Reading through Cook Expert (1981)

D&D Expert

This one is blue. Interesting cover, but not nearly as cool as the Basic Set. It’s okay, but nothing too impressive.

In the original Box Set, this book came bundled with the module X1: Isle of Dread, also written by Cook, and which is probably one of the most highly regarded adventures ever made. I might perhaps cover this after the Expert Set is done. (Because it is indeed very good, but also very unlike any other modern modules.)

The first page is a number of tables from the Basic Set, like the Ability Score modifiers, missile weapon ranges, and all the Encumbrance rules. The idea here seems to be that you have any tables you might need too look up during a game in a single book. Very thoughtful.

Part 1: Introduction

Obviously, this is an expansion to the Basic Set and assumes that you know how Basic works. The idea of reassembling the two books into one is mentioned again, but without printing all 128 pages (which I won’t) it’s hard to get an impression of how good that would actually look.

The Expert Set has rules for letting characters advance to 14th level, and includes new spells, magic items, monsters, and treasures for such higher level adventures. (Or lower levels when you go to dungeons.) There is also a big deal being made from going beyond dungeon adventures into wilderness adventures. “In expanding the campaign, the DM will create whole nations and cultures, giving the characters a history and background. Adventurers can even shape the hisoty of their world as they become more powerful.” We’re going to see how well the book delivers on this lofty promise later on.

At higher levels, players also may build strongholds for their characters and then become lords of their own territories.

A few new terms are introduced as well: A wilderness is any area that is outdoors. When characters reach 9th level, they have achieved name level, as by then a magic-user is called a “wizard” and a fighter a “Lord”, and their title won’t be changing any more after that. (At the lower levels, every class level comes with a fancy sounding title that doesn’t actually mean anything.) When characters build their own fortified base, it is called a castle when build by fighters, clerics, or wizards, a hideout when build by thieves, and a stronghold when build by demhumans.

A new concept introduced here are reversed spells, which allows spellcasters to cast their spells for the opposite effect they usually know. There is also magical research, which allows spellcasters to invent new spells and make magic items. “Many details of magical research are left the DM.” Interesting they already felt the need to mention that here in the introduction of the book.

There’s a historically very interesting paragraph on the second page of the introduction. At least if you have an interest in early D&D and the nerdiest aspects of OSR.

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

This could very well be argued to be official definition of what is now usually called Sandbox campaigns. You could write small books about this quote alone. (And I am pretty sure someone did.) I won’t go into that here in great detail as there is plenty of more immediate stuff, but it’s interesting to see that Cook was stressing some points about open world campaigns that are still the source of great debate 35 years later.

Since player characters die with considerable frequency and the default assumption is that all new characters are created at 1st level, “As a guideline, not a rule, it is suggested that characters who have a difference in levels of 5 or greater” should not play in the same adventures. The reason for that being that a 1st level character in a 6th level party would not have any realistic chance of surviving anything the party might run into and that a 12th level character in a 6th level party would simply clear out all obstacles by himself, reducing the other characters to supporting spectators. Still, I can imagine a great number of 3rd edition players considering even a 5 level difference an outrage and a travesty.

The suggestion that a 3rd level character and an 8th level character should probably play in different adventures seems strange though. This seems based on the assumption that D&D is played in wargaming clubs where there are plenty of different games run by different groups. However, the Basic Set explicitly mentioned that B/X is meant to make D&D accessible to people beyond this original crowd, so it seems a bit out of place. The obvious alternative solution would be to have new characters created 5 levels below the highest level character in the party.

There’s also a couple of extra notes for people who want to use the Expert Set with the older Holmes Basic rules. I know nothing about that one, but I assume the Expert Set would indeed have everything needed to do that. The only thing it’s really missing are combat rules, monsters, and spells, which the Holmes Basic set most likely already had in a very similar form.

Part 2: Player Character Information

This is mostly updated tables for each character class, expanded up to 14th level. One important new information is that player characters can only get a maximum of 9 Hit Dice. After that, they no longer roll for new hit point and adding their Constitution modifier when leveling up. They simply get 1 or 2 more hp, depending on their class.

In addition to increasing numbers for attack chances, saving throws, and spells per day, there are also a few new abilities that become available to higher level characters n Expert.

Cleric

As I mentioned in the Basic Rules, the turn undead ability of clerics is really immensely powerful as it can be used every single round all day long. At 2nd level, a cleric will automatically turn 2-12 skeletons and at 3rd level 1-6 zombies every round. At 4th level, this ability becomes a lot more badass. Not only can the cleric automatically turn 1-6 ghouls, those 1-12 skeletons are automatically “destroyed or desintegrated”! At 5th level that happens to the zombies and at 6th level to the ghouls!

braindead-5

I kick arse for the LORD!

Totally hardcore. I can see why LotFP (kind of a horror version of B/X) made it into a spell instead.

Thief

At 4th level, thieves get the ability to read any writing as if using the read language spell with an 80% chance of success. At 10th level, they may also use wizard spell scrolls, but there’s always a 10% chance that the spell will backfire in some way.

Demihumans

While the four main classes can advance to 14th level (and are all mentioned to be able to advance to 36th in the Companion Set scheduled for a later date), dwarves can only reach a maximum level of 12th, elves a maximum of 10th, and halflings a maximum of 8th. The explanation given for that is that it is “a balancing factor”. Presumedly for the huge power these classes gain from having infravision and a 2 in 6 chance to hide. Which is of course completely bullshit.

This limitation exists just because. Perhaps as an “explanation”, why the world is not full with super high level elves and dwarves as they live so much longer. But why would that apply to player characters? Since there isn’t really anything special happening to characters as they gain higher level, this rule is very easily ignored. The tables only go to 8th or 12th level, but you can easily expand them to 36th. If you’re just playing the Expert rules, it also doesn’t make much of a difference, since the maximum level is 14th anyway. But this is really one thing about old D&D edition that is just utter nonsense. If anyone would actually have felt those other classes are too powerful, they could simply have made them less powerful.

Dwarves may only hire dwarven mercenaries. For no reason given. Same goes for elves.

If the GM wants the party to progress beyond 14th level with just the Basic and Expert Sets (the Companion Set came out only 4 years later), there’s a short explanation of how to keep progressing attack chances and saving throws, and a simple rule for extending the XP required to get more levels.

There’s a new equipment list, which I think is pretty much the same, but also has ships, riding animals, and some siege engines.

Part 3: Spells

Since so far we mostly had expanded tables, we’re only at page 11 yet. There’s a lot more spells here than in Basic, but even so the chapter has only 8 pages in total.

There’s a few new additions to the magic tules from Basic.

First is a small, but very important change. The rules for casting a spell are pretty much identical, but with the important difference that any player who wants to cast a spell has to declare so before initiative is rolled. Going by Basic, a character who got injured or failed a saving throw during the enemy turn would simply not cast a spell that round at all. Now that he has to declare it first, the spell might actually get wasted and lost for the day when he gets hit. Looking very closely, both the Basic and Expert set had their first printing (from which these pdfs are scanned) in January 1981 (even though the cover says 1980). So I don’t believe this is an errata to fix an error in the Basic set, but it had been deliberately left out of the Basic rules. Which would be the very first nice thing I’ve seen 1st level wizards getting. However, the change here in the Expert Set is extremely easy to miss if you assume that the paragraph is identical to the one in the Basic Set and I think this is a really important thing that should be made very clear.

Regarding preparation of spells, it also now says explicitly that wizards and elves need to have their spellbook to prepare them. Spellbooks were mentioned in Basic, but there wasn’t really any more detail about them.

If a spellbook is lost, it can be replaced, but that requires 1000 gp and 1 week of work for every spell level. Which is a huge undertaking once you get to higher levels, but nothing indicates that you would need the help of another wizard or hunt down scrolls of all your spells to get them into your new book.

The book assumes that all wizards or elves have a master or are members of a guild and every time they gain a new level they have to visit for a week to get trained in new spells. “Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells.” as it has been before. But I think there now seems to be much less of an encouragement to have the DM do it. Since the players can be expected to have figured out how the game works, that makes sense.
The number of spells that wizards and elves know is identical to the number of spells they can prepare. Which seems reasonable enough. Once you’re no longer 1st level!

The big new thing here are reversed spells. Wizards need to prepare the spell in either regular or reversed. Clerics get a lot more versatility this way, but wizards also benefit since they can essentially get two new spells in their spellbook for the price of one. Reversed cleric spells are a bit weird. Clerics prepare all their spells normally and can cast them either in regular or reversed order, but the book also says that this is only appropriate for life and death situations. Lawful clerics should always use the regular version and Chaotic clerics always the reversed version. Which I think makes very little sense. Light and darkness are both great spells for any cleric and why wouldn’t a Chaotic cleric want to get his allies and minions patched up to be ready for battle again? And also, since when has Chaos become mustache twirling evil? In Basic there was some ambiguity about Law and Chaos being only kind of like good and evil, but here it seems very heavy handed. If you allow clerics to use whatever version of their prepared spells they like, this becomes a really cool ability. Alternativly, a GM could decide to not cast in reverse but instead only prepare in reverse like wizards do.

I can see why Cook did it, but it’s a bit too simplistic black and white for me. It doesn’t encourage roleplaying, it impedes it. Also, this is the first time I actually saw alignment having an effect on anything in this game.

A short note informs that there is no spell stacking. Two haste spells at once do the same thing as one haste spell. However, spell effects do stack with magic item effects. The example given is an interesting one, being about the +1 to hit rolls from the bless spell and a +1 sword. It’s quite important to note that it says “spells that affect the same ability will not combine”. They don’t have to be the same spell. Even if two different spell both get you +1 to hit, you still get only a +1, not a +2.

Cleric Spells

Cure light wounds can be reversed to cause light wounds. It deals 2-7 damage now and still requires to touch the target with a regular attack roll, which doesn’t really sound useful at all for a guy who can use a mace.

Light can be reversed to darkness, which blocks all sight, but not infravision. Which is quite different from the 3rd edition spell.

Remove fear can be reversed to cause fear, which makes a single creature flee for 20 minutes. And that is any creature that does not explicitly have immunity against fear, which I believe none in B/X have. It also can be cast at a range of 120 feet, which is really pretty damn good for a 1st level spell.

Bless can also be reversed to blight, but that makes very little sense as it can only be cast on creatures not in melee combat and affects all enemies within 60 feet of the cleric. I guess you could hit archers and spellcasters in confined rooms, but still…

Snake charm is a new 2nd level spell and I have no idea why anyone would ever prepare it. All this spell does is to make snakes with Hit Dice equal to the clerics level stay in place motionless for 20-50 minutes or 2-5 rounds if in combat. Sure, poison is scary, but how often do you expect to run into snakes?

Continual light can also be reversed to continual darkness, which does just that and also blocks infravision, which makes it pretty cool. There’s lots of fun to be had with these in the lair of a Chaotic cleric.

Cure disease is a wonderful spell as it will really heal anything from lycanthropy to mummy rot and even green slime (more on that nasty stuff later). Reversing it to cause disease is quite nasty. The victim heals hit points at only half the normal rate and cure wounds spells won’t work at all, and after 2-24 days the person dies. A cure disease spell is the only way to remove it.

Looking at the other 3rd level spells, growth of animal might actually be a spell for clerics to consider. It doubles the size of an animal and also doubles its carrying capacity and damage for 2 hours. Using it to get treasure home seems rather lame though, but it probably something you can have endless fun with if you get the right pet to follow you around.

Striking increases the damage of a weapon by +1d6 for 1 turn. Which in this game is really quite a lot. Two days ago I made a 10th level party to test out some homebrew monsters I made and even with all their nice gear most of them did only 1d8+2 damage or less. Getting another 1d6 to that is no joke.

Create water is what d20 players would call “extremely abusable”. It creates a small spring from the ground that creates (quick conversion to sensible units) 189 liters of water per day. And for every cleric level above 8th it produces an additional 189 liters per day. Every day! Because this thing lasts forever until someone casts dispel magic on it. I think this is great. It won’t kill anyone instantly, but can lead to very interesting results in the long term. By which I mean “terrible consequences”.

At 4th spell level, the cleric also gets cure serious wounds which heals double the amount than cure light wounds does. Which isn’t cool at all, but with limited spell slots and no official rule to put spells into higher level slots, you might have to take what you can get. No mention if this one can also remove paralysis, but it would be strange if it didn’t.

Neutralize poison is also a really nice spells in this game. If you cast it within 10 rounds after a person was killed by poison, he is fine again with no damage at all. Since almost all poison is instant kill, this is pretty much necessary to make the spell useful at all.

Protection fro Evil 10′ radius works just like protection from evil, but now includes everyone within 10 feet of the cleric. +1 to saves and AC against enemies with an alignment opposite to the clerics, which isn’t too bad, given that it has a duration of 2 hours. It also can keep “enchanted and summoned” creatures at bay, though the only explicit examples given are elementals and living statues. Undead don’t appear to be included in that group. If anyone inside the area attacks one of these creatures with melee attacks, that one creature can get inside the area. Which still leaves a lot of options to rain doom upon those enemies while being pretty safe.

Sticks to snakes turns 2d8 sticks into snakes that obey the clerics commands. Someone had a thing with clerics and snakes here.

Dispel evil seems pretty powerful, but it’s 5th level after all. When the spell is cast, all enchanted or undead creatures within 30 feet must make a saving throw or be instantly destroyed or banished. If they make their save, they still have to flee out of the spells area. If the cleric stands still and does nothing else, he can keep the effect going for 10 minutes. If cast on a specific creature, it gets a -2 penalty to its saving throw. This is pretty heavy stuff. This thing can one-shot a vampire.

Not sure what they were thinking with insect plague. It creates a swarm of insects 60 feet in diameter that can move to anywhere within 480 feet of the cleric as long as the cleric concentrates on it and does nothing. The only thing the insects actually do is drive off creatures with 1 or 2 HD. You could probably use it to chase some guards away from their post for a few minutes without raising an alarm, but for a 5th level spell that seems rather underwhelming, and you’d need to know that you’ll use it like that in advance to consider preparing it.

And of course, the famous raise dead. The time limit after death is 4 levels for every level above 7th. A raised character has only 1 hp and can not fight and this condition remains for 2 weeks. Cast against undead it’s instead death unless a saving throw is made. If reversed to finger of death, it has the same effect on the living. The 120 feet range is probably about these later uses, but there are probably some situation where you might want to raise someone from a good distance away. Since the target is super weak, you can’t use it to make a giant trojan dire boar out of an actual dire boar that comes to life once inside the camp, but there’s surely other ways to have fun with it.

Unlike other editions, there is nothing like a cost in magic substances or a long casting time or anything like that. You could cast it every day, as long as long as you have fresh corpses. And you can also revive people against their will, which might have interesting applications.

Wizard spells

Haste is wonderful, and as some might say, completely broken. A range of 240 feet doesn’t really matter, though it might be useful in some reasons. What it does is to double the movement speed and number of attacks. Of 24 creatures! For 30 minutes!!! You can not cast two spells per round or use two wands, but it’s still an extremely powerful support spell. Get yourself 24 archer mercenaries and unleash feathered hell. Yes, their attack rolls are weak, but you get 48 arrows per round and on top of that they also run 60 feet per round, unless they start right next to an enemy. If they do end up next to an enemy somehow, they can then spend a round to get away 180 feet, which almost no enemy can cover in one round.
Dispel magic will easily remove it, but only in a 20×20 feet area so if they spread out after the spell is cast it won’t help much. If you have your party fighters going toe to toe with a caster or casting monster, that’s a bit more of an issue. But against hordes of relatively small creatures, this spell is wonderful. And available to 5th level wizards.

Invisibility 10′ radius works just like invisibility, but the objects and other creatures remain invisible as long as they stay within 10 feet of the target of the spell. If anything moves outside that area, it becomes visible and stays visible. That is still a 6m diameter sphere and you can get a lot of people inside that space. The players would need to get creative with figuring out how to stay together while being unable to see each other.

This version of lightning bolt is the bouncing back kind. It will go for 60 feet and turn into the direction of the caster if it hits a wall, but very interestingly it is not shot from the casters hand. The bolt can originate from anywhere within 180 feet of the caster so it’s very easy to not get hit by it, as long as you’re not in small and narrow rooms. You need at the very least 30 feet of empty space in any direction from you to cast it safely and inside buildings and dungeons that quite often might not be the case. But there’s probably a lot of funny things you could do with being able to pick the point of origin and then somehow using the back bounce to your advantage.

Now you might understand why protection from normal missiles is a thing. Getting shot by normal missiles is the main thing that can interrupt a spellcaster and ruin his spell. With a duration of 2 hours, it’s something probably every wizard wants. But at 3rd level, it’s going to take a pretty precious spell slot.

Growth of plants makes an area of 3000 square feet (280 m²) of normal brush or woods to become overgrown with vines and briars. The spell lasts until dispelled, and the duration is given as “special”, not as permanent. Which I assume means that it is meant to be impossible to cut, it will just grow back. The area covered by the plants becomes impassable to all but the largest creatures. That might sound excessive for vines and briars, but here on the edge of town where I live we have lots of huge brushes of blackberries. These are not like normal berry brushes. The best analog I can think of is a huge ball of very tightly knotted barbed wire. The neat little rows in your grandmothers garden may not look so bad, but when it grows wild it will just spread out like kudzu. Razor wire kudzu. Since it’s elastic, you can’t really chop a path or rip it out either. This is a good sized patch, now imagine 280 square meters of this.

If someone casts this on area you currently stand in, you probably really wouldn’t be able to get out at all.

Hallucinatory terrain creates the issules of a terrain feature or can conceal such a feature from sight. The range is 240 feet, which could be useful to play tricks on enemies, and the illusion lasts until touched by an intelligent creature. You could hide cave entrances like that for a very long time, assuming rabits and deer don’t count as intelligent.

Polymorph others can transform a creature into any other creature, as long as it does not have more than twice as many Hit Dice as the original. Hit points do not change, but the target gets all special abilitie. It will start to think and act like a creature of that type so using it on your allies requires some very careful thinking. Turning someone into a stone giant shouldn’t be a problem, but turning him into a troll is asking for trouble. The spell lasts until it is dispelled, which potentially makes it a really powerful buff. Of course, you also can turn an enemy into a fish and watch him die where he stands. …flops.

Polymorph self seems outright inferior in every way, except that it automatically ends after two to three hours without requiring a dispel magic spell and it allows you to assume very exotic forms while keeping your own mind in its normal state. But you don’t gain any special abilities. You only gain the appearance and purely normal physical abilities. You can’t even use your own spells while in this form. Flying around as a dragon and having huge teeth might be cool, but I would probably cast polymorph others on myself, turn myself into a gold dragon, and have all the fun with its breath and gold dragon spells. I believe there are a lot of assumptions in polymorph others that are not actually explained. Maybe they mean the target gets completely identical stats to the creature and hit points being the only thing that does not change. You can’t turn yourself into a stone giant wizard, just an ordinary stone giant with no special powers at all. Which makes sense as a game mechanic, but not when you think of it narratively.

Cloudkill is strange. Any creature with 4 Hit Dice or less must make a save or die. If they make a save they take only 1 point of damage. Anyone with 5 HD or more just takes 1 damage per round and that is it. Which is incovenient for wizards who don’t have many hp and can’t cast spells, but for fighters, dwarves, and clerics there isn’t really any reason to not just walk right in and bash everyone dead who isn’t already.

Conjure elemental is fun. It conjures an elemental that stays controlled by the wizard for as long as the wizard concentrates. The spell ends when the wizard sends it back or when it is killed. The wizard can move only at half speed while maintaining control and can neither fight nor cast other spells. And when he gets injured or fails a saving throw, he will also lose control. The elemental will then try to kill the wizard and fight its way through everyone in its path. Summoning one without an active protection from evil spell is quite the risk, especially when summoning it anywhere near enemies. But the payoff is nice. These things are 16 HD behemoths that can seriously wreck everyones day.

Death spell is exactly what it says on the tin! It will kill 4 to 32 HD of creatures with up to 8 HD each. The target area is a 60 feet cube and if you can’t select your prefered targets it’s not exactly a precision tool. But if you absolutely, positively got to kill that last motherfucker in the room, accept no substitute.

Invisible stalker might even be meaner than conjure elemental. Not nearly as strong as an air elemental, but these guys are completely invisible. You summon one, give it a task, and then it will be on its way and do it, no matter how long it will take. Of course they hate doing that for mortal wizards and so regularly try to find a way to perform their orders will still resulting in major inconvenience for the caster.

Lower water and part water seem like jokes. Lower water has a pretty big area, but all it does is lower the water level by half for 100 minutes. When would you ever want to prepare that if you could prepare disintegrate or conjure elemental instead? Part water lasts for one hour and creates a 10 feet wide path to walk along the bottom of a river or lake. But it only has a length of 120 feet, which is barely enough to cross a lower mid-size river. You can collapse it at will, so you might use it as a trap, but I doubt many enemies would attempt to risk it because it would be pretty obvious that exactly this kind of thing could happen to them.

Even though wizards only get 12 spells for each of their 6 levels and clerics only 6 for their five levels (8 for 1st and 2nd), there’s still quite a lot being offered here. The cleric list might look rather underwhelming to anyone who played a CoDzilla as there aren’t any self-buffs except bless and striking, but if you think a bit outside the box and approach problem solving in other ways than combat, there still is a decent numbers of options there.

I am not a fan of the D&D magic system and have been using alternative magic systems for years (mostly based on the wonderful Expanded Psionic Handbook for 3rd edition), but as they go, this one looks pretty okay. If you have to play with spell slots, these spells are very nice options to fill them with.

Part 4: The Adventure

This is mostly rules for wilderness movement, nothing really surprising here. Movement in the wilderness is three times faster than in a dungeon, which is of course still ridiculously slow. 8 meters per minute may happen only in the most densest jungles, but here that’s the speed for walking on lawns. For some reason the maximum range of spells is also trippled. Or actually, for no reason at all. It just is.

Traveling speed per day is 18 miles for a lightly loaded group and 27 miles when using roads, which I believe is relatively realistic.

There are also price lists for various types of mercenaries and specialists the players may hire, with their wages given in gold pieces per month.

Mercenaries are quite cheap and most cost only 5 to 10 gp for regular guard duty and twice as much when going to war. Elves generally cost twice as much as humans, and dwarves are about 50% more expensive, which is strange as they don’t seem to have any different abilities. Might have to do with “elves can only hire elven mercenaries” and “dwarves can only hire dwarven mercenaries”. Because how could the game be fun for everyone involved if we wouldn’t kick all nonhuman player characters in the shins at every opportunity? In TSR games, humans must objectively be superior to all demihuman characters at everything all the time. If you want to play a fancy shmancy elf or dwarf, you need to be punished for your obviously wrong choice.

There are no stats for mercenaries anywhere, so I would assume they all have 1d8 hit points and the attack chance and saving throws of “normal man” in the relevant tables.

Specialists can get fantastically expensive. An armor costs 100 gp per month and you have to have one in your pay for every 50 mercenaries you have. The others are a lot more expensive, going to 1000 and 2000 gp per month. Peasants who do dirty work get nothing, but those fancy people in their ivory towers get payed a hundred times more for much less demanding work. What a proper capitalist game.

Part 5: The Encounter

Here we are informed that in outdoor areas all movement is trippled. Why you can move three times as fast in muddy grass as you do on a nice flat stone floor is not explained. It just is!

When encountering wandering monsters, their number should be in the range given in parentheses. Which in Basic we were told is the number for lair. If you stick to the letters of the word here, it doesn’t make much sense. Why would whole village always move around as a single group when patroling and hunting? It makes much more sense to say “you spot a village in the distance” and then have the players encounter a patrol or two in the surrounding area. But it doesn’t say that either.

Encounter distances are much larger, generally between 40 and 240 meters. Which I guess is reasonable to spot a small village ahead.

Regarding surprise, it says that the distance is 10 to 40 meters “if either side is surprised”. Doesn’t that have to be “if both sides are surprised”? Can you say it like this in American English?

Regarding evasion, it says “In the wilderness, parties with surprise may always avoid an encounter if desired”. Basic was a bit fuzzy about that, but it probably makes some sense that you can’t easily get out of the way quitely as someone is approaching in a dungeon. If a party is spotted by still wants to run away, it’s getting slightly more complicated and there’s a little table that gives the chance of shaking the pursuers off based on the size of both groups. The table is structured in a somewhat unconventional way but still perfectly readable. If they can’t shake the monsters, it’s a chase. If the players are faster, they can easily get away. If they are slower, there’s a 50% chance of being caught and a 50% chance of making another evasion roll. I would assume the frequency of checks is once per turn, but it also says that players might be chased for many days until successfully slipping away, which would seem quite unlikely if you make something like 150 checks per day.

However, there is a short list that goes down the steps for traveling in the wild for one full day, which looks very similar to the list for exploring a dungeon every turn in the Basic Set. So perhaps you’re supposed to roll once per day.

Combat rules are said to be the same is in the Basic Set, but the rules for moving in melee combat are reprinted. But I can’t find any difference between the Expert and the Basic rules. The paragraphs are completely identical. What is this trying to tell us?

Damag to equipment from special attacks is given a very simple rule. If the character survives, the gear is intact. If he is killed by a fireball or something similar, all mundane gear is destroyed. Any magic items make a saving throw with the same chances that the characte had, and they gain a bonus to the roll equal to any +1 or +2 they might have in their name.

You can now fight unarmed, which deals 1d2 damage plus your strength modifier and works like any other attack in any other way. This does have a weird affect on the gauntlets of ogre power from the Basic Set, though. The gauntlets let you make unarmed attacks dealing 1d4+0 damage, but if you would make a normal unarmed attack with Strength 18, you would deal 1d2+3 damage, which is clearly superior.

I believe I did not mention flaming oil in the Basic Set, but it’s reprinted here so I am using this opportunity to do it. The only difference in the description is that mummies are also mentioned as a type of undead affected by it. Oil is pretty good. When thrown at a creature and set on fire, it deals 1d8 points of damage for 2 rounds, which is a pretty huge amount of damage. If you throw it at the ground it creates a puddle about a meter across which burns for 10 minutes. Still not bad, especially when you can force enemies to stand in it. Throw a few more flasks and you can cover a decent area. Of course, unless you’re in a purely stone dungeon, all kinds of things could also catch fire.

Which is good. “If in doubt, set something on fire.”

The morale rules are also reprinted at almost full length but with a few sentences removed that are not strictly necessary to understand it. Why is it here? Did Cook think that these things are something GMs might have to look up more often than other parts and wanted to enable them to still have all the information they need in a single book instead of two?

Not really much new on these four pages except the procedure for a day of wilderness travel and how to escape pursuers in the wild. The rest are expanded tables for saves and attack rolls and a lot of copied text from Basic.

Part 6: Monsters

At 15 pages, you get another very considerable load of monsters, which brings the total count to something around 200. Lots of classic D&D monsters like basilisks, displacer beasts, the same six giants as from the 3rd edition monster manual, invisible stalker, wraith, and wyvern. What is quite interesting is the notable abscence of some other creatures that are now widely seen as fundamental parts of D&D. Beholders did get added with the Companion set in 1983, but there’s no mind flayers, no aboleths, no yuan-ti, no mimics, no kuo-toa, no drow, and no demons and devils. Mind flayers, kuo-toa, and drow had been around in AD&D since 1978 and yuan-ti had been created also in 1980 also by David Cook. Aboleths first appeared later in 1981 for AD&D (also created by Cook). The Fiend Folio for AD&D appeared in the same year, and to my knowledge none of its creatures ever made it into BECMI, which means no slaads or githyanki either.

There are actually quite a number of monsters unique to BX/BECMI of which some sneakily made it into 3rd edition. Though those might actually have been picked from the very late Mystara monster book for AD&D.

Part 7: Treasure

There are six more pages of magic items, and since the descrptions are all very brief, there’s actually quite a lot of them. +3 weapons do appear on the random item charts, but the chance for them is extremely rare. The vast majority of magic weapons is +1 with various special abilities.

There are two whole pages for creating intelligent swords, a concept that never appealed to me and which I’ve only seen used once in Baldur’s Gate II.

The Protection from Magic scroll is quite interesting. It creates a 10 feet radius area around the user that last 10 to 40 minutes and into which no spells or spell effects can enter, and also not leave. Casting spells inside the area on other targets inside the area appears to be still possible, though.

The Ring of Regeneration seems very powerful as it heals 1 hp per round. Which would be 60 hp per turn and few player characters would ever have much more than that. If you got one, you can get your whole party back to full health within an hour or so.

In the Basic Set, wands could only be used by wizards and staves only be used by clerics, which was a nice idea. Here in the Expert Set that rule doesn’t apply and each wand or staff is identified as either being usable by wizards or by clerics. Since both Sets were written and printed at the same time, I don’t understand why they would do such a thing.

The other items are mostly quite nice and interesting, but there’s almost nothing among them that just increases any of your characters numbers. They are mostly about doing new things, not doing existing things better.

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information

The idea of Ability Checks, which was hidden in the very back of the Basic Rules, is repeated here again in a much more prominent position.

Wizard and cleric players get the option to research new spells. Such spells require approval of the GM and creating them takes 1000 gp and 2 weeks for every spell level.

At 9th level they can also create magic items. Which finally allows them to make scrolls instead of playing russian roulette with scrolls they find on adventure. Which by now doesn’t matter anymore since a 9th level cleric can simply raise anyone who gets killed by a scroll or remove any other curse recieved from looking at a cursed scroll. Creating scrolls takes as long as researching spells but only half the gold. Sure, scrolls are great, but it doesn’t really seem like a good option unless the party is taking a break for a few months. Other items regularly take several months to make. Yeah, you can kinda do it, but it doesn’t really seem practical.

One of the major new things about the Expert Set is that 9th level characters can now buy and build castles. Why exactly do you have to be 9th level to do that? If you got the money, why can’t you buy them or hire workers? There’s a list of prices for several types of walls and towers, but some of the notes just don’t make any sense. A tower with a 20 feet base and 30 feet height costs 15,000 gp. So far so good.

The cost for a tower is normal as long as its height does not exceed it’s base width, but building higher costs twice as much and it can not be higher than twice the base width. So how much does a 30 feet high tower cost now?

The whole section on building castles takes up a little bit more than half a page. There’s not really any mention of what you’d do with a castle, except that you can have one. Settlers can be attracted to the land around your castle and “will pay taxes (10gp per year or whatever the DM decides)”. Which to me reads like “10 gp per year or whatever”. How many settlers? How do you get them? What do you do with them?

This part of the game is completely underdevelopped and there is nothing there but “At 9th level you can build a castle and it costs this much”. My suspicion is that castles really only exist at this point to have some way how players can spend their huge piles of gold they carried out of the dungeons they had been to to get XP from them. Money doesn’t really have any use in Expert once you cashed in your XP for getting it.

Another page is about designing a wilderness. Which I guess might be somewhat useful to new GMs who don’t have any clue how to begin that process. Draw a map, place some towns, place some dungons. New encounter tables for wandering monsters at higher levels and in the wild, but much more it really doesn’t have to say.

There’s a sample map that later grew into the Mystara setting and a map on ship combat, and that’s the end of the book.

The Expert Set is new spells, new items, and new monsters, and in that regard it delivers pretty well. In as far as expanding the dungeon crawling game into a game of wilderness explorations it’s kind of a dud. There isn’t really anything much useful there, other than introducing the concept of hex maps instead of square maps.

Not that I am a fan of domain government subsystems like ACKS does it. This is all stuff I would personally just handwave in my own campaigns. But from all the hype the Expert Set often gets, I had expected something much more exciting. It’s a perfectly servicable expansion to advance Basic characters above 3rd level, but that’s really all it is.

Some closing thoughts

The Good

  • Character creation is really fast. Once you know what you’re doing you can have a character ready to play in under 5 minutes.
  • Character sheets are short. They only tell you the most basic things and all the little background and flavor detailed are left entirely to how you play your character. It is not considered to make such a difference that it changes the characters stats.
  • Modifiers for high and low ability scores are uniform, making it very easy to have them all memorized very quickly.
  • Saving throws are a fixed number based on class level, reducing some math and avoiding DC/save bonus arms races.
  • Only three types of armor which all just have a single armor rating and no other stat.
  • No proficiencies for weapons and armor with very little restrictions, except for the wizard.
  • Since many protection spells last for an hour or two, they are very useful for more than just a single fight (or half a fight, as it sometimes is in 3rd edition).
  • Cure light wounds removes paralysis.
  • Many other spells have nice versatile uses.
  • Easy encumbrance system.
  • XP for gold. It encourages players to work towards the primary goal of the game (treasure hunting) instead of seeking out unnecessary fights to progress faster.
  • Explicit statement of magic items having no price and not being for sale anywhere.
  • Wandering monsters are explained very well. Much better than the common nonsensical misconception about them. Making retreat and monsters that are willing to negotiate part of the main rules was a very good move.
  • Really like the initiative system.
  • No grid combat. No fiddling with positioning and situational modifiers.
  • Monster stat blocks are very short and special abilities explained very quickly and easy to handle in play. Creating custom monsters is childs play and can be done in 3 minutes.

The Bad

  • Since races are treated as classes, you can’t have a dwarf cleric or a halfling thief. This can easily be fixed if you want it, either by ignoring race or creating custom dwarf cleric and halfling thief classes in a few minutes, but I see no benefit of doing it the way it is done here.
  • Wizards get only one spell at 1st level and no option to use ranged weapons, even though they have extremely low hit points and no armor. Ranged weapon proficiency is the least that should be done to improve them.
  • Chances for thief skills start way too low at first level, stay low very long, and then suddenly increase rapidly once the thief is already very good. With only 1d4 hit points and leather armor at 1st level, the odds for pulling any of these dangerous stunts off should be at least 50% or higher.
  • Read magic required to unlock found scrolls between adventures instead of being able to use them immediately.
  • Chance for cursed magic items that can potentially be fatal among randomly generated treasure is way too high.

The Ugly

  • The D&D magic system. Spell slots never work for me.
  • Calculating the result of attack rolls. The odds for a hit are perfectly fine, but the way to calculate hit or miss are needlesly complex.
  • Saving throw categories.
  • Alignment. Is less obstrusive and confusing than in any other editions, but it’s still there.
  • Why no edged weapons for clerics? No reason for that.
  • Tracking time and progress outside of combat is weird, it just seems 10 times slower than you’d expect.
  • Advice for creating wilderness settings extremely rudimentary. (Though the module The Isle of Dread that came with the Box Set was a wonderful introduction to how such a thing could look in practice. However, it has not much explanation of how you do it, it only shows what it looks like.)
  • Castles serve no other functions than letting players spend the huge amount of treasures which they have hoarded over the course of the campaign.

My overall oppinion is that this game has a wonderful framework, which is perhaps my favorite of all the many games I’ve seen. But looking back at it three decades later, it feels like a prototype made from scrap parts, which now needs one additional step of actually turning it into a sleek production model made from high quality components. It’s a great concept and design, but assembled in a way that is clunky, and admitedly done somewhat shoddy I have to say. But since the fixes are so easily done, I still really like it a lot. I just wouldn’t ever consider playing it out of the box and only show it to my players after a quick 30 minute conversion.

One thought on “Reading through Cook Expert (1981)

  1. Roxysteve

    Plant Growth: Never mind blackberries, take a rose briar and grow that. I cut one out of a weedy patch of garden last month that had been allowed to grow for two months. It had rock-hard stems with iron nail-like thorns and those stems were the thickness of my pinkie finger. And I have fat fingers. Handling, even with gloves and a specialized pruning shear was a nightmare. The briar is still in the ground too. I couldn’t get the blasted thing uprooted.

    I never owned AD&D or the basic set, but I started playing D&D with the White Box set back in ’75 and the Beholder and Mind Flayer date from that edition. The Beholder was part of the Greyhawk supplement (and was on the cover) and the Mind Flayer came with the Psionic rules in Blackmoor if I remember correctly. No-one I knew played a game with psionics more than once because they made the game a “roll a character, step outside the city walls and die by Mind Flayer” affair. No psionics meant no Mind Flayers. The Monk class from that same supplement was popular though. For a while every party had at least one Kwai Chon Kaine.

    “You see four bandits sitting around a camp fire. You have surprise.”
    “I charge and attack with my sword”
    “I charge and attack with my flail”
    “I sneak and attack with my trusty daggers”
    “I leap over everyone else and karate-chop the nearest bad guy in the windpipe” 8o)

    I enjoyed reading this. I’m always amazed at how much thought some put into RPG game mechanics when the vast majority of players don’t seem to be able to read more than half a page of the player manual for comprehension these days. Your comments were insightful and interesting, even to one who never played the version you describe.

    Reply

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