We shared our harrowing experience in the Dungeon of Doom compliments of Dwarven Forge at Fanfaire 2018. After my halfling thief bit the dust and everyone went their separate ways, we had a chance to sit down with the mastermind behind Dwarven Forge. We had a great time talking with Stefan Pokorny about Dungeons and Dragons, the inspiration behind so many of Dwarven Forge’s amazing terrains, and he teased some upcoming projects.
How did you get started with D&D? Can you tell me a little about your history with the game?
Well, I was first exposed to D&D at summer camp. My archery counselor, a guy named Doug who I’ve never seen again, taught us little kids. We were like nine or ten years old I think. He said, “You wanna play this game called Dungeons and Dragons?” and we were like, “Yeah!” I was reading LOTR at that time and I was all into it so of course we wanted to play and that’s how I was first exposed to it.
I was hooked immediately, so when I got back from summer camp I immediately went down to the Compleat Strategist on 33rd street and bought my first D&D books – Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, in the beginning, Gary Gygax himself, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, said, “Make your own world!”
So I took that to heart and started making my own world. Now uh, 40-something years later I’m very happy to be hanging out with his sons who go to conventions and I get to rub shoulders with them now. It is amazing. I pinch myself all the time.
So you’ve got Dwarven Forge, which is probably one of the top producers of D&D terrain –
The best! Not the top, we are the best in the world!
Yes, the best in the world. What led to Dwarven Forge, how did you get from where you were to what you have now?
Well, when I was a struggling artist, I was a struggling artist before I started Dwarven Forge, the terrain was something I did on the side to try and make ends meet. That’s what it was in the beginning, just a side gig for about ten years, making a little money on the side. I was still staying at home with my parents, selling paintings, sculpting, and selling terrain out of my art studio.
It wasn’t until about five years ago, when we did our first Kickstarter, that the company really blew up. We did a Kickstarter campaign and raised over two million dollars and that sort of put us on the map in a bigger way.
Since then, every Kickstarter we’ve done has been around two to three million dollars. Every year we do one and that keeps us in business. That, and we actually have products in our store that we made through these Kickstarters that are selling really well, like the castles and the cities. People really like that. I guess castles and cities are doing well because it is something people can buy even if they’re not into Dungeons & Dragons. Some people just want to buy a castle for their kids or for themselves, so it is a broader market.
I think most people do buy them for D&D and before that, I don’t think there were as many people buying cities and castles – I believe – because there wasn’t such a modular unbreakable product out there because we make our things out of a product called dwarvenite, which is very resistant to breakage.
The best thing about that is you can let your kids play with it and you don’t have to worry. Before that, most things were cast in resin and if you dropped the piece it would break. So a lot of parents were hesitant to have their young ones play with it, but now they’re very happy to play with their kids. I get letters every week from happy parents about how much fun they have and how their kids aren’t looking at a tablet or a computer but are playing with their parents.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the dwarvenite?
The dwarvenite is a material we came up with that’s kind of a PVC-like plastic that’s a little bit rubbery and you can roll over it with your car and it is fine. People love it. It is great for when you want to put everything away. You just throw it into a bin and push it under the bed you don’t have to pack it in Styrofoam, so it is a joy to play with.
What’s the design process like?
I just sculpt things that I like, things that I want to play with myself. It is easy when you’re an actual enthusiast of the game. You just make the stuff you want. Because of my sculpting training, I’m able to sculpt it myself and now that we’ve grown I’ve actually hired other sculptors and artists and fortunately, because of our reputation over the span of 23 years, I’m able to attract the best in the industry. Reputation is everything and when you build yourself to have a good reputation then it is easy to get talent.
That’s excellent, and it definitely shows in the quality of the work you’re putting out. Looking back though, what is the most surprising thing about Dwarven Forge?
All of it, I’m just so surprised that I’m able to make a living doing something I love. I’m blessed. I pinch myself every morning. “Really, you’re going to make toys again?” It is a wonderful thing.
What I have learned in life is that what you should do in life is what you enjoy and are inspired by and I think that if you approach life that way, good things will happen because if you’re doing what you really love to do you’re going to work extra hard at it. It isn’t going to seem like work to you, you’re going to get good at it, and if you get good at something people are gonna notice, and then good things will come your way.
Now if you work at something you don’t enjoy you’re going to be terrible at it, you’re going to hate your life, and you’re not going to get paid very much. So if you only have one life to live why not do what you love to do?
Because even if you don’t make any money, lets say worse case scenario you don’t make any money at it, and you’re just getting by and maybe have two jobs, but you’re doing what you love to do and maybe you’re a waiter on the side or hanging coats, or just scraping by, you’re just making enough barely to eat you’re still living your dream.
You’re still living your dream, you’re still doing what you think is your purpose in life, and it doesn’t matter. Okay, maybe you’re not a millionaire or billionaire but you’re doing what you love to do and that is being yourself.
That’s great advice. What do you think about the tabletop revival we’re currently experiencing and what do you think led to it?
You know, I think, first of all, I think we helped to revive it, but also I believe we have a generation of kids who grew up on computers and to them, to these young kids, tabletop is something new and exciting. It is interesting.
See, they grew up knowing all about computers that’s something that wasn’t new to them, but when I was growing up playing tabletop games, computers came into the picture and we were like, “Woah! What is that?” and everyone started playing computer games. Now that people have grown up on computer games now they’re like, “Woah! Tabletop? What is that? I wanna play that game, they roll dice and sit around the table together… that’s something new!”
So it is like a circle, then there will be a next generation coming up but… I don’t know what they’re going to say. “Where’s reality?” Then those virtual reality kids will say, “Oh my god we can unplug ourselves!” and go back to tabletop.
I think sitting around a table telling stories and playing with one another is a way for us to retain our humanity in an ever more technological world, so it is important. It goes back to the cavemen, we were sitting around the fire telling stories and acting things out, D&D is very much like that. It is why I love that game, best game in the world.
You like to play first edition, right?
I LOVE first edition!
What is it you like about it?
Well, it is the original way the game was created and the creators were really smart guys. They were wargamers and then they came up with this concept, not just playing war games but let’s get into the mindset of the people on the battlefield and play individuals.
Then they took it even a step further and said, “Let’s throw in some fantasy and myth and lore, let’s have dragons and centaurs.” and all kinds of mythological creatures because the creators grew up in a time when their parents would read them fantastical stories at night.
So I think the original version, first edition, is more of an improvisational storytelling game. I think the later editions became more technical, too many powers, too many rules, and I think the point of the game was about the improvisation. Keep it simple, keep it to the storytelling aspect, make up things on the spot. That’s why I love it so much, it is more of a freewheeling creative game, first edition.
Will you be doing a Kickstarter for your own world building project?
I will be doing a Kickstarter for it, it will be separate from the Kickstarter for our normal terrain. This will just be books, we want to have it separate so more attention will be to just that. When we do a terrain Kickstarter everyone focuses on that and other things tend to get lost in the shuffle, so we wanted to do just a Kickstarter on the world. Then later in the year, we want to do a Kickstarter for just miniatures. So there will be three Kickstarters this year.
Have you liked your Kickstarter experience?
Yeah, it is a wild, crazy roller coaster. Three to four weeks of madness, no sleep, and then when it is done you’re just really depressed. There’s a let down after.
What is the mini project?
Well we’ve got about 30 or so miniatures we’re working on and they’re going to be available hand painted, in Dwarvenite, so you don’t have to worry about breakage or painting. They’ll be ready to go like most of our stuff. A lot of them are part of my world, too, so you’ll be able to use them in my world or your own world.
We had a wonderful time getting to know a bit more about the magic of Dwarven Forge during Fanfaire 2018. Our thanks to Stefan Pokorny for sitting down with us. Be sure to follow Dwarven Forge on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest information on their upcoming projects.