Saturday, July 4, 2009

Interview: David "Zeb" Cook (Part II)

6. Gary Gygax once commented that the AD&D Oriental Adventures book published in 1985 turned out very differently than he'd originally conceived of it. As one of the book's primary authors, can you shed some light on what he might have meant by that?

Well I imagine it did. I wasn't just the primary author, I was the author. The project had a bumpy history and I don't really want to go into it a lot, out of respect for others. But it essentially came to a point where the manuscript simply wasn't there. This wasn't Gary but other people that didn't deliver. TSR had major commitments for the book and it needed to be there. I had been advising because I had a passion for oriental history and so was tapped to step in and deliver the book on a very short deadline. Gary knew what I was doing; we met regularly, but what went in was my doing.

7. The second edition of AD&D, of which you were the lead designer, had its twentieth anniversary this year. Looking back on the work that you did, what aspect of the new edition were you most happy with and what aspect were you least happy with?

I think what I like most is that I wanted the rules to be guidelines, that you could use what you liked and ignore what you didn't. That and we didn't over-burden the game with rules. I'm a much more fast and loose player when it comes to rules. I think it's important to creating and telling a successful game session. If you're locked in by rules, you can't create the dramatic, exciting, funny event that's just right for the moment. Probably what I was least happy with was that it was still very hard to learn how to play. It was decided the rulebooks needed to work as reference first -- that would make them more useful in the long run, but it was still a hurdle to learn. People complain that we didn't do enough or we did too much, or that we sold out -- I just try to let that all go. There were reasons for many of the things we did that made sense at the time. I think people sometimes get too fixated about what's "official" to see what they could do with the whole.

8. Had your previous experience working on the Expert Rulebook given you any insights into how better to present a complex game like AD&D to a wider audience? That is, were any of the lessons you learned from the Expert Rulebook applicable to your design work on Second Edition?

It definitely helped. By far the most important part was thinking about organization, both learning from what worked and mistakes made. Again, the credit for that really belongs to Steve Winter who was the lead editor for Second Edition. It was also a matter of learning how to write rules -- which came from practice doing Expert and some other rules sets. I don't remember any specific things where we said, "That worked in Expert, so we should do it that way." It was more the general immersion into the D&D/AD&D rules mentality and discovering all the ways you could slice and dice things.

9. Your point about fixating on what's official is well taken and one I certainly share. Do you think, in retrospect, that this fixation was fostered, inadvertently or not, by the way TSR marketed the game, its supplements, and in periodicals like Dragon, where columns like "Sage Advice" provided definitive answers to rules questions? I ask this, because, in the early days, Gary Gygax and other designers expressed bafflement at being asked for official rulings, because they felt it would be better if each referee came up with his own answers for his campaign.

I think it might be summed up as bafflement with a touch of alarm. The bafflement (incredulity? surprise? bemusement?) came mostly, I think, because we were dedicated gamers of all sorts and were very comfortable with homegrown rules, rules lawyering, and all that fun stuff. So we were a little unprepared for the occasional bursts of literalism from fans, "so it is written, so shall it be." It took us a while to learn that what we wrote as maybe a toss-off idea or suggestion might be read an entirely different way. There was always this underlying belief in part of the community that we had some great unpublished grand plan from which we plucked cherries to publish, when the fact of the matter was that we were pretty much making it up (especially in worlds and settings) almost as fast as we went along. The alarm (and sometimes literally amusement) stemmed from the opposite, when players would badly misunderstand something that seemed obvious. There were some pretty crazy expansions and misinterpretations out there. That may have contributed to the "this is the official way the game is played" sentiment that rose up for a while. I know Gary wrote editorials in Dragon about official D&D, but only Gary knew what his intentions were in those articles. Certainly I know that the Sage Advice column tried to be very conscious of what it said and the effect it had on players out of a genuine concern to help players enjoy the game (and fix some of our internal contradictions).

10. Like many tabletop RPG designers, you made the transition into the world of computer games. Did you find that your experience in the world of pen and paper games had prepared you well for this new industry or are the two very different from one another?

It was more challenging than it seemed on the surface. On paper, as a designer you are pretty much in total control. What you design and write is pretty much what gets printed. As a designer for video games, you only control a part of the process. A lot of the player experience depends on the rest of the team of artists and programmers. You can only design so much and you have to learn to rely on and communicate with others.

On the other hand, working in paper taught so much about games and the psychology of players. It honed my understanding of what would work, what players might want, and why all of it should go together. In many ways my paper experience has become more useful as games have become more social. There's a lot about MMO's that has more to do with the ways people play traditional RPGs and what they want out of them. Creating environments, developing storylines, incentivizing players -- these are all skills that go way back to traditional games.

12. Do you still play traditional RPGs these days and, if so, which ones?

Sigh, very very rarely. It's a combination of a lot of factors we are all familiar with -- lack of time, friends going their different ways, work, and the need to play videogames (if only to see what's being done). Plus, I confess there was a period of burnout for awhile after I left TSR. I just didn't want to see RPGs for a while.

Still I have played some things -- Spirit of the Century, most recently, and some homegrown miniature/role-playing light tabletop battles. Right now I enamored of odd genres like VSF [Victorian Science Fiction -- JDM] and dieselpunk. (Steampunk has been taken over too much by the goth element these days for my taste.) I still like my pulpy fantasy after all.

13. Is there any chance we might see a tabletop RPG or wargames product under your byline in the future?

No immediate plans, but who knows what may happen in the future?


  1. Thanks again James and David.

    the need to play videogames

    That's a funny thing to have to do.

  2. This was great to read.
    Thanks, both. :)

  3. My favorite Zeb game is Conan, of course!

  4. I do believe that when someone made a clone of the Conan game (ZeFRS), Zeb actually gave his blessing to the project.

  5. Very interesting read, hard to believe AD&D 2.0 is 20 years old.

  6. Do you think, in retrospect, that this fixation was fostered, inadvertently or not, by the way TSR marketed the game, its supplements, and in periodicals like Dragon, where columns like "Sage Advice" provided definitive answers to rules questions?

    Cook's charmingly indirect answer seems to be roughly 'No, you've got it backwards,' which is gratifying and not unexpected. I suspect he's being diplomatic about what sounds like a somewhat screwy corporate culture. His basic point - Our advice/canonical-interpretation output was almost entirely a matter of normalizing player expectation in the face of unanticipated misreadings and repeated requests - echoes what should be a commonsense point but rarely seems to come up in so-called 'OSR' discussions, i.e. beyond the rabid wargaming-derived/-related core RPG culture (so-called 'grognards') most people in the hobby arguably preferred 'the 2e way' (and all it entailed) to the older set of expectations.

    Which has nothing to do with sales figures: 2e was an attempt among other things to conform to changing player expectations, not a sinister post-Gygax conspiracy or what have you, so the 2e core might not have sold as well as the 1e books, though the ideas it embodied have been definitive for the FRPG hobby since the 80's. Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that questions whose implicit message is 'Why and how was the Gygaxian faith lost?' are perhaps misplaced; a more useful line of inquiry, for 'OSR'-type individuals at the very least, might begin with 'Why did so many players in the 80's, even before the publication of 2e, express a desire for more codified "official" rulings, fully-developed published campaign words, clearer rules, etc., rather than the peculiarities and aporias of Gygax's D&D and AD&D?'

    In any case, this was a good interview - I wanted more!

  7. Great Interview - Zeb Cook is one of my favorite game designers. I think his writing contributed a lot the hobby and the way I'm gaming today. I was really excited to see that he's a fan of Spirit of the Century, which is one of my favorite new games.

  8. "most people in the hobby arguably preferred 'the 2e way' (and all it entailed) to the older set of expectations."

    "the 2e core might not have sold as well as the 1e books"

    A contradiction, perhaps?

  9. Interesting interview, but what happened to "Question 10"?

  10. Did this get changed or did I mean "Question 11"? Currently, the question numbers go: "9, 10, 12, 13".

  11. The numbers didn't change. I just screwed up when numbering them.

  12. Zeb Cook is a really amazing writer. Planescape is so good, so fast and loose yet cohesive. I got all the box sets back in the day and could never get my group to get into them, however reading all that stuff stuck with me and in a weird way, affects the way I understand the world even now as 30-year old man. I have recently been re-reading some of the campaign materials, and it's amazing how much insight Cook had into philosophy, belief, and conflict. There is a line in "The Planewalker's Handbook" about how there is often more contention between planes of law and chaos than between good and evil. Or a lot of the detail he put into developing the factions... Cook did a genius job on that one.