The Alphastream Game Design Blog
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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?