Friday, November 20, 2009

A True Expert: Dave Cook Kicks Ass

Sometimes I worry that I'm a crashing bore. Sometimes I worry that someone I know is going to read something uncharitable I say about them and feel hurt. Sometimes I worry that I'm going to step on someone's feelings just because I couch my opinions with in a bit of inflammatory prose.

Mostly though, I don't worry too much about it...I know I've got my insecurities, and my worries are only as strong as my thought that I'm throwing typos and grammatical errors left and right. If I stopped to worry about all this...well, I guess I'd just be reading blogs instead of writing one.

But folks who've been reading know that I do detour off into the occasional attack post regarding...oh, pretty much everything at one point or another. But those same readers know that I save an especially large share of my bile for a particular edition of D&D...the 2nd edition. I mean, I have turned the cold shoulder to D&D3+ and completely ignored the fact that 4E exists at all. Why, why must I rail against all things 2nd edition.

Um...habit? Who knows? Who cares?'s just one guy's opinion!

However, in launching so many attacks at the game, it's possible (however slightly) that I might be pissing all over David "Zeb" Cook, the lead designer for that particular edition of the game. I don't know...does he consider it his "baby?" Well, anyway, if it seems like I've got a bone to pick, let me state right for the record now that I do NOT.

Dave Cook is a frigging' genius.

Maybe genius isn't the right term...I want a term like savant, but in my head that always has the word "idiot" at the front and I don't think of Mr. Cook as an idiot. Master might be a better know, like the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance?

Dave Cook is one of the true masters of D&D. If Gygax is the equivalent of Da Vinci, Cook has got to be Michaelangelo. Maybe that's not a fair comparison (Robert Kuntz might feel he's heir to the Michaelangelo title)...but certainly Dave is one of those Ninja Turtle names.

Mr. Cook's old school cred is not in question...he was working at TSR for a long time, and prior to AD&D2 worked on a whole slew of things. Just looking at the works credited to the man on wikipedia, I see a whole lot of stuff that I've owned and continued to own, all of which I certainly enjoyed in my youth: Unearthed Arcana (with Gygax), Star Frontiers, A1:Slave Pits of the Undercity, B6:The Veiled Society, BH2:Lost Conquistador Mine, X1:The Isle of Dread (with Moldvay). I can honestly say that I have used and played everything I've ever owned that was written by Dave Cook. And some things...noteably X1 and I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City...I have used and played extensively with multiple gaming groups.

Of course, just being the hand behind a lot of good product isn't enough to qualify one as a "master" in my book. Lawrence Schick hit a homerun out of the park with S2:White Plume Mountain, but in my opinion one (exceptionally wonderful) adventure ain't enough. And quantity's not enough either...Doug Niles, I'm looking at YOU.

[there I go talking smack again! bad JB!]

It's only the last couple days that I've decided Cook is firmly in the master category...and this is DESPITE AD&D2 and the non-weapon proficiencies of Oriental Adventures. I've been reading his modules X4:Master of the Desert Nomads and X5:Temple of Death.

They are superb.

Taking into account his work on X1:The Isle of Dread, I can only come to the conclusion that Mr. Cook is a true master of B/X, ESPECIALLY mid-high level play or what might be termed "Expert D&D" (hell, even I1:Dwellers of the Forbidden City is designed for characters level 4-7). No wonder of course when one considers he was the main force behind the incredibly underrated (in my opinion) D&D Expert Set.

Underrated? Hell yes! I played Expert for a loooong time just subbing in the AD&D Monster Manual before I ever got a DMG or PHB. And many of the standard rules from the Expert set were simply 'ported in to AD&D once we started playing AD&D, including all wilderness movement and naval combat stuff. Sure Expert, like Moldvay's Basic, was just a streamlining and codifying of the original LBBs, but they were done in such expert fashion that they were a lot easier to use than either the LBBs or AD&D. And let us not forget that aside from a few extra clerical spells and Larry Elmore art, Mentzer's Expert set is pretty much word-for-word the Cook/Marsh book. And a lot of people still prefer BECMI and the Rules Cyclopedia.

But let's talk about X4 and X5. Wow. Just wonderful. First off, now I understand why the Expert set bothers to throw both Nomads and Dervishes into the mix. Cook uses every last scrap of Expert goodness in these two adventure modules. After playing through it, players will never relegate ESP and Dispel Evil off into the realms of the "optional miscellaneous" and creative use of spells in general is going to be particularly important. Heck, just about every magic item in the Expert set makes an appearance in one place or another, and scrolls and potions feature prominently...the NPCs sure aren't afraid to use 'em to good advantage!

The monsters are clever and their tactics explicit (very nice for a DM, very challenging for the players...and thanks to the fact this is B/X not 3.5, combats are still a dream to run). The new monsters are especially cool...comparing the Soul Eaters to the Death Leeches of CM2 for example and Cook's creations win hands down as interesting, challenging, while not being "F the players" AND they all have nice "personality." I prefer the new critters in X4 to the ones in X5 (the Fraggle Rock geonid look downright silly), but the Dusanu and Malfera are totally worthy opponents.

There are a LOT of demonic type creatures in the game...monsters like the Malfera, Spectral Hounds, and Soul Eaters all hail from different dimensions or planes (the Nightmare Dimension? the Vortex Dimension?) that don't conform to any particular "D&D Cosmology." I LOVE this. Cook displays what the REAL potential of B/X can make your games a grim Sword & Sorcery tale and completely leave out the Immortals of BECMI or the planar/clerical specifics of AD&D and later games. B/X has THE EXACT SAME OPEN-ENDEDNESS OF OD&D, except that the rules are better written and organized.

And Cook only uses what he's got...unlike Moldvay's X2:Castle Amber, there is no speculation of what a 25th level character would be like (c.f. Stephan D'Amberville). The highest level character in either book is 14, where he ended his own Set. His additional rules are nothing that would later need to be retconned.

For example: the people of Hule worship Chaotic deities. Which Chaotic deities? Who knows? Who cares? Doesn't matter because they are DEITIES and they work in mysterious ways, granting strange powers to some and undying life to others, and flaming damnation to the poor souls that drop down the wrong chute. Ha! Does everything need to be codified (BECMI, D20...I'm looking at YOU)? Nah...I don't think so.

These modules reiterate all the things I love about AD&D that I hated in later editions...edginess and open-endedness ("an anything goes mentality"). Except it uses B/

1 comment:

  1. X4 and X5 are two of my favourite D&D modules. Someday I would love to DM them again...