Tuesday, June 9, 2020

BECMI: Expert Set review

Moreso than the D&D Basic Set it was the D&D Expert Set that defined what "Basic-era" games were for me.  So it is with great excitement that I delve into the BECMI version of the D&D Expert Rules.

I have reviewed the older, Cook/Marsh version of the Expert set and if you want to read that review it is here.  I will be comparing this set of rules to that, but also how it fits into the larger set of BECMI rules.  Let's begin.  Once again I will be covering the Print and PDF versions of this book.

D&D Expert Rulebook
The 1983, BECMI version of the D&D Expert Rules are "Revised" by Frank Mentzer, but "by" Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  I would contend that once again there is a large amount of Frank in these rules. The book is 64-pages, softcover, with color covers and black & white interior art.  All art is credited to Larry Elmore.  Anne C. Gray is listed for "Editing."

So right away we are given a notice in my book that this version has been edited to be compatible with the D&D Companion rules with adjustments to combat, saving throws, spell acquisition and a new thieves table.  So right away this labels my print book as a Second Printing (or later).
This is interesting because the PDF on DriveThruRPG is a First Printing.  So there are differences.
I will point them out as they come up, but you can get some detail on them from Wayne's Books.

Like the previous Expert book, this one comes with a warning that this is not a complete game and you need the Basic Rules in order to play. There is some brief mention of their being older versions of the game, but to go with the rules printed here.

Unlike the Basic Set with two books; one for Players and one for DMs. This book is presented as a single 64-page volume with player and DM sections.

The introduction covers what an Expert D&D game looks like.  There are more options for the players in the classes, as well as exploring outside of the dungeon. That was a big deal to me back then! Also, character levels will go from 4th to 14th level! That seemed extremely high to me back then.

Player's Section
In the player's section, we learn that some classes, the demi-humans, will hit their max levels now.  Also, there are new features to spells such as affecting other things and they can even be reversed in some cases for a different effect. We also learn that spells not can cause damage but they can change saving throws, to hits, and even morale of others.  Spells are expanding!

Classes are presents and in the case of the Cleric and the Magic-user so are all the reversed spells and the new spells. Clerics can reverse a spell as they wish, Magic-users can't, they have to memorize the reversed version.  Now we are told that Lawful Clerics will not use a reverse version of a spell and in some cases, I see that, but when dealing with light or dark the effects of casting the spell into someone's eyes is the same; blindness.  So DM's be wary.

Clerics get an expanded table for Turning Undead including the ability to actually destroy the creatures! How freaking cool is that?  And the table gives us a spoiler, there are Vampires in these rules. As a young horror fan, this was great for me.

Level Titles are still used and that makes me happy.  Also having the saving throws with the class is great, no more having to dig for those.

The formatting and layout of the classes is still very clean and organized well.  Again the vibe I get is that the designers of 4th Edition D&D took their cues from this edition.
Poor fighter though only gets half a page.  Demi-humans, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling, only get 1 pages in total.
Expert is not your ruleset if you like to play demi-humans.

The section on Adventuring covers a lot of new gear and the important factors about wilderness adventuring. First up, how you gonna get there? So horses and water travel become very important.

Dungeon Master's Section
This makes up a vast majority of the book, at 40 pages.
Again, like the Basic book topics are organized alphabetically.  In the B/X books there was a mention of cutting up your books and organizing them in a binder. Here you could cut out individual sections and organize those! But maybe copy them first or print out the PDF.

The next section for DM's is designing adventures, and in particular Wilderness adventures and town adventures. Humand and demi-human lands are also covered.   This is broken up by a "center fold" of tables and the maps of the Known World and the Grand duchy of Karameikos.  These maps though have something added, they have to locations of the then-current B and X series modules (B1-4, X1-5).  Interestingly it places B3 in Karameikos when previously it had been in Glantri.


This is the book that also gave us the BECMI version of Hommlet, the town of Threshold.

Next up are the Monsters.  Always a favorite.
The monsters here a largely the same as the B/X version of Expert. There are some monster missing, but I know (spoilers) that they will reappear in the Companion Rules. But what is really missing here is some of what I considered the most classic art of D&D.  From what I can tell some of the monsters have been rewritten for this version. Stats are the same but the text does differ.

We end with Treasure and Magic Items.

Overall the Expert set represents a huge leap forward for the BECMI game so far.  Taking the action outside is a, well....game changer.

People often comment on how much gameplay is actually in this box, and they are not exaggerating. From levels 1-14 is some of the best gameplay D&D has to offer regardless of edition.

Once again we also have a collection of wonderful Larry Elmore art in this version. Though I wish there had been more.


D&D Expert really is where the D&D game is really built.  This is not AD&D and it is not the little brown books, this is really a different sort of game.  Yes, AD&D and D&D can cover the same sorts of games, and there are plenty of places where the rules are the same, but it is also here you see the most differences. This was true for B/X Expert and true for BECMI Expert.

The tone of the Expert rules feels different too than AD&D.  There is a lot that can be done with this game and the feeling is there is even more just over the next hill.  Maybe, maybe, more than AD&D, D&D Expert set really captures what is best about the whole D&D experience.

Like it's predecessor, the BECMI Expert set comes with a copy of Isle of Dread, which is just as much of a learning tool for DMs as anything in the rules.   I will discuss that adventure and it's  importance (it is the only BX to BECMI book to get the updated trade dress) to the D&D line next time.

Comparisons with the Cook/Marsh B/X Expert Set


Comparisons are naturals since the Cook/Marsh Expert set was such a big deal to me.

The two sets compare well and cover largely the same information.  There are some minor differences in some numbers and on closer inspection there are a couple more missing monsters than I thought.  But otherwise, the two versions are very, very similar. In fact, I do recall people using this version of the Expert Rules with the previous Moldvay Basic Rules.  But we mixed and matched our rules all the time.


There is a big difference here in how thief abilities work between the B/X and 2nd Printing of BECMI Expert as well as some of the spell progressions.  But this is more of an artifact of the changes between First and Second (see below) printings of the Expert book.

It should be noted that BECMI Expert promises us a Companion rule set that goes from 15 to 25, but B/X Expert tells us that Companion rules will go from 15 to 36!

Comparisons with First and Second Printing

Ah.  Now here there is a bunch more differences. Far more than what you would expect to be honest, but it had to be edited to be brought in line with the new Companion set.  Some of these have been mentioned, but it bears looking at in detail.


Again we see the thief abilities getting a radical change. Thieves of the First Printing are more like those of B/X.  Thieves of the Second Printing take a HUGE hit on their Open Locks rolls, 99% versus 72% at 14th level. Additionally, all the Hear Noise rolls are now percentiles versus a roll on a d6. Though they all seem to work out to be roughly the same.



Spell acquisition is different with generally all the spell-casting classes getting better at spells.
Saving Throws are different.

One thing I did not do was compare either to AD&D, I know there are a lot more differences especially when it comes to XP per level.

With the Basic and Expert now BECMI can go toe to toe with B/X.  Both iterations of the D&D game are still largely the same and that is good and by design.  A lot of new Basic and Expert books are coming out for the BECMI version of Basic/Expert that will still work fantastic with those of us who were still playing B/X and AD&D.

Both BECMI Expert and B/X Expert sets came with the adventure module The Isle of Dread, which is as much as a second rule book as one can get from an adventure.  I will detail the Isle in my post tomorrow.

4 comments:

Wayne's Books said...

Great post, really goes well with my page you linked. I have updated my post with a link back.

-Wayne

JB said...


Huh. Wow. I didn't realize there was a second printing of the BECMI Expert set. I think mine is a first printing, as (upon comparison) I found no real differences between it and my Cook/Marsh book. Other than Threshold (in place of the "gnome warren").

Does the 2nd printing correct the typographic errors in the construction costs section?

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Wayne's Books. Thanks so much!

@JB. I don't know. I will check later.

David Pulver said...

Neat post. I went from the Holmes basic set to semi-original D&D (trying to make sense of higher level play when I had Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Basic Set but NOT the 3-book original set) to AD&D, and so missed the later versions of D&D at the time they came out, only discovering the D&D virtues in later years when I ran a campaign with the Rules Cyclopedia).

Anyway, the unique hybrid level titles for elves are cool. Have to see if they did different ones for halflings or dwarves as well...

How often do level titles actually reflect specific game abilities rather than just being synonyms for the core class arranged in order of increasing coolness?

The name levels for core classes work (Lord, etc. in reference to stronghold establishment), but it would be cool if, say, an Enchanter gained a particular enchanting power or a Necromancer gained certain powers over the dead (well, that actually works as 9th level spellcasters should gain certain spells of that nature).

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