The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Last week, D&D released a set of 25 monsters for $6, only on D&D Beyond. No pdf, no physical print. Wizards also released the alpha of Maps, a light VTT (watch my review here). D&D print products have higher prices, fewer pages, larger font, and have increased sharply in cadence (2017 saw three book releases all year, 2023 has four in just the final five months). If you can’t tell whether the big release of 2023 (traditionally in September) is Phandelver or Planescape, you aren’t alone.
Zooming out, we have a business pillar of WotC focused on D&D Beyond growth, a pillar of WotC focused on building a 3-D VTT, and a pillar designing D&D’s print products and the 2024 updates. Another pillar focuses on licensing, such as the incredibly successful Baldur’s Gate 3 video game.
Why is WotC trying so many strategies? What might they do in the future? What should other RPG companies be doing?
Understanding D&D as a business, and its effect on the larger RPG hobby, is not easy. Wizards of the Coast is complex as a business and does not share D&D’s revenue or profits. Recently we had the chance to see a portion of D&D’s sales. This is the first in a series of articles examining the data. In this first part we look at the top-selling products.
The YouTube Show called Roll for Combat disclosed BookScan data on July 18, 2023. One of the hosts has access to it through his distributor, and they shared the data on screen. I have transcribed it and analyzed it with the help of others.
BookScan data is normally available only to invited book publishers. BookScan tracks the sales of all books sold in the US to big box stores. It excludes direct sales, digital sales, gaming stores, and comic book stores. It includes Amazon, though Amazon in some years (especially during the pandemic) provided either no data or partial data out of worries that it disclosed too much about Amazon sales.
A UCLA study estimated that BookScan may account for 75% of all retail sales. The amount for D&D is likely much lower, because of the importance of gaming stores and other sales venues for RPGs. More on the likely percentage later.
Okay, so BookScan is a portion of all sales. A good question is whether BookScan sales are representative of other forms of sale. For example, is it likely that the products BookScan shows as the top sellers are also the same for other sales, such as gaming stores and WotC’s own digital sales? Because BookScan includes Amazon and Amazon is so significant a source of sales for diverse audiences, it probably is representative. However, we should keep in mind that the conclusions I draw here are based on this partial data set and any conclusion could be wrong.
Let’s look at the top 15 highest-selling products in the BookScan data for D&D. The top five are what you might expect: The PH, the first Starter Set (no longer being printed as of 2023), the DMG, the MM, and the second Essentials Starter Set. The Player’s Handbook has 1.56M sales since 2014 through BookScan alone, which is a huge number (more on this later). While the numbers drop off, the MM at 780k is still a lot of Monster Manuals for BookScan alone.
In the above image (and others I am providing) you will see the columns I transcribed. These include:
If you have tracked D&D sales announcements, such as when Tasha’s hit the bestseller lists among all books including, it won’t be a surprise that spots 6-8 are Xanathar’s, Tasha’s, and Volo’s. D&D was clearly happy with how these performed.
If we look at just the top 15 products, the volume of sales from BookScan alone is far beyond what anyone else in the RPG industry is capable of selling. The excellent Shadowdark RPG had 13,249 backers. Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game had 81,567 backers. MCDM’s Flee Mortals had 27k backers. As impressive and wonderful as the top Kickstarted games are, including some of the biggest names in RPG publishing, they don’t come close to D&D. We know that 4E outsold Paizo’s Pathfinder, and given that we hear PF sales and play rates seem to be lower now, we can expect 5E to be far higher than Pathfinder 1E or 2E.
The 5E PH has 1.56M sales just on BookScan. The three 5E core books have a combined 3M copies through BookScan. And the product line extends far beyond those products, year after year, for a decade.
As I mentioned in Why No RPG Company Truly Competes with Wizards of the Coast and The Real Competition for D&D and Wizards of the Coast, D&D is in a class of its own.
Number 9 is our first surprise: the DM Screen Reincarnated. If you think of how cheap it is to make a cardboard DM screen compared to a book, selling 212k copies of this at $15 is fantastic. It’s also interesting because for most of 5E’s life, Gale Force 9 had the license to create custom DM screens for each D&D hardback adventure.
It’s also worth recalling that 5E was envisioned as an edition that would primarily generate revenue through licensed sales: t-shirts, video games, hats, even licensed DM screens. 212k copies of the official DM screen? Impressive!
And on that note, one of the biggest surprises in the BookScan data is that the licensed D&D Heroes’ Feast cookbook at number 10! An incredible 207k copies of the cookbook have been sold!
The BookScan data includes many licensed products in the top 94 products:
Many of these are comparatively lower sales, but they are also generally not gaming books. Novels, introductory books for young kids, and so on. These are products worth making as long as you don’t print too many up front. It shows the vast diversity of 5E’s licenses and how broad the appeal and market can be. Art & Arcana, a visual history book, has two versions and the two together represent a strong showing. Some are a bit disappointing. 18,965 copies of a Stranger Things D&D novel is lower than we would hope given the potential audience for the product.
The slipcase of three D&D core rulebooks at $170 is number 11, followed by a surprisingly strong showing by SCAG and then the best-performing 5E adventure: Curse of Strahd with 147k copies. Fans always rave about how good a setting the Eberron: Rising from the Last War setting book is, and it performs extremely well at number 14.
Some folks may be surprised to see just one adventure in the top 15, but this is consistent with previous editions. Core books do best, then sourcebooks (especially those with broad appeal), then adventures. If we look at products on this list that are core books or starter sets, those tend to do really well. All 5E products of this type are top 11, plus one at number 40. Here they are, along with the 3E and 4E versions.
The 15th item on this list is the only 3E book to show up in the top 15 – the 2003 3E Revised PH. There are several 3E and 4E books that show up in this list. It is hard to know how good this data is for older editions, which had far lower distribution through big box stores. It has been said that 4E core book sales were better than Essentials, but only Essentials show up on these lists. So, in general I will not try to draw conclusions from this BookScan data of other editions other than to say that 5E has done far better than the BookScan numbers for previous editions. We do have some data for older editions that doesn’t come from BookScan, such as that provided by Ben Riggs as part of his research for Slaying the Dragon. Here is what Ben found for 1E and 2E sales from his research. This data comes from TSR sources and thus covers all points of sale.
Looking at these numbers we see that combined sales of 1E PH and DMG are just above 750,000. The combined sales for 5E are 2,386,702. 5E has sold about three times what 1E sold, just through the BookScan sources alone!
We can also see how the sales of 1E and 2E drop sharply. This also happened with 3E. 10 years after 5E started, the 5E PH is selling 127k copies in 7 months. The 1E PH+DMG were selling around 50k copies combined a decade later. More on this topic of declining sales to come!
Is anything missing from the top 15? Various licensed boxed sets, such as the Rick and Morty boxed set at #40, did not do as well as you might think (especially compared to the cookbook!). The Stranger Things boxed set does not appear on this list… and it was not well regarded as a product for either Stranger Things fans or D&D fans.
We don’t see a lot of recent products in the top 15, but that is to be expected. Most of the products in the top 15 are key releases with 5-9 years of sales.
Up next: 5E’s top adventures and our next set of big surprises!