Basic D&D Was Selling 600,000+/Year At One Point

Recently Ben Riggs shared some sales figures of AD&D 1st Edition. Now he has shared figures for Basic D&D from 1979-1995, and during the early 80s is was selling 500-700K copies per year.

Ben Riggs' book, Slaying the Dragon, which is a history of TSR-era D&D, comes out soon, and you can pre-order your copy now.


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You can compare these figures to those of AD&D 1E in the same period. Basic D&D sold higher than AD&D's PHB and DMG combined for 4 years running, again in the early 80s.

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If you take a look at the overall sales from 1979-1995, here are the two beside each other (again, this is just PHB and DMG, so it doesn't include the Monster Manual, Unearthed Arcana, etc.)

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More actual D&D sales numbers!

Below you will find the sales numbers of Basic D&D, and then two charts comparing those to the sales of AD&D 1st edition. For those who don’t know, early in its life, the tree of D&D was split in half. On the one side there was D&D, an RPG designed to bring beginners into the game. It was simpler, and didn’t try to have rules for everything.
On the other side there was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s attempt to throw a net around the world and then shove it into rulebooks. The game was so detailed that it provided rules on how Armor Class changed depending on what hand your PC held their shield in. (It may also have been an attempt to cut D&D co-creator Dave Arneson out of royalties…)

I am frankly shocked at how well Basic D&D sold. Having discovered AD&D 2nd edition in the 90s, I thought of “Dungeons & Dragons” as a sort of baby game of mashed peas and steamed potatoes. It was for people not ready for the full meal that was AD&D. (I have since learned how wrong I was to dismiss the beauty of what Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Cook, et al created for us in those wondrous BECMI boxed sets…)

I figured that Basic D&D was just a series of intro products, but over its lifetime, it actually outsold AD&D 1st edition. (Partly because 1st edition was replaced by 2nd edition in 1989. I’ll start rolling out the 2nd ed numbers tomorrow FYI.) These numbers would explain why in a 1980 Dragon article Gygax spoke of AD&D not being “abandoned.”
Still, between 1980 and 1984, Basic outsold AD&D. The strong numbers for Basic D&D prompt a few questions. Where was the strength of the brand? Were these two lines of products in competition with each other? Was one “real” D&D? And why did TSR stop supporting Basic D&D in the 90s?

The only one of those questions I will hazard is the last one. A source told me that because TSR CEO Lorraine Williams did not want to generate royalties for Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, Basic D&D was left to wither on the vine.

I will also say this: TSR will die in 1997 of a thousand cuts, but the one underlying all of them was a failure of the company to grow its customer base. TSR wanted its D&D players to migrate over to AD&D, but what if they didn’t? What if they wanted to keep playing D&D, and TSR simply stopped making the product they wanted to buy? What if TSR walked away from what may have been hundreds of thousands of customers because of a sort of personal vendetta?

Tomorrow, I’ll post numbers for 2nd edition AD&D, and comparisons for it with Basic and 1st edition.

And if you don’t know, I have a book of D&D history coming out in a couple weeks. If you find me interesting, you can preorder in the first comment below!

Also, I'll post raw sales numbers below for the interested.
 

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Oh I own more than 3. But I only paid TSR for 3 (2 really - the first was a gift).

Finding cheap used copies of the Rules Cyclopedia in the early 00s was too good to pass up, even if I couldn't actually find anyone who wanted to play it.

(For me personally BECMI D&D will be my favorite D&D because it's so nostalgic. But unless I find other 50 year old grognards who grew up with BECMI instead of 1e I probably won't ever be able to actually run it again. Even my long term gaming group who are my age won't play any version of D&D older than 4e at this point. I've also tried with my 14 year old who loves 5e and it's tough to convince them that it's even the same game. But it was fun to see their reaction to the different XP tables for each class and race-as-class mechanics. One of these days I'm going to run them through a Palladium game and see if I can blow their mind even more)
Palladium, my second favorite game. Robotech, RIFTS, Beyond the Supernatural and the only Hero type game where everything was toned perfectly. Nightbane (Nightspawn until the lawsuit) was quite a fun game too.
 

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For awhile all editions were sold at toy stores such as toysrus. Once it moved mostly to book stores and most hobby shops (northeast America most hobby shops were hobbytown etc where it was model cars d&d etc ) I think that’s when basic mostly died. I was glad when thaco went away
 



Ramicus

Villager
Outsold it by a lot.

From memory.
1E phb 1 million

Basic red Box 1-1.5 million
Basic 1981 idk
Black box 600k

Basic combined oursold 1E 2 or three times over.
The red box alone outsold 1E. That excludes 1981, the black box (600k 1991 iirc).

Expert also sold a lot the CMI parts not so much.

Each major basic box outsold 2E both 3Es and probably 4E. 2E apparently sold 750k total.
Interesting nugget in here. Seems even in the 80s, interest in playing higher level PCs just didn't stick... even in BECMI! Companion covered levels 15-25...
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Interesting nugget in here. Seems even in the 80s, interest in playing higher level PCs just didn't stick... even in BECMI! Companion covered levels 15-25...

Nope I noticed that I. 90's while being new to d&d. Almost never made it to high level the few times we did it was fairly Monty haul/munchkin.

Most of the big selling adventures were level 1-8. Think the Drow ones may be the exception.

CMI not doing that well relative to B/X has been known about for a while.

Think Mentzer said if he redid BECMI again it would be 1-20.

B/X had the right idea anyway.

If one leveled at the expected rates you might hit level 36 sometime in the late 90's if you started 83-85.

Becoming an immortal legit 2035ish (level 1-36 4 times over).
 
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I have very little memory of how B/X was sold back in the early 80s. Was it primarily (or only) in the boxed sets? Was there any other form that it was sold in, rulebook-wise? I'm frankly stunned by the sales numbers compared with AD&D, because AD&D was probably 90% of what I remember seeing on hobby shelves during that time, both 1e and 2e. Apparently, there must have been a line in the back of the store of customers waiting to buy B/X every time I was there and didn't notice, ha ha.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I have very little memory of how B/X was sold back in the early 80s. Was it primarily (or only) in the boxed sets? Was there any other form that it was sold in, rulebook-wise? I'm frankly stunned by the sales numbers compared with AD&D, because AD&D was probably 90% of what I remember seeing on hobby shelves during that time, both 1e and 2e. Apparently, there must have been a line in the back of the store of customers waiting to buy B/X every time I was there and didn't notice, ha ha.

Perspective a couple of thousand stores selling 1 copy a day 5 days a week is 520k a year. In a country of 200+ million.
 

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