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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darjr

I crit!
I really wonder how that 1988 board game did. If it genuinely sold well, then the case for the 1990 RPG is much stronger.
Good point.

I will say that if I had a personal family IP and I thought it was good and cool, I’d want to make products on it as well. I think it’s somewhat unfair some of the criticism gave.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

Hey- I love Star Frontiers as much (if not more!) than the next person.

One thing I think has been valuable about the latest release of sales information has been how little we did know about what really sold. As a general rule, if it was released in the early 80s, it sold well. And if it was released after that? Not so well.

Star Frontiers was released in 1982.
Knight Hawks was 1983.
Zebulons was released in 1985, which effectively ended Star Frontiers.

It was a nice three year run.
 

darjr

I crit!
Hey- I love Star Frontiers as much (if not more!) than the next person.

One thing I think has been valuable about the latest release of sales information has been how little we did know about what really sold. As a general rule, if it was released in the early 80s, it sold well. And if it was released after that? Not so well.

Star Frontiers was released in 1982.
Knight Hawks was 1983.
Zebulons was released in 1985, which effectively ended Star Frontiers.

It was a nice three year run.
Could be, and I do want to see those sales. But I do have reason to believe that Zebulons sold better than Buck Rogers. And have been told that the line had more planned and was killed because of Buck Rogers.

Edit: changed know to “have been told” cause I do not “know”, I wasn’t there.
 
Last edited:

Reynard

Legend
Hey- I love Star Frontiers as much (if not more!) than the next person.

One thing I think has been valuable about the latest release of sales information has been how little we did know about what really sold. As a general rule, if it was released in the early 80s, it sold well. And if it was released after that? Not so well.

Star Frontiers was released in 1982.
Knight Hawks was 1983.
Zebulons was released in 1985, which effectively ended Star Frontiers.

It was a nice three year run.
I am constantly shocked at how short the lives of some setting, editions and RPGs were. In my head many of these things lasted decades, but most were around for a couple years at best.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

So on this, there is a reason for the famous phrase-

"How did you go bankrupt?"
"Slowly, then all at once."

People usually are not in business because they are pessimists (well, I mean ... maybe the insurance business). They expect to succeed! That's why most business failures are sudden and unexpected from the outside* ... because they keep the plates spinning, assuming conditions will change, until they can't ... and then everything crashes.

It's no different here. This wasn't a scheme. This was .... business. Company needs revenue (to pay people, to keep the lights on, to make more products). Company has debt to other company. Company pumps out product in order to get revenue. Company assumes that this product will turn things around! But it doesn't.

Situation worsens, rinse, repeat. Again, Random House is a business- they aren't idiots. They entered into the contract knowingly. They knew the situation. In fact, that's why eventually RH put a stop to it.

It wasn't a Ponzi scheme. It wasn't even a scheme. It was a business trying to stay afloat ... and failing. Happens all the time.



*As in, the company appears to stagnate ... but the actual demise is swift, sudden, and shocking.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I am constantly shocked at how short the lives of some setting, editions and RPGs were. In my head many of these things lasted decades, but most were around for a couple years at best.
I think our memories are also impacted by the period of time over which we saw these products in stores.

I, personally, never played Star Frontiers, but certainly it continued to exist on old gaming store shelves for years after it went out of print, and I continued to see the ads for it in older issues of Dragon and Marvel comics when I re-read those into the 90s, at least.

Older game stores, in particular, often were functionally libraries of older game product, hanging around waiting for some gamer to love them. I always enjoyed browsing the stacks in this sort of store, though I totally understand why people prefer the newer, cleaner, better-lit and friendlier FLGS' we see more of nowadays.
 

Reynard

Legend
I think our memories are also impacted by the period of time over which we saw these products in stores.

I, personally, never played Star Frontiers, but certainly it continued to exist on old gaming store shelves for years after it went out of print, and I continued to see the ads for it in older issues of Dragon and Marvel comics when I re-read those into the 90s, at least.

Older game stores, in particular, often were functionally libraries of older game product, hanging around waiting for some gamer to love them. I always enjoyed browsing the stacks in this sort of store, though I totally understand why people prefer the newer, cleaner, better-lit and friendlier FLGS' we see more of nowadays.
There is a store in Groton CT called the Citadel that was, for years, essentially a gaming library. They must have bought everything that ever came out, and then sold none of it. Stuff stretching back into the 80s and even later in some cases, and huge amounts of 3.0 OGL era stuff too. I haven't been since the start of the pandemic but at some point I think they must have started selling stuff online because that backstock started to finally disappear.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
There is a store in Groton CT called the Citadel that was, for years, essentially a gaming library. They must have bought everything that ever came out, and then sold none of it. Stuff stretching back into the 80s and even later in some cases, and huge amounts of 3.0 OGL era stuff too. I haven't been since the start of the pandemic but at some point I think they must have started selling stuff online because that backstock started to finally disappear.
They could have also dumped or warehoused some of it. Here in NH the iconic old store that's been around since 1981 is The Comic Store, in Nashua. They had a storefront in a strip mall on Main street for many years, and expanded to also have a second location in Manchester (our biggest city). First a small store on Elm street right downtown, then moved into a much larger strip mall space in the mid 90s.

In the early 2000s the strip mall in Manchester was sold to a motorcycle dealer, and John (the Comic Store's owner) never opened a new Manchester location, just consolidating everything into his Nashua store and a warehouse, as I understand. The Nashua store is overstuffed with stock now, cluttering the aisles, but is fun to dig through. A pretty wondrous mix of new and old.
 


I am constantly shocked at how short the lives of some setting, editions and RPGs were. In my head many of these things lasted decades, but most were around for a couple years at best.
IIRC, the Al Qadim line was specifically designed to run 3 years and no more from the very beginning. But that was the only one with a preplanned shelf life, I think....
 

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