Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Historical Analysis: D&D Prices Then and Now (Is 5e the Most Expensive Edition Ever?)

To me, a middle-aged person who started purchasing Dungeons & Dragons Rulebooks forty years ago, the contemporary product offerings of Wizards of the Coast seem wildly overpriced.

I bought the AD&D Players Handbook in 1978 for $9.95. By the end of the next year, I would own all three AD&D rulebooks, having paid a total of $31.85. At that time, the "whitebox" set of the original three "little brown books" was still being sold for $14.95. Just a few years before, it had retailed for $10.00 - a price that many contemporary reviewers thought was quite high for a mere game, especially one that did not contain a board or pieces.

Today, the three D&D 5e "core" rulebooks sell for a combined list price of $149.85.

Now of course I realize that there has been a fair amount of inflation since 1979 (or 1974, when the first edition of D&D hit the market), but has there been that much inflation? One wouldn't have thought so.

So I decided to find out.

In fact, prices have gone up by a factor of 5.3 since 1974, and by a factor of 3.2 since 1979. (That prices almost doubled in that five-year period, as seen from those numbers, shows that inflation was raging in the seventies.) See the CPI Inflation Calculator, here.

I should note that merely adjusting for inflation doesn't give you the full story about people's purchasing power. Among other things, it doesn't look at how much money people actually have. One might assume that average wages and incomes have risen at least as fast as inflation over the last forty years, but that may not be the true for certain groups, including, arguably the sorts of groups - teenagers, students, younger wage earners, etc - who make up a large proportion of the RPG market. Still, adjusting for inflation is a good place to start.

From this point on, when I talk of prices or use the terms expensive, inexpensive and so on, I will be referring to inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars.

For the fun of it, I made a chart of some of the most well-known versions of D&D, with their original prices as well as their inflation-adjusted prices. As you can see, I also made a second chart featuring some of the "retro-clones." Which editions are or were actually the most (or least) expensive? Is 2018 a good time to be a D&D or RPG purchaser (in terms of prices) or were things better back in the day?

Here are some of the most interesting things I got from the charts:

First Impressions:
  • In terms of its list price (3 x $49.95) D&D 5e is in fact the most expensive version of D&D ever published.
  • However, if you purchase it through Amazon, where you get almost a 50% discount, it ends up being the least expensive, at least among the editions that feature three hardcover books. (I should note that while there was some book and game discounting going on before Amazon, the magnitude was generally nowhere near as high.)
  • Starting with AD&D in 1977-79, each successive hardcover edition would be a bit more expensive, culminating in D&D 5e, which cost almost 50% more than its first ancestor (going by its list price, at least).
  • The original 1974 edition sold for less than half of the price of any of the successive five hardcover editions.
  • However, if you add in the three supplements - Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry - the prices are comparable.
  • Unsurprisingly, the "Basic" editions have always been the least expensive (and thus, given certain assumptions, have been the "best deals"), coming in at anywhere from 50% to 15% of the hardcover sets
  • You can buy hardcover reprints of the original AD&D 1st edition volumes on DriveThruRPG for substantially less than they cost back in the day ($74.85 vs. $103.41). Not sure about the quality, but there it is.
Pages and Words:

The above analysis changes somewhat if one looks at page and word counts. Of course, some would argue that more pages and words don't necessarily make a game product better - they might even make it worse. But for the sake of argument, let's assume they add value to the product at a constant rate.
  • The original edition of Dungeons & Dragons may have been at the time, one of the longest game rulesets ever published, coming in at 45,000 words - almost certainly longer than the typical rulebook for, say, any of the Avalon Hill or SPI "monster" wargames of the period, and, I assume, judging from Chainmail, substantially longer than the typical set of miniatures rules.
  • Five years later, the three AD&D game books would utterly crush that record, coming in at over a half-million words. I can't imagine how this wouldn't have meant that AD&D was by far the longest set of game rules published in the history of the world. Yet, oddly, as far as I can remember, few seemed to have remarked on this. Though role-playing was still new, and though the first AD&D rulebook - the 1977 Monster Manual - was stunning in its quality and scope, I don't remember anyone saying, "uh, guys, should anyone really be playing a game with a set of instructions 500,000 words long?" It seemed a completely natural and logical development, and is, of course, taken for granted now. But the more I think of it, the more I think this is extremely odd.
  • With AD&D there was a massive leap in price to, I assume, near record levels for games. How many relatively self-contained games had ever cost more than $30?
  • On the other hand, if looked at in terms of the number of words per dollar spent, AD&D constituted a massive leap in value - at least compared to earlier versions. You got six times the words for your dollar with AD&D than you got from the little brown books.
  • The successive three-volume hardcover sets would all offer comparable word value - 4,000 - 6,000 words per dollar.
  • However, the number of pages in each book took a large leap with 3rd edition (and the number of words per page dropped off somewhat proportionately). It looked like you were getting more content even though you weren't. Of course, if fewer words per page meant more pictures per page, one could argue that you were in fact getting more content.
  • Words peaked at close to three-quarters of a million with edition 3.5. That's more words than are in the novel War and Peace.
  • Curiously, edition 3.5 was the only multi-volume edition to feature three books containing exactly the same number of pages - 322 each, depending on how you count pages.
  • Not counting D&D 5e at the Amazon discounted price, the best value (in terms of words per dollar) of any D&D edition was the Rules Cyclopedia.
The Retro-Clones:

For purposes of this analysis, I'm ignoring the fact that many of the clones are also available in free or extremely inexpensive PDF versions.
  • All the retro-clones seem to offer good value compared with their D&D parents. Yet, for most of the clones, if value is expressed in terms of word count, their value is merely comparable with the various Wizards of the Coast "core" books, if even slightly less.
  • Part of the philosophy of the clones is that less is in fact more. But still.
  • In terms of pages and words per dollar, the incredibly massive OSRIC and the incredibly cheap Delving Deeper are the undisputed champions. Blueholme Prentice Rules also deserves a mention.
  • The three members of the "100,000 word club" (at least on this chart) - Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry Complete and my own Seven Voyages of Zylarthen - are all roughly comparable in terms of overall price and words per dollar. (By the way, the words per dollar figure for the Labyrinth Lord hardcover edition, four rows down on the chart, is in error. Instead of "6,260" it should read, "3,130".) Much of the variance presumably reflects the different formats - hardcovers vs. paperbacks vs. booklets.
  • Zylarthen's monster book contains 35% more words per page than its non-monster books (I think this is because its "stat blocs" are presented in prose as opposed to table form, and there are no other tables in the volume). I suspect Zylarthen is relatively unique in this as it is the reverse of the phenomenon you get in the five multi-volumes editions of AD&D and D&D where the monster books are often 35% or so less "meaty" - presumably due to having more pictures and stat blocs. You can't see this from the charts but I just thought it was a minor (obviously, very minor) weird and interesting fact.
  • You can buy physical versions of the two relatively "straight" clones of the three little brown books - Swords & Wizardry Whitebox and Delving Deeper - for one-fifth and one-tenth, respectively, of what the three little brown books cost back in the day.
  • Or, you can buy a PDF of the original Dungeons & Dragons whitebox itself for one-fifth of what you would have paid for its physical instantiation back in the day.
  • Life isn't all bad.


  1. I'm glad your table format is still 1E! Fun little analysis. The retroclones ought to have a smaller development budget, but could spend similarly on art and printing.

  2. Yes but are you also adjusting for median income? That's a factor, too. What percentage of median income in the United States was 1e AD&D's three core rulebooks, vs. 5e's? Let's take a look:

    Average US income in 1979 was 16461 USD
    Average US income in 2015 was 56516 USD

    The cost of the AD&D books in 1979, MSRP, was $31.85
    The cost of the 5eD&D books in 2015, MSRP, was $149.85*

    As a percentage of median income, the percentage difference is %.19 for AD&D 1e vs. %.27 for 5eD&D, or a difference of +%.08 for 5eD&D.

    But we can't stop here (this is bat country).

    Other things need to be taken into consideration: what was the cost of living like in 1979, vs 2017? What percentage of income is an individual or family spending on rent/mortgage, auto payments, insurance, tuition, food, gasoline, utilities...? All of this needs to be taken into consideration. It's not just saying "Well the dollar was so-and-such value back then versus so-forth and so-on now..." You have to factor in many other variables.

    *=I use this figure because in 1979 Amazon didn't exist; odds are you were buying your AD&D at the hobby shop and paying full retail so, in the interest of an even level comparison we likewise use the full retail price here.

    1. Oh yeah, I completely agree. And I did mention that set of issues in passing in the body of the post. But while those questions are important, they're also complex and somewhat controversial or subjective (in terms of what factors to include or not include, etc.), and pretty soon you're writing an economics paper...or a book. :)

      But then, even after all of that, there's what's going on with the actual market. I mean, I have no idea whether, say, a family with a working father in a similar job to what my father had would be better off (or worse off) in 2018 than in 1975. But I do know that in 1975 I was a paper boy, probably making $1 an hour. I also had no other expenses. And so taking, say, a week's part-time wages and being able to buy with them an SPI "monster" wargame, or, a few years later the Monster Manual, seemed perfectly fair to me.

      Are things better or worse now? Well, among other things, kids don't have paper routes anymore...

    2. I don't think using retail price for 5E is actually fair here. The advantage of being able to purchase books off Amazon has every right to be included as the advantage of increased wages or inflation. If we want adequate comparisons, we need to consider all the factors (just like we would do if we were to choose between purchasing book-A in the local store versus book-B off Amazon).

      Really good point about the median income, though.

  3. That is fascinating. And I love the chart. The futura font and the grey fill on the table, well those are just... priceless.

  4. The basic rules for 5e are free. The Players Handbook ($20 bucks on Amazon last week) is the only must add. The MM is very nice addition. I think D&D is as affordable as it has ever been.

  5. Excellent Article. You've outdone yourself Oakes!

  6. What I like about the Lulu retroclone market is that you never have to pay full price - there's always a discount or free shipping coupon around the corner. ;-)

  7. Thank you for this, Oakes. Nothing to add. It’s delightful as-is.

  8. Replies
    1. My impression (which could be wrong) is that C&C was sort of a "bridge product" during the wilderness years before the clone explosion and Wizards deciding to reintroduce OD&D, Classic D&D and AD&D products through reprints and PDFs. Also, it was one of the most important factors for making those developments possible. But do many people play it (or, more importantly, buy it) now?

  9. Recreational books are a tiny factor(<.1) in CPI-U, CPI-W, or C CPI-U.
    Using it any CPI whole for one item is a misuse of CPI.

    was 9.95 MSRP, or after a hardback book discount which where very popular in the 70s. For example, I got my books from Gemco(think early wal-mart) and 30% of, and in the early 80s you could get as much as 50% off at some popular book chains.

    It's still one of the cheapest hobbies there is.

  10. There weren't three HC books of AD&D in 1989. The Monstrous Manual didn't replace the Monstrous Compendium ring binder until 1993. Also you can't reasonably compare the (mostly) two colour printing and so-so art of AD&D 2nd edition with the full colour lavishly illustrated 3rd edition onwards books. Today's books are so much better and nicer books so even if they are more expensive, they are worth it.