From Forgotten Realms to Red Steel: Here's That Full D&D Setting Sales Chart

Whether this will end a thousand internet arguments or fuel another thousand, Ben Riggs, author of Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons, has finally published the combined chart of cumulative sales for every AD&D setting from 1979 to 1999.

Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Oriental Adventures, and Dragonlance lead the pack. The least selling setting was Red Steel in 1994. There was a clear decline in sales of all settings from 1989 onwards, so that's not necessary a comment on quality. Planescape, certainly a cult favourite, sold surprisingly few copies.


In order, the best-selling settings were:
  1. Forgotten Realms
  2. Greyhawk
  3. Oriental Adventures
  4. Dragonlance
  5. Ravenloft
  6. Dark Sun
  7. Spelljammer
  8. Lankhmar
  9. Al-Qadim
  10. Planescape
  11. Birthright
  12. Maztica
  13. Karameikos
  14. Red Steel

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These stats were compiled as part of his research into his book, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons, which you should totally buy.


Let's dive into some individual sales charts! Note, these are for the primary setting product, not for additional adventures, supplements, etc.

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dragonlance.jpg
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Hussar

Legend
It seems that the true heart of the discussion is that different people are using the word, "tone," to mean different things.

Like GH, FR, and DL all share similar themes but have different atmospheres or moods. While the other D&D settings have wildly different themes AND different moods. (and if someone wants to come up with even more accurate terms, I'll take them.)

LOL! In that respect, Greyhawk and Eberron are closer cousins where things are more morally gray and the shadow of past wars darken today, along with the threat of forces trying to start a new war on the horizon that will offer more misery than honor.

Intelligent construct soldiers with no country or Intelligent swords fighting a forgotten war makes me think that the only thing stopping more GH players from checking out Eberron is the magi-punk ascetic and nostalgia. And gaming is high subjective and ascetic so #nobadwrongfun for both GH fans and Eberron fans. I'm just saying a GH GM could play up a lot of the great Eberron pieces that get lost in the also wonderful pulpy shuffle.
Yeah, I'd pretty much completely agree with everything say here. GH and Eberron do share a lot of DNA. I'd say that the difference is mostly asthetic really. Eberron tends to lend itself to a more latter era style - large nation states, established countries, that sort of thing. Makes sense given the inspiration. Whereas I'd say Greyhawk is a bit earlier in approach - more 12th, 13th century (with a smattering of anachronisms in there) - more city states and small kingdoms all over the place. Less steampunk in GH and more Mid-20th century fantasy.

But, yes, I think you absolutely could port adventures between GH and Eberron fairly easily given the tones and themes.
 

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teitan

Legend
People keep comparing Dark Sun sales and Planescape or Spelljammer and Planescape. So something to consider here. When Spelljammer was release it was early in 2e so when the new edition was still “hot” and it still failed within 15 months. It’s lifetime sold better than Planescape very true. The core boxed set.

Dark Sun was also somewhat early and was designed to help sell copies of the new Psionics Handbook. Still a “hot product” with a new edition, not quite brick walling yet. When Dark Sun came out Spelljammer and Dragonlance were in the case of SJ, dead, and in the case of DL, in a long twilight. That’s to give perspective.

By the time Planescape came out though 2e had hit the brick wall and I don’t know if anyone remembers how the advertising campaign for Planescape was tied to the BoA but the two coincided with each other and the Manual of the Planes in the BoA as the common reference point.

The sales in 94-95 though are in a rapidly changed AD&D2e market and not long before the bankruptcy which was preambled with a long period of drought in product availability as TSR got hit with a bill for returned novels, misfires in other game lines like the dice game, Spellfire, and really insane business decisions.

Planescape was one of those settings though where when you were done reading it you were like this is sooooo cool, now what do I do with it? I don’t think we ever really got a good answer until March of the Modrons and Dead Gods.

The planes were thought of as high level adventure locations, not easily accessible and by then TSR products had become incestuous in nature, referring to each other this rendering them difficult to use unless you had a large library. By the time Planescape was released, for example, it made unnecessary references to Legends & Lore, but it was no longer commonly available and TSR didn’t have the resources available for a reprint. They would be common in the products early lifetime cycle and throughout products developed in the preWOTC but out such as when they released the new GH setting in 1998 that referred readers to From the Ashes for some material rather than including it in those books (why not just reprint From the Ashes then or at least reprint the material from FtA in the books?).

Planescape was a setting that developed its reputation and status as a result of time, it’s lore and word of mouth. Especially the late life cycle when Cook and Baur worked on it going into 3e development and the consolidation of 2e settings under the AD&D. The 3e developers were strongly influenced by their own work in crafting 3e by nature and so Planescape was a massive influence on subsequent settings.

So I don’t think with Planescape it’s so much that sales were so gonzo amazing. It came out at the beginning of a bad time and the DS revised box was a poor seller as well, SJ was canned pretty quickly early in the edition. I think it was shorted sales for sure due to the mid edition financial shortfalls for TSR going into the bankruptcy but Planescape was a bridge between pre3e into 3e lore.

Planescape was developed by Zeb Cook and then a lot of the best elements later developed by Monte Cook and Skip Williams. Developers on 3e with Jonathan Tweet from WOTC. Their work on monsters and lore in Planescape would be a huge influence on 3e without directly referencing PS itself.

The video game itself in 1999, right before they launched 3e, also helped to build the brand for Planescape. It was a different video game and concept and expressed the ideas of Planescape very well.

So the low sales on Planescape do not surprise me because 1: it wasn’t clear what to DO with it and 2: TSR and their financial issues making even the key D&D products unavailable for a long stretch of time such that what was on the shelf was what you could get so good luck and 3: it was definitely a niche setting.
 


teitan

Legend
That's exactly why it is such a popular Setting, same as Forgotten Realms and Exandria. Gimmicks are not as useful for game proposal as generic material is.
The argument it’s a generic setting like FR is bunk anyway! I think we agree though. It’s like saying Lankhmar is generic fantasy. No… Lankhmar is a lot dingier, a lot greyer. FR is very much Dragon Prince and Greyhawk is a lot more Goblin Slayer.
 

teitan

Legend
They

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I was kind of wondering why Torment was so popular but they never resurrected the setting after 3e. Thanks for clarifying on 2.
The argument why they didn’t resurrect Planescape was that settings fracture the market and drain resources from the main game because they require support so it was rolled into the generic D&D supplements in the late 2e era with A Guide to Hell and A Paladin in Hell. Then in 3e was just part of the lore. The Faction War was written out of the Planes in late 2e PS to wrap up the metaplot.

They decided to support 1 setting, Forgotten Realms, because historically, it was the most consistent seller across supplements and setting materials by a wide margin and the novels were the most consistent money makers. Greyhawk was supported by the RPGA and used as examples in the core rulebooks as the “generic” references as the iconic D&D setting with the Great Wheel (Planescape) as the iconic example of a D&D cosmology.

Eberron was rolled out in 3.5 to highlight the new edition and new design philosophy that had become the norm with Dragonlance getting a new book and supplements licensed out to Margaret Weis and Ravenloft being licensed to White Wolf for the Sword & Sorcery imprint. The other settings were supported by officially approved fan sites that got the WOTC deal of approval rather than dedicated financial resources.

In 4e they cut back setting support entirely to two core books, a player and a DM’s book plus an adventure that spun out of the DM’s book. Dark Sun got its own monster book and FR eventually got a couple more adventure books and a setting supplement to go with the Neverwinter game while being supported by Adventurer’s League. Sigil existed in the 4e cosmology.
 

Hussar

Legend
@teitan - I think you really hit it on the head for me.

Planescape is a fantastic setting to read. But, once you're done reading, it's not an easy setting to use. I know that describes, almost exactly, what my feelings on the setting were. It was just something that was there, but, I could never figure out what to do with it.
 

jedijon

Explorer
Is anybody just plain confused by the hash marks (each one year apart) vs the updates (each 6 months)?

So if the first point on the line graph is at 300k and that’s the back half of a year, the next two points on the line are 90k and 100k—then sales in the first [PARTIAL] year were 300k, and 190k in the following [FULL] year. Right?

Surely these dots/points are sales velocity…the current actual sale # but annualized for what the sales WOULD BE across a whole year??? Without legend it’s not easy to conclude with certainty.

Whatever the correct reading — wow does it ever seem like a bad idea to support a product for more than a year. Two for exceptionally well selling products…but you’d made 80% of your sales or more even then. And core materials, even that crawls to a halt after 5. Heck the whole hobby appears to hibernate by the mid 90s.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
The argument it’s a generic setting like FR is bunk anyway! I think we agree though. It’s like saying Lankhmar is generic fantasy. No… Lankhmar is a lot dingier, a lot greyer. FR is very much Dragon Prince and Greyhawk is a lot more Goblin Slayer.
Generic is no insult from me, I assure you: particular in RPGs where giving people solid tropes to hold onto is so important.
 

Generic is no insult from me, I assure you: particular in RPGs where giving people solid tropes to hold onto is so important.

A lot of people equate generic with boring. Personally I don't think generic is a particularly accurate term anyways.

Below is the defination of generic, FR is not generic.

ge·ner·ic

/jəˈnerik/

adjective

adjective: generic

1.

characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things; not specific.

"chèvre is a generic term for all goat's milk cheese"

Similar:

general

common

collective

nonspecific

inclusive

all-inclusive

all-encompassing

broad

comprehensive

blanket

umbrella

sweeping

universal

cross-disciplinary

interdisciplinary

multidisciplinary

Opposite:

specific

(of goods, especially medicinal drugs) having no brand name; not protected by a registered trademark.

"generic aspirin"

Similar:

unbranded

untrademarked

nonproprietary

Opposite:

branded

DEROGATORY

lacking imagination or individuality; predictable and unoriginal.

"generic dance-floor fillers"

2.

BIOLOGY

relating to a genus.

noun

noun: generic; plural noun: generics

a consumer product having no brand name or registered trademark.

"substituting generics for brand-name drugs"
 

teitan

Legend
Is anybody just plain confused by the hash marks (each one year apart) vs the updates (each 6 months)?

So if the first point on the line graph is at 300k and that’s the back half of a year, the next two points on the line are 90k and 100k—then sales in the first [PARTIAL] year were 300k, and 190k in the following [FULL] year. Right?

Surely these dots/points are sales velocity…the current actual sale # but annualized for what the sales WOULD BE across a whole year??? Without legend it’s not easy to conclude with certainty.

Whatever the correct reading — wow does it ever seem like a bad idea to support a product for more than a year. Two for exceptionally well selling products…but you’d made 80% of your sales or more even then. And core materials, even that crawls to a halt after 5. Heck the whole hobby appears to hibernate by the mid 90s.
The mid 90s is when TSR’s debts came home to roost and Random House returned a ton of product to them and they couldn’t pay the bills so yeah D&D tanked over night.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
A lot of people equate generic with boring. Personally I don't think generic is a particularly accurate term anyways.
They also equate Vanilla with boring, when literal wars have been fought over how desirable Vanilla is. When I say the Forgotten Realms is "generic," I mean it is archetypal of the tropes of the Fantasy genre: when Joe or Jane Bloe off the street is asked what constitutes "Fantasy fiction," odds are that the Forgotten Realms has them covered.
characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things
Namely, Heroic Fantasy tropes, or really any Fantasy tropes: you can deal with Pharohs and Aslan, and every kind of Fantasy has a corner in the Realms. See also all the below which I feel readily apply to the Forgotten Realms
collective
inclusive

all-inclusive

all-encompassing

broad

comprehensive
sweeping

universal

cross-disciplinary

interdisciplinary
 

GreyLord

Legend
Ben Riggs here!
These numbers are taken from internal company documents I've been given. As such, they are apparently what the company considered settings. Your points are well taken. But I'm a historian at the mercy of what data has trickled down to us from the past. There's tons of data I don't have. Everything in your post for example. Also, I have no data on the vast majority of novels, and the vast majority of adventures.

Late to reply here, and perhaps you already were able to do this and have that data. Contact Random House. They probably still have the data...somewhere.

You'll need to contact the main offices most likely, if you haven't already. Get an appointment with the CFO or at least have them enable you to get a contact within the main archives for their financial records. They should have some records on the books sales and returns (so not complete information, but a good deal of information).

A LOT of money came from novels in the 90s from what I understand.
 

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