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.

A1obCF-Ju2L.jpg


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

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
I played a Mage in a Vampire game, replacing an NPC when I joined the campaign, and ended up liking Mage so much I pretty rapidly lost interest in Vampire. (The joke was my character never slept because I'd be up during the day doing all sorts of stuff that the vamps couldn't while sleeping and then I'd be up all night while they were active. Some Stamina rolls were sometimes necessary.) This went along with the attenuation of interest in World of Darkness among my fellow players during the late '90s, although we had a renaissance in the early oughts.

Regardless, while I agree people did indeed run crossover games (I recalled the name!), there was no pretense of balance or strong interoperability among the games on the part of White Wolf. (There wasn't much premise of balance within a line for that matter!) That didn't really happen until New World of Darkness, which I like conceptually but didn't get to play or run much of.

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.
Right, I don't think it was viewed in the same light as the settings of D&D.
 
Right, I don't think it was viewed in the same light as the settings of D&D.
I kinda think it was, fans of one were often fans of several others. They didn't "compete" to the point of 'fratricide' - at least, not for sales. For actually getting run at some point...

...I mean, I think that's ultimately one reason the 90s RPG "setting that sells" publishing paradigm went away. At some point people realized they had a shelf full of books that they'd never, and probably would never, use to run a game.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I kinda think it was, fans of one were often fans of several others. They didn't "compete" to the point of 'fratricide' - at least, not for sales.
Not the way I think TSR of the time did, although I suspect D&D would have done OK if the management had been smarter and they'd not generated a ton of hardcover books which ended up being returned, which I understand is was what put them into bill lock.

For actually getting run at some point... ...I mean, I think that's ultimately one reason the 90s RPG "setting that sells" publishing paradigm went away. At some point people realized they had a shelf full of books that they'd never, and probably would never, use to run a game.
Yeah, late '90s I realized I often bought RPG books to read them. Honestly I still do, but I'm a bit more careful about it now due to living in limited space and, despite making a lot more money than I did then, being much more careful with it.
 
Not the way I think TSR of the time did, although I suspect D&D would have done OK if the management had been smarter and they'd not generated a ton of hardcover books which ended up being returned, which I understand is was what put them into bill lock.
That's my point, though. Fans of one D&D setting weren't monogamously committed to it.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
That's my point, though. Fans of one D&D setting weren't monogamously committed to it.
I don't think purely monogamous fans were the problem so much as the fact that each product cost money to produce and needed to occupy shelf space at stores, which cost the stores money. This creates more customer confusion and fragmentation. For instance, TSR made an effort to bring Greyhawk back after having rolled out Forgotten Realms in the aftermath of Gygax's departure. The 2E Greyhawk material is indeed very good (edit: well some of it is, anyway, they had their stinkers too), but it didn't sell as well as the Realms, so they had to lines competing with each other.

All that said, evidently what finally destroyed TSR was over-investing in hardcover novels and Dragon Dice in 1996. When the hardcovers had an unusual number of returns and Random House demanded their payment (as per the contract), TSR fell into bill lock, although the other market conditions they'd built meant the conditions were right for it to happen. They had some other issues, such as money essentially being diverted to Buck Rogers royalty payments (made to Lorraine Williams' family!), making foolish calls on what could have been lucrative video game deals, and other mistakes.
 
Last edited:

David Howery

Adventurer
The 2E Greyhawk material is indeed very good,
eh... it was a mixed bag. Along with some pretty good stuff, there were some real dogs. Remember 'Puppets'? Or the Falcon trilogy? I personally wasn't a fan of the whole Greyhawk Wars thing, so every module related to it didn't appeal to me... with the exception of the Scarlet Brotherhood supplement... that one was pretty good.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
eh... it was a mixed bag. Along with some pretty good stuff, there were some real dogs. Remember 'Puppets'? Or the Falcon trilogy? I personally wasn't a fan of the whole Greyhawk Wars thing, so every module related to it didn't appeal to me... with the exception of the Scarlet Brotherhood supplement... that one was pretty good.
I agree that the Wars made Greyhawk really grimdark, but we used it and then just rolled some of that back, putting some of the events in the hands of the PCs. The Greyhawk City module was really fun too, we got a lot of play out of that. You're right, though, there were some mangy dogs.
 

Maul

Explorer
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!
You can't compare 5th to other editions because of several reasons.
1. There are way more people on the planet so the chances of a person becoming interested in D&D is higher. A way higher base group metric than back in the 70's and 80's. Its like comparing Ghostbusters from the 80's to Lord of the rings from the 2000's. Just way more consumers available to partake in the product.
2. Social Media gets the word out to more people than back when the internet didn't exist.
3. The previous editions of D&D have cumulatively added more and more D&D players over the years so every edition after the 1st stands on the shoulders of the previous editions efforts for marketing and simple existance on the market over the years.
4. The kind of D&D your playing. Every edition before 4th edition was a "Thinking-Mans-Edition" of D&D. You had to use your brain and come up with strategies for character creations but the end result was amazing. The newer editions (4th & 5th) are what I like to call "Drive-Thru-Mcdonalds" simple versions of D&D which pandered to the video game generation where everything needed to be streamlined because the fine details that rounded out your character were too complicated thus simplifying it to make it seem more like a video game where the rules steer you in the direction they want you to for character development.

So, in my opinion, these are the reasons why you can't compare the newer versions to older versions when it comes to sales. Their not on even grounds for comparison.
 

Mistwell

Hero
4. The kind of D&D your playing. Every edition before 4th edition was a "Thinking-Mans-Edition" of D&D. You had to use your brain and come up with strategies for character creations but the end result was amazing. The newer editions (4th & 5th) are what I like to call "Drive-Thru-Mcdonalds" simple versions of D&D which pandered to the video game generation where everything needed to be streamlined because the fine details that rounded out your character were too complicated thus simplifying it to make it seem more like a video game where the rules steer you in the direction they want you to for character development.
Most of your post was wrong for a variety of reasons, but this one just looks so silly it was worth pointing out. If you think 5e is "pandering to video game generation" then you probably have very little experience with it. But, your statement makes you look deeply ignorant. 5e is far more of a throw-back to earlier editions than 3e or 4e were. There was a distinct turn away from that sort of video game focus, not towards it. What you call "simplification" is much more akin to 1e AD&D. The rules steer you LESS for character development in my opinion. Which...pretty much anyone with experience with 5e would know.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Most of your post was wrong for a variety of reasons, but this one just looks so silly it was worth pointing out. If you think 5e is "pandering to video game generation" then you probably have very little experience with it. But, your statement makes you look deeply ignorant. 5e is far more of a throw-back to earlier editions than 3e or 4e were. There was a distinct turn away from that sort of video game focus, not towards it. What you call "simplification" is much more akin to 1e AD&D. The rules steer you LESS for character development in my opinion. Which...pretty much anyone with experience with 5e would know.
I endorse this post. CharOp for 5E seems to be on par with 1E, Basic and 2E, and making a character narratively is no different.
 
Last edited:

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Most of your post was wrong for a variety of reasons, but this one just looks so silly it was worth pointing out. If you think 5e is "pandering to video game generation" then you probably have very little experience with it. But, your statement makes you look deeply ignorant. 5e is far more of a throw-back to earlier editions than 3e or 4e were. There was a distinct turn away from that sort of video game focus, not towards it. What you call "simplification" is much more akin to 1e AD&D. The rules steer you LESS for character development in my opinion. Which...pretty much anyone with experience with 5e would know.
The edition that intentionally steered more towards video games (specifically MMOs) was 4E, not 5. There were several interviews back in the day when they talked about learning from what worked for video games and integrating that into that edition.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
3. The previous editions of D&D have cumulatively added more and more D&D players over the years so every edition after the 1st stands on the shoulders of the previous editions efforts for marketing and simple existance on the market over the years.
In addition to what @Mistwell stated, this is obviously not true. Many people stopped playing D&D after 4E was released. Admittedly many went to the D&D clone PathFinder, but it didn't seem to add as many new people either. Or, just, I don't know, read the article that started this thread.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
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...)
I'd say that using e.g. Mage material for a Werewolf game is akin to using AD&D1 material in an AD&D2 game. Most of the time, it works fairly seamlessly, but there are some places where you need to do some conversion work. And the more player-facing the material, the more likely it is that conversion will be needed.
 

ad_hoc

Adventurer
You can't compare 5th to other editions because of several reasons.
1. There are way more people on the planet so the chances of a person becoming interested in D&D is higher. A way higher base group metric than back in the 70's and 80's. Its like comparing Ghostbusters from the 80's to Lord of the rings from the 2000's. Just way more consumers available to partake in the product.
2. Social Media gets the word out to more people than back when the internet didn't exist.
3. The previous editions of D&D have cumulatively added more and more D&D players over the years so every edition after the 1st stands on the shoulders of the previous editions efforts for marketing and simple existance on the market over the years.
4. The kind of D&D your playing. Every edition before 4th edition was a "Thinking-Mans-Edition" of D&D. You had to use your brain and come up with strategies for character creations but the end result was amazing. The newer editions (4th & 5th) are what I like to call "Drive-Thru-Mcdonalds" simple versions of D&D which pandered to the video game generation where everything needed to be streamlined because the fine details that rounded out your character were too complicated thus simplifying it to make it seem more like a video game where the rules steer you in the direction they want you to for character development.

So, in my opinion, these are the reasons why you can't compare the newer versions to older versions when it comes to sales. Their not on even grounds for comparison.
Oh I get it, you're upset that a game which isn't your favourite game is popular.

You can still play "other" game even if more people play "game you don't like." You are also not wrong to like "other" game even though most people don't.

Pretending that popular game isn't astoundingly popular isn't going to work though, esp. trying to argue that to people. The data is flatly there. The popularity of 5e is unprecedented. No one predicted it would be this popular (and the rate of sales is continuing to climb 5 years in).
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
(snipping some silly stuff)
2. Social Media gets the word out to more people than back when the internet didn't exist.
(snipping some more silly stuff)
Social media is also a two-edged sword. Look, for example, at how quickly certain game designers have had their careers effectively ended by social media. So, yes, social media can boost the sales of D&D 5E or anything else, but a single misstep in front of the outrage brigade and you are toast for a big segment of the market.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
2. Social Media gets the word out to more people than back when the internet didn't exist.
Social media gets the word out to more or less the same number of people that would have got it anyway; with the main difference being speed.

Word-of-mouth that might have taken 15 months in 1980-81 takes 15 minutes now.
 

Sadras

Adventurer
Many people stopped playing D&D after 4E was released.
At the outset this is not an edition-warring reply, but I take issue with the vague comment of many
Why would many stop playing and not return to versions/systems they prefer?

Admittedly many went to the D&D clone PathFinder, but it didn't seem to add as many new people either.
"As many" as what?
The point @Maul was making was that each edition brought new players into the hobby. Do you disagree with that statement?
 

Maul

Explorer
At the outset this is not an edition-warring reply, but I take issue with the vague comment of many
Why would many stop playing and not return to versions/systems they prefer?



"As many" as what?
The point @Maul was making was that each edition brought new players into the hobby. Do you disagree with that statement?

THANK YOU......... Out of all the people who replied to my comment, You're the only one who got the point.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
At the outset this is not an edition-warring reply, but I take issue with the vague comment of many
Why would many stop playing and not return to versions/systems they prefer?



"As many" as what?
The point @Maul was making was that each edition brought new players into the hobby. Do you disagree with that statement?
For the first time in D&D's history it was not the top selling trpg during 4E. Based on number on sites like Roll20, for a period of time Pathfinder took the top spot.

That has nothing to do with edition warring. In addition, I organized or helped organize a couple of game days in a major metropolitan area when the switch occurred, we lost roughly half our players when we switched over. The LFR (4E) game days slowly shrank as time went by. We went from over a hundred people playing in just the two game days I was involved with to barely getting a couple of tables per session.

That has nothing to do with edition wars, it's just a reference to the best estimate of popularity we have.

There are a whole host of reasons why 5E is popular. However, as the article points out, previous versions (after 1E anyway) didn't have as much staying power and didn't see year after year growth like we see with 5E.
 

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top