Meet the Man Who Raised Millions Crafting D&D Dungeons
Stefan Pokorny walks us through how he makes dungeons for Dungeons & Dragons.
Image: Marco Silva.
If you build it, they will play.
For Stefan Pokorny, said buildings are castles and caverns, cities and sewers. But he's not building them for people to walk through or to have displayed in museums. He's crafting them for use in Dungeons & Dragons games.
Pokorny—who has a master's degree in painting—is the founder of Dwarven Forge, where he has spent the past 20 years creating environments for use in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. He's raised over $6.4 million in various Kickstarter campaigns, and was also recently the focus of the documentary The Dwarvenaut, which was released on video-on-demand on August 5.
This year's Castle Builder Kickstarter brought in $1.7 million, and included pre-configured packages like a Wizard's Outpost, a Gate House, The Sorcerer's Sanctum, and even a $1500 - $1950 Royal Stronghold. Each piece is detailed down to the very brick, modular, and also works with the past sets that the Forge has created.
Motherboard caught up with Pokorny to talk about his creation process, why he doesn't regret giving up painting for castles, and of course, Dungeons and Dragons.
Motherboard: When did you initially get interested in art and sculpting, and the design work that you do now?
Stefan Pokorny: I started playing D&D when I was 12, but I didn't embark on the artistic stuff, until [I] went to art and design high school, around the age of 16. Although, I had been drawing ever since I was a little kid. So, I was always artistically inclined, but I didn't have formal training until I went to art and design high school.
And, the same time, I was always playing D&D, so being a very creative game it was sort of the same vein.
How did you first get introduced to D&D? What brought you to start playing?
At summer camp I had an archery counselor named Doug who introduced us all to D&D. He used to...show up in a cloak, walking stick, and bring his books and roll us up some characters and we were like, I don't know, 12 or 13 at the time and [he] just introduced us to it. It was weird, these funny shaped and all these weird game methods, it was pretty cool. Ever since then, I guess I was hooked.
With your training, what did you want to do? Did you want to be a painter? Was that the original plan?
Oh yeah. My parents wanted me to be like the next Picasso or Michelangelo. But they tolerated the game, they were like "Well, it's creative too and...if it keeps him out of trouble.". When I made the company in 1996, that was when my artistic training and my hobby for D&D came together, I was like "I can sculpt walls to go along with these beautiful miniatures." But I guess really what got me started was the miniatures were so detailed and beautiful, and I started painting them. But there was only like graph paper to put it on. And so I decided "Wow, we need an environment to go along with the miniatures." And I couldn't find any that were really any good, so I decided to make it myself.
And that's when the light bulb went off: "We'll make this modular dungeon and we'll get a booth at Gen Con, a 10 foot by 10 foot booth at Gen Con, and we sold out in four hours." And we knew we were in business.
What's your favorite class to play in D&D?
I usually like sorcerers, magic users. And fighters, half orc fighters...I'm an adopted person, I always felt sort of like an outsider, so I like to play half orcs. I'm half Korean, half American, I relate to half orc kind of character, the outsider. And then I like sorcerers because I get to use magic and be creative.
What's your process like for constructing, designing, and actually making these sets?
You start by sketching out the idea. Then you take this soft putty and sculpt it in miniature. Once it's sculpted in miniature in this soft putty you then make a rubber mold off the original sculpture. And from that rubber mold you can then make the solid master.
Once you have that master, and you can make more than one of them, I would make one that's painted and one that's just the master, unpainted. And I would send the unpainted and the painted piece to China and then they would make their own molds off of the master and they would look at the painted piece and copy the painted piece by hand and then send me back the sample and say "OK, we've received your master and here's our sample of how we can copy it and this is our paint sample and this is how much it would cost us to make like 5000 of these."
That's basically how it goes. Now, we do million dollar projects, but it's still pretty much the same. We make a piece by hand and then they send it to the factory. Although now we use metal molds, the metal molds are now very expensive. Thousands of dollars.
Last year's Kickstarter I think we spent $750,000 on metal molds. Very expensive...they're so big you have to lift them with a crane to put them into the machine, and then you start cranking out these pieces that we now make in a substance we call Dwarvenite.
That was a compound that you guys developed, right?
Yeah, because before we used to make them out of polyester resin and they were sort of brittle and breakable. Now we make them out of a more plastic type PVC, so customers love they don't break. You can bounce them off the wall. Let their kids play with it without fear.
You mentioned that you are using a lot of magnets for the Castle set. What are you using the magnets for?
Well, I'm not sure if you looked closely at the Castle Kickstarter, but it's made up of pieces that stick to the walls of the towers, they're like pins. And so, if you want to look inside a tower you can just pull off the wall. And then you can see inside the tower...so that's been one of our big innovations is that you can use the castle to play your miniature game, because you can just pull the wall off and see what's happening inside the castle. The gamers are really excited about that.
Now we're trying to make sure that works properly. We made prototypes. No one's ever tried anything like this before, so it's a little nerve-racking.
But we think it's going to be awesome. Totally modular castle. You can take all the floors off, look inside, and you can play with it. You can use it in doing your battles. And then we even have ruined sections, you can replace a wall for ruined wall, so if you hit it with a catapult you can change the wall. And obviously the whole thing is modular so you can take it apart and rebuild it as something else. That's what the value is, that it's useable again and again.
Did You think you'd be doing this for 20 years?
No, it was always supposed to be an extra income for me so I could survive as a painter. And then it just took over, and now it's become my artistic medium. Some people ask me, "Do you lament the fact that no you're no longer a painter" and I thought, well...yeah, I sacrificed my career in painting, it really wasn't going anywhere at the time. I was a realistic painter during a time when abstraction was the main thing, so I wasn't getting any breaks. I used my skills at doing realistic stuff to make realistic dungeons.
And what I've discovered over the course of these 20 years is that, it's a much friendly and much happier place for an artist to be. I feel like the art world is so cutthroat and full of people that just treat artists like dogs, but in the gaming world people love what you do and they're very friendly and I've met the greatest people. It's just such a much nicer atmosphere.
And then when I create something, if I create a sculpture of a cavern, it's like my artwork, and I get to share it with thousands of people. And then when they get it, they get to use that creatively, and share that with their friends. It keeps getting used. It's a much happier destiny for my artwork than a picture that would just go in somebody's back room.