Meeting of Minds – Jared Earle

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

Jared Earle Portrait

It would be easy to think that the tabletop RPG world begins and ends with Dungeons and Dragons. It is a title that has dominated the hobby for as long as it has been the hobby. That hasn’t stopped many making their own RPGs, and some with a distinctly different take on what can be done with the medium.

Nightfall Games was one of the UK success stories, originally founded in 1993, and its signature title “SLA Industries” became a cult classic. The game saw players working for the company of the title as freelancers, not only for money, but for the crowds that watch the proceedings live on TV!

Jared Earle was intimately involved in Nightfall Games back in the day and has had a varied career doing Design, layout, production and writing for RPGs for many years. He finds himself part of the newly revived company. After some rough periods, that Jared will tell you all about, the company is back making games including the Terminator RPG and a second edition of the infamous SLA indsutries.

Could you give us a brief overview of your history in the RPG industry and where you find yourself these days?

I started out playing D&D and Traveller in 1980 or so at school and with my two brothers, and ended up in Nottingham, playing D&D (and all the other eighties games) in the back of the Asgard Miniatures shop every Saturday circa 1983 which introduced me to a few of the people who became the core of the Games Workshop team. In 1987, courtesy of a friend called Half-Orc, I got a job as a Mail Order Troll in the Games Workshop’s Eastwood factory where they made the Citadel Miniatures and warehoused the D&D books they distributed for TSR. 

After that, I went to Art College and got into using my Atari ST for graphics and basic DTP. Once I’d finished my foundation, after hanging out with friends at Alternative Armies, doing a couple of bits of low-quality art for them, I got a job offer to do typesetting and computer stuff at Fantasy Forge in Edinburgh and I moved to Scotland in 1991 to start what would be the next chapter of my life. 

After finishing my work on Kryomek, basic Atari ST stuff to match the manual typesetting they were using for the rest of the book, I no longer had a job at Fantasy Forge. Walking to sign on for my unemployment benefits, I heard a car pull up next to me and it was my friend Chaz Elliott, the old-school graphic designer I knew from Games Workshop and Fantasy Forge, in his yellow Mini (a 1275GT, iirc) asking me if I wanted to come to the pub and meet up with Dave Allsop who worked at Fantasy Forge at the same time as we did. I liked Dave and thought anything would be better than my current plans of doing nothing.

Dave was with Anne Boylan, a young woman I didn’t know. They were meeting with Chaz to discuss publishing an RPG that Dave had been working on for a while, and I offered to help out. I then pretty much moved across to Dave’s couch in Ayr on the west coast of Scotland and we started Nightfall Games and moved to Glasgow, sharing a flat with Dave, Anne, Anne’s partner Morton Smith and her brother David (aka Jimbly). We got some support from Prince’s Youth Trust and got an office in Paisley, a train ride away from Glasgow. And that was it, Nightfall Games produced Dave’s game, SLA Industries, and we published it in 1993.

The original SLA industries cover.

Then we got bought by Wizards of the Coast in December 1993 and that was my job for the next five years. After 1998, I sort of left the games industry, moving over to new media (websites, basically) as an IT manager. I kept in touch with Dave Allsop, and after seven years in Paris, I moved back to Scotland around the same time as Dave and we got back to talking about SLA. We took the licence back from Cubicle 7 and started releasing PDFs for beer money until we were approached by a moron who ruined our lives over a SLA Industries miniatures game.

After a disastrous kickstarter, we dragged ourselves out of the mess and joined up with Mark Rapson to restart Nightfall Games as a proper concern. We pushed ourselves to release a second edition to get us out of the debt we got ourselves into to rescue the Cannibal Sector One kickstarter from the idiots that we were handcuffed to. That went surprisingly well and the new team we’ve got are great to work with and we’ve been in a position to get the Terminator RPG licence and release that game and do other stuff like the Mörk Borg compatible Demon Dog game that Dave and I did as a fun side project that let us push the boat out with design and art while focussing on something a lot less than SLA. 

I’ve also been doing freelance work with the excellent Andrew E. C. Gaska in the US, doing the production on the Carbon Grey RPG for instance, and that’s fun, but I don’t have any intentions to become a layout-for-hire guy as I’d much rather stick with what I’ve got on my plate. 

You were an original member of Nightfall Games back in 1993. What was it like being involved in the RPG industry then and how does it compare to your work now?

Back then, there was no internet to speak of, and everything was a chore. Dave, Morton and I wrote, Anne did the business side of things and Jim worked with me on layout where I helped him learn the job as he also went to college part-time. You needed to have all of the skills covered as you couldn’t just grab someone from the internet to help you out. We hired a couple of artists from East Kilbride who advertised their services in a comic shop and they turned out to be a great find, with Stuart Beel joining us full-time and the youngster Brian “Chippy” Dugan doing a load of work for us before we forced him to go to Glasgow School of Art instead of working for us. 

With six of us in the office, we found ourselves being the largest RPG company in the UK when Games Workshop closed their RPG division Flame Publications in 1992. We were surviving off tiny business grants and the like, with Dave, Anne and myself getting an extra £10 on top of our dole cheques as the Enterprise Allowance system of the 90s allowed us to live like kings and queens on our cheap noodles, Beanfeasts and frozen lasagnes. We still had to forge our weekly train passes every other week, which was surprisingly easy when you’ve got a couple of artists and designers in the studio, and an ink rubber and mechanical pencil could do a perfect facsimile of the Glasgow train pass’s date printing.

It was a genuine hardship and the tasks ahead of us were impossible, but because we covered every skill, Dave writing, drawing and art directing and me writing and doing book production and pre-press, we had no gaps in our skills and were able to somehow get a book out. 

We got lucky with artists, as well as the talent we had in-house, with, for instance, my younger brother telling me one of his mates wanted to do art for us. As sceptical as we were, it turned out this new kid called Clint Langley wasn’t bad at all and we published him before the famous British comic 2000AD got their hands on him. 

There was also something that’s no longer with us that helped us enormously, and that was a magazine industry. As we were the rising light of UK RPGs, the magazines of the time loved us. We bent over backwards to give them what they wanted and this meant we were constant features in Role-Player Independent, The Last Province, Arcane and Valkyrie, the magazines of the time. This path is no longer available today, but it’s also much, much easier to get published, with PDF workflows being much easier today.

As an example of how technology has advanced, we did SLA Industries and Karma on Atari ST computers, using Calamus, Calligrapher, Didot and Retouche Pro to produce the books, starting with pirated copies and eventually replacing them with legit expensive copies. These were all from Germany where the Atari ST was treated as a proper business computer and an alternative to the Apple Mac for DTP, and the translations were of varying quality. We worked on A4 paper back then and we did our art at 1.41:1 (A4 sideways for A5, A3 for full-page A4, etc) and that meant half page art was edge-to-edge A4 and we scanned everything ourselves on an A4 Epson GT-4000 scanner at whatever size would fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk using zipped TIFFs. Half page images were scanned at 90º, vertically, and rotating the images was left until the end of the day as it took several hours to rotate to a horizontal image, even with 4MB of memory in both the 1040ST and 520STE computers that I brought to Nightfall. 

We worked in black and white as printing in colour was exorbitantly expensive and we didn’t have the infrastructure to even consider it. JPEG as a standard didn’t exist when we started work on SLA, and PDF was still in development at Adobe. The stuff we take for granted today simply didn’t exist back then. No collaboration tools, no Google Docs, no emails … just stacks and stacks of floppy disks being chucked around the office.

With no PDF workflow or internet, we had to drive the computers to the printers and hope to get Postscript files from the STs to the printers, but that was a disaster and we had to return to my old stomping ground in Nottingham as there was a church there that had the only ST-compatible repro printer in the country. My girlfriend (now my wife) was the only one in our social circle with a car, let alone a driving licence (we really were that poor and disenfranchised, that’s where a lot of our left-leaning views come from) and she drove me and my computers to the printers and then Nottingham to get the films outputted from the church and we then drove back up with the films in the back of the car and dropped them off to the printers in Newcastle. Today, that would be posting a PDF on WeTransfer to our printers in Lithuania and getting a PDF proof in a few days, after some back and forth over trapping, bleed and DPI changes. 

As for being part of the industry, it’s so much easier to talk to people and feel part of what’s happening with social media letting everyone talk to anyone. If someone I’ve never met wants to know how to fix a PDF, they can literally tweet to their favourite designers and might even get replies from some of them. 

Everything is easier, and that makes it so much harder to stand out from the crowd. 

SLA Industries, 2nd Edition cover
Second Edition cover for SLA Industries

SLA Industries is a game I’ve never played but was very aware of as I got into RPGs. What made that game stand out and what was it like bringing it back with the new edition?

When I started working on it, Dave Allsop already had the setting worked out, and I was drawn to the Sci-fi/horror aspects of it. It’s dark in a very British way, without being blatantly gory and in-your-face about it. This appealed to me as someone who was a big fan of the Vertigo comics of the late 80s. There’s satire, political commentary and a genuinely original setting that we’ve made into something unique. Bringing it back after over twenty years was a privilege as we were able to clarify a lot of stuff as we are decades better than we were when we did SLA back in the early 90s. 

Bringing it back meant Dave and I got to focus on the stuff we thought needed more while de-emphasizing the stuff we felt distracted from our goals. Dave’s art is now all-colour and shows his decades of working on D&D, Pathfinder, Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering and everything is just of the highest quality we can produce. 

It’s great getting back into RPGs because it’s something we’re objectively good at and enjoy doing. Dave Allsop is doing this full-time while I’m part-time, balancing my other jobs of IT Consultant and World Superbike correspondent with RPG writing and production. 

Not a lot of folk know what the process of getting an RPG book from manuscript to finished product is like. Can you take us through that?

Well, firstly, you need a manuscript, and every layout person will tell you they insist on final, edited copy, but we hardly ever get that, so there’s that. Also, I’m not going to go through the process of getting art. That’s not what I do as I work with the very talented Dave Allsop who takes care of that. I provide him with sizes, but he knows what he’s about.

The first step is to get a template. You need to know what you’re doing, is it PDFs or print, is it POD or litho? You need to know this before you start because this defines a few aspects you need in the beginning. Oh, and you need to know the page size. Converting from one paper size to another is … let’s say challenging. Don’t ask me how I know. 

So, the template. You’ll need to make decisions about your text, choose some fonts and decide sizes, columns, etc. I recommend three or four fonts as an absolute maximum, the fewer the better. Get a nice serif font for your main body text as it is more legible, and aim for 10-12pt with 120% leading, and get a headline font which can be the same as your body font, but this is where you get to be creative and make your blocks of text look less boring. 

So, once you’ve got your paper size and fonts, you’ll need to do the basic layout. You’ll decide on how many columns and how much spacing you need. Just use two columns and 15mm all round apart from the “towards the spine” bit which should be 20mm. This should be your starting point and you can veer off in tangents once you’ve done this, like adding headers and footers, resizing your margins as needed. This will also give you an idea of the art sizes. If you want art that’s one column wide and half a column high, you now know what that means. I like two column width art that’s about half or a third of the column high. Use decent art ratios (3:2 or 4:3, for instance) or trust your art director.

All of this should be done in Adobe Indesign or Affinity Publisher if you can’t afford InDesign. There are alternatives, but don’t use stuff like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages unless you really, really know what you’re doing.

Once you’ve got your basic template, using paragraph styles and object styles, you’re ready for some text. If you decide to wing it and not use Paragraph Styles, I can’t help you. You’re on your own. Oh, and make master pages. 

Put your text in and let it flow. I personally work with each chapter as a separate InDesign document and use a .indb book file to pull them together. Don’t worry about colour settings or anything like that just yet as we’ll deal with that at the end. RGB images work just as well as CMYK, so don’t be distracted by that, either. I prefer whatever PSDs the artist sends me, preferably with layers for the major elements, just in case. 

Now it’s time for tables. This should be simple, but it’s not. Clear the next few days and have a supply of coffee or tea on hand. Use table styles and nail it on one table before applying it to the rest. 

With your text and tables in place, add images. You should know where everything goes. Make sure to follow basic common sense typography rules (enough space for everything, legibility is king, no single lines of body text starting or ending a column, etc.) and this will be straight-forward.

Then, just go into a low-alpha wave zen-like state and knock the book out. Nothing else you can do but do the job that’s in front of you. The more disciplined you are with your styles and master pages, the quicker and easier this stage is. 

That’s the hard bit done and now it’s time for the other hard bit. You need to talk to your printer, or read the documentation if it’s PoD, and understand what they want. A good printer will give a bit of back and forth and tell you when you’ve missed out the trapping on white-on-black text, for instance. Don’t forget to output in RGB PDFs for PDF and CMYK PDFs for print. Your PDF exporter should let you set that so the printer is happy.

Then, you get to wait. This is the third hard bit. 

Here’s looking at you

What have been the main challenges in RPG book production over the last 5 years? 

Quality of art is always the challenge. We’re lucky we have Dave as our art director and lead artist, and if you’re looking at making an RPG that stands out, art is by far the most obvious way of doing this. If you don’t have an artist on tap, you’re going to struggle. 

The other challenge is getting noticed. Enough people are writing and producing games that I can’t claim that this is a challenge as there’s some really, really good stuff out there but getting yourself noticed is hard. Really, really hard. Getting a thousand backers on Kickstarter is something that established companies like us manage, but it’s hard. If you’re new, you’re really going to struggle without momentum, but you can do it. 

As for actual production, including layout and pre-press, it’s getting easier, not harder. If you’re new to this, understand you’ve never had it so good. 

The tabletop RPG hobby feels like it has really embraced digital formats over the last few years, with sites like Drivethrurpg and DMs Guild being a driving force. How important is it for an RPG publisher to provide good digital editions of their games and do you have any tips for companies looking to do that?

Tips? Yeah, bookmarks. Also, don’t forget you can update PDFs. If you’re not making PDFs, you’re alienating customers and leaving money on the table. Also, don’t undercharge just because it’s digital. 

What game(s) from a UK publisher are you most excited about at the moment? 

I’m not looking forward to specific games as much as I’m interested in whatever publishers do, like whatever Jon Hodgson at Handiwork Games is doing or Grant Howitt at Rowan, Rook & Decard. There’s interesting stuff coming from the likes of them, and whatever bonkers stuff Tanya Floaker is up to these days. There’s so much in the UK right now that deserves to stand up to whatever the US is producing, and I’m sure I’ve missed out some stuff I’m looking forward to, but that’s the result of a healthy hobby.

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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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