Tabletop role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, are played in a lot of different ways. Some people lounge on couches and in armchairs, rolling dice on their coffee tables and playing the game entirely through imagination. Others pull out vinyl hex maps and use wet-erase markers to depict a dungeon or a forest clearing, while still others use graph paper.
And then there are the people who want to have vividly painted, wonderfully detailed, fully three-dimensional terrain to show exactly where each hero is in relation to their monstrous foes and a yawning chasm, or to depict the quaint medieval village being threatened by an army of vile, plague-infested ratmen.
That’s where Stefan Pokorny comes in. Stefan is a talented artist and a skilled sculptor, who has been making commercial miniature terrain for D&D since 1996, when he first debuted his masterful work at Gen Con (back when it was still in Milwaukee). As a life-long gamer, I heard about his beautiful terrain sets in the late ’90s and early ’00s almost like they were an urban myth, something that people whispered about but had never actually seen.
Over the course of a few years and several extremely successful Kickstarter campaigns, Stefan’s company, Dwarven Forge, has expanded considerably, making terrain sets that are far more durable and affordable than they previously offered. I’m actually a huge fan of his stuff – I backed his first three Kickstarter campaigns, and own a couple of his old school resin sets to boot.
Recently, I had the pleasure of screening a new documentary titled “The Dwarvenaut”, which tells overlapping stories about Stefan’s life, the Dwarven Forge journey, and the roller coaster of the company’s City Builder Kickstarter campaign. I also had the honor of interviewing Stefan and “The Dwarvenaut” director Josh Bishop about the project.
One of the interesting things that came from the interview was the story of how “The Dwarvenaut” came to be. According to Stefan, he began working with Nate Taylor, a hardcore Dwarven Forge fan who also happened to be a talented videographer, during the company’s second Kickstarter campaign for their Caverns sets. After Stefan received interest from various television executives and studios, Nate, who worked as a writer on “The Dwarvenaut”, suggested they bring on a director to put together a sizzle real for a reality show based around Stefan and Dwarven Forge.
Josh Bishop was the director Nate recommended, and according to Josh there was an immediate fascination with Stefan and his work. “He had taken something as esoteric as Dungeons & Dragons and made it into his artistic vehicle, his paint brush, for how he creates. Showing that was much more important and interesting than filming for some reality show,” Josh related to me when asked what had drawn him to the project.
Josh emphasized the importance of telling Stefan’s story, and showing the world through Stefan’s eyes. He says that, “It took us a while. I knew that we had something awesome, I just didn’t know how to [tell the story] yet. Through many conversations with the editor, we came up with this stream-of-consciousness approach to showing Stefan’s story in a genuine way with atmospheric moments and internal monologues that I’m very proud of.”
As any long-time fan of role-playing games can attest, it’s not always lighthearted silliness, and the documentary itself is surprisingly emotional. Stefan recounts numerous anecdotes about playing D&D, and how much the game meant to him throughout his life, but these are interspersed with personal tragedies and hardships. From his turbulent early childhood as an international adoptee, to his trouble in school as a teenager, Stefan is not the image of a typical geek. He talks about being a troublemaker who often looked for fights, and at one point in “The Dwarvenaut” he and a lifelong friend of his talk about a member of their D&D group that was killed in a street fight.
The passing of Stefan’s parents also takes center stage in the film, and it’s clear that this affected Stefan significantly. His mother and father both expressed unwavering support for his artistic passions, and that support clearly serves as an important motivator for Stefan. When I asked him if Dwarven Forge is a way of honoring his late father, who was an architect and art-lover, Stefan replied, “I wasn’t explicitly trying to honor him, it just came naturally. Growing up around all of that, I developed a natural interest. We traveled around the world a lot to places like Greece and Rome, and it had a profound influence on me. Sometimes in the early days [of creating dungeons], I would ask my pop if something made sense architecturally and he would give me some of his feedback.”
A noticeable change in Stefan’s voice preceded him saying, “That’s why I’m really kind of said, because he mostly saw my work on paper, and the very beginnings of my first dungeons. But if he had just been around a little longer to see the cities and castles, he would have really, I think, taken a great interest and pride and joy in that part. And I think of that often.”
Even though Stefan’s own father wasn’t able to see his work come to life, his work has made a difference in the relationship of other families who love Dwarven Forge terrain. Stefan attributes this to a renaissance of sorts in tabletop gaming, and RPGs like D&D especially.
Stefan emphasized the importance of in-person, tabletop games, saying, “Gamers from our generation are now having kids of their own, and they’re happily sharing their love of gaming with their sons and daughters. And it’s creating an incredible bond between parents and their children, and I get letters all the time from parents thanking me because they’ve been able to spend hours and hours of really constructive time with their kids [while building with Dwarven Forge terrain]”.
Of course, the process of creating fantastical worlds (or at least, the components of those worlds) is not an easy one. The creative design process, followed by prototyping and product testing & development, costs a significant amount of money. In “The Dwarvenaut”, Stefan reports that Dwarven Forge was close to going bankrupt prior to the first Kickstarter campaign. When I asked about the fact that his four campaigns have raised over $8 million in total, he said “That money is already gone, too. It literally takes that much money to make the stuff, pay salaries, develop new stuff, do the filming, and all of that sucks the money up. Literally, we run out of money every year and we rely on Kickstarter to keep the business going. But that’s not new – it’s always been like that. It used to be Gen Con was the big deal breaker, where if we didn’t do well at Gen Con we would be going out of business.”
That sort of stress regarding the financial future of Dwarven Forge is palpable throughout “The Dwarvenaut”. Stefan frequently checks and reports on the daily or weekly fundraising for the City Builder Kickstarter campaign during the film, stating that the company needs to raise $2 million just to break even on all of the design, production, and fulfillment costs. Luckily, Dwarven Forge (and, more specifically, Stefan) has a dedicated fan-base who are more than willing to support his amazing products and keep the forge’s fire burning (myself included).
Of course, designing three-dimensional fantasy terrain isn’t the only challenging endeavor in question. “The Dwarvenaut” itself proved challenging in its own ways. In addition to the uncertainty regarding the film’s direction mentioned earlier, Josh stated that he was working on overlapping projects, doing promotion for his previous documentary, “Made In Japan”, while also filming with Stefan and the Dwarven Forge crew.
“I would have to tour, like going to festivals, and then return to shoot [“The Dwarvenaut”], and we settled on a three-days per week schedule. I was all over the globe, literally – I was traveling to promote and tour for “Made In Japan” and traveling with Stefan to shoot “The Dwarvenaut”. All of that made for some … interesting times,” Josh laughed. Only now that “The Dwarvenaut” is finished filming and its release is imminent has Josh been able to take a step back, breathe, and relax.
And that’s not the only thing that Josh and Stefan have in common – both men, as creative professionals, now find themselves asking “What’s next?”.
“You find yourself living a certain way for while,” Josh said, “And once it’s over you ask… ‘Now what?’.”
Luckily, neither of them seem ready to slow down. When asked what was next for Dwarven Forge, Stefan (as he was rushing off to another in a long line of interviews and to prepare for Gen Con Indy this weekend) said, “We keep moving forward. We keep doing what we love.”
Similarly, Josh has a couple of projects in pre-production that will be drawing his attention very soon, so we can expect more from this talented director as well.
“The Dwarvenaut” will be available worldwide through video-on-demand starting on August 5th, so you can delve into Stefan and Josh’s creative endeavor very soon. I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Dwarven Forge, D&D, or tabletop gaming in general. Even if you’re just curious about such things, you should watch “The Dwarvenaut” – it highlights the ways in which D&D becomes more than just a game, by bringing families and communities together through a shared love. It juxtaposes silly, over-the-top immersion in a world of imagination and make-believe with the all-too-real pain of loss and fear of failure.
So strap on your armor, take up your weapon of choice, memorize your spells, and prepare yourself – “The Dwarvenaut” is coming!