The two previous articles in this series, An Overview and A Traveller Overview summarized the sales of Traveller during its classic era of release. This final article in the series looks at the specifics of some of Traveller’s lines, then compares that to TSR’s release around the same time.

Examining the Lines

As discussed in the previous article, the sales of classic Traveller releases broke into four tiers:

  1. Books. Averaging about 45,000 units each, the expansion rulebooks for Traveller did the best sales.
  2. Supplements. Crunchy books that were alternatively for players and for referees came in at 29,000 units each.
  3. Adventures, Double Adventures & Board Games. The referee-only Adventure lines ran lower at 17,000 or 18,000 units each, demonstrating what WotC would much later say: adventures didn’t sell (as well). GDW’s supplemental Traveller board games sold similarly, averaging 16,000 units each.
  4. JTAS, Aliens & Other Modules. Finally, GDW’s Traveller magazine and their later lines of Alien Modules and standalone Modules ran about 8,000 units each.

That’s a pretty wide range, though one that runs both topically (with some types of books selling less) and chronologically (with some books being sold in the later period of the ’80s where print runs weren’t as big). Some, but not all, of the book types also had notable variation within the line, as shown below.

143,41036,70326,4146,055TTA: 15,306Mayday: 22,232
237,91428,25324,9356,060Tarsus: 7,019Snapshot: 18,002
342,31525,64721,32010,094BeltStrike: 6,000AHL: 9,549
492,09445,73220,00214,3525,305Atlas: 7,086FFW: 11,384
5100,63823,93611,0005,190SMC: 7,682IE: 11,324
625,58427,63915,91012,2155,176AR: 5,080DN: 12,131
712,15644,99619,35155,75Striker: 17,320

The most obvious lesson from this chart is that sales decreased over time. The Adventure shows that most clearly with Adventure 1: Kinunir (1979) selling 36,703 units over time and Adventure 13: Signal GK (1985) only 5,100. There were likely two reasons for this. First, the earlier a product appeared, the more times it could be reprinted before the Classic Traveller era came to an end. Thus Kinunir saw at least 10 printings from 1987-1983 while Signal GK saw just one in 1985. Second, Traveller was selling less year-by-year after 1981, so any later product would sell less per year than an earlier one. Recalculating sales on a yearly basis would show that Kinunir sold about 5,000 copies a year and Signal GK closer to 2,500.

Here’s some more thoughts on individual lines:

Books. The huge gap in print runs between the early duo of Book 4: Mercenary (1978) and Book 5: High Guard (1979) and the late duo of Book 6: Scouts (1983) and Book 7: Merchant Prince (1985) is less than it seems because of the considerable chronological gap. The first two books got to enjoy the mass build-up to 1981, while the second two just saw the diminished sales of the mid ’80s. It is surprising, however, that the popular play styles of exploration (Scouts) and trading (Merchant Princes) were seen by so many fewer players than the militant styles of play (Mercenary and High Guard). It’s also slightly notable that High Guard sold 10% more than Mercenary despite coming out exactly a year later. That likely reflects that High Guard‘s ship mechanics were quite popular, while the weapons and mercenary-ticket rules of Mercenary were less of a draw.

Supplements. The varied Supplements line had the greatest variance in print runs. Much of that appears to be a referee/player dichotomy. Supplement 2: Animal Encounters (1979) and Supplement 6: 76 Patrons (1981) were the two low-points in the early line, and the two of the least interest to players. Meanwhile, Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium (1979) was a high point for the line, likely because it gave players the opportunity to create many, many more types of characters (and have them die in character creation, of course!). The success of Supplement 7: Traders & Gunboats (1981) and Supplement 9: Fighting Ships (1981) is less obviously about who would be using the book, but clearly tied to the outsized success of Book 5: High Guard. People liked starships! One should also note that Supplement 3: Spinward Marches (1979) did better than others at the time, likely for its first in-depth look at The Third Imperium, while Supplement 8: Library Data A-M (1981) did somewhat worse, perhaps because it was incomplete as a reference for more than a year (after which “N-Z” appeared). There were many reasons for individual supplements to do well or poorly; apparently the series numbers on the Classic Traveller books didn’t sufficiently encourage players to catch them all!

Adventures. More than any other line, the Adventures showed the monotonous decline of Traveller sales for supplemental sales. There are some quirks in the sales of the middle releases: either Adventure 4: Leviathan (1981) and Adventure 6: Expedition to Zhodane (1981) did poorly or Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron (1981) and Adventure 7: Broadsword (1982) did well. There’s certainly an argument for Trillion Credit Squadron doing well as it was a Supplement-in-Adventure’s-clothing, offering the opportunity to create squadrons of starships and use them in tournament play. Meanwhile there’s perhaps an argument for Leviathan and Expedition to Zhodane doing poorly because they moved out of the Rhylanor-Regina-Aramis corner of the Spinward Marches, but so did Broadsword, which like Expedition to Zhodane before it was connected to the Fifth Frontier War metaplot event … so ultimately one can only shrug at the sales other than obvious variation of Trillion Credit Squadron.

Alien Modules: Alien Module 2: K’kree (1984), Alien Module 3: Vargr (1984), and Alien Module 7: Hivers (1986) all had just one print run. That makes it pretty hard to make any assessments about how they sold, because those print runs could have sat around forever without selling or they could have disappeared quickly. In fact, some GDW staff have said that K’kree was the worst selling of the lot because the race was just too alien (and their being militant vegetarians wasn’t popular either), but more copies of it were printed than half the series. Notably, 10,000 copies were printed of each Alien Module 1: Aslan (1984) and Alien Module 3: Vargr (1984). They’ve been long lauded as the two most popular alien species in Charted Space.

Modules: The other Modules are very scattered, including The Traveller Adventure (1984), which was a supplement to The Traveller Book (1982) version of the rules; Tarsus (1983) and BeltStrike! (1984), which were boxed supplements to the Starter Traveller (1983) boxed rules; and the regular-sized Atlas of the Imperium (1984), Spinward Marches Campaign (1985), and Alien Realms (1986), a late attempt to go beyond the digest-sized Little Black Books. They all sold at the expected low level of late-era Classic Traveller products with the exception of The Traveller Adventure which sold double. Again, that was in a single print run, so books could have sat around, but it more likely reflected the increased distribution of the book through Prentice-Hall into the book trade.

Board Game: GDW’s Traveller board games are likely best remembered today for Board Game 3: Azhanti High Lightning (1981), Board Game 4: Fifth Frontier War (1981), and Board Game 5: Invasion: Earth (1981), each of them a massive board game, and the last two being strategic board games that told the story of the Third Imperium without directly connecting to the Traveller game. However, the best sellers were clearly Board Game 1: Mayday (1978), Board Game 2: Snapshot (1979), and Striker (1981), which is now labeled as Board Game 7; the difference in these more successful games is that they could be more directly use in conjunction with TravellerRPGs eclipsed war games at GDW, and even in the category of Traveller board games, the ones that could be directly used with Traveller outsold the ones that were wargames set in the same universe. Mind you, Azhanti High Lightning could also be used directly with Traveller games (and in fact represented a third combat system for the game after Traveller’s range-band combat and Snapshot’s gridded combat), but it was more limited than Snapshot. It also might suggest that price was also a factor: the better-selling games were the cheaper ones.

GDW & TSR Fight!

Thanks to the work of RPG historian Benjamin Riggs, we have increasingly comprehensive records about D&D sales during the same period as Classic Traveller (albeit mainly running through the ’80s). That allows us to close out this look at GDW’s early production records with a comparison of how the core rules sold for Traveller (1977), AD&D (1977-1979), and BD&D (1977+).

YearTravellerAD&D PHAD&D DMGBD&D Rules

However, there are two caveats.

First, these comparisons aren’t apples to apples. More lemons to limes. The Traveller production records show print runs and the D&D production records show sales. That means that the Traveller records may slightly proceed the D&D records (since things are printed before they’re sold) and that the Traveller records are going to be bumpier than the D&D records (since print runs are discrete events and sales are continuous). This is particularly true for the later ’80s, when Traveller print runs were dropping.

Second, the Traveller records go back to the original printing of the game in 1977, but the D&D records start in 1979.

Despite these caveats, the two production runs allow a pretty close comparison.

Looking at the two lines together, the most immediately obvious thing is that Traveller and D&D rose and fell together. They both made big gains from 1979-1981 before falling back in 1982. D&D briefly stepped back up in 1983, perhaps due to the release of Frank Mentzer’s BECMI Basic Set (1983); but then from 1984-1986 both games were in free fall from their prior success. In other words, the reasons behind the success (and failure) of the games from 1979-1986 were largely due to industry-wide factors such as the James Dallas Egbert III affair in 1979 and either the puritanical pressure that appeared in the early to mid ’80s, the advent of computer RPGs in 1980 with Akalabeth (1980), the era’s recession, or all of the above.

The other surprising factor is that Traveller looked like it was in striking distance of D&D in 1979, with the Traveller core rules selling somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of each of the core AD&D books. It would be phenomenal for any game to be doing that well in the modern day.

But Basic D&D was a wild factor that offered the opportunity to open sales up to a whole new demographic of “munchkins”. By 1979, it was already outselling AD&D and whereas AD&D outsold Traveller by 4x or 5x, BD&D outsold Traveller by 8x. At the time, GDW had no comparable product that could attract these younger players, and so they all by default went to D&D, starting as early as 1977. By the time GDW finally produced Starter Traveller (1983) in early 1983, it was probably way too late. Starter Traveller sold 34,041 units from 1983-1986. In comparison Basic D&D sold just over a million units in that same period. We often assume that D&D remained the top RPG over the years because of its first-mover advantage, but its first-mover advantage among younger players, thanks to J. Eric Holmes and his original Basic Rules (1977), may have been just as important.

The other notable factor in this chart is that when Traveller and D&D started dropping fast in 1984, Traveller dropped much faster, likely due in part to the fact that GDW was by now spending part of their effort on Twilight: 2000 (1984) and Traveller: 2300 (1986). As a result of that supplemental Traveller production dropped, and that in turn meant that the core rules sales no longer got the regular boosts that they previously had from the release of each Traveller supplement. In 1984, the last year where records aren’t particularly irregular for Traveller sales, AD&D outsold Traveller between 7x and 8x and BD&D was doing 11x better. Our modern recognition of a very strong second-tier game suggests that it might sell a tenth of what D&D does. That pattern seems to have emerged in the later ’80s and hadn’t been at the case a decade earlier: in the late ’70s other RPGs had more chance at being competitive.

(As for why this wider differentiation happened? One can only speculate. One reason was likely all those munchkins streaming into the game from BD&D, which could have propped up AD&D as they graduated. Another was simply that money begets money: by 1983, TSR was spending millions of dollars a year on ads. That’ll pay for a lot of gamers to come and buy your game.)

We have one other data point to compare Traveller with TSR’s RPGs. In Game Wizards (2021), Jon Peterson reports that TSR’s secondary RPGs such as Boot Hill (1975) or Gamma World (1978) sold a thousand units a month in 1979. 12,000 copies total in 1979 would be slightly less than Traveller, suggesting that Traveller was outperforming TSR’s secondary games.

Final Notes

GDW’s early production records revealed a number of interesting data points, including how wargames and RPGs compared; how a very successful RPG sold over a decade; and how that compared to the industry leader.

I’d love sometime to be able to look at some of Traveller’s later eras and compare how well they did. Perhaps in the future!

Thanks to Benjamin Riggs for sharing his TSR data, which he collected while working on Slaying the Dragon (2022) and thanks to Jon Peterson for the excellent Game Wizards (2021). If you’re a fan of RPG history, you’ll want both books.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #70 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was written to support work on This is Free Trader Beowulf: A System History of Traveller (2024).

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