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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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.
True. I guess my surprise is the sales as compared to AD&D, which always seemed to dominate in presence, especially in Dragon magazine, which was probably one of the biggest communal experiences for players in the age before the internet.
 

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G

Guest 7034872

Guest
True. I guess my surprise is the sales as compared to AD&D, which always seemed to dominate in presence, especially in Dragon magazine, which was probably one of the biggest communal experiences for players in the age before the internet.
I suspect you and I both have a kind of unconscious selection bias on this. We're the ones who really got into the game after discovering it, so the people we hung out with tended also to be gonzo over D&D, right? In that group, AD&D naturally dominated and was considered "more serious" than Basic. But we weren't even interacting much with all those casual players who picked up the red box Moldvay set, let's say, goofed around with it, and then went and did something else fun with their time.

Might it be as simple as that?
 

Reynard

Legend
True. I guess my surprise is the sales as compared to AD&D, which always seemed to dominate in presence, especially in Dragon magazine, which was probably one of the biggest communal experiences for players in the age before the internet.
I think it actually helps explain the crash. It is evidence that a lot of people who tried the game or were introduced to it by way of Basic did not stay with the hobby or "progress" to AD&D.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Ah, thank you. I knew the name sounded familiar...something about the graph gave me the impression that it was an internal TSR thing.

EDIT: Dang. It looks like that tragic story really was the launching pad for D&D. Sales quadrupled in just one year.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
True. I guess my surprise is the sales as compared to AD&D, which always seemed to dominate in presence, especially in Dragon magazine, which was probably one of the biggest communal experiences for players in the age before the internet.
The thing to keep in mind that for most games (and I mean games in general here) there's always a divide between the casual player who enjoys the game and the hardcore player who really gets into it. Settlers of Catan is huge in the board game world, but how many households own all of the expansions and how many just own Catan and it sits on the same shelf as their Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble games and they'll pull it out for family game night or when friends come over? (And even with Scrabble - there's the players who will play those games as a social activity, and then there are the players who will compete in tournaments. Almost every game has their hard core - I'd say kids games like CandyLand are the exception but who knows? Someone would probably point me at a Battle Royale CandyLand tournament where the players play to the death or something).

So when we're looking at these numbers we're looking at the "core" books - which from what we know are where the bulk of the sales were. But what we're not seeing is the long tail of purchases from the hard core folks in the game. Despite my love for BECMI I would be willing to bet that if we look at annual sales of AD&D branded supplements and compared them to D&D branded supplements, the AD&D group would be selling more units per product than the D&D ones[*]. Because I will bet there are more sales of just a Basic Set and then no further purchases than there were sales of a PHB and then no further purchases, meaning that there were more of the hard core gaming folks who would spend money on the game beyond their initial purchase in the AD&D group than in the D&D group.

[*] I'd be willing to be this because, despite TSR being just horribly mismanaged, if it's the case that both the D&D boxed sets were outselling AD&D books and D&D supplements were also outselling AD&D supplements then their management practices move from being just simple mismanagement and into utterly incomprehensible nonsense out of a Lovecraft novel written for accountants. It would require some real non-Euclidean accounting to justify it.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
So when we're looking at these numbers we're looking at the "core" books - which from what we know are where the bulk of the sales were. But what we're not seeing is the long tail of purchases from the hard core folks in the game. Despite my love for BECMI I would be willing to bet that if we look at annual sales of AD&D branded supplements and compared them to D&D branded supplements, the AD&D group would be selling more units per product than the D&D ones[*]. Because I will bet there are more sales of just a Basic Set and then no further purchases than there were sales of a PHB and then no further purchases, meaning that there were more of the hard core gaming folks who would spend money on the game beyond their initial purchase in the AD&D group than in the D&D group.

[*] I'd be willing to be this because, despite TSR being just horribly mismanaged, if it's the case that both the D&D boxed sets were outselling AD&D books and D&D supplements were also outselling AD&D supplements then their management practices move from being just simple mismanagement and into utterly incomprehensible nonsense out of a Lovecraft novel written for accountants. It would require some real non-Euclidean accounting to justify it.
They still owed a percentage to Dave Arneson on the whole D&D line (as opposed to AD&D) though, right? If so, that cuts into their profits on that line and incentivizes them to keep pushing AD&D even if it wasn't a clear sales favorite over D&D. I know a lot of us dedicated players started out with D&D and then transitioned to the "real game" AD&D. I wonder how much TSR deliberately cultivated that phenomenon.
 

Reynard

Legend
They still owed a percentage to Dave Arneson on the whole D&D line (as opposed to AD&D) though, right? If so, that cuts into their profits on that line and incentivizes them to keep pushing AD&D even if it wasn't a clear sales favorite over D&D. I know a lot of us dedicated players started out with D&D and then transitioned to the "real game" AD&D. I wonder how much TSR deliberately cultivated that phenomenon.
I am pretty sure that was over. Didn't they settle with an expiration date? The dates are fuzzy from the Game Wizards because I listened to it.
 


Jer

Legend
Supporter
They still owed a percentage to Dave Arneson on the whole D&D line (as opposed to AD&D) though, right?
That's my understanding - IIRC the lawsuit settlement in '81 declared that Arneson got royalties on the AD&D core books, but I think it was just the core books (bolstered by the fact that Arneson sued for royalties on the Monster Manual 2 because he thought it should be considered a core book and TSR thought since it only contained new material that he'd never been involved with it shouldn't - IIRC the court agreed with Arneson).

So it's possible that even if the D&D books sold better, they'd want to push AD&D anyway since they didn't have to pay out as much on supplemental material on it.

I am pretty sure that was over. Didn't they settle with an expiration date? The dates are fuzzy from the Game Wizards because I listened to it.
No - they stopped publishing D&D and only published AD&D so they didn't have to pay Arneson royalties anymore. I believe it was Jim Ward who claimed that post-bankruptcy. Peter Adkinson finally ended the nonsense when he bought TSR's assets and bought Arneson's ownership in D&D in exchange for a large check. (I'm also unclear if they just "decided" that 2e AD&D was a different game and stopped paying Arneson on his court-ordered AD&D royalties then or if the AD&D side had an expiration date or if they actually kept paying him on core books until they went bankrupt. Only the last of those choices would surprise me tbh.)
 

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