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D&D 5E’s Top-Selling Adventures and What It Means for the Hobby

Strahd is King

When we looked at the top 15 D&D 5E products, Curse of Strahd was the only adventure on the list. It has often been said that adventures don’t sell particularly well. Both 3E and 4E tried different approaches to reducing the number of adventures sold and fine-tuning the type of adventure for broad appeal.

Has 5E had better success? The answer is complex and, to me, fascinating! Before we dig in, a reminder that unless noted otherwise, I am referring to the recently disclosed BookScan data.

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.

The Top Adventures

Here are 5E’s adventures in order of the most sales since release. Columns: the Rank is the rank of all D&D book products in the BookScan data. RTD Sales is the total sales since publication. YTD is the sales in 2023 through roughly July. 1st 4/8/52 week columns each show the sales that many weeks after publication. I’ve added the Edition and Type columns, with Type being my personal interpretation.

The 5 best-selling adventures are CoS, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Yawning Portal, and Saltmarsh.

Surprise 1: Anthologies and Reprints

I find it surprising that three of the five are reworked classic adventures and two of those are anthologies! Some of these releases do benefit from time, allowing sales to build up. Even the youngest, Dragon Heist, has been out five years (almost as long as 1E and 4E, which both lasted six years!).

Curse of Strahd has 147k sales, and all of the top 5 are either above 100k in sales or very close. The Curse of Strahd: Revamped Premium Edition has far lower sales, but if you consider that it is double price, in terms of revenue it behaves as if it had twice the sales (the equivalent of 75k sales, putting it in 11th place… or, you could perhaps argue both CoS versions combine for roughly 222k worth of sales).

There other surprises in this list. Rime of the Frostmaiden does very well despite being a recent adventure, as does the Spelljammer slip-case. This is despite both products having lukewarm reviews and the higher price of the Spelljammer slip-case. Both do better than Witchlight, which receives great reviews and sold very well initially. 

Out of the Abyss and Princes of the Apocalypse do poorly despite their 2015 release dates. Neither is ranked particularly high by most fans, so perhaps it is as simple as that.

Ranking the Adventures

Members of my Patreon helped analyze the data. Here are the adventures, normalized to week 4 sales:

And the raw data with points for first 4, 8, 12, and 52 weeks:

We can see how some products, such as Dragon Heist and Frostmaiden, take off after 4 weeks, making them huge hits. Was Frostmaiden the first adventure many purchased and played as they considered emerging from quarantine? Did the theme of isolation resonate?

Others, such as Mad Mage and Radiant Citadel, decline after week 8. Normalizing the data shows how Curse of Strahd is steadily increasing, while Strahd Revamped takes off sharply. Spelljammer, Witchlight, Saltmarsh, and Dragonlance are all fairly flat, without huge jumps.

Fans of high level play can perhaps look to the Mad Mage graph as proof for why D&D doesn’t see much high-level content. The adventure does well for 8 weeks, then really slows. Many recent releases, including Golden Vault, have strong starts.

Spelljammer is a tough one. It starts very well, placing it at the top of the second chart. But when we normalize it we see that long-term sales are slowing. Is that due to word-of-mouth? Price point? Hard to say. In the end, it still may do well compared to other releases. It would be fascinating to have BookScan data for it and Planescape a year from now!

Surprise 2: Critical Role

I have a friend who made a bet that the Critical Role D&D products would blow away the D&D market. Unfortunately for my friend, Critical Role’s D&D products have not sold well. This is a huge surprise given the viewership of Critical Role.

In the list of 5E adventures, Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep ranks next to last, even behind other adventures released month after it. It only beats Keys from the Golden Vault, and Keys should surpass Netherdeep before the end of the year.

How do other Critical Role products fare?

The highest CR product is Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount at #19 overall with 116k sales, just below Dragon Heist and above Hoard of the Dragon Queen. That sounds good, but Wildemount is more of a setting or sourcebook. If we compare Wildemount to Eberron, Eberron has about 27,000 more BookScan sales. Tasha’s, released the same year of 2020, has 347k sales.

The revised Tal’dorei book, published by Critical Role / Darrington Press and without WotC, does not show up on the BookScan data that was shared. However, we can see the original Green Ronin book had 45k sales and then Netherdeep has a low 21k sales.

Some of this likely falls on Wizards, who seems to forget its partners as soon as the book is published. For example, see a recent D&D Beyond article about the history of Phandalin, which purports to cite every product that mentions the town in Phandelver and Below, but completely “forgets” to mention that the Acquisitions Incorporated book details the future of Phandalin.

Some of it is perhaps the different format. Fans enjoying a D&D liveplay stream are not automatically tabletop RPG players who would buy a CR sourcebook or adventure.

Now, you may recall that I once said Critical Role is the only RPG company that has a small chance of acting as a competitor to WotC. I still think this is true.

On the Roll for Combat YouTube show, they shared BookScan data for Critical Role / Darrington Press. BookScan showed seventeen book products, from novels to graphic novels to art books to character backgrounds. The top book had 55k sales, and all products combined for 401k sales. That’s strong, especially when books are just a part of their many media, gaming, and streaming efforts.

Overall, Critical Role is probably doing a fine job with books. RPGs and board games may be slower (we lack any data on board games) but perhaps still worthwhile as a way to expand their audience. CR book sales and even gaming book sales are still at a level most RPG companies wish they could have.

Comparing to Previous Editions

We don’t have much historical data on adventure sales. Ben Riggs shared that all Dark Sun adventures combined sold (from all sources, not just what would show up in BookScan) as follows:

This shows a combined sales of 61k in 1991, then a height of 246k in 1992, and then a rapid decline with 3k in 1998 and just 135 in 1998. In 1992 (the year Dark Sun adventures were first sold) there were four adventures (DS1, DSQ1, DSQ2, DSQ3) so the average sales per adventure could be 61k per adventure at the height of sales.

An anonymous WotC employee once shared some figures on adventure sales, saying that the 1980s saw varying sales, with most between 50k and 150k. This seems high, and may not account for the returns that have since been described by historians. The same source says the 1990s saw most 2E adventures selling 7-15k copies with very few above 100k. Starting with 3E, the edition tried to release close to one adventure per year, with sales climbing to 35-60k per adventure.

By these measures, 5E is doing extremely well. Just on BookScan data alone, 5E adventures released after 2020 have more than 70k sales, and often higher. BookScan data is partial data, so the numbers are actually significantly higher!

5E’s Evolving Strategy

D&D 5E had a great initial strategy. Each summer would see the year’s primary adventure announced. Months of fanfare would communicate the theme and allow time for licensing partners to prepare offerings. September would see the release of the adventure, followed by a year of spin-offs. A secondary adventure was often available – often an anthology or a re-release, typically in the March to May timeframe. A sourcebook, such as Tasha’s or Xanathar’s, was the third book of the year.

In 2017 I wrote about the effectiveness of this strategy. Each primary release, such as Tyranny of Dragons or Tomb of Annihilation, had a clear theme with evocative concepts. The approach made it feel as if D&D itself revolved around the release. Even if you never played Storm King’s Thunder, you understood the theme and picked up on the concepts of giants and the Ordning. The adventures became classics that resonated throughout the hobby. Organized play, individual creators, and partners all played off of the clear theme.

Shortly after that, WotC really aimed to make each release a major marketing event with liveplay, guests, media invites, and even sets and actors capturing the splendor of Waterdeep or the hellscape of Avernus. Big money was spent on these events, with mixed results. Dragon Heist is the second best-selling adventure… but Descent into Avernus is the 12th, bested by Tomb (which saw a smaller such event) and Frostmaiden (which instead had an online event) and Spelljammer (which was part of the marketing for various releases and felt less like a classic September release). Then again, I really liked Witchlight’s marketing and it has been slow after initially strong sales.

A quick interesting comparison. The original AD&D 2E Spelljammer campaign setting, a boxed set, sold 54k copies in 1990 (data from Ben Riggs). The 5E version sold 84k in about 10-11 months.

The increase in growth during the pandemic saw Hasbro take renewed interest in D&D, saying that D&D would be the next $1B brand. This would be incredible growth for D&D… how could it be possible? One approach D&D has tried is to increase releases. 2015 and 2016 see the original model, with each year offering three books (primary adventure, sourcebook, secondary adventure). Recent years have doubled that to six books, plus an increase in additional gaming accessories and partner books. As I said before, if you can’t tell whether Phandelver and Below or Planescape is the primary adventure for 2023, you aren’t alone. 2023 sees five books released between August 15th and November 14th!

Adventures are just part of the picture. Next time, let’s take a look at Accessories, Sourcebooks, and Settings. Which categories do you think sell the most?

Check out my review of D&D Beyond’s new Maps VTT!

21 comments on “D&D 5E’s Top-Selling Adventures and What It Means for the Hobby

  1. Jacob
    September 29, 2023

    I don’t think Spelljammer counts as an adventure. Only a third of the product is devoted to the adventure. I think WotC successfully marketed it as more of a setting book, so it sold like one.

    I my experience, outside of the RPG net-o-sphere, a lot of folks have a high opinion of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. It seems to be up there with Strahd, Dragon Heist, Tyranny of Dragons, and Tomb of Annihilation as one of the most popular hardback campaigns for average RPG players.

    I would have predicted that Princes of the Apocalypse was the worst selling big hardback adventure and this data seems to support that, but oddly enough, Winninger was on Facebook a while back saying that a certain adventure undersold other D&D 5e adventures, and invited folks to guess which adventure it was (adding that he thought it was a quality adventure). My guess was Princes of the Apocalypse, and per Winninger that was incorrect.

    • Alphastream
      September 29, 2023

      I personally felt Spelljammer was sold the way Dragonlance was: as more of an experience than just a setting. To me it felt like the framing was around running what was provided, vs launching your own campaigns and adventures. But, I could absolutely be wrong about that. In the next article in the series I do also include it as a setting and you can see how it performed in that category.

      If I look at underselling adventures, I’m shocked that Witchlight did not do better given its quality, or Avernus given its marketing. And Netherdeep is a shocker just because you would think enough of the CR audience would want to actually play D&D in that world… but that seems to not be a correct assumption!

      • JACOB
        September 29, 2023

        Looking at Spelljammer’s sales for the first 4 weeks and first 52 weeks, it outsold everything else on this list by a large margin. It’s much closer to setting books like Wildemount or Eberron than it is to the second fastest selling book on this list, Candlekeep.

        If you look at the first 4 weeks, 8 weeks, and 52 weeks, Witchlight is on a pretty similar trajectory to Ghosts of Saltmarsh. It just released more recently.

        Given the ever growing size of the 5e back catalog, I would be surprised if the newer adventures continue to sell as well as older adventures more than a year after release. There’re so very many options for DMs to choose from now.

        The Critical Role Productions folks seem to know that most folks aren’t specifically interested in playing in the Critical Role setting. What we’ve heard about Daggerheart suggests that it’s designed around you developing your own setting as you run it, much as the cast of Critical Role has gradually fleshed out Exandria over the past decade.

      • JACOB
        September 29, 2023

        It’s also interesting that you left off Strixhaven.

        Like Spelljammer, Strixhaven was also sort of marketed as a setting book (presumably because setting books sell better). However, unlike Spelljammer, Strixhaven features an adventure that occupies more than half the book’s page count.

        • Alphastream
          September 29, 2023

          There are many questions the data can’t answer. There are some releases that do really well, perhaps due to being released during the holidays. Others, like Strixhaven, were perhaps crowded out by other releases. I wish we had data on the five books released in August to November of this year, but even if we did, it isn’t clear if the problem would be crowding or something else.

      • Gustavo-sembiano
        October 1, 2023

        You told us that Bookscan povided no data or parcial data from Amazon in some years or period. Do you think that Avernus’ poor performance could be related to a period where BookScan did not have the data?

        • Alphastream
          October 1, 2023

          BGDiA was released in September 2019, with similar initial sales to 2018’s Dragon Heist. It then slows down, such that by the end of the first year, it is 10k fewer in sales than Dragon Heist. All of this is before any potential lapses in Amazon reporting. So, I think this shows that Avernus was already less popular than Dragon Heist and slowing down before any Amazon impacts.

  2. Nat20
    September 29, 2023

    I’m quite surprised Princes of the Apocalypse sold so poorly. I know it earned mixed reviews, but it was the second adventure, filled some useful holes in the Monster Manual, and even had some new player options. It certainly felt like a big release to me when it came out! Shows what I know…

    Speaking of me being wrong about things—is Wild Beyond the Witchlight really that well regarded? I saw it as the first sign of a major drop in quality in the official adventures. When I read through it, my reaction was basically that I appreciated the attempt to write something aimed at new players, but that it did so in all the wrong ways: teaching the DM the wrong lessons and railroading the players. What did I miss?

    (As an aside, Witchlight was also the first time I felt as though WotC had completely abandoned the marketing strategy you discuss of theming the year around a major storyline, which I now sorely miss.)

    • Alphastream
      September 30, 2023

      I did really like the PoA monsters! It’s always possible the BookScan data is not representative for some reason, though there should be enough sales here that it does represent overall sales.

      Witchlight is really well written, and lacks the major structural problems many 5E adventures have. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t super fun to run. It has been interesting to see that even among designer friends or long-time DMs, we rank the 5E adventures in completely different orders in terms of favorites.

      Frostmaiden had entirely different marketing plans which were changed due to covid, so I might argue that it was the first to be marketed very differently. I thought the marketing for Witchlight was really impressive. But, maybe it was just my style.

      • Iosue
        October 3, 2023

        PotA was pretty highly rated on Amazon, and even the two reviews I found for it on were 4/4 and 3/4.

        PotA, OotA, and SKT all sold roughly in the same ballpark, and I think that was essentially the market size at the time they came out, before the Critical Role-infused growth. HotDQ is something of an outlier, given that it was the very first 5e adventure. I find it notable that despite its high position, its immediately following sequel, Rise of Tiamat, is not even on the list.

        I also think that PotA, while well-received at the time, was rather quickly forgotten because it didn’t do anything particularly new. It’s a nice sandbox with a through line, like LMoP but on a bigger scale, but it didn’t quite have a hook or gimmick like the adventures that followed it.

        • Alphastream
          October 3, 2023

          I have wondered if the BookScan data properly handles the different Tyranny of Dragons books. It may lump them together. I doubt RoT had fewer than 15k sales (the bottom of the BookScan data we have) or that even the two new reprints had fewer than 15k sales). My guess (only a guess) is that some of these are combined OR that it takes just one and drops the rest as duplicates.

          I think the problem with PotA is that it came out a long time ago, but is not gathering sales like other products. PoA’s numbers are worse than any other adventure in almost every time frame. Now, maybe it did uncommonly better in gaming stores or other venues not tracked here. Roll20 said PoA was its top-selling product… I forget if last year or all-time. But in this data set, it is the worst-selling in 2023 and in all other aspects. I don’t know why. While I don’t love its execution, the concept of elemental evil is both classic and cool. It has great monsters.

  3. )Z_DM
    September 30, 2023

    The marketing element that differentiated Wild Beyond the Witchlight was that is was promoted as an adventure that you could complete without combat.

    Guess the murder-hobo market is more profitable.

    Shame its a really good adventure, and can have lots of combat and contests.

    I also think the title name name is really important.

    If you use Google Trends and then compare the words Strahd you will see interest increasing over time from 2015. If you look at Witchlight is drops off quick.

    Personally I would pick the Strahd story as the best title to make either a horror movie or Games of Thrones mini-series – as you don’t need a huge special effects budget to pull off horror as they are the directors training grounds for movies (cheap).

  4. Guy Man
    October 1, 2023

    Kobold Press.

    You literally forgot about the actual biggest 3rd party publisher for 5e contents. They sold more books than CR. (Insert facepalm)

    And even worse, you named CR as “WotC’s” biggest competition. That title goes to Paizo. Critical Role has sold just maybe a quarter of books compared to Pazio. Paizo was able to sell 20,000 copies of Pathfinder in Jan 2023, its current highest point thus far, I believe.

    I really wished this article was done with better research beforehand.

    • Alphastream
      October 1, 2023

      I’m not forgetting any 3rd party companies. They are just very small. A product like the current Castles & Crowns has about 3k backers across all types (802 are just a pdf, for example). Tales of the Valiant has 10k backers, and that’s an amazing success for a 3rd party. But it is nowhere near the millions of D&D PHs or the typical numbers a setting or sourcebook for D&D will achieve. While KP products are awesome, and they can be found in many gaming stores, they don’t show up in all gaming stores and they don’t have European and Asian distribution channels. It’s an entirely different level of business.

      Paizo’s sales have often been high, but they don’t come close to D&D levels in the 5E era. 20k rulebook sales is a failure for D&D, even if it is a tremendous accomplishment for other companies (and, to be clear, it is an accomplishment in this tough hobby). It’s also important to consider that D&D is far more efficient, printing and distributing with far lower costs than nearly everyone in the industry (the likely exception is Free League, as they likely receive funding from the Swedish government). Not only do D&D sales volumes eclipse anyone else, they also have far higher profit margins.

      • OZ_DM
        October 2, 2023

        Australia is in Asia and we can get Kobold Press books from the shop.

        Unless you conaide4 Australia part of Oceania.

        • Alphastream
          October 2, 2023

          Absolutely. But the distribution is nothing like what D&D enjoys.

    • Alphastream
      October 1, 2023

      Specific to Critical Role, the difference is that CR (as I mention here) operates beyond the hobby (as does D&D). CR generates $3.8M per year or so from Twitch alone, while also selling in other spaces (novels, comic books) and with completely different business deals (Amazon TV show and upcoming movie). Paizo tried to escape the hobby, sinking millions into a failed MMO. Critical Role is the only company that has managed to operate both in our hobby and in far more profitable areas.

      • Karameikos
        May 12, 2024

        Tripped across your trio of articles while looking for some sales data, and found them quite informative. A couple of comments:

        As the presented data lends itself to a lot of assumptions, let’s say for arguments sake, the presented 5E Adventure sales are only 25% of total sales, allowing significant room for direct, comic/game shops, and digital sales. Comparing to the 2E Dark Sun total sales, and keeping in mind Dark Sun was stated as being TSR’s 4th or 5th strongest 2E campaign, behind at least Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Ravenloft, I’d estimate that 5E Adventures total sales are at a similar level to 2E Adventures total sales. Granted, there were significantly more 2E adventures published: Dark Sun alone had 10 published 2E adventures. They were also at a lower price point, even when factoring in the USD buying power for 91-96 as compared to 2015-2020. I’m fairly certain this is less an issue of current demand and more a result of corporate strategy (i.e., an apparent lack of interest in pursuing any product that may sell less than 50k units).

        Regarding Pathfinder, despite their failed MMO, they have had two separate video games each pass the 1M copies sold mark (Kingmaker, and Wrath of the Righteous). While not on par with BG3’s 10M+ in sales, these were no small feats. Note that the original releases of BG1 and BG2 had sold 2M copies each.

        At the end of the day, Dungeons & Dragons has been around for 5 decades, and as such it is the most recognizable RPG brand. Not to mention that for the last 2 1/2 decades it has had the power of Hasbro $ and marketing behind it. This lends Team D&D a tremendous advantage, although it does not always reward the consumer with the best product. After the next edition launches, I would love to see a comparison of 5e and PF1 total sales data broken out by individual products. Each system ran for 10 years, both entirely in the digital and social media age, and they had an overlap of 5 years. One can always dream!

        • Alphastream
          May 12, 2024

          One of the problems 2E had is that the staff working on products didn’t understand the finances. This resulted in losing money on every sale of the Dark Sun flipbooks. This makes it hard to say if high sales were due to the attractive money-losing format. The same is true of boxed sets.

          The number of players and tables on Roll20 suggests PF play is overall small, though it’s hard to say what the revenue may be like. It would indeed be really interesting if we had those numbers. We have numbers from companies like Evil Hat and Steve Jackson Games for last year, which are over $1M for Evil Hat with about $100k profit and $3M for SJG but at a loss. I would really like to see numbers for Free League to compare a company with a new approach to the numbers we have for other longer-standing companies.

          • Karameikos
            May 13, 2024

            The spiral flip books included in some of the DarkSun adventures were a market test, and they were eventually canned and newer adventures reverted to the traditional book format. That said, I doubt very seriously anyone was purchasing these adventures thinking they were getting a great deal because the flip books were in there rather than the standard format book. The product sold because of content and / or association with the Dark Sun brand. Also note that none of the much higher selling Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Ravenloft adventures were in a flip book format.

            In any case, my initial comment was less around profitability and more around units sold. Does 5e sell way more PHB’s? Yes, it definitely would appear so based on available data. Does 5e have better margins per book? Probably, yes, just by looking at product composition, estimated volumes, and pricing. Does 5e sell more total books than 2e or 3/3.5e or PF1? I’m not so sure that they do. PF1 alone had over 350 separate books released in 10 years, when looking at stand alone adventures, adventure paths, player companions, campaign setting guides, and hardcover books. AD&D 2E and D&D 3/3.5e were quite prolific as well.

            Again, very different business models. Personally, I prefer the wide array of options available from PF, and previously from 2e and 3/3.5e. I am certain it can be profitable as well. Paizo ran with it for 10 years, and they have stuck with a similar model for PF2.

  5. OZ_DM
    October 2, 2023

    Singapore also has a gaming scene and shops too.

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