Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview: David "Zeb" Cook (Part I)

Another of the new designers to join the ranks of TSR in the late 70s and early 80s was David Cook. He would eventually remain at the company for over fifteen years, during which time he would be involved in numerous significant RPG projects, including the Expert Rulebook, Star Frontiers, the licensed Conan RPG, the Planescape campaign setting, and, of course, the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. An avid player of games of all sorts, including the wargames that gave birth to the hobby, Mr Cook has since left the roleplaying field, moving on, like many others, to the computer games industry. He generously agreed to answer my many questions of him. The first part of this interview appears here, with the second part to follow tomorrow.

As always, I ask that your comments be pertinent and presented respectfully.

1. Like a lot of people in the early days of the hobby, you discovered roleplaying through wargames. What do you remember about your first encounters with Dungeons & Dragons at the University of Iowa?

I had been part a wargames club -- everything from Diplomacy to a massive go at War in Europe. It met at the union on weekends and was a good way to spend an afternoon. I found it as a freshman and it was a kind of vindication of these games that I'd played (mostly by myself). So here I was happily doing the boardgame thing when one of the members (Wolfgang, I think) had this game they were playing in a side room. After a couple of sessions I had a chance to join. It was white box D&D, and I played a dwarf, not really understanding what it was about. It was like a miniatures game but you only had one guy and had to act out what you did. Nobody could explain it well and none of us really knew what we were doing. But after that session I was pretty much hooked. It was this great combination of games and theater (I was a theater minor) that just seemed perfect.

Our campaigns were basic, but we had some creative people -- aspiring writers, theater types, pre-law, the whole gamut. The university club was an active group -- they published a fanzine (with some good ideas), created interesting worlds, and had a generally good time.

There were a lot of memorable moments -- like the time one of the group created a fighter with 17 strength and 3 dexterity (yay, random rolls!). He wore pop-bottle thick glasses and decided the character had vision as good as he did without the glasses. It made for great role playing and much accidental death.

2. What made you give up your previous career as a high school teacher and try your hand at game design? Did you find the transition between the two careers difficult or did your experience as an educator assist you in your design work?

Do you know how much high school teachers got paid in Nebraska at the time? Not much (although I still took a pay cut when I first started at TSR). I like teaching but I don't think I was cut out for it full time -- especially in a town of 300 people. I saw this ad in Dragon magazine that TSR was looking for designers and my wife, bless her, encouraged me to apply. (She's as much a gamer as me.) It was a big leap - we were expecting a child at the time. I knew I could do the job (at least I thought I could) but I was pretty surprised when they hired me.

I think the fact that I loved history and had a strong English background helped. Gary was an old school gamer -- miniatures, wargames, the lot -- and the fact that I knew and played a lot of those things myself helped. But ultimately it was the fact that I could write passably (I won't say well, looking back on it) and knew games that made the difference. I'm not sure that being a teacher made me a better designer, but it did help later on at places like conventions where I felt more comfortable in front of crowds. I suppose being a teacher also helped in improvising -- you had to be ready to adapt what you were doing in class if it was bombing. You need a lot of that as a designer.

3. Your name is associated with the second part of the much-beloved 1981 edition of D&D, the Expert Rulebook. What were your goals for this project? That is, what did TSR hope to accomplish with the publication of the Expert Rulebook?

Well, the problem up to that point had been that D&D was hard to learn if you didn't have someone to teach you. So several Basic sets came out with that goal. Then we decided we needed try again and grow beyond just the basics. So the red book focused on the basic of dungeons, while the Expert Set was about expanding the player's world to do wilderness adventures. It was a pretty natural progression. Obviously the other goal was to expand the audience so we could sell more product. Originally there was the thought that we could create a set that would transition players from the red and blue box and into AD&D. However, legal issues prevented that, so it became a separate game line. It was still supposed to be easier to learn and use than AD&D more suitable for a younger audience.

4. Do you feel you were successful in making the Expert Rulebook easier to learn and use than AD&D? Were there any particular features of its presentation that you felt made the game more accessible and suitable for a younger audience?

Yes, easier to learn than AD&D, though we still couldn't break the mass market barrier. Probably the biggest features that made it easier were the attention paid to organization (by the editor more than me) and the streamlining of things. That meant the Expert set didn't try to cover everything which did mean forgoing some sub-systems that added density to AD&D.

5. While at TSR, you also worked on many classic D&D modules, two of which, The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, are among my personal favorites. Both show a clear pulp fantasy influence, the former reminding me of many "lost world" tales and the latter having a vaguely Howardian "Red Nails" vibe. Are you a fan of pulp fantasy and, if so, who are your favorite authors and stories?

Well, I'm not surprised by the "Red Nails" reference since that was what I was clearly going for. It's my favorite Conan story and the city was based off of it. It was originally something I did for my own campaign and then used it as my resume when I applied to TSR.

I love pulp stories and grew up reading a lot of the classic pulp stuff. As a kid I read Conan, Solomon Kane, most al the Tarzan novels, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Vance, Lovecraft, etc. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories by Leiber were among my favorites -- he created this really interesting world and characters that made great stories. Laumer, deCamp, Farmer, Zelazny, Lin Carter, Bloch were a few more. Of course Tolkien, but also a lot of the golden and silver age writers shaped my imagination in junior high and high school.


  1. "...the second edition of Dungeons & Dragons..."

    Surely it would be more correct to say "the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"? (It has always irritated me that WotC called their version of the game '3rd edition,' despite the existence of OD&D, Basic D&D, etc., in addition to 1e and 2e AD&D.)

    Anyhow ...

    The Expert D&D Rules, "Isle of Dread," "Dwellers of the Forbidden City," Star Frontiers, and the TSR Conan RPG were all top-notch, IMO. Interesting to learn that Cook's literary inspiration was so 'swords & sorcery' in nature. I missed 2e AD&D entirely, so I can't comment on Cook's later contributions (although I did enjoy the CRPG 'Planescape: Torment'), however much of his earlier stuff is top-notch.

  2. I've corrected the citations to AD&D.

  3. Great stuff - I've long been a fan of Zeb's ... ahem, Mr. Cook's work.

    Fantastic interview series, James. I've referenced Grognardia on the podcast a few times, I think, but I haven't hightlighted the excellent interview series ... I'll need to fix that soon.

    I look forward to part II.


  4. I like my 1981 B/X Expert set a lot - Isle of Dread is good too. :) Really my only complaint is that Zeb didn't correct the Cleric spell progression chart carried over from OD&D, that had to wait for Mentzer.

  5. Well, we now have an answer to the question of what the "companion" would have looked like for B/X! Very interesting that it might have added complexity as an easy transition to AD&D.

  6. I'll add in my thanks for this, too. Dave Cook wrote my favorite 1e modules, and I think people have been less than fair to him because of their feelings about 2e.

  7. Thanks David and James.

    I'm hoping part II spends some time on 2E. I think some very interesting and positive things happen to the game there, at least at the outset.

  8. Thanks for these great interviews. I really must surf by Grognardia more often!

  9. Thanks to James for the questions; thanks to Zeb for the answers!

    Gary was an old school gamer...”

    ^_^ From the guy who wrote my second RPG purchase. That’s why I have a difficult time calling myself “old school”.

  10. Wow, I must say its incredibley interesting to read about the early life and intro into the profession of someone who's name was one of the very first things I read in any RPG product.

  11. Good stuff James!---my thanks to you and to Dave for the answers.

    I'm looking forward to part 2, and am hoping for some juicy nuggets about one of my favorite modules A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity---the first I ever purchased on my own :D


  12. What I'm hoping for in Part II is some broaching of the infamous "angry mom syndrome issue." We all know the surface details about TSR's famous post-Gygax code of conduct.

    By tapping Mr. Cook to head-up the new edition and to (if my memory serves) write a Dragon editorial setting forth and defending the new practices, TSR management (inadvertently? unfairly?) made him the "face" of this new movement which endured for right about decade, I believe.

    What were the internal company politics and debates on this like at the time? Did Mr. Cook ever sincerely buy into it, or was he just towing the company line? What's the 20/20 hindsight view now?

  13. I actually really like AD&D 2e, the core anyway. Not so much the later stuff as far as rule supplements, but I liked many of the campaign settings. I'd like to hear more about the process in mind in developing 2e.

  14. @ Will: James Ward wrote the original "Angry Mothers From Heck (and what we do about them)" piece in Dragon #154 (with a follow-up in #158). Did Dave Cook also provide follow-up on it later?


  15. Whew! Glad I threw that "if my memory serves" in there to cover my butt. :)

    I'd still be interested in hearing Mr. Cook's thoughts on the content direction the game took around that time, though.

  16. @ Will: LOL :D I wasn't trying to be overly pedantic; I just figured that Zeb didn't need to be saddled with the emasculation of D&D, in addition to whatever else some folks drop on his shoulders ;->


  17. I wished you had asked what went wrong with 'Amazing Engine'.

  18. This interview captures something that I realized many fans miss, the sense of a gentleman that really resided around Zeb.

    He had a mature grace and thoughtfulness that deserves to be recognized.

  19. Thank you Zeb for 2 of the first and best modules that I bought and played, Dwellers of the Forbidden City and Isle of Dread.