Sunday, May 21, 2023

Completing the B/X D&D Rules - The Cook/Marsh Expert Set

The post-1980 version of "Classic" or "Basic" Dungeons and Dragons was very popular and had a rather lengthy life for a role playing game (1981-1996).  In 1981 TSR published a new revision of the Basic Set with its Rulebook edited by Tom Moldvay which had mostly rewritten, revised and reorganized the Rulebook  previously edited by J. Eric Holmes for the 1977 Basic Set.  Moldvay's Basic Rulebook's excellence in laying down the rules was as such that they went almost completely unchanged for the next fifteen years.  I have previously covered its ruleset in detail.

But what lied beyond the levels 1-3 covered in the Basic Set?  During the rather lengthy reign of the Holmes Basic Set, the official answer was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  The Holmes Basic Rules were a simplified version of the Original Dungeons and Dragons game for new players. Once the players learned what a role playing game was with a few tabletop sessions, it was time to progress to the "full game".  Original Dungeons and Dragons covered the higher levels but that game was becoming increasingly forgotten with each passing year.  AD&D was a more expensive game to play with the three hardcover rulebooks and required converting characters to the advanced system and adapting to new mechanics.  In part in order to keep players interested in D&D rather than to explore non-TSR games and in part to placate OD&D co-creator Dave Arneson's demands for royalties, TSR decided to expand the Basic Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. 

Accompanying the new Basic Set from Moldvay was a new Expert Set with a Rulebook edited by David Cook with Steve Marsh.  These covered character levels 4-14 and were intended to allow player characters to explore wilderness areas, fight on the seas and the skies and of course added new spells, monsters and magic items.  In this blog entry we will examine the influence of these rules and how they cemented the B/X series as one of the most popular rulesets that have inspired present day Old School Renaissance games.  

Lethality in Classic D&D

Classic D&D by the book is rather lethal, especially at early levels.  Ability scores, as they are rolled 3d6 in order, represent an equalizer.  Characters who start with more than one or two bonuses are exceptionally rare and those bonuses are likely to be modest.  Characters with a negative to some rolls are much more common.  Also, as hit points use lower die in Classic D&D compared to Advanced D&D, combat tends to be a bit more dangerous at the lower levels.  Fighters use d8 in Classic D&D but d10 in Advanced D&D, Clerics use d6 instead of d8 and Thieves use d4 instead of d6.  As you cannot adjust your constitution by lowering another ability score, your ability to earn extra HP or eliminate your negative HP is down to random chance.   Monsters by default use d8 hit die for both Classic D&D and Advanced D&D, so Advanced D&D players will have slightly higher hit points relative to the monsters than Classic D&D characters. 

Fighting ability (to-hit rolls) and saving throws will not improve until you reach the Expert Set.  When fighting monsters, expect to miss often.  Clerics do not gain access to spells until 2nd level, so cure light wounds is not available to beginning characters.  Thieves have rather low thief skill percentages at lower levels and do not get dexterity or racial bonuses.  Magic-Users can cast one to three spells at best to start, cannot wear armor and have few hit points, so they cannot fight in the front ranks.  Some monsters, usually animals, can attack two or three times per round while every player character class can only attack once.  

By the time of the Expert Set, Level 4, characters who have survived to the mid-levels have a few hit die under their belt, a few magic items, good armor, a magic weapon or two, useful spells and a little gold to spare.  They are less likely to die as a result of an early unlucky dice roll.  A well-timed use of a potion of healing can make the difference between a successful adventure and a tragic one.  By the time the characters are approaching the double-digit experience levels, they are ready to take on the titular beasts of the game, dragons, in a fair fight.  

Most games start with low-level or mid-level characters and work their way up to the higher levels, but they tend to stop around level 14 for both D&D and AD&D.  This is because at higher levels, characters have enough HP, spells, magic weapons and items to become virtually indestructible.  A typical fantasy world does not have the dungeon master routinely throwing red dragons and liches at the player.  When the game stops being challenging, it stops being fun.  By the teens, characters which have been built up over the course of many campaigns are usually looking to their retirement from active adventuring. 

Most games start with low-level characters and work their way up to the higher levels, but tended to stop around level 14 for both D&D and AD&D.  This is because that at high levels, characters have enough HP, spells, magic weapons and items to become virtually indestructible.  A typical fantasy world does not have the dungeon master routinely throwing red dragons and liches at the player like they did orcs and zombies at the low levels.  When the game stops being challenging, it stops being fun.  


The genius of the 1981 Basic and Expert Sets is their organization.  The authors could build on the prior 1977 Basic Set as well as the AD&D Rulebooks while avoiding their sometimes illogical organization.  The books are organized in a logical progression where characters come first, then equipment, spells, adventure elements, encounters, combat, monsters, treasure and dungeon master information.  Each book mirrors the other in organization, making looking up information easier.  

Character creation in B/X D&D is simple enough that you can roll characters up in 10 minutes, but there is some variety in selection.  The main four classes are present, fighter, thief, magic-user and cleric, a.k.a. the tank, the scout, the offensive magic-user and defensive/healing magic-user.  Everything else in most fantasy games are variations on these themes.  The only class with any room for customization is the magic-user in his or her selection of an initial spell (if not given to them by the DM).  Otherwise all customization beyond the ability scores and HP is in the equipment purchased.  There are no skills and feats available to distinguish, for example, one fighter from another fighter.  All thieves raise their thief skills to the same percentile chance with each level.  

Ability Score bonuses and penalties tend to be standardized on a +3 to -3 or a +2 to -2 scale.  This makes them easy to remember and apply.  Alignment uses the terms law/neutrality/chaos but really are mostly synonyms for good/neutral/evil.  As described in the books, law is essentially lawful good and chaos is chaotic evil on the nine point alignment scale.  Race as class is a limitation of Classic D&D, Dwarves are Fighters, Elves are multi-classed Fighter/Magic-Users and Halflings are Fighters with some Thief-like abilities.  If you wanted more expansive race and class options, you had to use AD&D or adopt AD&D rules to your D&D game.


The Expert Set allows the four main classes to progress to level 14 with revised experience point, hit die and saving throw tables for each class.  Clerics have an advanced Turn Undead and Spell Casting tables giving them the ability to cast spells up to the 5th level.  Magic-Users have Spell Casting tables allowing them to cast spells up to the 6th level and can create magic items at 9th level.  The Thief Ability table continues to progress to near perfect levels of success by 14th level, the ability to read languages at 4th level and magic scrolls at 10th level.  The fighter gains the ability to inflict double damage with a lance while mounted and engaged in a charge.  

Dwarves, Elves and Halflings are limited to the 12th, 10th and 8th levels, respectively.  They can pull their weight as human characters push level 14 (although with Halflings this will become increasingly difficult), but they are eventually going to fall behind.  For the purposes of the Expert Set, this is not a huge handicap and something of a balancing act given the extra abilities these races have over humans.  

The Wider World

The Basic Set's rules spent considerable length on aspects related to dungeoneering, how to stock a dungeon, how to move in a dungeon, basic 1 to 1 combat, passage of time and so on.  It did not cover movement through the wilderness, random encounters above ground, methods of travel, constructing fortresses or creating towns and cities.  The Expert Set sought to address these limitations.  

All character classes, when they have reached a certain level (usually 9th), will have the ability to construct a stronghold if they can afford it.  This will provide them with a noble title or followers and allow them to interact on a more macro-level with the world.  The Expert Rules also provide descriptions and costs for various hirelings like mercenaries and alchemists and costs for constructing various features of a stronghold.  

Movement through the wilderness and getting lost rules are included, as are possible monster encounters while traveling.  Different types of terrain give different rates of movement, monster types and chances of becoming lost.  There are mentions of air travel (by magical means or monster) and water travel by ship. Ship combat is given some rules, including catapults, rams and ship to ship boarding.  

Advice is given for a "base town" where adventurers can buy supplies, rest and recuperate from trips to the dungeon and discover information for new adventures.  Construction of a world map is also given some space in the Expert Rules.  An example of an area rife with adventuring possibilities, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, is sketched out toward the end of the Rulebook. 

The Campaign World

Prior to the Expert Set, the Basic/Classic D&D Set had no concept of an official "campaign world."  AD&D had acquired its first detailed campaign world, Greyhawk, only the previous year.  Adventure modules like B1: In Search of the Unknown and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands were presumed to be set in a generic fantasy world.  Any maps, political divisions, cities and towns were whatever the Dungeon Master made up or took from other sources. 

Like the Basic Set, which came with an adventure module, (B2: The Keep on the Borderlands), the Expert Set also came with an adventure module, X1: The Isle of Dread.  The module begins by briefly describing the various kingdoms and governments of the "Continental Map", which would later be known as the D&D "Known World".  Areas of the Known World would later be expanded in the D&D Gazeteer series.  This setting would later become an Official AD&D 2nd Edition campaign world known as Mystara.  The Hollow World campaign setting, the 2nd and last official Classic D&D campaign setting, would come a few years later.

X1: The Isle of Dread takes place mainly on the eponymous "Isle of Dread" in the Tanegioth Archipelago far to the south of the main continent.  The Isle has a definite "Lost World" feel to it as dinosaurs still roam the island.  Unlike the Basic Set beginner modules, X1 is as about finding and traveling to locales to explore as it is about adventuring in those dangerous locations.  

Following on the Expert Set

The Expert Rulebook gave a few suggestions for how characters may progress beyond the 14th level, but the book indicated that further rule development would be given in the Companion supplement.  In 1983 the Basic Set was re-released yet again, this time edited by Frank Mentzer.  Mentzer reorganized the Basic Rulebook to focus more on educating the players on how D&D was played but made very few rule changes.  The 1983 Basic Set did not come with a separate adventure module, the two books included were the Player Rulebook and the Dungeon Master's Rulebook.  

Later that year, the Mentzer Expert Set was also released.  This Expert Set tracked the previous Expert Set much more closely than his Basic Set tracked its predecessor.  Mentzer's Expert Set did not deviate much in the way of rules.  A later printing and an errata sheet for the Mentzer Expert Set adjusted character progression somewhat to allow for more room for advancement in the Companion Set, but those changes were not really carried over in the Rules Cyclopedia which came out in 1991 and covered rules from levels 1-36.  X1: The Isle of Dread also was included in the Mentzer Expert Set with revised artwork. 

By this time the planned Companion Supplement had been split into the Companion Set, covering levels 15-25 and the Master Set, covering levels 26-36.  Players achieving immortality was not contemplated by B/X but paths to immortality was added to the Master Set and rules for immortal characters were given in the Immortals Set.  Sole authorship of these three sets was credited to Mentzer and all five sets authored or revised by Mentzer is often referred to as BECMI.  One Rulebook in the Expert Set contained both the Player and Dungeon Master's Rules whereas Mentzer's Basic, Companion, Master and Immortals Sets used separate Rulebooks for Players and Dungeon Masters.  

The Legacy of B/X D&D

The B/X rules had been cloned several times in the past 20 years, most faithfully and successfully by Necrotic Gnome's Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy.  Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG are  other B/X clones.  Other Old-school D&D rulesets have been cloned, AD&D 1st Edition (OSRIC), OD&D (Swords & Wizardry), Holmes Basic (Blueholme, Mazes & Perils RPG), BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia (Dark Dungeons). AD&D 2nd Edition (For Gold & Glory).  Other OSR-style games retain their spirit if not their sometimes clunky rules.  

Fortunately the Basic and Expert Set Rulebooks can be downloaded and printed for short money so you can have them for reference at the table if needed without risking damage to 40-year old books. You should also consider the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy publications because they have the Basic and Expert rules on the same subject matter, such as character progression, in one place instead of two places.  It comes either as five booklets  in the Classic Game Box Set (Characters, Magic, Adventures, Monsters, Treasures) or as a single Rules Tome.

The Old-School Renaissance owes an enormous debt to B/X D&D.  The B/X Rules contained the epitome of what a tabletop role playing game needed to be to result in a playable game.  It gave enough structure to allow new players to learn how to roleplay and keep games recognizable as D&D but did not try to cover every conceivable situation the designers could imagine with rules that were designed to fill paragraphs instead of guide players and DMs to a satisfactory resolution. B/X ended just when things started to get a little too safe, relatively few people went onward to Companion and Master Rules.   

People tend to compare old-school rules to modern 5E D&D rules and other popular rulesets.  It can be observed that 5E by comparison to Classic D&D offers an enormous amount of options in character creation, much more capable and durable starting characters and a strong emphasis on adventures driven by narrative and plot encounters rather than by exploration and combat.  This blog article is not intended to debate the merits of these respective play styles, but if you want a game where you can pick up and play in minutes and survival is not guaranteed, the B/X rules are for you.  

No comments:

Post a Comment