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!
Obsessing over statistics is like 64% of gaming! It'd be weird if we didn't obsess over 40 year old sales figures!
64%?!? Cite! Clearly it could only be that in a certain demographic from the 70s, the 90s were very different, where you even playing then?
 

mykesfree

Explorer
Just to add my own personal story here. I was introduced to AD&D 1E and played one adventure with an older friend's brother. Then with my own age group friends we played Basic, and my parents bought the Basic Red Box set for me.

Then my parents bought me the TSR Marvel Super Heroes Yellow Box set and all bets were off. My friends and I only played MSH until 1987 when WEG released the Star Wars D6 game and stuck with only that game. In 1989 when the 2e D&D books were released a friend of mine bought all of them and the FR Grey Box. Within my friends group back then, we shifted from MSH 2e, DC Heroes 1st and 2nd ed, WEG: Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Paranoia, FASA: Star Trek and Battletech. While we had a hobby store, a B&N, and a TRU, I made many purchases from the Worlds of Westfield catalog.

In the 90's Star Wars mostly won out as the game we played. We found the rules and the campaign easiest to understand and the adventures fun.

In 98, I played a couple games of CoC, but D&D didn't make a come back into my RPG life until 3E and played a demo at Dragon Con. So for 11 years, I made no D&D RPG purchases (Yes there were novels, and GOLD Boxes!)

After 3E, our group has played D&D for 4E, and 5E. We are still with 5e, but have been really enjoying the 2d20 Star Trek Adventures Game as an alternate game.
 

doctorhook

Adventurer
D&D was certainly very much in the public eye in 1985 when 60 Minutes ran a story on the game and included interviews with Pat Pulling and Gary Gygax. Of course maybe that mainstream attention didn't arrive until after the fad reached it's zenith.
I feel like that’s probably true, especially in the pre-internet/social media days, when trends took much longer to bubble to the top of public consciousness. Now we know what trends are because there are tons of people whose whole business is in posting about it.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
TBF, they'd been kept more or less secret the whole time.
Dancey posted similar numbers years ago on the GitP forums and other numbers were posted at pax east iirc 2014 by Paizo.

Until 5E D&D had been on a downward spiral with each edition selling less than the one before it.

3.0 and 3.5 together probably sold more than 2E, Pathfinder outsold 4e apparently and 3.5 by 2014 probably outsold Pathfinder (250-350k vs 250k).
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
You know, it's a seriously weird aspect of the hobby that fans obsess over 30-40 year old sales figures.
There are a few different factors going on.

In order-

1. What @MGibster said. Gamers, as a whole, tend to ... enjoy numbers ... more than the average person. It's not an absolute truth, but more often than not.

2. What @Tony Vargas said. Because these numbers have been shrouded in mystery at different times, we still like to talk about it. Quick- what are the relative sales, per year, of each rule book of each edition? That's not something we can easily find out.

3. Finally, I would posit that "Scoreboard!" and "Box office!" are somewhat more recent ways that we determine the worth of something. Yes, financial success (in terms of metrics) has always been important, but people really care about, say, the box office for movies now in a way that wasn't deeply ingrained in the consciousness 40 years ago. As to why this change occurred, I will leave that for others to discuss.
 
Until 5E D&D had been on a downward spiral with each edition selling less than the one before it.
Probably about that - the hobby just wasn't bringing in many new players, not retaining those it did bring in well, and thus not replacing the existing ones aging out. About what you'd have to expect for the period between fad and comeback - really D&D held on pretty well through it's 'cult' years.

3. Finally, I would posit that "Scoreboard!" and "Box office!" are somewhat more recent ways that we determine the worth of something. Yes, financial success (in terms of metrics) has always been important, but people really care about, say, the box office for movies now in a way that wasn't deeply ingrained in the consciousness 40 years ago. As to why this change occurred, I will leave that for others to discuss.
Oh, they've always been significant, but as numbers that measure popularity, and thus (however fallaciously) validate opinions and preferences, they've become a particular obsession of late. Maybe insecurity has mounted, maybe it's a reflection of the ever-growing influence of affinity groups in America, maybe reverence for popularity has waxed with the expansion of social media?
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
It seems like all of the other editions of D&D had experienced a significant drop-off in sales a few years after their release date, but 5E seems to be climbing more than 5 years on. I don't have any hard numbers for this; it could just be my own weird perception.

I wonder what a graph of sales vs. time would look like for each edition.
 
I wonder what a graph of sales vs. time would look like for each edition.
After the fad, the inability to attract new players would tend to give each new edition high initial sales as the faithful base upgraded, then drop-off as even the late-adopters among them got their copies, for want of significant new players... and, each cycle, they'd lose some of the faithful, so prettymuch a descending spiral... complicated by things like economic factors, length of runs, effectiveness of marketing, and so forth.
When that finally changes (changed with 5e, by all indications), that's the come-back and explosive growth is to be expected. If it's "here to say, baby!" it'll eventually level off. If it's just a come-back, it'll eventually peak & flop again.
 
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SMHWorlds

Explorer
It seems like all of the other editions of D&D had experienced a significant drop-off in sales a few years after their release date, but 5E seems to be climbing more than 5 years on. I don't have any hard numbers for this; it could just be my own weird perception.
That is my impression as well, though again I do not have any sales figures to back it up. However, there are a number of reasons for this trend.

  1. The most important I think is the number of people making commerce from being D&D adjacent. Critical Role and MCDM being big ones that come to mind, but many other companies as well. WoTC has managed their licences and their releases pretty well so far. And it would be insincere to neglect to mention the design of 5E itself. I know many people hate it or do not think it is a good or great system. Doesn't matter if it is or is not, the perception that you can play "anything" is what matters. FTR I do think it is a good system and have gone on record as such, despite some design reservations.
  2. D&D is very much in the pop-culture zeitgeist now. It seems to be coming waves, with 5E's release, CritRole, Stranger Things, people making high 5 and 6 figure salaries teaching it to people. It is cool to be a D&D player or to be seen being one. How long this lasts? Who knows.
  3. This is one is total speculation, but I think there is a certain degree of expectation that might be keeping some people interested. The Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Planescape, and Spelljammer crowds are waiting to see if one of these worlds gets some love. Every time a new D&D book comes out there is speculation. I personally think the Avernus book is as close to Planescape as we are going to get and there is no chance the others get made either. But the expectation is there. And frankly, whatever license nonsense exists is mostly just personalities not getting along. If sales start to flag, WoTC/Hasbro can just write someone a fat check and boom, instant "Insert favorite setting" book. I think this keeps people invested. I may be totally off base there.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
This is true, and prior to this most recent year I'd probably say AD&D was perhaps the most popular during the fad that ANY edition of D&D ever was...
AD&D was more popular in the USA but I believe that BECMI sold quite a bit better in the rest of the world. Also, BECMI was in the toy market more than the book and hobby shop market due to it being in a boxed set and thus fitting the expectations of the toy retailers.

I like 2E a lot. It's cleaner than 1E, and to this day it's the best tool box D&D. If you want to do something non standard 2E is probably your best bet.
I still run my old house ruled 2E. The game was started back in the late '90s and went on hiatus for a while, but we restarted it in 2013. The PCs are so hacked I don't really know how we'd make them fit with a modern game. It would be painful. We've adopted some modern rules such as 4E movement rules, which work on a VTT very well.

But they lost the feel of D&D in some ways. It's designed to appeal to everyone but appeals to no one. Exaggeration but I'm talking about all the settings and rules variants. Skilled DM it's great but not really newbie friendly and 2E didn't seem to have a classic adventure a'la 1E, B/X.
It's pretty clear they fragmented the market quite a bit and often ended up with a lot of fratricidal competition among products. The current paranoia/buzzword about "shared experience" I think is about avoiding that, but as often is the case it's reacting strongly to the flaws of the prior version.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
so, my story. Way back in 1980, middle of my college years, I first ran across D&D, attracted to it mainly by a huge display of miniatures in a store in the mall. Not knowing anything about the editions, I first bought the Basic "Blue Box" just to figure out what it was all about... and went back to the store a day later to get some dice instead of those friggin' paper chits. Later on, I found some AD&D players, figured out the difference, got the core books, and never looked back. So I never did play the Basic game, in spite of having bought the boxed set...
 
It's pretty clear they fragmented the market quite a bit and often ended up with a lot of fratricidal competition among products. The current paranoia/buzzword about "shared experience" I think is about avoiding that, but as often is the case it's reacting strongly to the flaws of the prior version.
For the odd case the original article is trying to make and the not quite comparable measure it chose to focus, on, the 'two-prong approach' and continued publishing of 0D&D through part of it didn't much fragment the market. 0D&D, AD&D, and the Boxed Sets & later Rules Cyclopaedia were not all that different from eachother, you could readily use material from one in another. It was probably occasionally confusing - more so than having a supplement called PH2 out there, certainly - but it led more to people buying /more/ books than they might have (had they realized they were supplements for a 'different' game) than any sort of 'fratricide,' I think.

If they're harping on "Shared Experience," now, it's probably just to back cautiously away from all the "Big Tent" talk in the run-up to the new edition.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
For the odd case the original article is trying to make and the not quite comparable measure it chose to focus, on, the 'two-prong approach' and continued publishing of 0D&D through part of it didn't much fragment the market. 0D&D, AD&D, and the Boxed Sets & later Rules Cyclopaedia were not all that different from eachother, you could readily use material from one in another.
My understanding was that the AD&D and BECMI D&D markets were relatively distinct, though I can't recall where I heard that.

The market fragmentation I was thinking of happened in the late TSR era, when they published many different campaign settings and products. Many were cool, but there was only so much money and time to go around. They also published "Lorraine Williams milking TSR for her family interests" via the Buck Rogers stuff they kept trying to sell.

If they're harping on "Shared Experience," now, it's probably just to back cautiously away from all the "Big Tent" talk in the run-up to the new edition.
I don't pay much attention to WotC's marketing flack but I think the whole "shared experience" was more common in the early days after the release of 5E, when they were hot on that.
 
The market fragmentation I was thinking of happened in the late TSR era, when they published many different campaign settings and products. Many were cool, but there was only so much money and time to go around.
Oh, in 2e, when it finally got down to one line in terms of system but had many settings? In the mid-late 90s, it seemed like the trend in RPGs was to sell lots and lots of setting books, and let rules more sorta slide. WWGS's oWoD was a notorious example, (BattleTech, while not an RPG, struck me as starting the trend late in the 80s).
I didn't go in for settings at all (and still felt like I was choking on the sheer volume of 2e books), but lots of folks I knew did, and bought everything for each of them - we'd call 'em completists, today - yet never ran any of them.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
I am not surprised by those numbers.

AD&D was king in the early 80's.

Me and my friends all had the various tomes (eight of us were DMs).

When 2e came out, our group did not need so many copies.

Also, so many of our DMs/Players wanted to try other systems.

Our eight DMs were now running 4 different gaming systems.

So yay, sales in our group did go down ALOT for D&D products (when they were purchases so many others at the same time).

While our overall RPG buys were up, those made of up AD&D (1+2e) items went down.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Oh, in 2e, when it finally got down to one line in terms of system but had many settings?
They had indeed seriously proliferated settings: Spelljammer, Birthright, al Qadim, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, and Mystara. I may have missed one or two. They had really good material but there was a lot of it.

WWGS's oWoD was a notorious example
Not exactly. Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling were all separate games. While they were nominally set in a common "World of Darkness" they were distinct and many people ran them that way or with relatively minimal overlap. The main rulebooks of each line were complete games and the systems did not totally align. (I played a lot of Vampire from 1994 to 1997, then mostly Mage after that.)
 
Not exactly. Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling were all separate games. While they were nominally set in a common "World of Darkness" they were distinct and many people ran them that way or with relatively minimal overlap. The main rulebooks of each line were complete games and the systems did not totally align. (I played a lot of Vampire from 1994 to 1997, then mostly Mage after that.)
That was the party line, yeah. But you could absolutely mix material for one game into another. I never ran a 'pure' WoD game, and often played in mixed ones, as well, Mage/Werewolf rather a lot, in both cases, actually. (Actually, I'm revisiting WoD, right now, just not with Storyteller, and so far it's involved Changelings, Wraiths, Mages, and, peripherally for the time being, Garou...)
But, again, there was no fratricidal competition then, either. WoD fans happily followed multiple lines, even if they were orthodox enough to run only one at a time.
 

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