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When D&D Was a Toy

Dungeons & Dragons is so popular these days that it tops best-selling book lists, but there was a time when D&D was viewed more as a toy than a book. So which is it?

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A Toy?

Dungeons & Dragon's original target audience was wargamers, which co-creator Gary Gygax knew well. As the game grew in popularity its audience expanded, accelerated by the release of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Dr. J. Eric Holmes contacted Gygax with a proposal:

When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible ... When I edited the rules prior to the first edition of the D&D Basic Set, it was to help the thousands (now millions) of people who wanted to play the game and didn’t know how to get started. Gary Gygax acknowledged that some sort of beginner’s book was badly needed, and he encouraged me to go ahead with it.

This decision paid off. By 1976 TSR has sold ten thousand copies of the basic rules, with the likelihood of ten times that thanks to sharing and photocopying. Shannon Appelcline explains just how well it was selling by 1978 in Designers & Dragons:

The result was a best-seller that got out into the mass market, just as Holmes hoped. By the end of 1978, Gygax said it was selling 4,000 copies a month — precisely what OD&D had sold in all of 1974 and 1975. Within three years, Gygax would talk about there being “500,000 D&D players” thanks to the Basic Set.

That "mass market" included toy stores in the early 80s D&D was carried by toy stores, as explained on a RPG.net thread:

By '82 and '83, you could find TSR games next to Monopoly in department stores and some discount stores, and my little town got it's first dedicated game store. It was a real, massive 80s fad, like Pac-Man, or Rubik's cube. Around '85, the same local Kay-Bee was selling off big stacks of TSR box sets for $2, like Dawn Patrol, Top Secret, Gang Busters, and the 1981 Gamma World 1st edition reprint. Oh, and liquidations of stuff like AD&D monster cards, and action figures, and the boardgames like Snits' Revenge and Awful Green Things.

D&D would go on to create its own toy franchise, announcing its Toy, Hobby & Gift Division in January 1983 at the Hobby Industries of America Show.

A Book?

D&D didn't just appear in the now-defunct toy stores like KB Toys and Toys R' Us, but also in defunct book stores like Waldenbooks. TSR negotiated an exclusive book with Random House, as Ewalt explains in Of Dice and Men:

In 1981, Gygax made a distribution deal with Random House, the biggest publisher in the U.S., putting the game into tens of thousands of bookstores. TSR followed up the deal with more kid-friendly products: a revision of 1977’s Basic Set, the beginner’s game that covered character levels 1 through 3; and its first follow-up, the Expert Set, covering levels 4 through 14.

Just as the company branched out into toys, it also branched out into fiction, and had come to increasingly rely upon sales of its fiction line to prop up the rest of the company. It worked for a while, until the downturn in 1996:

But at the end of 1996, the market collapsed, and TSR’s distributor, Random House, returned millions of dollars’ worth of unsold hardcover books. On the hook to refund Random House, TSR entered 1997 over $30 million in debt, and with no cash to publish or ship new products.

Appelcline picks up the thread:

It was the book trade, however, that was the final straw. Random House had been fronting TSR loans against book sales for some time. Meanwhile, TSR’s book sales had sunk over the years. They were seeing less and less actual cash from the book trade because more money was going to pay off their unpaid loans. Trying to get ahead of this debt was the main factor behind TSR making a big push into the book trade in 1996. This push included sending massive reorders of Dragon Dice into book stores and increasing hardcover publication from 2 books a year to 12. Both of these expansions flopped, and because bookstore sales are ultimately returnable, TSR was the one left holding the bag. As 1996 ended Random House informed TSR that they’d be returning about a third of TSR’s products — several million dollars’ worth.

When TSR fell behind on its payment to its logistics company, they locked down all of TSR's products and refused to print more. TSR was in debt without enough product to buy its way out. These losses eventually ended up causing TSR to sell to Wizards of the Coast. The book trade, that had so massively expanded TSR's reach, nearly destroyed it.

Does it Matter?

The book industry has changed since TSR was sold. The few remaining bookstore chains, like Barnes & Noble, have expanded their tabletop game offerings considerably, including board, card, and miniature games. But however D&D may be found in bookstores, sales data suggests the game sells well. D&D books has topped the Wall Street Journal's non-fiction best-seller list, Amazon's Science Fiction & Fantasy category, the New York Times' Games and Activities list, Publisher's Weekly's hardcover non-fiction list, and USA Today's best-selling books. Xanathar's Guide to Everything became the fastest-selling D&D book in the game's history.

Given all these accolades, it's easy to surmise that D&D is more book than toy. And yet, the game was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2016:

In the 1970s, serious war game players Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson added the concept of role-playing to the strategy games they enjoyed. They thus created an entirely new way to play, allowing older gamers to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds not unlike children’s imaginative play. The game soon became popular, and other firms published similar games built upon related mechanics but often employing different fantasy settings, from historic battlefields to outer space. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and its imitators actually changed the nature of play.

In the end, D&D is more than just a toy or a book, fiction or non-fiction. It's all these things and something else entirely that "actually changed the nature of play."
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Warpiglet

Adventurer
Reading articles about the history of the game and company remind me how silly it is to argue about someone else's preferences for more or less RP/Wargame. This thing has been an incredible mish mash from the start and part of its appeal and longevity is its ability to shift with player preferences. Wild stuff. Still remember the next door neighbor bringing isle of dread over to play (I was in 3rd grade!) and the wonder and mystery about it all. Fast forward a million years later and me and my pals are dropping caltrops, setting watch and tracking bad guys across the land. What a wonderful creation in whatever form one prefers...
 


barasawa

Explorer
I had the three booklets at one point, as well as the infamous box (it might have been blue, but as I got that in the late 70s, I can't say for sure), but our group preferred using the AD&D books which were still new at that time when we really started gaming a lot.
 

My BECMI and some of my 1e books still have the price stickers from KB Toys still on them. Those and the LJN toys of the time made for an impressive display that captured a child's sense of wonder.

When I went to a museum exhibit on “Toys of the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” sure enough there was a vintage D&D boxed set on display.
 


Eirikrautha

First Post
The categorization of D&D as a "toy" was more a feature of the fact that it was a new genre of game than a description of the product. Many stores did not have a concept of what the game actually was, nor how to categorize it. Plus, toys and games have frequently been conflated in the retail space of stores that do not specialize in them. I think the use of this term says more about the novelty of RPGs than illuminating any attribute of the games themselves...
 

AtomicPope

Explorer
I wanted to get D&D books from the first moment I played but I couldn't afford them. So I took up a paper route and worked in a pizza parlor (back when 10 year olds could work for cash). I would go to Sportmart, a sporting goods store, and read the D&D books. When I finally had enough money they stopped carrying them. First edition was reprinted with the Easley covers. I had to walk several miles to Toys 'R Us. The D&D books were all of the way in the back corner of the store. I haven't stopped playing D&D since.
 

fjw70

Explorer
My original D&D books were purchased at the Toy House (a local toy store). I remember getting Star Frontiers from KB Toys at the mall. Then after that it was a Walden store. Game stores were unknown to me in the 80s.
 

ConflictZ

First Post
Good times

Reading articles about the history of the game and company remind me how silly it is to argue about someone else's preferences for more or less RP/Wargame. This thing has been an incredible mish mash from the start and part of its appeal and longevity is its ability to shift with player preferences. Wild stuff. Still remember the next door neighbor bringing isle of dread over to play (I was in 3rd grade!) and the wonder and mystery about it all. Fast forward a million years later and me and my pals are dropping caltrops, setting watch and tracking bad guys across the land. What a wonderful creation in whatever form one prefers...

Similar experience although our neighbor across the street was running Castle Amber. The mystery of that giant crushing the tower hooked me for life!
 

philreed

Adventurer
Supporter
There was a time in the early eighties when D&D was big business for toy stores, to the point that industry magazines included articles and info on the game. Last year, while at the Strong Museum, I ran across this in an old issue of Playthings:

"Sales of TSR's basic Dungeons & Dragons game began to decline, and many dealers felt that the market was becoming saturated. 'However, we're doing better than ever in the advanced D & D products.' said one store owner. 'The games, modules, books and figurines all are moving nicely.'"
- Robert Wanderer, Playthings Magazine, April 1983

What is entertaining is flipping through those old Playthings issues to watch the rise and fall of D&D in the mainstream world. Toy stores, not surprisingly, dump fads as soon as there is a sign of slowing sales.
 
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In the mid-1980s I bought my BECMI sets in toy shops in the UK, and Het Oog des Meesters (the Dutch version of Das Schwarze Auge) in the toy section of a department store. By the early 1990s everything had shifted to a few bookshops and one or two dedicated gaming shops.
 

I bought my fist polyhedral set and my first Basic Rulebook (Moldvay, to be specific) at Long's Drugs on Northern Lights Boulevard, Anchorage. (between Northern Lights and Benson, on A Street. Building is now a Barnes & Noble.)

They had one other RPG... Dallas. They had one aisle of nothing but games. And it was next to 2 aisles of books.

The local department store with a mix of wares is also dying. And even the smaller chains: Woolworth's, Carrs, Eagle Quality, Long's Drugs, Pay'n'save, Proctors'... (some of these were Alaskan specific chains.)
Longs used to be country-wide. Now, it's southeast US and Hawaii, and owned by CVS.
Carrs bough Eagle Quality, and then later was itself bought by Safeway. Pay'n'Save went out of business just about the same time Safeway bought Carrs.
Proctor's was a chain, but now is a series of apparently unrelated stores; I suspect many may have been part of the chain.
Woolworth's is still in business, but not under stores of that name. It was noted in the 60's and even the early 70's for it's pro-segregation stance; it's now DBA "Foot Locker"...

The world is changing.

I miss that era. Not enough to give up on computers, tho'.
 

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