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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GreyLord

Legend
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.

The TV show license and the TSR license were two different things and approached the same IP from two very different approaches. They were very different vehicles. They were probably as different from each other as George Lucas's approved EU universe with the novels and such, and Disney's current Star Wars Universe.

Very similar elements in some places, but completely and totally different universes with their own technology, history, and events (at least at the time for Buck Rogers, and currently today for Star Wars).

I thought of another, perhaps, more apt comparison. It is as different as the Star Fleet Battles Universe (which also had, I think the prime directive D20 RPG) and the Paramount/CBS Star Trek Universe during the 80s-2000s. Basic foundational ideas are similar, but the universes evolved in very different ways and manners.
 

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