I used to game with Aaron back in middle and high school and have been catching back up with him recently. After working in the gaming industry for years, on the miniature side of things, Aaron has launched his own company, Jolly Lark. I thought talking to him would provide an interesting perspective to a side of gaming I don't see mentioned that much in old-school circles, even though role-playing has its roots in miniature gaming.
Question. You've been working less on the role-playing side of things and more on the board games/miniatures/gaming accessories side of things. How did you get to where you are today?
Answer. It had been a while since I’d played an RPG, but the blood runs strong and my daughter is currently deep into Numenera and loves D&D. We’ve recently started playing some with the family and my wife has started preparing to run a campaign.
Growing up, we played a lot of board games. Charlottesville was lucky to have a great toy shop (Shenanigans!) that stocked Ravensburger games and introduced me early on to interesting board game designs. At the same time, I loved fantasy novels and miniature modeling: planes, tanks, cars, etc. Todd, I think you introduced me to the original Dragonlance books?
From Lego to doll houses, Hot Wheels to model trains, I think there’s an almost universal appeal to miniature-ized objects. When I was introduced to Role playing games and tabletop miniature wargames, they were both perfect blends of stuff I already loved. There’s a special sort of joy in playing with hand-painted miniatures, on a hand-crafted game table. Like a diorama that’s playing out a story in real time.
We played a lot of D&D in Middle School and High School (usually with Todd as our DM) [Note: I was a pretty shitty DM. Hopefully I've gotten better], which faded a bit once everyone had driver’s licenses, cars, and the freedom they brought. But the gaming continued with Magic the Gathering in high school, hobby board games in college, and then a trip to the UK where I got sucked (back) into Warhammer Fantasy.
I headed off to work at Games Workshop right after college, back in 2000. Since then, I’ve also worked with Gale Force Nine and Monster Fight Club: running tournaments, designing board games, and creating game accessories.
At Gale Force Nine and Monster Fight Club, I worked on a bunch of licensed and original board and miniature games. Some you may have seen or played include Firefly: the Game, Star Trek Ascendancy, Tentacle Town, Spartacus, and Cyberpunk Red: Combat Zone. Working on Cyberpunk Red: Combat Zone was a fun, RPG-adjacent project since we trying to bring the feel and fun of the Cyberpunk Red RPG world onto the tabletop as a miniatures-based, scenario-driven game.
All that leads up to today: I’ve started my own company, Jolly Lark, to make game-related accessories and products. I’ve also done some consulting with other game companies on game design and Kickstarter campaigns.
Q. I don't hear that much about miniatures or gaming terrain in old-school circles, which I find kind of strange, given how much early D&D owes to wargaming. What resources do you suggest for gamers who may not know where to start? For me, it's pretty intimidating both in the variety of options available and, quite frankly, not having the time to paint.
A. It can seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you’re spending time in online groups where people are posting well-painted miniatures in front of dozens (or hundreds!) of paint bottles.
As a first step, I’d look for a place where you can try it out. My local shops (Giga-bites Cafe & Level-Up Games) frequently run gaming events where you can show up and learn a game without committing to anything. Games Workshop-owned “Warhammer” stores will usually show the basics of painting your first mini.
Actually, the range of “D&D Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis” is a super-easy place to start since the miniatures are already primed and come in small, affordable packs. Grab a few colors and a paintbrush and see if you enjoy it. Youtube has an incredible wealth of information about painting miniatures (including my growing collection of videos). Like most things, if you enjoy doing it, it’s easier to find the time.
Games Workshop’s “Warhammer” games are the most popular, but those are large-scale games that involve a pretty significant expense to start playing, in both time and money. There are lots of other, smaller-scale options out there for the mini-curious. Frostgrave is a terrific little system where players explore a frozen city with a Wizard, their apprentice, and a small number of henchmen. Saga: Age of Magic and Dragon Rampant are both straightforward rules sets that are a lot of fun. And Games Workshop makes a bunch of smaller-scale games that use fewer models and would be easier to start (Warcry, Necromunda, Kill Team, Blood Bowl are all fun).
Q. The rise of 3-d printers being commonly available has led to some real innovations in miniatures and terrain, especially people being able to print dungeon tiles or customized miniatures. Do you think that the more established miniatures companies will still have a niche to fill? Where do you see the industry moving in the next few years?
A. Yeah, 3D printing has certainly made some waves in the miniature world. It’s been fantastic seeing the explosion of amazing miniatures that people are sculpting, now that the barriers to entry have been lowered so dramatically. Miniatures seem ideally suited to 3D-printing, since they’re small and you need a lot of them!
Right now, resin printers are really what’s needed to produce highly detailed miniatures, but the chemicals involved limit the appeal. Once someone invents a goop that isn’t toxic, I think we’ll really see them take off.
You are starting to see companies offer 3D-ready files alongside traditional, physical miniatures. Especially for larger items (like scenery) that are harder to mass-produce. In a world where printing a mini is as easy as printing a character sheet, buying factory-made miniatures may have less appeal. But that still feels pretty far away. The time and money it takes to set up and operate a 3D printer aren’t insignificant. Buying 3D-printed miniatures from someone else often costs about the same amount as buying traditional minis. Of course, we now have a vast, exciting selection of miniatures to choose from!
The biggest reason I think we’ll continue to see established companies’ games on tables is their reach. Assembling a collection of miniatures takes enough time and effort that it’s good to connect with other players who have their own collection. Otherwise, you’ll need to assemble enough miniatures for both players (miniatures games usually are two player affairs). Established companies’ games are kind of like the neighborhood basketball court, offering a familiar game that locals can drop in and play. While there’s certainly space for small, indie games, there’s a community built around the big games that’s very valuable.
Q. Finally, tell us a bit about Jolly Lark and your current projects.
A. I recently decided to create my own venture and started Jolly Lark. In addition to some consulting work with other companies, I’ve got a couple projects in the works that are coming to Kickstarter soon. The first one is a new style of “Hobby Handle” for painting miniatures. It’s made in the USA of solid hardwood and is comfortable to hold and also affordable enough to have one for all the miniatures you’re painting.
This’ll be Jolly Lark’s first Kickstarter – but not my first campaign! I’m excited to get these in people’s hands. After that, I have a range of system-agnostic miniatures I’m working on that should be available later this year. Beyond that, I’ve got lots of other ideas for hobby-oriented products and accessories, games, and collaborations that I think can fill different niches for our hobby.