Right on the heels of the Basic Edition D&D set, Frank Mentzer worked hard to also revamp the Expert set, which covered all levels from 4-14. While the Expert book had been released in an earlier edition, it suffered with the older Basic book of having a lack of certain worthwhile information.

I myself was an unfortunate purchaser of the older edition Expert book. I had received my revised Basic set not long after it had been released, and the new Expert set was not yet ready. Therefore, I ended up with the older style book. Quite frankly, it was a great disappointment. Most of the best rules, including detailed rules for strongholds and hirelings (soldiers, especially) were not present, at least not that I remember.

I can confirm this is likely the main thing that caused me to ditch D&D for Advanced D&D 1st Edition. The 1st Ed. DMG had the elements the Expert book was supposed to have, but didn’t. There was some minor conversion for me, but ultimately I found what I was looking for in the AD&D books that at the time was sorely lacking in the more spartan Expert book.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was coming back to TSR after a long hiatus, that I discovered the new Expert (and Companion) series that Mentzer had labored over. I lamented that I hadn’t the patience to wait awhile to pick these up, but given I was still relying on a toy store and a comic book store for all my game supplies, I did not always see the latest releases from the companies I would’ve liked to seen. I saw what these companies felt would sell well; an entirely different proposition.

The now-iconic Larry Elmore cover art and interior pieces were included and again I think this is one of the things I always use to identify “classic fantasy” role-playing. It was also very eye-catching and helped in reading through the book. Visual aids are always a bonus, but bad art can actually detract from even the most well-written game. I would hazard a guess that books like this are what spoiled the rest of us into believing that. Who said a book had to have artwork? Apparently, TSR did and gaming artistry boomed in earnest.

The set finally allows one of those newly-minted players or DM’s to make the leap from beginner (levels 1-3 in Basic) to something so much more. Experts? Not yet, they’re not, but gamers that moved to this level were committed, in more ways than one, and wanted the greater level of detail and investment in the system.

From a player’s point of view, there was a wealth of new spells, abilities and stronghold rules. Your character could become a true fantasy power house with the spell listings and your ability to hire as many underlings as that latest treasure hoard you looted allowed. Clerics could now actually flat-out destroy some undead instead of turn them. My favorite character was a cleric. Guess what he did a lot of after these levels.

The increase in detail was quite satisfying and allowed a player to develop a truly mature adventuring character. These were the people that great adventure stories wove around and often are the kind of characters you envision when you’re actually coming up with the idea of what sort of character you’re going to play.

From a DM’s point of view, this book was IT. Not only were the aforementioned more detailed character abilities listed, but you ended up with castles and strongholds (a must for any veteran character), a whole new array of monsters (including better dragons), and an introduction to D&D’s new Mystara setting.

Mystara by far and away is my favorite setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Greyhawk has its classic charm and the Forgotten Realms are truly epic with detailed history and nations, but Mystara, it was just so homey-feeling in its inception and execution. This was the stuff of classic fantasy novels. There were hints of intrigue, ways to really tie your characters into the Mystara campaign setting if you wished.

Of course, as most of you DM’s probably had, if you had your own campaign setting already, it was best only for a few plot ideas and maybe some ideas to tweak your own setting. And I might have done that, but for those who got hooked into Mystara (and I did), it was a great tie-in with the later X-series modules and future Gazetteers. This book allowed you to run a truly mature fantasy campaign (combined with the Basic book).

Possibly D&D’s only downside in these editions was every book built on the last one, so you really needed them all. That and the obvious old level-based mechanics with the old XP system I think is what caused people to look elsewhere oftentimes, even with TSR’s other systems (including AD&D and 2nd ed.), but there’s a certain nostalgia that can’t be denied with the Expert set and it’s why I have more than one copy of it as well…one to keep and one to play.