The Sales of D&D vs. AD&D vs. AD&D 2nd Edition

The 2nd edition of AD&D sold well when it was released. Combined, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook sold over 400,000 copies in their first year. That’s a lot of books. Not the most ever sold by TSR, but a lot. To give some historical comparison, the 1981 D&D Basic Rules Set sold over 650,000 copies in its first year. To compare to previous editions of AD&D, the 1st edition DMG and PHB together sold over 146,000 copies in 1979. Putting those numbers together makes AD&D 2nd edition look like a solid hit. But it hides a deeper problem.

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Benjamin Riggs shares some D&D history! This was posted on Facebook and shared with permission.


AD&D 2nd edition didn’t have the legs that AD&D 1st edition did. Combined sales of the 1st edition DMG and PHB actually went up at first, selling over 390,000 in 1980, over 577,000 in 1981, over 452,000 in 1982, and 533,000 in 1983 before finally sliding to just over 234,000 in 1984, at the time when TSR began its first crisis. Meanwhile, the 2nd edition DMG and PHB would never sell more than 200,000 copies in a single year after 1989. In short, 2nd edition wasn’t selling like its predecessor.

But if AD&D 2nd edition looks small in comparison to1st edition, both shrink before the altar of Dungeons & Dragons. Including 1st, 2nd edition, revised 2nd edition, and introductory sets, AD&D sold a total of 4,624,111 corebooks between 1979 and 1998. Meanwhile, D&D sold 5,454,859 units in that same period, the vast bulk of those purchases coming between 1979 and 1983.

TSR could no longer put up the sales numbers it once did. Even D&D, which sold better than AD&D in either iteration, didn’t sell in the 90’s like it did in the 80’s. What had changed? Something changed, but what was it? Was it that Gary Gygax was gone? Had something gone wrong with 2nd edition? Was a rule changed that shouldn’t have been? Was it too complex? Not complex enough? Had RPGs been a fad that faded? Should the AD&D lines be canceled entirely to focus on the historically better-selling D&D?

These numbers should have been an occasion for self-reflection and correction all over TSR.

But they weren’t.

These numbers were left in the offices of upper management. Zeb Cook himself said he never saw any concrete sales numbers for 2nd edition. The decision by management under Lorraine Williams to keep sales numbers like those above restricted to the top of the company must be seen as a mistake. The inability of the game designers to know how their product was selling cut them off from economic feedback on their product. I see those numbers, and what I read is that TSR’s audience bought the 2nd edition books, read them, and just weren’t crazy about them. (Although I myself am quite partial to the rules, as they are what I grew up playing.) But Zeb Cook didn’t know that, so how could he make changes to improve his craft in the future?

Benjamin went on to note his source: "I have a source who sent me a few pages of sales data from TSR. It's primary source material. I don't have everything, but I do have the data contained in the post above." He is currently writing a book on the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast.
 
Russ Morrissey

Comments

darjr

I crit!
Can not wait for that book. I wonder who his source is? Someone high up who would have those sequestered numbers?
 

Parmandur

Legend
How do these numbers compare with D&D 5e?
I don't think we have solid numbers, though already three years ago the 5E PHB had outsold the 3E, 3.5 and 4E PHB lifetime numbers, and each subsequent year has seen accelerating sales so far.

At least the pattern looks more like 1E: the 5E PHB wasn't a top 100 bestseller on Amazon in 2014 or 2015, but has been 2016-2018, climbing the overall annual charts year to year. In fact, in 2018, not just the PHB, but the MM, DMG and Xanathar's Guide cracked the top 100 books for the year. And they still sell in hobby stores!
 
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lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So, a few things-

1. Of course the first year sales of 2e were the highest, never to be replicated. Most people playing AD&D at the time they came out purchased the new books! It was a big deal! Even if they were the terrible harbingers of the most unloved of editions. #sideeye #gratuitousshot So using the first year sales isn't very ... informative ... in terms of health.

2. B/X, on the other hand. So, there were people that just played B/X (or BECMI, or "D&D"), but they were not that common, ESPECIALLY in the U.S. Instead, a lot of those massive sales came down to two categories:

a. Well-meaning parents, grandparents, or friends who got the Red Box at JC Penny or B. Dalton or KB Toys and gifted it to someone, only for it to end up in a closet somewhere.

b. People who purchased the basic set to start with, or in addition to, the AD&D core rulebooks. Put another way, I can't think of anyone who didn't have (and play) AD&D who didn't also happen to have a copy of B/X or BECMI, just because.

3. That said, looking forward to this!
 

Mistwell

Hero
2. B/X, on the other hand. So, there were people that just played B/X (or BECMI, or "D&D"), but they were not that common, ESPECIALLY in the U.S. Instead, a lot of those massive sales came down to two categories:

a. Well-meaning parents, grandparents, or friends who got the Red Box at JC Penny or B. Dalton or KB Toys and gifted it to someone, only for it to end up in a closet somewhere.

b. People who purchased the basic set to start with, or in addition to, the AD&D core rulebooks. Put another way, I can't think of anyone who didn't have (and play) AD&D who didn't also happen to have a copy of B/X or BECMI, just because.
I think you are missing

c. People who did play B/X, but casually like a board game a couple times a year. Like in a cabin for vacation, or over holiday breaks.

And

d. People who played B/X a whole lot, without playing AD&D, because it was a different style game they really liked.

I played B/X a whole lot. The adventures that came out for it were often very good, and creating adventures for it was easy. The rules were lighter, and that fit the style my younger brother and I preferred for many years. We eventually bought the AD&D books but they were so massive we kinda just read them sometimes but didn't play that version until many years later.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I think you are missing

...
cf.

" So, there were people that just played B/X (or BECMI, or "D&D") ... Instead, a lot of those massive sales came down to two categories: "

¯\(ツ)

EDIT- to be clear, if you go by sales figures alone, you would think that everyone and their mom was playing B/X, which wasn't the case. This isn't about the quality of the rule set; I'm personally quite fond of the Moldvay/Cook B/X.
 
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SMHWorlds

Explorer
I have a few thoughts on sales numbers

-By 1994, twenty years of D&D, there was a lot more competition in terms of RPGs and computer games than there had been in the period of 1979-1983/85. Although personal computers and PC gaming was on the rise as well during the 80s.

-There was also a cultural shift; Vampire and to a lesser degree other games were taking things outside of the dungeon. Yes your basic fantasy stuff was still popular as it is today, but White Wolf, FASA, WEG, and others were big RPG companies like TSR and put out fantastic products that were not dungeon crawls. Perhaps they never reached AD&D/D&D heights, but their sales were not insignificant. Of course, like TSR, many of these companies did not make it out of the 90s intact or at all. Perhaps there are larger market forces at work during the 90s across the entire RPG industry?

-These are just sales of the PHB/DMG. Do they include the Monster Manual? That would need to be adjusted perhaps because the format of the MM changed from AD&D 1st to 2nd. What about the sales of the setting material? That lovely 2nd edition FR hardbook that I wish I still had. How did all of that figure into the financials?
 

dwayne

Explorer
first was dangeous and very hard core in many ways and let the DM, more control than most and the characters were or could be very powerful. Second kinda gimped much from that 1st edition but also opened up other things like skills, and kits and removing level cap for races and class restrictions. It had its good point, the issue was that most of this was already being done in house by the DM's at the time and all they saw was the watering down of the game. I really think that 2nd edition gets a bad rep but i grew up on it it was the first books i got on my own, had mu mom get me the blue and red box sets some time before when i was little. But this was my edition as was just after high school and had much free time.
 

WayneLigon

Adventurer
-There was also a cultural shift; Vampire and to a lesser degree other games were taking things outside of the dungeon.
I've always wondered about the 'Vampire Effect'. It seemed to me at the time that vampire was not so much taking gamers away from D&D as it was bringing new rpgers into the hobby; people who ordinarily would never have played D&,D in the first place.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Sometimes, it's just out of your control and the reason is because fads change. In the 80s, the satanic panic led to a huge number of sales (according to Tim Kask in an interview a few weeks ago) because people wanted to know what the big deal was. Any exposure is good exposure. In the 90s, that all died down and people changed to the next big thing (MtG and "emo edgy" Vampire). Now, D&D is back to being super popular again in pop culture so it makes sense. Is 5e a good game? Absolutely. But I think many of the sales are also driven by it being a popular fad again, and since it's easier to learn than it's predecessor, all the new players curious about it due to it being a popular fad again, can play it without feeling super overwhelmed. A combination of good timing and good design.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I've always wondered about the 'Vampire Effect'. It seemed to me at the time that vampire was not so much taking gamers away from D&D as it was bringing new rpgers into the hobby; people who ordinarily would never have played D&,D in the first place.
I can only go by my anecdotal experience of the time, of course, but most the Vampire players did not play D&D. The felt it was way too vanilla. Not dark or emo enough for what they wanted. And they were almost all former D&D players, but Vampire allowed them all to better achieve their fantasies of being Lestat or Louie,or Gary Oldman's top hat wearing seductive vampire.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
That would be my guess. I saw him speak at the last Gen Con and have been listening to his podcast, Plot Points (which I would recommend). Whenever possible, he relies on first-hand accounts and is quite diligent with his research.

Can not wait for that book. I wonder who his source is? Someone high up who would have those sequestered numbers?
The cultural impact of Vampire and the Storyteller System in the 90s cannot be understated. In my group, you could draw a distinct line between the types of characters (even in AD&D) that we were creating before V:tM and after.

-There was also a cultural shift; Vampire and to a lesser degree other games were taking things outside of the dungeon.
 
Thanks for the article. Some readers may be a bit thrown off by the term "Dungeons & Dragons" in contrast to AD&D, without a qualifier: "Original and Basic D&D".

Years ago (during the 4E era) I promoted the idea of simply and totally recreating the BECMI aesthetic, so that graphics-wise 4E looks exactly like BECMI (same Larry Elmore art, same font etc), since there are so many people (gamers and non-gamers) for whom that image is iconic. The Red Box image is etched into the popular consciousness, in a similar way as the look of the Monopoly box and font.

The number of Red Box customers affirms my perspective.

Soon after (coincidentally?), WotC released the retro-looking Red Box 4E Essentials Starter Set. And more recently, the Stranger Things retro Red Box in mass market venues. It'd be interesting to know how well these items sold.

I am also continually astounded of how WotC has chucked its Known World (Mystara) IP into the dustbin. Mystara wasn't even listed in the recent survey! This Known World was the world which ~5 million D&D customers were raised on. The hex map images of Threshold and the D&D Continent are iconic.

A few years back (at the start of 5E), Bruce Heard, former TSR D&D Brand Manager, and chief designer of the Known World, begged WotC to let him revive Mystara as a setting for 5E. He offered every means: to consult for WotC, to buy a license himself, etc. He was totally snubbed. And he vowed to never work with WotC corporatists again.

Same for The Realm of the D&D Cartoon Show. Why does WotC just toss its most pop-culture, multi-million-scale IPs into the trash?

-Shane T.
 

Hurin88

Explorer
I think SMHWorlds put it best: one of the things that changed was competition, which became fiercer once DnD became a hit.

My group all started with D&D (BECMI, then AD&D), but after a few years of that we saw other systems we wanted to try too. The lure of critical hits (before DnD had them) and skills (again before DnD had them) led us first to MERP and then Rolemaster. By the late 80s, Rolemaster was our game of choice -- and still is for half my group (DnD having a hold on the other half).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
b. People who purchased the basic set to start with, or in addition to, the AD&D core rulebooks. Put another way, I can't think of anyone who didn't have (and play) AD&D who didn't also happen to have a copy of B/X or BECMI, just because.
Just to attest - I never owned B/X or BECMI. I think I first played a session of one of those editions... in the 3e era?
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I admit I never put much weight into the competition argument. That competition in the late 80s early 90s is what led to the severe drop in D&D sales. Competition has literally been there since the beginning. Tunnels and Trolls, Runequest, Traveller, Gamma World, and Metamorphis Alpha (all popular games) all came out in the 70s before D&D really shot up in sales in the early 80s.

Then in the early 80s, we had BRP, the Hero system, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulu, Palladium, and Paranoia. Those are all popular game systems. By 1986 GURPS was out. So the competition has always been there.
 

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