TSR Dungeons and Dragons Expert Rules Boxed Set Review

Hey Stat Rollers, Bill with Roll Stats and it is great to be back in the saddle again. Back in front of you all, back where I belong! Knee-deep in the stat roller community! and before we get into the TSR D&D Expert Rules Boxed Set Review, I just want to take a minute and say thanks for the warm welcome back. You all have been great, and I do appreciate all of your concerns while I was gone. 2019 was a year… I’ll give it that. But, it’s in the books now and the sky is the limit for the roaring ’20s!

Anyway, I am back! So, today I want to take a look at the long-promised, but never delivered TSR D&D Expert Rules Boxed Set Review. This rules set was published in 1981 by TSR Products, and edited by Zeb Cook (David “Zeb” Cook) and Steve Marsh. This boxed set took characters from fourth through the fourteenth level in the B/X system. If you haven’t had a chance to see the D&D Basic Boxed Set Review that I did about a year ago you might want to have a look now. If you’re interested in this, you’re going to be interested in that, as it covers the 1981 D&D Basic Tom Moldvay rules.

This is going to be a deep dive into the B/X D&D Expert Rules. I’m going to give you my opinion of the rules, tell you why I love them so much, tell you what I dislike about them, and dive deep into this rules set from TSR, published in 1981, stock number 1012. I do have to say this is not my original set. My original set was destroyed, lost to the annals of time. Something that I’ll get into in a minute. I purchased this set on eBay, and it’s in pretty good shape. The only real major damage in this box is a razor cut, which I’m guessing happened when it was initially opened. Other than that the box is in really good shape. I purchased it on eBay for a nominal amount of money. It wasn’t that expensive, I expected it to be a lot more expensive based on the condition. It was advertised as an original set, with all of the original contents inside. It is not though, and I’ll tell you why we’ll get into that in a minute too.

So let’s dive in! What was included in the 1981 B/X D&D Expert Boxed Set:

  • (1) 64-page rule book
  • (1) Adventure Module – X1 Isle of Dread
  • (6) Polyhedral dice
    • (1) d20
    • (1) d12
    • (1) d10
    • (1) d8
    • (1) d6
    • (1) d4
  • (1) crayon
  • (1) Gateway to Adventure (Product Catalog)
  • Assorted RPGA marketing materials

Coincidentally, this is how I know the contents in this boxed set are not the original contents. I suspect that someone reconstructed this boxed set because they knew that this box was in good condition, so they’ve replaced the contents with newer contents. In other words, I doubt this module was the original. They purchased one that was in fairly good condition. This doesn’t appear to have been used much at all (if any). But this is how I know that this is not the original X1 Isle of Dread. Look at the picture below.

See the slight bending of the module within the box? The module is slightly bent as they forced it into the box. That’s because this particular module is not the original. This module is a full-sized module which was purchased separately. The modules that were included in the boxed sets were slightly smaller than a full-sized book. So that is how I know this wasn’t the original module, this module was purchased separately.

It doesn’t matter to me. I mean obviously, if you’re a hardcore collector you’re going to want to make sure that it is all original contents, but to me, I’m fine with it because I purchased it specifically because the box was in good condition, but also because this rule book is in amazing condition! I purchased it to replace my original rule book. Still, this is something to watch for if you’re looking to purchase one of these boxed sets on eBay. You might want to ask them if it is the original module, and if it comes bent like this, you’ll know it wasn’t. You’ll know they reconstructed it.

But enough of that, let’s dig into the actual rules. This rule book as a follow up to the B/X D&D Basic Rules follows the Tom Moldvay layout. So, the players’ section, parts 2 through 5 introduces rules for adventuring in the wilderness as well as new weapons and equipment. It expands the spell lists for Clerics, Magic-Users, and Elves, as well as introducing the concept of reversed spells, which was cool because some spells could be cast with a result opposite to their normal effect. This section also introduces the concept of name level. When a character reached the 9th level (or name level) they were permitted to build a stronghold and begin attracting followers.

Again, following the Basic Moldvay layout, parts six through nine are the Dungeon Master’s section, providing details for creating and running both wilderness adventures, and a long-term campaign, along with combat rules for various wilderness terrain. The lists of magical items and monsters are also expanded and DM’s who wanted further expansion was directed to the B/X Companion Set which was never actually released for this rules system but was released later under the re-revised BECMI (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal) system.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 1: Introduction

This rule book begins with some tables from the TSR D&D Basic Rules as a refresher and some guidelines on how the book should be used. As I said, the rulebook follows the same layout as the basic rule book and this is actually why I don’t have my original set. The rule book suggests that since the layout was essentially the same you could cut up your Basic and Expert books and put them together in a three-ring binder to combine the two books into one larger more comprehensive rule book covering levels 1-14. like C so both of these sets had. Trust me on this it wasn’t a good idea. If you have these books don’t cut them up. I don’t care how careful you are, you’re going to end up losing pages. They’re going to tear, they’re going to come loose, it’s just not a good idea. That’s what happened to my original boxed sets. I lost my original sets because I was stupid enough to cut them up and put them into a three-ring binder and ended up losing all of the pages. Sigh…

Anyway, the introduction ends with a section dedicated to players who had the Holmes Blue Cover version of the Basic Rules. It explains the changes between that version (The Holmes Version) and this version, in case you didn’t start with the Pink D&D Basic boxed set. This was the first time that I had heard of the Holmes Basic Rules and it made me realize that this game that I was playing, this was an extension of a game that had far more history and legacy than I realized. I mean I was 12, I didn’t understand editions, or revisions and the like. I mean to me it was a game. I didn’t realize that there had already been multiple versions of the game. This was my first introduction and this section is really what drove home the fact that this game does have a legacy. That this game does have history. That it’s larger than just a game, larger than just a book.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 2: Player Character Information

This section is the continuation and progression of the character classes. Basic D&D covered levels 1-3. The Expert set continues this progression to the 14th level. Well, for human classes anyway. So, tables designating progression through the 14th level are included for Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, and Thief, including expanded tables for the Cleric ability to turn undead, and the Thieves abilities.

The designated name levels, so, the level that the PC has to reach to build a castle, a stronghold, or a fortress and begin attracting NPC retainers, hirelings and the like were also included. I know, I know, you thought that was Mr. Colville’s idea, right? Nope! It was here in B/X Expert! That ability to hit name level and begin to attract followers and build out a fiefdom of a sort was one of the coolest aspects of the TSR D&D Expert Rules. It made level progression, that is, wanting to gain levels, really cool, and not just about power gaming.

So as I said, only humans progressed to the 14th level, so this section also established the cap levels for the demi-human classes (Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings). Spoiler! Dwarves cap out at the 12th level. Elves cap out at 10th level. And the poor Halflings will only rise to the 8th level in this system. I think this is where my tendency towards human characters began. The demi-human races when I started playing were capped off at lower levels, so they couldn’t rise through the character progression the way that humans could. So I developed a preference for human characters and an active dislike for halflings. Poor Halflings, they got screwed in the B/X system.

Finally, this section ends with expanded weapons and equipment chart, with a heavy focus on transport (both water and land transport) as this rules set addresses wilderness adventuring and hex-crawling, something which wasn’t covered in the TSR D&D Basic Rules. None of that sort of transport equipment, none of that travel equipment was included in the previous Basic set, so the equipment list in the Expert set has much more of a focus transport equipment, the type of equipment that you need to get from place to place.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 3: Spells

This section is exactly what you’d expect, right? It’s an expansion of the spells from the TSR D&D Basic Rules, which includes a higher level, and more powerful spells for Clerics, Elves, and Magic-Users. It’s fairly straightforward with one very cool twist. It included rules for reversing spells. So, think casting Darkness instead of Light, or causing Light Wounds, instead of Curing Light Wounds, something which wasn’t available in the Basic Rules set at all.

I think the only complaint that I have with this section is just the overall lack of artwork. Although I love the black line artwork, I just wish there was more of it! So you would see what the spells look like when cast, as opposed to just imagining them. I think that this section in particular, as well as the monster section later on, really suffers from an overall lack of artwork. Again, not that the artwork included isn’t fantastic! I just want to see more of it, right?

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 4: The Adventure

This section introduces hex-crawl. It covers wilderness adventures and the various rules needed for travel and the like. This was my first exposure to hex maps. Before this D&D (at least to me) was essentially dungeon crawling. The game was moving from one dungeon to the next, kicking in the door, killing what was inside, and taking its stuff, right? Then, simply rinse and repeat. The TSR D&D Expert Rules set made just traveling to the dungeon half the fun, and twice as deadly! With the Expert rules set you didn’t even need a dungeon anymore! A haunted wood, a lonely mountain, a Forgotten island (Hint, hint! Spoiler alert for the included module X1) was now your destination.

This section has all the rules you need for hex-crawling. Think rules for time, scale, and movement. Rules for pursuit, evading pursuit and traveling through different terrains. Rules for waterborne and airborne travel, as well as rules for becoming lost. So, all of the rules you would need for the typical hex-crawl were born here. At least in terms of the B/X system, right? This is the first time that we had seen this. You didn’t see anything like this in the Basic set at all.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 5: The Encounter

Most of this section is a reprint of rules from the same section in the Basic rules because encounters in the wilderness are handled much the same way as they are in a dungeon. The main difference is that there’s a chance of becoming lost, greater distances are involved, and there are new evasion procedures.

There are some new additions like the sequence of events in a day, as well as new rules for aerial combat and bombing. But really except for the expanded saving throw tables, and the expanded THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) tables, it is just a repeat of what we saw in the TSR D&D Basic Rules.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 6: Monsters

Much like the spells section, this section is exactly what you’d expect. This is an expansion of the Basic monsters list, including a higher level and more powerful monsters to throw at your player characters. It’s fairly extensive, and in my opinion, offers more than enough options to keep your players challenged for literally years. But, if you need more you can always pull in 150 additional monsters that were available in the Creature Catalog. While this book is not a B/X book (it is a BECMI supplement) you can pull any of the monsters from this book into your B/X campaign with virtually no revisions or tweaks.

Again, like the spells section, the only complaint that I have with this section is the lack of artwork. Although this section does have more artwork than the spells section, I would have liked to see more of it! I love this style of artwork! I just want to see more! I would have liked to see a picture for every monster! I mean, I know that’s not possible, but if I had to make a complaint, that’s the only complaint that I would have. I just want to see more, more, more!

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 7: Treasure

This section covers the loot, right? It has extensive tables covering all of the treasure including coins, gems, jewelry, and magic items, everything that the party would find as they’re out adventuring.

The magic items available are wide-ranging and very cool. So, think swords, weapons, and armor, as well as rings, wands, and staves, plus a collection of the coolest miscellaneous magic items that you’re ever gonna see. But, the best part of this section was the new rules to create intelligent swords! Damn, those were good times! Finding an intelligent sword, a sentient sword with magical powers and abilities, an alignment, it’s own motivations, it was amazing! This was also new to the TSR D&D Expert Rules, we did not have these rules in the Basic set and this was mind-blowing. Having an intelligent sword, or a sentient weapon was a concept that I had never seen before, and it was a concept that I loved!

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 8: Dungeon Master Information

This section is really what you would consider the Dungeon Master’s Guide. These rules sets, the B/X rules sets, both the TSR D&D Basic Rules and the TSR D&D Expert Rules were set up as all-encompassing rule books. There were no core rule books. There was just one rule book. But even though it was only 64 pages long it encompassed Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and DMG. Part eight is the DMG portion of this rule book.

This section is the meat of the higher-level play, right? Hex-crawling, creating wilderness environments, and base towns, that sort of thing. There’s so much information packed into this section that it will make your head spin. It’s almost impossible to believe that so much information was packed in this section, based on the small number of pages, but it was!

This section starts with handling player characters, which includes what I think is a very slick, and probably the best way to handle skill checks, that makes the player stats mean something. Instead of determining an arbitrary DC and having the player character roll to beat it, this optional rule asked the DM to base a character’s chance of doing something on their stats. So, think Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, etc., and then have the player roll the stat number or less on a d20 to see if they succeed. I can’t tell you how much I love this mechanic. It streamlined and simplified things without having to add skills and feats, and things that didn’t matter. it made it so much easier to make a ruling on the fly, and facilitated quick gameplay, but didn’t make the player feel hindered, or that they didn’t have options. Their stats mattered. It was a great mechanic, and it’s one that I enjoyed, that I miss, and That I would like to continue playing with.

Then magical research and production provided rules for Clerics, Elves, and Magic-Users to research and create new spells and magic items. If the existing spell list was not enough for your players, or they wanted a new magic item they could go through the effort to create their new spell or create a unique magic item for their character.

After that are rules for castles and strongholds. This is what I was referring to earlier. This provided rules for establishing, building, and protecting a fiefdom for the player characters, once they reached name level. It included comprehensive costs, construction times and the like for accomplishing this. It was a comprehensive, but not overly complicated system for player characters to come up in the world, and establish themselves. It allowed them to begin not only changing the world that they lived in but to begin ruling, running and existing in their world!

After that comes the designing a wilderness section. This section breaks down how the DM can expand the area around dungeons, giving their players a whole world to explore. This took the game from a dungeon crawl concept to a larger world, a larger campaign world concept, and in just one page! The information here was succinct, it got your juices flowing, got your ideas flowing, and sparked creativity, but it didn’t define what it had to be. It sparked your imagination enough to allow you to see what a larger campaign world could be, it didn’t define what it should be.

So, once you design a wilderness campaign for your players to explore, you best believe that those players are going to encounter some wandering monsters while exploring that world. So the next section is filled with an expansive wandering monster, and wilderness encounter charts and tables, as well as the rules for using them. Wandering monsters became much more prevalent in the TSR D&D Expert Rules, as you would expect from a hex-crawl focused rules set. This could be, and really should be more deadly than a dungeon crawl, right? Because you had no idea what you were gonna happen upon in the wild, and the chances were that it was more powerful than you. The modern RPG concept of game balance was not a thing in B/X. In other words balanced encounters, game balance, making sure that all the classes were balanced, and that they were equal in power, making sure that all of the monsters that you encounter were balanced and equal in power, that wasn’t a concept that we played by, knew of, or even cared for. I mean half the fun of the game was the threat of death. You didn’t know what you were going to run into, and you better damn well be ready for it!

Finally, this section ends with an example of what a wilderness campaign could look like. You get an introduction to the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and the surrounding area and lands, along with a hex map, and a sample gnome lair. This was the genesis of the Known World, of Mystara. The TSR D&D Expert Rules introduced Mystara. It wasn’t even complete at this time, this was before the Gazetteers. This was simply a sample wilderness area that was included to show DMs what a wilderness campaign could look like, or might look like, but it was received so well that they ended up expanding it for BECMI and certainly through the gazetteers.

Hey! Speaking of the Known World, speaking of Mystara, if you’re interested in more information on Mystara, if you love Mystara as much as I do you should go check out Mr. Welch’s YouTube channel! He is a tome of living knowledge on the Known World, and he has a ton of videos covering Mystara, it’s culture, peoples, and lands.

TSR D&D Expert Rules Part 9: Special Adventures

This is a brand new section in the TSR D&D Expert Rules. There is no correlating Special Adventures section in the TSR D&D Basic Rules because it just covers waterborne adventures. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this section was added, as the module included in this boxed set is X1 – Isle of Dread. Regardless, it’s a very slick, and streamlined way of handling ship travel, and combat, and it’s something I think can be used in almost any setting or system. it’s laid out in a way that gives you enough information to be able to use it, without making it overly complicated.

The real beauty of the B/X rules, the reason that I love them so much, is not because they cover everything, but because they offer a framework for you to determine everything. I think that’s the true beauty of the system, and I think that’s why I love it so much. That’s why I encourage you all to check it out! Speaking of which, if you are interested in these rules you can certainly go on eBay and find a complete boxed set. The prices will range depending on the condition of the boxed set itself, but if you just want a PDF of the TSR D&D Expert Rules or a PDF copy of the TSR D&D Basic Rules they are available affordably, on DM’s Guild. I encourage you all to go and get the PDFs and see what you think. Give it a shot, really give it a shot and see what you think of this rules set. I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed. I think that you’re going to find it refreshing. I think you’re going to find it slick. I think you’re going to find it elegant. And, I don’t think you’ll find it limiting in any way. I think that you’re going to find the lack of predefined rules is freeing, it is not limiting. It leads to more options as opposed to less.

So, that was the TSR D&D Expert Rules, edited by Zeb Cook, published in 1981, by TSR products. I hope you can see why I love this rules system so much, and why I think this is the slickest, most elegant rules set ever created for Dungeons & Dragons. This edition (in my opinion) is the best Edition ever made. Certainly, there’s some nostalgia there. This is the system that I began with, this is the system that brought me into the game, and as I always say, your first edition is always the best Edition to you. You’re always going to love that Edition. However, even if I hadn’t come into the game with this Edition, I would still maintain that this is one of the best organized, easiest to pick up and run, and easiest to pick up and understand rules sets I have ever played. I have had more fun playing in this system than I have in any other edition of D&D to date. Moreover, I’ve had more fun playing this system than any other role-playing game I’ve ever played in my life.

I love this system, but I want to know what you think of it! Hit me up in the comments below. Let me know if you’ve played B/X before, what do you think about it, what’s best about B/X? What are its limitations? All systems have limitations, I completely agree with that but let’s talk through it! Also, if any of you are interested in playing in a B/X campaign hit me up in the comments down below. I’d love to run a B/X campaign! Let’s get a Roll Stats B/X campaign started! let’s start a Roll Stats B/X movement! I want B/X to come back, I love this system, and I want you to try it! Give it a shot, give it an honest shot and let me know what you think! Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

As always, may the dice roll ever in your favor!

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3 thoughts on “TSR Dungeons and Dragons Expert Rules Boxed Set Review

Add yours

  1. >”See the slight bending of the module within the box? The module is slightly bent as they forced it into the box. That’s because this particular module is not the original. This module is a full-sized module which was purchased separately. The modules that were included in the boxed sets were slightly smaller than a full-sized book. So that is how I know this wasn’t the original module, this module was purchased separately.”

    I’ve always wondered about this. I’ve seen the oversized X1s in the box a little too often to be confident they’re Frankenstein sets. What I do know is that TSR assembled box sets out of what parts were available, and they didn’t much care about little details like that. Just look at the Holmes D&D set printing list that the Acaeum put together. It’s chaos. But I have no proof of anything. So the default explanation is the X1s were added by former owners.

    Great write-up, really enjoyed it. Followed.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. That very well could be true. I suppose I never thought that TSR was guilty of putting the stand-alone print modules into the boxed sets. Also, thanks for the follow! Followed you back! Great store! I’m going to have to check it out 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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