Whenever I prepare a book, I do my best to include some “free-floating” information: material that could be placed anywhere in the book and that will thus make the lay-out artist’s life easier. For Designers & Dragons I prepared eight free-floating boxes of information which detailed the best-selling and best-rated RPGs over the years. However, graphic designer Will Chapman did such a good job of keeping all the text very tight that they were never used. Thus, I present that data here, along with new discussion on that information and (on the ’70s & ’80s where hard facts are a bit more scarce). —SA, 9/24/11

This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #4 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014).

The Best Sellers of the ’70s and ’80s

I’m not immediately aware of any sales reports listing what the best-selling RPGs of the ’70s and ’80s were. However, we have several individual anecdotes which together start to paint a portrait of the era.

For fantasy games, D&D (1974) was of course the first mover and the best seller. Tunnels & Trolls (1976) soon appeared as the #2 game, but it wouldn’t hold that position. RuneQuest (1978) and MERP (1984) later rose up as best-sellers in their time, though the question of how they related to each other is hazy.

In other genres, the answers are more obvious.

  • Traveller (1977) was the top SF game for some time, but was eventually overtaken by Star Wars (1987) and Cyberpunk (1988). It’s possible Star Frontiers (1982) outsold it too, as it was TSR’s second best-supported RPG in the early 80’s.
  • Call of Cthulhu (1981) held the horror mantle throughout this period, though Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) would rise up when the ’80s were done.
  • The first real superhero success is Champions (1981), though the original Marvel Super Heroes (1984) would eventually outsell it.

In foreign markets, bestsellers were influenced heavily by what was being imported and what was being reprinted locally. Thus the history of Games Workship (pages 43-52) tells how games like RuneQuest and Traveller found particular attention in the UK due to GW’s low-cost reprints of those product lines. Tunnels & Trolls was another game that did well on British stores due to local reprints.

Finally, some attention should be given to the supplements market. In the ’70s, Judges Guild was a juggernaut, primarily thanks to their D&DAD&D, and “Generic” supplements—which they published in high quantities (and sometimes low qualities) not seen again until the d20 boom.

And this was the state of the RPG market as we understand it, prior to the ’90s, by which time we have slightly better information.

The Best Sellers of the ’90s

For a short time in the mid ‘90s, White Wolf Magazine published monthly lists of the top-selling RPGs based on figures from Hobby Games Distributors. Today, they provide an interesting snapshot of the ‘90s RPG industry. Their composite lists from ’92 and ’93 follow.

Hobby Game Distributors published monthly lists of best-sellers in White Wolf, then consolidated them into a list for all of 1992.

  1. Player’s Handbook for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  2. Shadowrun 1e + 2e, FASA (1992)
  3. Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  4. Wizard Spell Cards for AD&D 2e, TSR (1992)
  5. Monstrous Compendium Volume One for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  6. Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf (1991)
  7. The Complete Bard’s Handbook for AD&D 2e, TSR (1992)
  8. Technical Readout: 3055 for Battletech, FASA (1992)
  9. Fiend Folio for AD&D 1e, TSR (1981)
  10. The Player’s Guide for Vampire, White Wolf (1991)
Top RPG Books of 1992: White Wolf

If you need proof that the RPG industry was at least a bit less frontlist driven before the release of Magic: The Gathering, the inclusion of the 11-year old Fiend Folio in this list says it all. [ed’s note: in retrospect, it was probably a reference the 1992 Monstrous Compenium of the same name —SA, 10/24/23] It’s also interesting to note the fairly random “Complete” book on this list (with more in the 1993 list, below), which shows why splat books became popular in this era. (People bought them.)

As was the case until 1997, TSR was the top-seller thanks to D&D. In 1992, it was followed by FASA and White Wolf, probably in that order. Though Palladium Books was a rising star in 1992, its top Rifts books only made #18 and #19 for the year.

Again, Hobby Game Distributors published a yearly list of RPG bestsellers in 1993 for publication in White Wolf.

  1. Player’s Handbook for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  2. Monstrous Manual for AD&D 2e, TSR (1993)
  3. Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  4. The Complete Book of Elves for AD&D 2e, TSR (1992)
  5. Vampire: The Masquerade Second Edition, White Wolf (1992)
  6. Character Record Sheets for AD&D 2e, TSR (1989)
  7. The Complete Book of Humanoids for AD&D 2e, TSR (1993)
  8. Rifts World Book 3: England, Palladium (1993)
  9. Shadowrun 1e + 2e, FASA (1992)
  10. Mage: The Ascension, White Wolf (1993)
Top RPG Books of 1993: White Wolf

By 1993, White Wolf had probably pushed up to #2, while Palladium was slowly overtaking FASA as the #3 RPG producer. Of course, they were both being overshadowed by Wizards of the Coast’s release of Magic: The Gathering (1993), which outsold every RPG on this list due to the differing economics of the new medium.

The Favorites of All-Time

Best-seller lists are certainly one way to see which RPGs have prospered over the years, but you can also take another methodology, looking at those games which have been well-received.

In issue #14 (Christmas, 1996) British RPG magazine Arcane produced a list of its readers’ top 50 RPGs. The top 20, in order, are listed below.

  1. Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium (1981)
  2. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, TSR (1977, 1989)
  3. Traveller, GDW (1977)
  4. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Games Workshop (1986)
  5. RuneQuest, Chaosium (1978)
  6. Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf (1991)
  7. Paranoia, West End Games (1984)
  8. Shadowrun, FASA (1989)
  9. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, West End Games (1987)
  10. Cyberpunk, R. Talsorian (1988)
  11. Middle-Earth Role Playing, ICE (1984)
  12. King Arthur Pendragon, Chaosium (1985)
  13. Wraith: The Oblivion, White Wolf (1994)
  14. GURPS, Steve Jackson Games (1986)
  15. Rolemaster, ICE (1982)
  16. Mage: The Ascension, White Wolf (1993)
  17. Bushido, FGU et al. (1979, 1980, 1981)
  18. Feng Shui, Daedalus (1996)
  19. Ars Magica, Lion Rampant (1987)
  20. Space: 1889, GDW (1989)
Best RPG List: Arcane

With 15 years of RPGs come and gone since 1996, the list is a bit dated now, but it’s still an interesting snapshot of UK RPG interest in the mid ‘90s. It’s probably no accident that of the top seven items, all but #6, Vampire, were either produced by Games Workshop or else reprinted by Games Workshop in the 1980s. As I write in Designers & Dragons, GW had a tremendous effect on how the roleplaying culture evolved in the UK.

Beyond that, I find it interesting to consider which of these games have prospered and which have faded away. I think Bushido is the game that would be most obscure in the modern day (in large part due to the latter-day history of FGU, as described on pages 71-78), though many others have long ago ceased publication. I also think this rating, done in 1996, caught White Wolf at the height of their popularity. It seems unlikely to me that you’d find three White Wolf products in the top twenty of most modern listings–though Vampire: The Masquerade continues to be a pivotal book for the industry and I think few would argue that Wraith: The Oblivion was at least as notable as a game design.

In Hobby Games: The 100 Best (2007), editor James Lowder collated a list of 100 well-loved hobbyist games, with essays by other designers explaining their charms. The list included board games, miniatures games, and also RPGs. The latter are listed here in alphabetical order:

  1. Amber Diceless Role-Playing, Phage Press (1991)
  2. Ars Magica, Lion Rampant (1987)
  3. Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium (1981)
  4. Champions, Hero Games (1981)
  5. Dungeons & Dragons, TSR (1974)
  6. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Hogshead Publishing (1998)
  7. Ghostbusters, West End Games (1986)
  8. King Arthur Pendragon, Chaosium (1985)
  9. Marvel Super Heroes, TSR (1984)
  10. Metamorphosis Alpha, TSR (1976)
  11. My Life with Master, Half-Meme Press (2003)
  12. Once Upon a Time, Atlas Games (1993)
  13. Paranoia, West End Games (1984)
  14. RuneQuest, Chaosium (1978)
  15. Shadowrun, FASA (1989)
  16. Toon, Steve Jackson Games (1984)
  17. Traveller, GDW (1977)
  18. Unknown Armies, Atlas Games (1998)
  19. Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf (1991)
Best RPG List: Hobby Games

To me, the Hobby Games feels more like a list of historically important games than a set of “favorites”. Every game on the list gets some serious attention in Designers & Dragons with the exception of My Life With Master (which does still receive a few notes in the Adept Press article, pages 403-411, because its winning of the Diana Jones award pointed toward the mainstream acceptance of indie games).

Amber was the first really successful Diceless game and one of the earliest games in the later indie vein; Ars Magica was the immediate precursor of White Wolf’s releases just a few years later; Call of Cthulhu was the dominant horror game until the release of White Wolf’s World of Darkness a decade later … etc.

So, I guess that says that Hobby Games: The 100 Best ain’t a bad bit of complementary reading for Designers & Dragons.

RPGNet’s strong support of modern games and smaller presses is obvious in the top-20 RPG list available from its Gaming Index (index.rpg.net).

  1. Nobilis, Pharos et al. (1999)
  2. Spirit of the Century, Evil Hat (2006)
  3. King Arthur Pendragon, Chaosium (1985)
  4. Unknown Armies, Atlas Games (1998)
  5. Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium (1981)
  6. Feng Shui, Daedalus (1996)
  7. Mutants & Masterminds, Green Ronin (2002)
  8. Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game, Archaia Studios (2008)
  9. Over the Edge, Atlas Games (1992)
  10. Angel Roleplaying Game, Eden Studios (2003)
  11. Talislanta Fourth Edition, Pharos (1997)
  12. Starblazer Adventures, Cubicle 7 (2009)
  13. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Games Workshop (1986)
  14. Paranoia XP, Mongoose Publishing (2004)
  15. Primetime Adventures, Dog-eared Designs (2004)
  16. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game, Eden Studios (2002)
  17. Don’t Rest Your Head, Evil Hat (2006)
  18. Tribe 8, Dream Pod 9 (1998)
  19. Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, Malignant Games (2002)
  20. Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Guardians of Order (1997)
Best RPG List: RPGnet

I figured the RPGnet Gaming Index was a great place to end things, as it offers a much more modern look at favorites. Unlike the older Arcane listing, everything here is actually in-print or at the least was in-print relatively recently. Nonetheless, I suspect that some releases like Tribe 8 and BESM are destined to fade away as the market leaves them behind.

The list shown above is actually not quite the same as the list that I submitted to Mongoose. I updated it based on the position of games on 9/24/11, which was 6 or 7 months after my initial submission. About half of the games moved up or down a little bit. The highest-ranked change was King Arthur Pendragon which climbed from 4th to 3rd (dropping Unknown Armies by one spot). The most dramatic change was Starblazer Adventures which sank from #9 to #12 (or, if you prefer Over the EdgeAngel, and Talislanta all gained ground).


Much of Designers & Dragons is based on interviews, game design notes, ads, editorials, and company reports. It’s all slightly fuzzy information (as I learned when reading interviews with some designers, where facts changed over the decades). These boxes of sales and polling information were intended to add some hard data to the book’s discussions. But, I also think they’re interesting in themselves, to show how our hobby has changed over the decades.

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