Thursday, 1 August 2019

Savage Worlds Licensing: Ace, Fan or SWAG?

Back in January, Pinnacle Entertainment Group (PEG) announced the Savage Worlds Adventurer’s Guild (SWAG), a new Community Content program for Savage Worlds. On 27th May I released my first SWAG product, and on 22nd July I uploaded my second (this one is a PoD product, so it takes longer, as I have to wait for the OneBookShelf (OBS) staff to set it up).

I already had a DTRPG publisher account with free Savage Worlds products and several commercial products (Blood & Bile, the SotGH Configurable Map, and the SotGH, Monster and Galactic Countdown Decks). However, my new Fantasy Archetypes on SWAG rapidly outsold all of my earlier products by a significant margin. But at the same time, I found myself chafing at the limited storefront interface, and so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the different options available to publishers and see how they compare.


Savage Worlds has three third-party licenses: Ace, Fan, and SWAG.

Being an Ace is the most versatile option, but you have to email PEG to negotiate permission for the license. These licenses are granted to people, not products, and the requirements vary from person to person. Aces can sell products on DTRPG or on other sites, they can use Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing programs, they can use Patreon, and so on. Aces can also use "Licensee Authorized Material" from the core rules and companions in their products, and they enjoy a lot of promotional support from PEG.

Fan licensed products don't require explicit permission, and their existence is mostly ignored by PEG, which can be both a curse and a blessing. Fans can distribute anywhere they like (including on DTRPG using a full publisher account), but their products must be released for free -- they can't even make them PWYW. This obviously rules out a direct print-on-demand option, although as a last resort you can always do what I did for Saga of the Goblin Horde, and release a print-ready PDF and printing instructions.

SWAG products don't require explicit permission from PEG, and they can be sold, however, they can only be distributed through the SWAG storefront, and they must be written for SWADE (not SWD any other earlier versions of the rules). SWAG publishers have access to additional art assets (although it seems Aces can use these assets too), and can offer print-on-demand products (although this has to be done manually by an OBS service rep, SWAG publishers can't do it themselves). SWAG products seem to have a little more wiggle room than Aces when it comes to content, but not as much creative freedom as Fan publishers.

DriveThruRPG vs SWAG

SWAG is a Community Content program operated by OBS, effectively a DTRPG storefront customized for Savage Worlds. Many other roleplaying systems offer something similar, although they usually take a 20% cut (SWAG only takes 10%), and require you to write content for their official setting/s -- whereas SWAG doesn't currently allow you to write for any settings, but does allow you to create your own. If you sell a $10 product on SWAG, OBS takes $3, PEG takes $1, and you keep the remaining $6.

DriveThruRPG publishers can choose between an exclusive and non-exclusive publication license, allowing them to keep 70% or 65% of the sales respectively. Aces are required to give 10% of their cut (as opposed to the total sale) to PEG, so if they sell a $10 product with an exclusive license, OBS takes $3, PEG takes $0.70, and they keep the remaining $6.30 -- while if they have a non-exclusive license, OBS takes $3.50, PEG takes $0.65, and they keep the remaining $5.85.


SWAG doesn't allow you to track or email your customers (not even to notify them when you've updated a PDF), which makes it very difficult to inform your fanbase when you release something new. It also doesn't allow you to view sales reports, sales sources, pending purchases, page visits, cross-publisher sales, or any of the other valuable marketing data available to regular DTRPG publishers -- you can only view the raw number of sales and total earnings between two dates.

SWAG also doesn't allow you to earn or spend Publisher Promotion Points (PPP), which allow DTRPG publishers to massively drive up their sales using powerful marketing tools such as Deal of the Day, Featured Product, banners, and so on.

Finally, although you can still list yourself as the author of a SWAG product, PEG will always be listed as the publisher, and you don't have the option of designing and customizing a publisher page to help build your brand.

These limitations probably won't matter to a casual Savage Worlds fan hoping to sell one or two small products, but for someone planning to get into serious publishing, it's likely to become a deal-breaker.


SWAG also falls short when it comes to sale options. You cannot set an "original price" for products (which is how DTRPG publishers display discounts in red text with the original price struck through). You can't opt-in (or out) of site-wide sales (those are entirely up to PEG), nor can you run your own sales.

It is possible to create bundles, and you can even add non-SWAG products to a SWAG bundle (but not the other way around). For example, if you released a system-agnostic setting book through your DTRPG publisher account, and a Savage Worlds companion on SWAG, you could put both in the same bundle as long as that bundle was created on SWAG.

Finally, SWAG doesn't have access to royalty tools. This is a useful feature for DTRPG publishers, as it allows them to offer contributors a cut of the sales, or split profits with co-authors, or even offer other publishers a percentage when writing for their system or setting. It would have been a great feature for Aces wishing to sublicense their settings to SWAG publishers.


DTRPG publishers can distribute their products anywhere they like if they have a non-exclusive license, and even those with an exclusive license can sell their PDFs from their own website if they wish, or sell their printed products anywhere they please. It's not unusual for publishers to sell printed copies or even PDFs of their products at gaming conventions (in the case of PDFs, they make the sale then send the customer a "free" copy through DTRPG).

By contrast, your SWAG products must be sold exclusively through the SWAG storefront. You could hand out discount codes to prospective customers at a convention, but you can't sell them the PDF directly or show off a nice stack of shiny printed books (unless they literally are just for show, and not for sale).

When SWAG was first announced, several people discussed it as a stepping stone to becoming an Ace. While this is certainly an option, it's important to remember that once you've posted something on SWAG, you cannot later move it to DTRPG, so it becomes a bit of a dead-end for any product lines you plan to publish (if you put your setting book on SWAG, it'll stay there, and you won't be able to bundle it with any products you later publish on the main DTRPG store). Thus if you are planning to use SWAG as a stepping stone, I'd recommend using it for smaller standalone products.


Most Community Content programs are introduced as the sole means of commercial publication for a particular system, or at least offer unique options to offset the drawbacks (such as the DMs Guild vs OSR). However, Savage Worlds already had Aces (or "Official Licensees" as they used to be called) for many years, and they've contributed greatly to the success of the system. PEG obviously didn't want to drive them away by forcing everyone to use SWAG.

However, as things currently stand, it's much better to be an Ace rather than a SWAG publisher. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if PEG wants SWAG to serve as a stepping stone to Ace status, or as a fallback for those who can't become Aces, or for those who just want to dabble with some very basic self-publishing. But if the goal of SWAG is to become a viable alternative to being an Ace, I think it needs to offer something that Aces can't do -- perhaps PEG could open up two or three settings (even if they start with something small like Evernight). I've seen people publish on the DMs Guild because they wanted to write for Eberron, and I'm sure that even some Aces would use SWAG if it allowed them to write for Deadlands or 50 Fathoms! Licensed IP settings like Rifts and Lankhmar would obviously not be possible, but Pinnacle has many fantastic settings of their own.

SWAG is currently far more limited than a DTRPG publisher account in terms of tools and options, but OBS is actively improving the interface (they recently added the option to generate discount links, for example, which is an extremely useful tool that I'd missed a lot when I started using SWAG). So I believe that some (if not all) of the drawbacks I listed above will be addressed in the future, particularly if OBS see that lots of people are actively using SWAG and pushing it to its limits.