D&D General TSR D&D sales numbers compiled by Benjamin Riggs

D&D historian Ben Riggs--author of the upcoming Slaying the Dragon, which is a history of TSR-era (not that TSR, the real one) D&D--compiled some sales figures of AD&D 1st Edition's Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide from 1979-1990. Behold! Some actual D&D sales numbers! While working on my book #SlayingtheDragon I got a ton of primary source documents containing sales data for...

D&D historian Ben Riggs--author of the upcoming Slaying the Dragon, which is a history of TSR-era (not that TSR, the real one) D&D--compiled some sales figures of AD&D 1st Edition's Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide from 1979-1990.

Behold! Some actual D&D sales numbers!

While working on my book #SlayingtheDragon I got a ton of primary source documents containing sales data for D&D. With the book coming out, I've been looking for a way to get that data out into the wide world. I'm going to start making charts, and simply posting them. If people want the raw data, I can post that too, but obviously, charts are prettier.

I'm starting with AD&D 1st ed Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. You'll notice a crash in the mid-80s, and then the sales peter out with the release of 2nd edition.

The sales point to a fact that I believe hasn't been given enough play in our hobby. Namely, TSR was in a tight spot when Lorraine Williams took over the company from Gary Gygax. If it weren't for Lorraine, D&D may have died in the mid-80s.

Just an idea for your consideration...

Oh, and if you haven't preordered my book on D&D history yet, I'll put a link in the comments.

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Go get his book! It’s going to be interesting!

 

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Parmandur

Book-Friend
I concur about 1e. It was absolutely true that most of the books were owned by the DM. In fact buying a new PHB to replace the one I gave out or the one that walked away was a common thing. It was also true through 2e and even during 3e and 4e, and I ran mostly public games throughout all those editions. 5e has been different.
Might be easier to get one's hand on a PHB now, between cheap Target and Amazon options. But given Beyond and such, it wouldn't surprise me if things are still disproportionately DM focused. Also looking st the supplemental product design strategy.
 

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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Having just finished The Game Wizards by Jon Peterson, this bit gives me pause:

The sales point to a fact that I believe hasn't been given enough play in our hobby. Namely, TSR was in a tight spot when Lorraine Williams took over the company from Gary Gygax. If it weren't for Lorraine, D&D may have died in the mid-80s.

No one knows what would have happened otherwise, but I am not sure painting Williams as a hero coming into the "save D&D" is the right way to go.
 

darjr

I crit!
Having just finished The Game Wizards by Jon Peterson, this bit gives me pause:



No one knows what would have happened otherwise, but I am not sure painting Williams as a hero coming into the "save D&D" is the right way to go.
Knowing some of what is in the book via Bens talks and podcasts and readings, Lorraine is, INMHO treated fairly based on facts, and still comes out looking not great. But I think it’s fair and true to say she righted a sinking ship. Maybe she steared it to the rocks at the same time though.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Having just finished The Game Wizards by Jon Peterson, this bit gives me pause:



No one knows what would have happened otherwise, but I am not sure painting Williams as a hero coming into the "save D&D" is the right way to go.

I disagree. I covered this exact subject in a series of posts after Game Wizards was released.

Here's the big post-


Here's the salient section-

This is the important part- I think that there is a lot of good that people tend to forget. Let's start with the most basic; if you read Game Wizards, or have a passing familiarity with what happened, you quickly understand that Lorraine was not the villain in the ouster of Gygax- she was the hero. Quite literally, she saved TSR. The sheer amount of details and the repetition of them truly paint the picture, but in brief, TSR had massive debts, Gygax was both ignoring the financial issues (and the banks), ignoring meetings, spending TSR's money, and also demanding (in his capacity as majority shareholder) that TSR begin dramatically increasing royalty payments to him. To add to all of that, he negotiated a deal with the Brothers Blume and then reneged on the terms. In short, he was a disaster, and was quickly running what was left of the company into the ground. Lorraine didn't pull this off by herself- all the people involved with TSR at senior levels except Gygax knew the score. If you are a fan of shows like Succession, it's like a scene where the person comes into dictate terms, and realizes that no one is supporting him. Not a single person. More importantly, at the time there were a lot of outstanding liabilities other than just the terrible debts they already had due to poor projections and governance- such as the multiple suits due to the promise of stock options that TSR chose not to honor (settled under Lorraine's watch).

So she should get credit for saving TSR, in my opinion.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
No one knows what would have happened otherwise, but I am not sure painting Williams as a hero coming into the "save D&D" is the right way to go.
He was very clear during his presentation that she should get credit for what she did, when she did it. But she also gets criticized for what she did, when she did it. I don't think Ben paints her as a hero. But she should absolutely get credit for saving D&D in the 80s. Just like she gets criticized for ruining it in the 90s. My impression of Ben's take on Lorraine was very objective.

One statement that stood out to me Ben said was, "Everyone I interviewed who worked under Gary and Lorraine all preferred to work under Lorraine. Every single one."
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
This is the important part- I think that there is a lot of good that people tend to forget. Let's start with the most basic; if you read Game Wizards, or have a passing familiarity with what happened, you quickly understand that Lorraine was not the villain in the ouster of Gygax- she was the hero. Quite literally, she saved TSR. The sheer amount of details and the repetition of them truly paint the picture, but in brief, TSR had massive debts, Gygax was both ignoring the financial issues (and the banks), ignoring meetings, spending TSR's money, and also demanding (in his capacity as majority shareholder) that TSR begin dramatically increasing royalty payments to him. To add to all of that, he negotiated a deal with the Brothers Blume and then reneged on the terms. In short, he was a disaster, and was quickly running what was left of the company into the ground. Lorraine didn't pull this off by herself- all the people involved with TSR at senior levels except Gygax knew the score. If you are a fan of shows like Succession, it's like a scene where the person comes into dictate terms, and realizes that no one is supporting him. Not a single person. More importantly, at the time there were a lot of outstanding liabilities other than just the terrible debts they already had due to poor projections and governance- such as the multiple suits due to the promise of stock options that TSR chose not to honor (settled under Lorraine's watch).

So she should get credit for saving TSR, in my opinion.
Yup. Not to call her an angel or hero. There were definitely a couple of very bad, very big business decisions under her later, and some more run of the mill questionable choices too. But Game Wizards makes very clear that Gary and the Blumes had pretty close to run the company into the ground, and Williams definitely pulled it out of the nosedive and kept it alive.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
In the original chart, that certainly is a precipitous drop from 1983 to 1984! Interesting, considering 1984 was when the Dragonlance novels were released. I would've thought that would've counted for something.

From what I recall the D&D Basic line outsold 1e and 2e AD&D combined, which is saying something. In hindsight, I think it is the most elegantly and succinctly presented version of D&D out there. Even though I started with the red box Basic, when I recently picked up the Moldvay Basic rules, I was impressed by how they also provided a much more easily understood game than AD&D. I love AD&D and all, but in hindsight I consider BECMI to be the better-presented, more concise game.
I note also that Mentzer Basic (the first BECMI set) came out in 1983.

I wonder if some share of the sales that would have otherwise gone to AD&D books, particularly that year, went to the new, shiny, Elmore cover art-featuring, fancy basic set.
 

This matches pretty well with my observations, though I was still a kid when I got on board in 1985, and missed the whole original wave.

One point I'd note that I definitely remember, is that not every 1E player even switched to 2E. Some folks were content with their old rules and the house rules they'd adopted to make them work the way they wanted, and had no interest in re-buying a new edition from TSR.
Honestly, of course there were some. I think the truth is though, 2e's rules were just a bit cleaner and easier to use than 1e's, and they are BASICALLY the same mechanics. So if you wanted to use some 1e thing that wasn't available in 2e or didn't do what you wanted, you just used the 1e version and it 'just worked'. Half-Orcs are a prime example, nobody was really deprived of them as long as they had a 1e PHB. So, I think a LOT of us basically played 1e with 2e rules. I mean, I think a lot of us never really even thoroughly read the 2e rules, we just noted what was missing, converted characters and monsters to the 2e versions, and kept the 1e versions of the missing stuff and played on uninterrupted. 1e stuff was readily available for anyone that wanted it, even in the late '90s you could still pick up a lot of the books in book stores and hobby shops brand new if you just dug around in the back of the store a bit. I mean, stuff like OA never DID get a reprint (there were 2e supplements that provided kits that did similar stuff). Still, I never played with anyone who eschewed THAC0 and insisted on using 1e attack tables instead, or stuck with d6 initiative rolls.
 

I'll go one further - I know folks who were actively angry about how 2e turned out and got as mad about it as any edition warrior online ever has. Mostly I think it was the art direction changes, but they'd at least claim that different changes to the rules (that anyone looking at today would see as "minor tweaks") were nonsensical changes that didn't need to be made. I remember one guy I knew being absolutely incensed at the idea of priest spheres, of all things (though again - I suspect he was mostly mad about the art changes and the fact that he thought 2e was "too fluffy" and not "metal" like 1e was - and once you decide you don't like something everything will start bugging you about it).

Beyond him, though, I remember a few people who were really disappointed in how unambitious 2e was as far as game design and called it a cash grab. The few I kept in touch with were much happier with 3e when it came out.
Well, yes, 2e struck us as being rather a lackluster update in the sense that it didn't fix any of our actual issues with AD&D. OTOH that didn't mean it wasn't useful. When I would DM I would have the whole stack of 1e and 2e books on hand to reference. 'New Edition' didn't exactly mean what people think of today as it being some sort of total game reboot. It was just a slightly tweaked rewrite of the existing game that you could use. What some of us REALLY wanted was something entirely new, but that wasn't in the cards. 3e admittedly did that, and that may be why it caused a lot bigger uptick in sales vs 2e.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Honestly, of course there were some. I think the truth is though, 2e's rules were just a bit cleaner and easier to use than 1e's, and they are BASICALLY the same mechanics. So if you wanted to use some 1e thing that wasn't available in 2e or didn't do what you wanted, you just used the 1e version and it 'just worked'. Half-Orcs are a prime example, nobody was really deprived of them as long as they had a 1e PHB. So, I think a LOT of us basically played 1e with 2e rules. I mean, I think a lot of us never really even thoroughly read the 2e rules, we just noted what was missing, converted characters and monsters to the 2e versions, and kept the 1e versions of the missing stuff and played on uninterrupted. 1e stuff was readily available for anyone that wanted it, even in the late '90s you could still pick up a lot of the books in book stores and hobby shops brand new if you just dug around in the back of the store a bit. I mean, stuff like OA never DID get a reprint (there were 2e supplements that provided kits that did similar stuff). Still, I never played with anyone who eschewed THAC0 and insisted on using 1e attack tables instead, or stuck with d6 initiative rolls.

I mean ... sorta?

Look, all of TSR-era D&D is mostly compatible. From outer space, OD&D, 1e, 2e, B/X, and BECMI are all the same game. You can take an OD&D module (like B1) and run it with 2e characters without much fuss.

But ... they are also different. Pre-UA 1e is incredibly different than, say, kit-level 2e. Sure, a lot of the basic mechanics are the same, in the same way that RC-era Basic is essentially the same as playing 1e with OA rules, but ... also different.

And while you had your experience, mine was very different. Sometimes it's the small differences that cause the biggest problems. The schism between the 1e/2e players, while seemingly minor now, was a pretty big deal for people in my neck of the woods then.

Those small distinctions can be vicious.

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