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.
 

log in or register to remove this ad


log in or register to remove this ad

MGibster

Legend
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.
A Ponzi scheme is a type of investment fraud and is illegal. TSR's failure in regards to their relationship with Random House wasn't illegal nor was it unethical, but the business failed because of a series of bad business decisions made possible by that relationsip. Lorraine Williams gets enough blame for for the failure of TSR, which is deserved I think, but she didn't engage in fraud.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
A Ponzi scheme is a type of investment fraud and is illegal. TSR's failure in regards to their relationship with Random House wasn't illegal nor was it unethical, but the business failed because of a series of bad business decisions made possible by that relationsip. Lorraine Williams gets enough blame for for the failure of TSR, which is deserved I think, but she didn't engage in fraud.
Ponzi is I guess the wrong word - they were cranking out product to get an advance from Random House in year X+1 to pay back Random House for the advance Random House gave then in year X. What kind of scheme is it when you borrow money from one person to pay back another person you owe and then keep repeating that cycle until it collapses? Cause it's that, except that the two creditors were the same individual in this case.
 

MGibster

Legend
Ponzi is I guess the wrong word - they were cranking out product to get an advance from Random House in year X+1 to pay back Random House for the advance Random House gave then in year X. What kind of scheme is it when you borrow money from one person to pay back another person you owe and then keep repeating that cycle until it collapses? Cause it's that, except that the two creditors were the same individual in this case.
I won't argue that it wasn't a scheme, only that Williams didn't engage in fraud. The bad business decision was the assumption that sales would continue to be gang busters for TSR. As long as they were selling, their arrangement with Random House wasn't going to bite them in the butt. Plus there were a myriad of other bad business decisions including alienating their fiction writers and some of their business partners including both Random House and DC Comics.
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph (Your Grace/Your Eminence)
Really, my personal view of Williams as a "crooked businessperson" stems almost entirely from the unprofitable Buck Rogers license which TSR pumped money into long after it was clear it wasn't going to work, which IMO was only pursued because it lined Williams' own pockets as the license holder.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Really, my personal view of Williams as a "crooked businessperson" stems almost entirely from the unprofitable Buck Rogers license which TSR pumped money into long after it was clear it wasn't going to work, which IMO was only pursued because it lined Williams' own pockets as the license holder.
Yeah. Snarf has pointed out that this kind of self-dealing is actually pretty normal and accepted in closely-held companies, but there's still an issue if the amount they were paying for the Buck Rogers license was genuinely above the plausible market value. And certainly that appears to be the case, given the apparent total failure of the line.
 
Last edited:

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Yeah. Snarf has pointed out that this kind of self-dealing is actually pretty normal and accepted in closely-held companies, but there's still an issue if the amount they were paying for the Buck Rogers license was genuinely above the plausible market value. And certainly that appears to be the case, given the apparent total failure of the line.

Even that is unclear. After all, they had put money into, inter alia, Lankhmar (a very old Leiber series), Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Hunt for Red October, Escape from New York, and so on. Even the Marvel license is only something that in retrospect was an awesome idea (and I'm guessing that the sales don't support it at the time).

Yeah, we laugh at Buck Rogers now and it's mostly forgotten ... but it was an actual science fiction TV show that aired- and was popular internationally and continued to be aired in syndication in the early 80s. And TSR wasn't the only company that licensed the IP.

It's impossible to determine without knowing what was paid; but given the failure of almost every thing they did that wasn't D&D, I don't think that saying that it was a failure should be held against it. I think the bigger failure was that TSR floundered after the initial early-80s boom. While Williams managed to retrench it financially and save it at that time, it continued acting like the TTRPG market was bigger than it actually was.

I'm more curious with this new book if it explores the finances from the book (non-game) side in the late 80s and early 90s.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
It's interesting that somehow both the 1988 TSR board game and 1990 RPG get overlooked in the wiki entry for the 1979-1981 TV show.

My recollection is that the Marvel Superheros RPG did pretty well. Well enough that it got re-released in an advanced/expanded form (which I much preferred to the basic set, as a kid), and got a good amount of supplement support.

I would certainly love to see sales numbers for all of the various licensed products.
 

darjr

I crit!
Even that is unclear. After all, they had put money into, inter alia, Lankhmar (a very old Leiber series), Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Hunt for Red October, Escape from New York, and so on. Even the Marvel license is only something that in retrospect was an awesome idea (and I'm guessing that the sales don't support it at the time).

Yeah, we laugh at Buck Rogers now and it's mostly forgotten ... but it was an actual science fiction TV show that aired- and was popular internationally and continued to be aired in syndication in the early 80s. And TSR wasn't the only company that licensed the IP.

It's impossible to determine without knowing what was paid; but given the failure of almost every thing they did that wasn't D&D, I don't think that saying that it was a failure should be held against it. I think the bigger failure was that TSR floundered after the initial early-80s boom. While Williams managed to retrench it financially and save it at that time, it continued acting like the TTRPG market was bigger than it actually was.

I'm more curious with this new book if it explores the finances from the book (non-game) side in the late 80s and early 90s.
I think you can.

They didn’t initially license the TV show so the game looked or played nothing like it. They scrapped Starfrontiers that, from what I know, was selling. And they kept releasing supplements, even though ut must have been clear, even to TSR that it was a failure.

Edit: minor note, was the tv show out for the first run of buck rogers? It might be I saw it inky after the show was started.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I think you can.

They didn’t license the TV show so the game looked or played nothing like it. They scrapped Starfrontiers that, from what I know, was selling. And they kept releasing supplements, even though ut must have been clear, even to TSR that it was a failure.
I really wonder how that 1988 board game did. If it genuinely sold well, then the case for the 1990 RPG is much stronger.
 

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top