Ya Basic! Trying To Understand the Perception of AD&D and the Sales of Basic

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
In the thread about the sales figures of Basic and Advanced D&D, we are given a chart by @BenRiggs that compares the sales of Basic D&D (Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer) to Advanced D&D (PHB+DMG) from 1979-1995. Later elaboration indicates that this does not include international sales, so it does not include the very successful versions of Basic that were translated and produced for the international market. The notable thing from the chart is that for almost all the years, sales of the Basic rules were close to, are higher, than the comparable AD&D rulebooks. These numbers are understandably confusing to some people who were playing during that time- after all, AD&D was dominant.

This confusion has led to several comments along the lines of this one by @Michael Dean1 -
I have very little memory of how B/X was sold back in the early 80s. Was it primarily (or only) in the boxed sets? Was there any other form that it was sold in, rulebook-wise? I'm frankly stunned by the sales numbers compared with AD&D, because AD&D was probably 90% of what I remember seeing on hobby shelves during that time, both 1e and 2e. Apparently, there must have been a line in the back of the store of customers waiting to buy B/X every time I was there and didn't notice, ha ha.

Here's the thing- it's my belief that two things can be correct; the numbers, and the perception. The numbers are what they are, and yet ... AD&D was by far the dominant game during that time based on what I observed and other numbers. So this thread is a fork to try and reconcile these ideas.

Which is true- did Basic really have a giant groundswell of players and games in the 80s that people weren't aware of that the numbers have revealed, or do the numbers indicate sales, but not what was being played (and if so, why)?


A. Defining our Terms and Learning a Little History (Again)- What is Basic and What is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons?
I'm not a failure. I'm pre-successful.

In the beginning, there was OD&D. And, lo, the LBBs and the supplements were good! Alas, they were difficult to understand, and without understanding, it was difficult to know how to play this game of Dragons and Dungeons. And many wept ....

Into these sad circumstances came Dr. J. Eric Holmes. And Holmes looked upon the confusion of the people and their lamentations, and went onto the good Gygax and spake: Oh Gygax! We must have a way for the masses to play. We must simplify and standardize the rules of OD&D such that all can partake! We must make it ... BASIC. And the Gygax looked upon Holmes and gave his assent.

Um ... yeah. So the original Basic (Holmes Basic) was a simplification and streamlining of the OD&D rules for beginning players. Prior to publication, they also inserted references to the upcoming Advanced Dungeons and Dragons which Gygax was working on. AD&D was a codification and expansion of the OD&D rules- while Holmes Basic stripped out a lot of the fluff from the supplements and Dragon Magazine articles and tried to present a uniform (and playable) rules system, AD&D incorporated and expanded on a lot of the things that had been grafted onto OD&D in the meantime. Even the nomenclature made sense- Basic and Advanced. That said, while Holmes Basic presents itself as a form of "starter" box for AD&D, it really ... isn't. It's more largely compatible. AD&D was charting a new course, while Holmes was really OD&D simplified and constrained to the first three levels.

This split became more pronounced later due to the lingering issues between Arneson and TSR/Gygax. In 1981, TSR released a game that was interoperable with, but distinct from, AD&D. Moreover, unlike Holmes Basic this was intended to be a separate game as it went past the first three levels- that's why it's often referred to as Moldvay/Cook (as Moldvay wrote the "Basic" rules and Cook wrote the "Expert" rules). Finally, in 1983 there was the release of Mentzer Basic (often referred to as BECMI) and in 1991 there was the Rules Cyclopedia (RC) and the Black Box. Meanwhile, the original AD&D (1e) was replaced with a largely-compatible second edition (2e) in 1989.

So, for purposes of this thread, I am largely looking at the comparative popularity of AD&D (1e) as opposed to the Moldvay/Mentzer Basic rules sets during the 80s.


B. Why Basic Wasn't Popular Despite the Huge Sales.
I would say that I outdid myself, but I'm always this awesome. So I simply did myself.

Let me start by saying that I am only talking about North America- the United States specifically. International markets are different. Broadly speaking, I would say that while I would love to see numbers on actual play, my experience matches that of the vast majority of people that I have seen comment - Basic wasn't broadly popular during this time. Here, I am going to provide some general background as to why I think that is the case.

1. Personal experiences.
Sure, anecdotes (and my personal experience) are not a substitute for comprehensive statistics. But I was there during that time. I did not see a lot of "pure" Basic being played. I want to caveat that somewhat- for reasons I will get into a little later, there was a lot of people using some Basic material and mixing it up with AD&D. Because it was highly interoperable, you could easily run classic modules (such as B2 or X1) using your AD&D characters. But I am hard-pressed to recall people who were playing D&D regularly that were sticking to the full B/X or BECMI experience (race-as-class etc.). If someone said that they were playing D&D, the assumption was that they meant ... AD&D.

2. Support.
AD&D just had more .... stuff. Sure, B/X had a lot of good modules! Which you could play with AD&D rules. But AD&D had more. And AD&D just kept pumping out books (Deities & Demigods, OA, UA, Monster Manual II), Campaign Settings (Greyhawk, then Dragonlance, then FR), not to mention the full support of Dragon Magazine. Go back and look at articles in Dragon- it's all AD&D, all the time. Articles for and about Basic were incredibly rare- you were as likely to see an article about Star Frontiers. Dragon (which was the periodical back then) was essentially, "AD&D and occasionally other stuff."

3. Conventions.
A quick search of Gencon's program database isn't dispositive, but it is informative. From 1981-1985, we have the following numbers for AD&D v. D&D (including OD&D):

1983: 97 / 12
1984: 134 / 7
1985: 149 / 10

I'm sure that someone else can do more, but this matches my recollection- there just wasn't much appetite for public play, whether at conventions or finding new groups, for Basic.

Now, I know that the amazing people here can do more, but I am reasonably certain that the high sales numbers of Basic are not matched by actual play. So ... why?


C. All Sales are Final, but not all Sales are Played.
It's a very rare occurrence. Like a total solar eclipse. Or a person on ENWorld saying, "You know what? You convinced me. I'm wrong."

During the 1980s, I remember having one DMG. One (or maybe 2?) PHBs, and no less than one copy of Holmes, two of Moldvay, and three Mentzers. I am certainly an outlier on this, but my experience as is likely similar to most- almost every AD&D player had one (or more) copies of Basic laying around. Breaking this down, why were sales of Basic so high, when actual play was not?

1. The Gateway.
The first explanation is that some people would often get a copy of Basic (like a "starter set" today) before migrating to AD&D (the "Advanced Game"). If they kept playing, they were playing AD&D, and if they stopped playing, they weren't playing any D&D, and it ended up in the basement rec room along with the bumper pool table.

2. The Gift
"Hey, Sharon, that nephew of ours. What is it that he likes?"
"Well, Harold, I think it's ... Deacons and Doogans? Doohickeys and Demons?"
"That's right, Sharon ... it's ... uh ... wait, look at this box! It says, Dungeons and Dragons. I bet that's it! We should get him that for Christmas!"
"And the socks, Harold?"
"And the socks!"

3. The Confusion.
The final point is somewhat confusing to people who are raised on the internet and the google, but back then ... people didn't know stuff. So if you were into D&D, and you saw some new Red Box (say, the Menzter set), you just might get it because why not? While today people can exhaustively describe the differences between the various games ... back then, it was just kind of all in a big morass, and while there was some knowledge that, say, X2 seemed a little off if you were playing it with AD&D, a lot of people didn't really dive into the differences.


D. Cool Story- But Does Any of this Matter?
"You're not better than me," was my yearbook quote.

Well, no. Not really! To a certain extent ... nothing matters. Time will go on, all species will be replaced by elves, and eventually the heat-death of the universe will occur.

But also ... yes? I think accuracy in history is always something to strive after- which is why I am so happy to see all the books (with receipts) about the early history of D&D, and can't wait to read this one coming out by Ben Riggs. But I also think that the arc of history with regard to AD&D and OD&D/Basic has been interesting. From my P.O.V., the 80s were an interesting time. It was, for the most part, not a time that saw a lot of simplification of RPG systems. So it's important to try and remember that zeitgeist. That said, the OSR movement, especially in terms of rebelling against 3e, really brought back an emphasis and a reappreciation of the earlier systems- both OD&D and (especially) Moldvay's Basic. I think people today have a much higher appreciation than most people back then had for the elegance and simplicity those rules had. However, this appreciation today doesn't change the way it was viewed back then- which, unfortunately, was often unfair.

And I think that the sales numbers provide interesting fodder- it shows that people were widely exposed to Basic D&D back then; but based on my musings, I still think that, during the 80s, it was not nearly as widely played.
 

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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Yeah, I was gonna say that my off the top of my head explanation is that it is very likely a lot more Basic sets were purchased to try out or as gifts than AD&D books (esp. since there was no AD&D slipcase starter set with all three main books for sale), which means a lot more AD&D books were bought intentionally than Basic sets, which were either never played, played briefly, and/or played briefly and then moved on to AD&D (or a hybrid), while few people stayed "pure" in terms of Basic.

The letters columns in Dungeon Mag back in the 80s and 90s have a steady stream of 1 or 2 people every couple of issues begging for more Basic D&D adventures, so some people were clearly playing the game, but in terms of submissions and the editorial notion of what people wanted, AD&D was it.
 

And today we have core fans debating the ins and outs of Tasha's and pining for this or that specialty setting, where most players of the game pick up the starter set at target and then get the phb and maybe MM on dnd beyond.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
The thing that I think is missing in this post, which is good overall, is the difference between the casual player and the hard core player. IME AD&D attracted more of the hard core players - the folks who were going to go all in on the game, make it a big part of their social life and, most importantly to TSR, buy more AD&D books. Basic D&D IME had their hard core players (I mean, by my definition I was one) but was more played by folks who were happy to play for a few hours and then walk away and do something else.

Number-wise I suspect that if we compared the average number of copies sold on non-core supplements across the two lines AD&D would come out on top (not total number because they made more AD&D stuff, but average per unit). Because more AD&D folks were making it part of their life and not just a boxed set they pulled out to play when their incredibly nerdy DM friend convinced them to come join a game.

The letters columns in Dungeon Mag back in the 80s and 90s have a steady stream of 1 or 2 people every couple of issues begging for more Basic D&D adventures, so some people were clearly playing the game, but in terms of submissions and the editorial notion of what people wanted, AD&D was it.
As I was reminded in another thread - the creative folks at TSR revealed after the Wizards purchase that the sales folks never shared sales information with them. They just made games based on their perception of what they thought would sell. If TSR was a well managed company at the time then "what they were producing" would probably be a good metric of actual popularity, but given that TSR was the particular shade of dysfunctional that it was it's possible that the creative folks were just making books they thought people wanted. Without seeing sales numbers comparisons I'd hesitate to give TSR the benefit of the doubt on this one (even though it agrees with my own gut instinct above).
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
In the thread about the sales figures of Basic and Advanced D&D, we are given a chart by @BenRiggs that compares the sales of Basic D&D (Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer) to Advanced D&D (PHB+DMG) from 1979-1995. Later elaboration indicates that this does not include international sales, so it does not include the very successful versions of Basic that were translated and produced for the international market. The notable thing from the chart is that for almost all the years, sales of the Basic rules were close to, are higher, than the comparable AD&D rulebooks. These numbers are understandably confusing to some people who were playing during that time- after all, AD&D was dominant.
*Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Dennings (1991) and Stewart (1994). That's the full list of Basic sets, that would be captured in those sales numbers through '95. :)

I think I'm on much the same page re: the play pattern. I started with Mentzer Basic, found a copy of Cook Expert at Kaybee Toys and got that, then gradually picked up the rest of the BECMI sets, a secondhand Mentzer Expert from an older friend, and then found out about AD&D and started getting THOSE books. AD&D wound up being what I played more, after the initial newbie flailing around trying to figure out the Basic set with my little brother, the occasional neighbor kid, a little help from my parents, and occasional advice some of their friends, who gamed.
 
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jaycrockett

Explorer
To me, starting out as a kid in the early 80's, the basic and advanced products were all the same game, because they both were unplayable as written. We cobbled together from every source we could find. I inherited both a holmes basic and a player's handbook from my brother, but ended up collected mainly hardbound books. On the other hand my friend collected the BECMI sets as they came out. Frankly I was a little jealous of those, they had some cool stuff in them.
 

trying to go back in the memory machine. I think 1 advantage that basic had over AD&D was dice. Dice was harder to get back in the early 80's . I referenced this in another thread but the toy stores that sold basic etc didnt carry dice (or i cant recall). i think you had to go to an actual hobby/game store to get dice .Even then you had to use a crayon to color the dice numbers (or we did back then)
 

G

Guest 7034872

Guest
I think the Gateway Hypothesis (GH to make it sound more technical and academic, wot wot) is plausible. I think the others are, too, but GH is the one I saw a lot of in my own youth. All the gamers I knew in junior high and high school started on Basic, as did I. We then progressed to AD&D and our Basic books sat in the bedroom closet under the Rubik's Cube and some old Lego blocks and never really came back out. In my circle, anyway, this was a common pattern.
 

Retreater

Legend
I'm trying to think about why I didn't get into Basic as my entry into the game. It could be that AD&D2e was the current hot game that was getting all the promotion. It could be that it was more available at our local bookstore. It could be that it wasn't in shrink wrap and could be flipped through by my concerned mom before purchasing. It could be that it was the game my older brother's friends were playing.
Now reflecting on it in hindsight, I probably made the wrong decision. I had no real guidance in how to play for around 5 years, and I still probably run the game "wrong." It's like how I taught myself how to play piano based on my knowledge of guitar - and my wife, the music teacher, finally told me my technique is completely off - but I'm trained in my ways for like 30 years.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I started in 1984 with B/X. My brothers and their friends already played and only played AD&D…because Basic was “kids’ stuff.” But they all had all the boxes.

The Basic boxes were cheaper than the AD&D books and came with dice and modules. They also had the benefit of being called Dungeons & Dragons on the cover. So when kids made Xmas or birthday lists and they wrote “Dungeons & Dragons” their hapless parents and relatives would go to the store and see cheaper boxes with a matching name and more expensive books with an “Advanced” in the name, and grab the one that more closely matched the name written on the list. We had to learn real quick to be extra specific.
 
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