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.


bdndyr.jpg


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.

anbd.jpg


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.)

combo.jpg


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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Reynard

Legend
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.


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.)
They published Basic D&D well into the 1990s.
 

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Jer

Legend
Supporter
They published Basic D&D well into the 1990s.
They cancelled the D&D line 1995 completely. IIRC Ward claimed after Wizards bought TSR's assets that that final cancellation was due to TSR finally deciding that they were done paying Arneson royalties on their products.

Looking at these numbers now though it might very well be that TSR decided that they couldn't afford to pay Arneson royalties. It was only 2 years after the cancellation of the D&D line that they had to declare bankruptcy.
 

Reynard

Legend
They cancelled the D&D line 1995 completely. IIRC Ward claimed after Wizards bought TSR's assets that that final cancellation was due to TSR finally deciding that they were done paying Arneson royalties on their products.
I think halfway counts as "well into" but there's no accounting for idioms.
Looking at these numbers now though it might very well be that TSR decided that they couldn't afford to pay Arneson royalties. It was only 2 years after the cancellation of the D&D line that they had to declare bankruptcy.
I will have to look it up. I was sure some deal expired by 1986, but maybe there was another case after that?
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I think halfway counts as "well into" but there's no accounting for idioms.
Sure, but if they cancelled it to stop paying him royalties it doesn't really matter when they cancelled the line (except for him, and when he stopped getting checks of course).

I will have to look it up. I was sure some deal expired by 1986, but maybe there was another case after that?
Maybe it was the AD&D one specifically? The D&D royalties were contractual and weren't part of a lawsuit, the AD&D ones would have been court ordered. Maybe they had a deadline?
 

Reynard

Legend
Sure, but if they cancelled it to stop paying him royalties it doesn't really matter when they cancelled the line (except for him, and when he stopped getting checks of course).


Maybe it was the AD&D one specifically? The D&D royalties were contractual and weren't part of a lawsuit, the AD&D ones would have been court ordered. Maybe they had a deadline?
Maybe. like I said, I listened to The Game Wizards which makes it a lot harder to just look up the part I was thinking of.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
[*] 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.
From what former TSR staffers have said...the finance side never gave game design sales number feedback, and just let them make whatever. They literally did not make decisions based on what was seelling.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
From what former TSR staffers have said...the finance side never gave game design sales number feedback, and just let them make whatever. They literally did not make decisions based on what was seelling.
You're right - I forgot about that.

I suspect the Random House Ponzi scheme they were running distorted the space-time of their finances. If you need to ship books to get money to pay back the money you were advanced on books that have been returned, you can probably make yourself think it doesn't matter what gets published so long as it gets you advance money.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Sidebar: Has anyone listened to the "When we were Wizards" podcast?
 

darjr

I crit!
Sidebar: Has anyone listened to the "When we were Wizards" podcast?
No, but I just subscribed.
 


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