Some years ago I wrote an article on GDW’s Production Records, which overviewed the company’s print runs from 1973-1986 by looking at early wargame runs and the company’s overall RPG production in that time, and seeing how they compared.

I’ve long wanted to follow-up that up with a more thorough look at Traveller sales across its original edition, but was stymied by the need to place a small booklet worth of printing figures into a spreadsheet. But this year I’ve begun working on a book on Traveller’s history, as the newest spinoff of my Designers & Dragons series, so crunching the numbers became more interesting.

As part of the Traveller’s 45th Mayday anniversary, here’s a look at some of classic Traveller’s big picture. As before, it’s based on the production records of print runs, though the assumption is made that those print runs roughly correlated to sales of the same.

The Big Picture

Traveller was published as a three-book boxed set that was completed by the end of May 1977 and available for purchase at Origins III (1977). GDW kept the original version of the Traveller rules in print for a full decade — a similar length to the AD&D first-edition rules (1977-1988), but in the process they iterated those rules through several presentations, including: an updated box (1981); a Deluxe box (1981) that included introductory material and a full-color map; a trade paperback called The Traveller Book (1982); and a boxed Starter Edition (1983). In all, GDW published just short of a quarter of a million copies of the Traveller rules over its first decade.

But, that’s just part of the story, because not only did GDW release their product line as an “installment” plan, with new books of rules providing further details on specific areas of interest, from mercenaries to robots, but they also produced the supplemental lines you’d expect for a roleplaying game, including adventures, shorter double adventures, more general supplements, and alien splatbooks, as well as (fairly uniquely) a line of board games. So how does all of that printing compare to the Traveller rules themselves?

GDW printed (and sold) almost 5x as much supplemental material as core Traveller rules! In all, almost exactly 1.65 million Traveller books were produced just by GDW from 1977-1986. That doesn’t count the fact that GDW was one of the most open licensors of the ’70s and ’80s, with early licensees including Judges Guild, FASA, Gamelords, Paranoia Press, DGP, and Marischal Press. They obviously bring the total count of Traveller production into the millions just in its first decade.

Traveller’s biggest growth came from 1978-1981. The core rulebook sales doubled every year, jumping from 4k to 60k. Meanwhile, GDW fully committed to supplement sales in 1979, when they realized that every new supplement that they printed helped to revive sales of the core game. This dramatically cranked up the total print runs for the Traveller line, which (in total) also doubled every year from 1979 to 1981, going from 77k total printed products a year to 350k.

But Traveller sales started trending downward in 1982, with the change more noticeable by 1983, the same year that Traveller passed 1 million total units. By 1985, the print runs (and presumably sales) were below 1979’s numbers, where the classic game would stay until it was revamped as Megatraveller (1987).


What happened?

Other than a spike in 1981, the height of Classic Traveller, the number of different new products that GDW created every year stayed fairly consistent. So the drop wasn’t about a reduction in new releases. Instead, there were external forces at work.

The biggest of these was likely competition. FGU’s Space Opera (1980) and SPI’s Universe (1981) were the first SFRPGs to offer any real challenge to Traveller, but Star Frontiers (1982) and Star Trek: The Role-Playing Games (1982) were the games that really had the possibility of unseating the creator of the science-fiction roleplaying category. (In fact, TSR employees have long said that Star Frontiers was the top-selling SFRPG during its scant years of existence, which is believable given TSR’s reach, but we don’t have sales numbers to verify that.)

GDW obviously saw these challengers approaching in the rear-view mirror, because the same year that the SFRPG field got really hot was when they published The Traveller Book, which was a new full-sized version of their game with a beautiful full-color cover by William H. Keith Jr. — the core line’s first. The Starter Edition, intended to bring in new players, followed the next year.

However, there would soon be another factor at work, one that was shown in the deepening drop of 1985 and at that point (at last) a reduction in products being created: GDW was producing other RPGs for the first time since the release of TravellerTwilight: 2000 (1984) was a very successful release that would redefine both the postapocalyptic and military RPG categories. GDW then published Traveller: 2300 (1986), a new hard science-fiction RPG that was nonetheless not intended to replace Traveller. The publication of these new games, and the eventual plan to rerelease Traveller as Megatraveller (1987) likely resulted in an additional sales decline for Traveller as its Golden Age came to an end.

Mind you, even though Twilight: 2000 began taking up some of the mindshare previously given to Traveller in the mid ’80s, and thus some of the print runs as well, it never equalled its predecessor. Twilight: 2000 had a strong run from 1984-1993, which is to say another decade, much like classic Traveller. In that time it sold about 750,000 products: clearly a strong product line, but not Traveller in its Golden Age.

The Traveller Lines

So what was the big picture of that supplemental material that GDW sold at a 5:1 ratio to their rules?

  • Rules were the core rules releases.
  • Books continued to expand the Traveller ruleset.
  • Supplements provided gaming support, from NPCs to setting material.
  • Adventures were longer adventures (but still short by modern standards).
  • Double Adventures were shorter adventures.
  • Board Games told the story of the Imperium in wargame or tactical combat form.
  • Aliens were splatbooks for alien races.
  • Misc. included a few other uncategorized modules: supplemental books and boxes.
  • JTAS was the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, a magazine.

Here’s how they all sold:


This big picture reveals that the vast majority of classic Traveller releases were Supplements, Books, and rules, in that order, and that later supplements such as the Aliens books and the miscellaneous boxes didn’t get out to nearly as much consumers. But, it doesn’t tell the whole story because variable amounts of products were created within each category, from the six Double Adventures and the six additional Books to the thirteen Supplements and and the thirteen Adventures. Dividing out the print-runs of the categories of release by the number of items in that series gives a per-book average which more clearly ranks the success of Traveller‘s gaming lines:

Publication Count61313688245
Avg. Total Print Run45,16228,90416,95718,37315,7857,6888,2808,502

The result does a better job of really comparing the success of the lines.

  • The Books, which consisted of Book 4: Mercenary (1978), Book 5: High Guard (1980), Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller (1981), Book 6: Scouts (1983), Book 7: Merchant Princes (1985), and Book 8: Robots (1986) were in a class of their own, outselling most of the other Traveller lines by about 2x-3x. It’s been said that the rules of Traveller were offered as an installment plan, and this makes it obvious that players took that seriously. These books were also arguably the first splatbook line, selling to a wider player base.
  • The Supplements were second, still outselling the third tier by about 2x. The supplemental line is a motley collection containing NPC and animal stats, starship stats, library data, and the first sector descriptions. Like the Books these were probably of interest to GMs and players alike.
  • A third tier contained Adventures and Double Adventures. (Twenty years on, TSR would say adventures didn’t sell as well as other supplements: here’s a data point in that direction.)
  • The Board Games were also in this third tier, which is somewhat surprising given that GDW’s RPGs vastly outsold GDW’s wargames, as noted in the first article in this series. Nonetheless, those games with tight Traveller connections were able to keep up with the lower selling adventure supplements.
  • The Aliens and the Misc. supplements formed a fourth tier, but that’s somewhat misleading as they were produced after the top-selling years for Traveller. They likely would have sold somewhere between Adventures and Supplements if produced a few years earlier.
  • The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society also sits at that fourth tier, but it was a somewhat different beast as it was a periodical. It ran an average of 8,280 copies per issue, running from 2,180 for JTAS #1 (1979) to 12,370 for JTAS #11 back down to 7,484 for JTAS #24. That’s actually quite comparable to the paid circulation figures for TSR’s Dragon magazine in its first few years, with reported numbers of 7,381 in 1977, 7,859 in 1978, and 10,885 in 1979, which shows how big of a deal Traveller was in the early years of the roleplaying field. But then D&D really took off following the James Dallas Egbert affair. Dragon’s circulation hit its peak of 118,021 in 1984, a year prior to the end of JTAS, which by then was just running a tenth the sales of the industry leader.

So that’s the big picture of classic Traveller: a highly successful roleplaying game, based on rule books and supplements that might appeal to GMs and players alike. It peaked in 1981 and then lost some steam due to sales competition in the industry and design competition at GDW.

But there’s a bit more story to be told in how the individual books within the lines did, and I’ll pick that up in the next installment.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #65 on RPGnet. It was written to support work on This is Free Trader Beowulf: A System History of Traveller (2024).

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