Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: D&D Expert Set

December of 1979 was the time I was first introduced to Dungeon & Dragons via the Holmes Basic edition and the AD&D Monster Manual.  It was 1980 though that I got my hands on the Moldvay Basic Set and my love affair with B/X D&D.  But that is only the first half of the story.  The second half, the X of  B/X, was the Cook/Marsh Expert Set. 

D&D Expert Set
I am not exactly sure when I got the D&D Expert set.  I do know it was sometime after I had the Basic Set.  I know this because I have very distinct memories of going through the Expert book and just marveling at everything inside.  Just everything from the classes to all the new monsters.  The Moldvay Basic Set was the high mark for me at the time for what an RPG should be.  The Expert set lived up to that set and then blew me away.  That is getting ahead of my narrative.

For this review, I am going to look at the original boxed set, the mini boxed set from Twenty First Century Games S.r.i., and the newer PDF from DriveThruRPG.

On the heels of the Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay, we have the first Expert Set edited by David "Zeb" Cook with Steve Marsh.  So we often call this the Cook/Marsh Expert set to distinguish it from the Frank Mentzer Expert Set.   This Moldvay/Cook/Marsh set of rules is often called B/X to separate it from the Mentzer BECMI versions.

The Expert Set came in a boxed set featuring cover art by Erol Otus. The art includes the art from the Basic Set; a wizard scries the female wizard and male warrior fighting the dragon.   It remains one of my favorite pieces of gaming art ever.  In fact, it is the current background for my phone.   Included in the boxed set was one of the greatest sandbox adventures ever, X1 Ilse of Dread and a set of 6 polyhedral dice; d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and a crayon. Note the PDF does not include dice (obviously).

The Expert book features the same cover art on a predominantly blue cover. The book is 64 pages of black & white art.  The cover is full cover and the interior covers are blue ink and feature the table of contents (front) and index (back).  The art features some of the Big Names of 1980s D&D art. Jeff Dee,  Wade Hampton, David S. LaForce,  Erol Otus, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham.  Some so iconic that they STILL define certain elements of the game for me.  Jeff Dee's halflingsDavid LaForce's giants, and Bill Willingham's vampire are to this very day the first thing I think of when any of these creatures are mentioned.

While we were promised "new classes" both in the Holmes Basic book and later by Gygax himself in the pages of Dragon magazine, we stick with same seven classes; four human (Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Thief) and three demi-human (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling).  While I had not really thought about the new classes when I got my Expert set, I was a little disappointed that halflings and dwarves didn't get more than they did.  BUT if that was the case I soon got over it since there was SO much more for the Cleric and Magic-users.

Part 1: Introduction. This book begins with some tables from the Basic game. Also we get some guidelines on how this book should be used and what to do if you have an earlier (Holmes edition) of D&D Basic.  Here we also note that the page numbers are X# compared to the B# number.  The idea here was for you to be able to cut up your Basic and Expert books and put them together in a three-ring binder.  Eventually, I did do this, but not with my actual books, but rather with the printouts from the DriveThru PDFs.

Part 2: Player Character Information. This deals with all the classes.  I thought, at the time, that the organization of this section was a vast improvement over the same section in the Basic Book.  Where Basic D&D went from 1st to 3rd level, this book continues on to 14th level for human classes and various levels for the demi-human classes.   Additionally, thief abilities extend to 14th level as does Clerical turning Undead and new, more powerful spells; 5th level for clerics and 6th level for Magic-users.  That was unheard of levels of magic for me.

Part 3: Spells. This section got about 90% of my attention back then.  New detail is given on Reversed spells for both Clerical and Magic-user/Elf spells.  Eight pages of new spells including the amazing Disintegrate spell, which was one of the spells outlawed in many of my local game groups back then.

Part 4: The Adventure.  Not only does this section open up the world of adventuring to the entire wilderness and beyond the dungeon, it gives us some of my favorite Erol Otus art ever. The Alchemist on page X21 defined what an alchemist needed to look like for me.

Part 5: The Encounter covers combat and includes morale, saving throws, and variable weapon damage. This also has all the necessary combat tables.

Part 6: Monsters. Ah. Now here are the pages of my memories!  I have mentioned before how much I love the Monster Manual for AD&D and how it was my monster tome for my time playing Holmes Basic.  But this.  This one was part of my new favorite rules and that made all the difference to me. The mundane rubbed elbows (or knees, or whatever) with the magical and the malevolent.  To this day there are still monsters here that I have not seen the likes of elsewhere. Well yes, I have, but you have to dig for some of them.  But let's be honest, when was the last time you pulled a Devil Swine out on your players? Some versions of monsters here I still prefer over their AD&D Monster Manual counterparts. Giants and Vampires as I have mentioned.

Part 7: Treasure follows.  While D&D lacked the infamous vorpal sword (for now), it made up for it by having better rules in my mind for Intelligent swords.

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information, is what it says on the tin.  We get rules for making ability "saving throws" and spell magic item creation rules.   What I had the most fun with were the castle and stronghold cost rules.  This chapter is chock full of goodness.  Handling players, NPCs, even the first bit of what was known as the "Known World" which later became Mystara.  To this day seeing the "haunted keep" fills me with ideas.

Part 9: Special Adventures this section covers waterborne adventures. 

This book is so full of great stuff and even though we were promised a "Companion" edition that would go to 36th level (unheard of!) there were still plenty of adventures to be had.
Let's be honest, 14 levels is a lot of levels even by today's standards.

The PDF of the Expert book includes the Ilse of Dread AND the Gateway to Adventure catalog.   All that for $4.99? That is a steal really.

The Twenty First Century Games S.r.i., mini boxed set is about 1/8 the size of the normal boxed set.  It came complete with a box, an Expert rule-book and mini copy of Ilse of Dread.  Twenty years ago it looked great! Today the font must have shrunk some because I find it really hard to read!


JB said...

Probably the greatest box set/game I've ever received/owned. The excitement and energy this gave me even surpassed that of the Basic set...despite having begged my mother to buy my Moldvay box, I had little idea what I was actually getting into. With the Expert set, I knew EXACTLY what I was getting: more (and higher/deeper level) options to the greatest game of all time.

paleologos said...

I've recently noticed the appropriateness of the level range of 4-14. I believe that I read that Gygax's Mordenkinen maxed out at 14th level in the original era. I recently heard an interview with Jim Ward in which he stated that his own magic-user Bombadil (spelled backwards!) also maxed out at 14th level.

In his article "D&D is only as good as the DM" form SR#7, Gygax even stated that "To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level." and so the range of 1-14th level in BX has a certain charm and OD&D vibe.

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