Wednesday, August 3, 2022

D&D Historical Sales Data

Recently game historians Paul Stormberg (at Dragonsfoot) and Ben Riggs (on Facebook) have been sharing a trove of historical sales data from TSR for various D&D and AD&D products. As a nerd, I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff, but was frustrated by the fragmentary and piecemeal nature of it so I decided to copy & paste their numbers into a combined spreadsheet of my own. Once I had collected all of their data and organized it as I wanted it (chronologically by release date, more or less) I also felt the urge to insert placeholders for all of the major items (hardback books and boxed sets) that they did not provide numbers for, which became a massive rabbit-hole because I'd forgotten how many boxed sets TSR released for 2E AD&D (and I have no confidence that I didn't miss some, especially since I had stopped buying any of them by about the end of 1990 - the last two items on the list I ever actually owned were the first Ruins of Undermountain set and the Monstrous Manual - the latter came out a couple years after I'd stopped playing 2E, but I bought it anyway as a reference to replace the terrible looseleaf binders that had preceded it). 

With these numbers conveniently combined, I noticed a couple interesting (to me) bits of trivia. While everybody knows that the D&D Basic Set was TSR's all-time best-selling product, with total sales of over 3 million units, if you separate out the different versions of that set (1977 Holmes, 1981 Moldvay, and 1983 Mentzer), the best-selling single product is actually the 1st edition AD&D Players Handbook (with total sales of more than 1.5 million).

In all, TSR had five items that sold over a million units each:

  1. AD&D Players Handbook, 1st edition (1.57 million)
  2. AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st edition (1.33 million)
  3. D&D Basic Set - Moldvay edit (1.26 million)
  4. AD&D Monster Manual, 1st edition (1.16 million)
  5. D&D Basic Set - Mentzer edit (1.1 million)

Additionally, another 6 products sold over 500,000 units apiece:

  1. AD&D Player's Handbook, 2nd edition (776K)
  2. D&D Basic Set - Holmes edit (639K)
  3. D&D Expert Set - Cook/Marsh edit (619K)
  4. AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, 2nd edition (543K)
  5. AD&D Monster Manual II (541K)
  6. D&D Companion Set (537K)

The D&D Companion Set is a weird anomaly on this list, with a sales trajectory in its first 3 years (1984-86) pretty similar to other products, followed by an inexplicably huge jump in its 4th year (1987) to above what it sold in year one (and more than any other product sold that year, except for the brand-new Dragonlance Adventures AD&D hardback), with sales remaining similarly high for the last 3 years of its product life. I have no way to explain that strange late-in-cycle popularity for this set. I almost wonder if the numbers for those years might be off by a factor of 10 (that TSR's records show 132,000 sales when it was actually 13,200, and the same for the following years), which would be more in line with the trends seen for other products released around the same time (and would put its total sales around 250K - still very respectable). If anybody has an explanation for why these numbers are correct and this several-year-old boxed set was somehow outselling both the core AD&D books and the D&D Basic Set by a wide margin for several years, I'd love to hear it. Possibly AD&D fans were buying it because it included rules for topics (domain management, mass combat, top-end monsters) that weren't really covered in AD&D, but if so, why did they wait until 1987 to start doing so? I was active in the scene in those years (reading Dragon magazine, attending GenCon) and I certainly don't remember the D&D Companion Set being particularly popular or talked-about, and although I had a copy (purchased in 1984) I don't remember anyone else from my gaming circle buying it, and certainly not in 1987-90.

Anyway, this is deep in-the-weeds nerd trivia for sure, but since I spent a couple hours yesterday pulling it all together, I figured I'd make it available for anyone else who might also be interested. Enjoy! 

Google Sheets link

7 comments:

  1. I haven't seen Paul's sales data posts yet (will go looking now, thanks for mentioning them!), but Benjamin's data specifically doesn't include the years 1977 or 1978, so the first 1-2 years of sales for MM, PHB, and Holmes basic set are not included in his analysis. (This per a Q I asked him somewhere on FB).

    Some of the MM and DMG initial print runs were quite large (by today's standards gigantic!), as also captured on the Acaeum at https://www.acaeum.com/library/printrun.html And, while there's not PHB data there, the final comment on the page at https://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/phb.html indicates that "Later prints differ only in the printing number noted on the copyright page. The Twelfth printing was in November 1987, the Fourteenth printing was in October 1988, the Fifteenth printing was in July 1989, and the Seventeenth printing was in July 1990 (actually a year after the 2nd Edition Players Handbook had been released, since dealers were still placing orders to TSR for the 1st Edition PHB!)." So clearly the book was still selling throughout the 1980s and even into the early 1990s (perhaps following-along with T1-4 which had reprints stretching into the 2e era too).

    Allan.

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  2. Thanks very much for sharing the sheet, I have been trying to pull together the same thing, this saves me a bunch of time!

    Most interesting to me from it all was the clear fade off of everything over time - stack everything up and look at the units shipped in a year and there is this long slow fade off which is grim to see. It suggests that it did not matter how good anything published after ~94 was, it was launching into a structurally declining market (for whatever reason)

    Though to your point on the huge up-tick in the Companion; could it have been tied to the launch of 3 big settings that year? Manual of the Planes, Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms set all launched in '87, Greyhawk Adventures launched the next year, could those settings have drawn people in and they picked up Companion as their ruleset to run those settings?

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  3. I sure would like to know how many copies of the 5E PHB they're selling now with this apparent big resurgence. Is it on the order of magnitude of the 1E DMG?

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  4. I wish we had the wholesale prices that TSR charged. Having actual dollar figures would be very interesting. Knowing revenue would make these numbers more enlightening. While it is interesting to see how many units they sold, it would be a lot more telling to find out what kind of revenue they were bringing in. We could do much better analysis of the problems that sank TSR. Many of the conclusions Riggs makes in his books are speculative at best.

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  5. Historically, back before the 2-Tier distribution network collapsed in the mid- to late-1990s, most product was sold to distributors at 50-60% off of MSRP. The distributors sold the product to retailers at 50% off, which made their margin 0-10% (you can see why the distribution network collapsed...). Retailers then sold the product to customers at twice the price they paid for it (50% buy to 100% sell at MSRP), which is where their margins sat.

    Allan.

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  6. Thanks for the summary. Interesting stuff as always!

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  7. That Companion stat *is* strange. My co-DM picked up the Companion set circa '85 and we incorporated parts into our AD&D game, but I wasn't even able to pick up my own copy until I found a USED copy years later...probably '87 or '88, but that certainly wouldn't have been counted as a "new" sale. And the Masters box? I never even *saw* one until the '90s (and, again, used).

    And, keep, in mind...I was actively looking for new/good D&D product. The various Mystara Gazeteers were all over...and *stayed* on shelves for years. The box sets? No, not really. At least not in Seattle.

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