPs and secondary skills, and why Wizards and Priests have more specialty nooks. There are elements of this in the class design in OA- from the master of elements and taboos for Wu Jen, to the Yakuza's contacts and information abilities.

There are additional elements that I am sure people will discuss in the comments, but I thought I'd get the ball rolling. One more thing- there are other aspects of OA and game design in general that Zeb wanted to include, but because there was a mandate to make it compatible with 1e, it could not be included- this is why, famously, ascending AC could not be used. (That is my understanding; I don't have the sourcing handy).

What elements of 2e do you see in OA, or in other antecedent sources?
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It's an aesthetic detail, really, but OA introduced the ability arrangement that 2e, 3e and 5e all have used -- Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, and Cha rather than the Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha arrangement that the rest of 1st edition used.

Woah. I totally forgot. Nice catch!

(It also had comeliness to bring it into alignment with UA, but the less said about that, the better)
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
I would say that he is probably the singular notable TSR-era figure, after Gygax. Let's check out some of the greatest hits (note- this isn't everything, and some of this includes work that he collaborated on, and I am also including work that he did but didn't necessarily get the title credit for):
The X in B/X.
Modules, including classics like X1, X4/5 and I1.
Odd that you exclude Tom Moldvay as a notable figure from the TSR-era yet you also include several things he worked on with Zeb Cook. You're likely saying this for effect, but it's an odd choice.
no surveys, no ensuring that only broadly popular options get preserved.
There was a massive survey (300 questions) done in Dragon 124, Dungeon, and a loose insert they handed out to retailers prior to 2E.

Matt Colville goes over it in this video around the 10 minute mark.

 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Odd that you exclude Tom Moldvay as a notable figure from the TSR-era yet you also include several things he worked on with Zeb Cook. You're likely saying this for effect, but it's an odd choice.

Not really? There were a lot of people that were notable figures- Kask. Moldvay. Ward. Grubb. Mentzer. Schick. Holmes (if only for the first Basic). Niles. Hickmans. Winter.

I'm sure I'm forgetting quite a few!

But I think the point I'm making is that Zeb probably was the most underrated, and the most important, to TSR after Gygax.

I don't think it's an odd choice at all- there's a reason for it.

There was a massive survey done in Dragon prior to 2E.

I totally forgot that! That was #124. Of course, it was after Zeb's article about who dies. I've never seen what was done with it, but I'm a little skeptical that the questionnaire affected much more than the proposed format.

That said, the feedback from the column Zeb wrote did end up saving the Bard. One of the greatest tragedies of the 80s.

Some people want to go back in time and kill Hitler- I just want to go back and make sure that Zeb never gets that feedback.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
B. Non-weapon proficiencies. This is the big one. Gygax always fought against the introduction of NWPs. With OA, he was able to introduce NWPs- skills, but without the name. While this was later picked up in AD&D's core rules (kinda sorta) in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide.
(And the Wilderness Survival Guide.)

C. The proto-Ranger. Nearly forgotten today is how strength was much more useful in AD&D (1e). Two-handed weapons, or sword & board, were common builds given the exceptional bonuses you could get for strength, as well as the need for certain non-melee classes to have high dexterities (Thief, Assassin, Monk, Illusionist). While a high dexterity was awesome for melee characters (because of the improved 'to hit' for missile weapons as well as the bonus to AC), it wasn't necessary. There wasn't a specific melee dex build. But then came the Kensai. A fighter (d10 hp) with dexterity as a prime requisite. They also gained the ability to ... use two weapons simultaneously without penalty. The 2e Ranger was massively different than the 1e version- notably, he couldn't use some of his abilities in heavy armor, and gained the ability to use two weapons simultaneously without penalty when not in heavy armor. While different in some ways, the kernel of the dex-build and the differentiation for the Ranger, and the prototype Ranger that still carries through today, can be seen in OA.
Yup.

The 1E DMG did also have rules for TWF that allowed Dexterity to reduce (and nearly remove, at 18, and entirely remove at 19 if you followed the precedents given in Deities & Demigods, like for the Grey Mouser) the penalties for fighting with two weapons. But the Kensai and then the 2E Ranger made this much more accessible, mainstreaming it more.

I totally forgot that! That was #124. Of course, it was after Zeb's article about who dies. I've never seen what was done with it, but I'm a little skeptical that the questionnaire affected much more than the proposed format.

That said, the feedback from the column Zeb wrote did end up saving the Bard. One of the greatest tragedies of the 80s.

Some people want to go back in time and kill Hitler- I just want to go back and make sure that Zeb never gets that feedback.
I remember that massive questionnaire well. That was the August 1987 issue. My recollection is that this was right after I first started buying Dragon; I think my first issue was #123, found on a shelf in the gaming section of a local B. Dalton Bookseller's.

Issue #130 (Feb 1988) has a follow up Game Wizards column by Jon Pickens, in which he reports that...

Jon Pickens said:
Our questionnaire in-basket closed in early December, and at that date we had received between 4,000 and 5,000 responses (which just more than filled three large boxes that shared my office space for the last few months).

It's about a two page piece and is a great look into what they were thinking so far. I read it multiple times back in the day.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't believe Zeb worked on it, but Dragonlance Adventures was huge stepping stone towards 2e's Clerics/Specialty Priests and Mages/Specialist Wizards.

I can see that! But Zeb didn't work on it.

The post-Gygax hardcover books were (I'm being loose with post-Gygax by including the two books released at the end) ...

OA (credited to Gygax, but actually Zeb).
UA (credited to Gygax and from his articles in Dragon Magazine, but with material and edits by Grubb, Mohan, and Mentzer)
DSG (Niles)
WSG (Mohan)
Manual of the Planes (Grubb)
Dragonlance Adventures (Hickman/Weis)
Greyhawk Adventures (Ward)

In my estimation, and this is personal choice only-
OA and UA are pretty "core" 1e, even though I despise UA with the heat of a thousand bards being lit on fire.
Manual of the Planes is really cool, and is the precursor to the increased emphasis on the outerplanes and, arguably, Planescape.

DLA and GHA were disappointing.
DSG and WSG I always hated (because of the whole 'simulationism' thing), but some people absolutely loved them.

As always, YMMV.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I happened to be looking through my Dragon collection when I saw this thread and found the 2E survey from issue #124. The summer it came out I was working in an office at 2 WTC and had free access to a photocopier, so I made copies of the survey for all my gaming friends.

Anyway, I took photos of the survey, which unfortunately does not record my answers because I filled out a copied version as to not mar my mag. I put them behind a spoiler tag to keep this one post from overwhelwing the thread with the multiple large images.

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P.S. For those who are interested, I have been slowly sharing samples of my Dragon and Dungeon mag collections through my HOW I RUN IT instagram acct.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Not even a thousand burning Bards can dim the awesomeness that is the D12 HD Barbarian. Glory in his presence!!

On the one hand, the Barbarian was ridiculously stupid in UA.

On the other hand, anytime you're rolling the d12, you're cookin' with GAS. So ... not all bad!

The d12 is truly the king of all dice.
 

Yora

Legend
I didn't know that nobody knew what to do with the ranger class even 35 years ago.
For exactly the same reason that still makes it impossible to get it fixed today.

Cook should have axed it back then when he had the chance. Should have gone the way of the cavalier and assassin.
 

Voadam

Legend
OA was huge in developing the non-combat proficiencies which led to the DSG split of weapon and non-weapon proficiencies which continued into 2e.

It is a good argument for the line of OA Kensai to 2e ranger. It did not hurt that a recently iconic 1e ranger from a D&D novel was already a dual wielder (Drizz't from his drow UA race ability).

2e had a martial arts system open to any character in the PH for the first time. OA had developed martial arts for any character in what is my favorite version throughout D&D editions.
 


cfmcdonald

Explorer
I happened to be looking through my Dragon collection when I saw this thread and found the 2E survey from issue #124. The summer it came out I was working in an office at 2 WTC and had free access to a photocopier, so I made copies of the survey for all my gaming friends.

Anyway, I took photos of the survey, which unfortunately does not record my answers because I filled out a copied version as to not mar my mag. I put them behind a spoiler tag to keep this one post from overwhelwing the thread with the multiple large images.
...
Fascinating. Any idea/speculation on why most of the sections start with "1. No question"?
 



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