I recently received in the mail, courtesy of Marc Miller, a folder full of wonderful information. Labeled “Game Designers’ Workshop Production Records”, it contained the data on GDW’s print runs from mid-1973 to mid-1987. The information was drawn from GDW’s Pricing Books, a set of two or three looseleaf binders that tracked GDW’s costs. The print-run data was incidental, but it’s what’s of the most interest today.

I found it a fascinating view of the early industry, especially given GDW’s origins as a wargaming company and their high level of success for a few different lines. The hard numbers themselves were of the sort that are almost unknown from the time period. Though the records end in 1987, it’s a very natural breaking point, because it marks the end of both the Europa line and the original Traveller line for GDW.

This first article on the GDW Production Records offers an overview, looking at some of the big-picture numbers for their lines.

Wargaming Beginnings

GDW started publication with Drang nach Osten (1973), then quickly returned with Unentschieden (1973). These wargames would soon become the basis for the popular Europa series (1973-1985), covering the European theatre for WWII. Following their two initial games, GDW went back to the printer another twenty times in the next two years, splitting their time between reprints and new products.

#16/73Drang nach Osten1,000
#69/74Drang nach Osten1,000
#99/74Coral Sea1,000
#131/75Drang nach Osten1,000
#206/75Drang nach Osten1,000
#217/75En Garde!1,000

Looking at these twenty-two print runs gives us a great view of a young company, offering a precision about their early publications and reprints that I would have thought lost. But, what does it tell us beyond that?

First, it shows us what GDW’s primordial print runs were like: almost all of them were for 1,000 copies, which was probably the minimum feasible amount. The only exceptions were a pair of reprints that came in at 500. GDW would break this barrier in 1976, beginning with a January reprint of SSN that ran 2,000 copies.

In addition, it reveals how important the nascent Europa series was to GDW in its early days. The first twenty-two print jobs for GDW included four runs of Drang nach Osten (later: Europa I), four runs of Unentschieden (later: Europa II), and two runs of Narvik (later: Europa IV). Despite the minimal print runs, there were just short of 10,000 Europa games in print by GDW’s second anniversary. Designers & Dragons: The ’70s somewhat anecdotally noted the success of Drang nach Osten following its release at Gen Con VI (1973). Here’s the hard evidence, including two five-month turnarounds of 1,000-copy print runs.

However, GDW wasn’t confining themselves to historical war games. There were also experimenting with two of the publishing categories that would soon make them even more successful:

Triplanetary (1973), a vector-based space combat game, was their first SF offering. It was no Europa, but it received a reprint two years later and would see two more reprints in 1976.

And then there was En Garde! (1975), GDW’s first pseudo-RPG, a game of man-to-man combat. The most interesting thing about it may simply be the fact that it was printed exactly like GDW’s wargames, with 1,000 copies. It was just another game in their early catalogue.

The speed with which GDW reprinted books is quite impressive for a young company. Most modern publishers have serious problems getting books back into print. They’ll often hold out-of-print books for months or years while backorders build up, before making the leap to reprint. Young GDW seemed to have no such qualms. By September 1974, a bit more than a year after their first publication, the cash was flowing fast enough that they could reprint regularly.

A Few Caveats for All Numbers in These Articles: The charts in these articles are composed from multiple, overlapping sources that are mostly consistent but occasionally have glitches. I’ve done my best to figure out what was intended. In composing these charts I’ve ignored foreign printings, sticking with GDW’s own English-language publications.

Roleplaying Days

En Garde was of course the start of something big. Between 1975 and 1987, GDW would publish four RPGsEn Garde! (1975), Traveller (1977), Twilight: 2000 (1984), and Traveller: 2300 (1986).

1975-1983En Garde!710,457
1977-1980Traveller 1e12+64,320
1981-1983Traveller 2e872,410
1981-1984Traveller Deluxe6+37,882
1982-1984The Traveller Book3+39,932
1983-1986Traveller Starter9+34,041
1984-1987Twilight: 20001662,037
1986-1987Traveller: 2300215,014

As the nearby chart shows, these games racked up considerable sales over the ten-year time period covered by these records, with Traveller enjoying sales through several different editions over that time.

However, we should first look at back at En Garde!, which is clearly not representative of the category as a whole. But, it was also a very different beast from GDW’s later roleplaying games. It ran just 48 pages in both its original (1975) and revised (1977) editions; though it focused on individual characters, and even had rules for a campaign, it was just barely a roleplaying game. In contrast, the other three roleplaying games were massive boxed affairs that were definitely about roleplaying characters. The difference shows up in the print runs: the bigger games were what fans were looking for.

Moving on, the Traveller information is quite interesting because it answers the question, “What did the top SF roleplaying game sell in the ’70s and early ’80s?” TSR staff have long said that Star Frontiers (1982, 1983) outsold Traveller after its appearance, and more obviously a new wave of SF RPGs such as Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987) and Cyberpunk (1988) overtook Traveller in the late ’80s. But for at least half of the time period covered by these records, Traveller was the top-selling SF RPG. It was also one of the bestselling RPGs overall.

The answer is 221,568 copies, across all the various editions of the rules. Call it 22,000 a year, though there was a bell curve with 1981-1983 at the peak. At the height of 1982, GDW printed 36,562 copies of Traveller 2e (1981), 3,325 of the slightly fancier Traveller Deluxe (1981), and 16,308 of the brand-new Traveller Book (1982), for a total of 56,195 copies! The next year similarly saw 46,609 units printed, with most of that thanks to the new Traveller Starter Edition (1983), which would rule during the final years of the Classic Traveller era (1977-1987).

1977Traveller Core36,460
1978Traveller Core24,155
1979Traveller Core413,964
1980Traveller Core326,464
1981Traveller Core4+59,277
1982Traveller Core656,195
1983Traveller Core946,609
1984Traveller Core315,843
1985Traveller Core2946
1986Traveller Core34,932
Add’lTraveller Core?13,740

The doubling of yearly print runs throughout the ’70s very closely matches what is known of TSR’s gross revenues during that period, but it’s still astounding. Just as with D&D, some of the biggest growth followed the August 15, 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. More generally, these numbers compare favorably to the sale of TSR’s D&D. Obviously, D&D is the big dog, and very little has ever surpassed it. Word is the World of Darkness might have done better in 1997, when TSR was going bankrupt, and Pathfinder during the interim between 4e and 5e, but that’s it.

The actual numbers for D&D are scarce, but The Acaeum has collected much of what’s known. We know that the Monster Manual (1977) ran 50,000 copies for its first printing, and that the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) ran 120,000 copies through three very rapid printings in late 1979. Later, the AD&D 2e hardcovers (1989) were said to average 170,000 copies each through their first year of production, and the D&D 3.5e Players Handbook (2003) probably ran 150,000-200,000 a year. So Traveller might have managed a quarter of D&D’s production for its core book at its height. We often talk about anything except D&D as a second-tier RPG for sales; if so, Traveller’s tier was still quite lofty.

The huge drop-off in 1984 is more surprising. Star Frontiers (1982, 1983) was likely one culprit, but another big thing happened in 1984: GDW published Twilight: 2000 (1984). Over the next three years, GDW published 60,000 units of that new game, showing that it was doing better than Traveller in all but its best years — probably in part because it was in a new genre with less competition. However, it’s the record of Twilight 2000’s first year that’s the most astounding: GDW published the first 5,612 copies of the game on Nov 21, 1984, then sent the book back to press in January 1985, February 1985, and March 1985. The fourth print run of 9,523 copies (bringing the total for the game to 19,827) was the one that finally satisfied the audience for a time, but Twilight: 2000 would still be reprinted again in August 1985, September 1985, and December 1985 — and altogether would have 16 printings in those three years. Obviously, Twilight: 2000 was both a hit and a surprise. One of the few games whose production record looks similar, with monthly reprints during its early months, was the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide (1979).

Wargames & RPGs Fight!

One other question is worth considering: how did these new-fangled RPGs do in comparison to GDW’s older wargames? Since the Europa games were some of the best-respected in the industry in the ’80s, they’re a great comparison: a well-loved first-tier wargame versus some well-loved second-tier RPGs. Some of GDW’s SF wargames are also worth considering, because, as we’ll see, they actually got printed in slightly higher numbers than Europa. (It wasn’t just RPGs that were booming, but SF too!)

1973-1985Europa I: Drang each Osten / Fire in the East1115,506
1973-1987Europa II: Unentschieden / Scorched Earth912,555
1979-1986Europa III: Marita-Merkur56,048
1974-1983Europa IV: Navrik610,915

Comparing these numbers offers an obvious conclusion. In short: not one of these popular and acclaimed wargames managed to match Traveller’s average yearly sales during their entire lifetimes (at GDW).

And that’s pretty much why roleplaying games took over the wargaming industry.

In the next article in this series, I’ll start to look more specifically at the Traveller production.

You can find more about the history of GDW in Designers & Dragons: the ’70s. You can also find more of my own thoughts about GDW’s Traveller RPG in The Science Fiction in Traveller, a book I wrote about fictional influences and Traveller fiction; Fifth Imperium, a Traveller GMing column; or The Spinward Marches Campaign, my AP of a 20-week Traveller game.

Some of these numbers were updated in early 2022 following my compilation of Marc’s production records into a spreadsheet. In all but one case, this was due to additional prints that were recorded after the fact, either representing unrecorded print runs or print overages. (For Twilight: 2000 there was a slight discrepancy in one year due to hard to read records.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #11 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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