The Dwarven Lord of Kickstarter
How sculptor and Dwarven Forge founder Stefan Pokorny raised $6.5 million—and gave you the dungeon of your dreams
If you're headed to Gen Con in Indianapolis this weekend, you might swing by booth number 1201, the headquarters of Dwarven Forge.
As you enter the exhibit hall, you can’t miss their stall. You’ll know you’re at chez Dwarven Forge because, well, you’ll feel you’re home again --- home in a miniature-scaled, two-inch high dungeon, that is. Just insert Dungeons & Dragons figurines and a tiny gelatinous cube and feel your geeky imagination swell.
Such is the domain of Dwarven Forge, makers of what is essentially a Lego set for fantasy gamers. The company produces hundred of different miniature terrain pieces, each cast from either resin or what they call “Dwarvenite” (a custom variant of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride). Using these parts that look like walls, corridors, tombs, caverns, staircases, and buildings – think a modular 3D version of graph paper -- RPGers can build highly-realistic environments for their underground or above-ground game settings. Like Lego, each is element is compatible with every other, and can be joined in endless configurations to make fantastical and/or ludicrous layouts for your favorite game setting, be it D&D or Pathfinder, old school or 5.0. (There’s even a sci-fi set.) The pieces are scaled at 25-28mm (or 1/58-1/64 size), which makes them more-or-less compatible with miniatures from most miniature companies, including Games Workshop’s Lord of the Rings and Warhammer lines.
Amazingly, these playthings are incredibly popular. How popular are they? Dwarven Forge has become one of Kickstarter’s biggest successes. Their last three fundraising campaigns have netted a total of $6.5 million.
“This year, thanks to the amazing support of our customers, we will cast our 5 millionth piece of Dwarvenite,” says Stefan Pokorny, who founded the company in 1996.
Hang out at Gen Con’s Dwarven Forge booth, and you’ll inevitably meet Pokorny. He’ll be the cheery, enthusiastic guy, probably wearing chainmail. Once upon a time, Pokorny, 48, was a classically trained painter and sculptor. But this artist was also a medieval fantasy dreamer. He collected 25mm figurines. And he played a lot of D&D. When his art career didn’t pan out—“I tried for ten years to get galleries in New York to hang my work,” he says, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn studio (the company itself is based in Westport, C.T.)—he began to create his scaled-down dungeon-making accessories, a setting for where his imaginary adventures might take place. “The plan was to make some money and go back to painting, but this ended up being my profession.”
Dwarven Forge was born.
Those art school sculpting skills came in in handy. Each piece is impressively-crafted down to the last scrupulous detail: stone floors apparently cracked by time; limestone-like formations brimming with eerie green goo; portcullis gates that could easily pierce a kobold or your hapless magic-user; sarcophaguses studded with jewels; dungeon doors, seemingly pre-battered by orcs or trolls, that practically creak on their tiny metallic-painted hinges.
Dwarven Forge had enabled the kind of literal world-building that most gamers guard privately, in their heads. In doing so, Pokorny has helped bring the “tactile” back to the tabletop gaming, an industry under attack from the digital realm. “I’m just a dude,” Pokorny says, “an artist who found D&D when I was a kid and just loved it and started crafting my own worlds through decades.”
But not all customers buy the sets for their miniature and role-playing games. Some are content to use the modular pieces to build elaborate dioramas, and then take pictures of them. That fact might help explain why sets like the 20-piece “Narrow Dungeon Passage Pack” ($65), the 31-piece “Catacombs Set 2” ($119), or individual pieces such as the “Falling Block Trap” ($8) and “Raisable Portcullis” ($8) sell so well.
Case in point: Back in April, Pokorny’s company raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter to fund its new batch of gaming terrain, the City Builder System, which (when it’s released in January, 2016) you be able to use to build medieval-looking cityscapes. In scoring of this latest horde of cash, Dwarven Forge’s City Builder System became Kickstarter’s 35th most-funded project of all time. This isn’t the first time Pokorny has struck crowd-funding gold. In 2014, he raised $2.1 million for another set of gaming “caverns” [now sitting at number 41 on the all-time list] and in 2013, he raised $1.9 million for a set of gaming tiles [number 48].
That’s three gangbusters campaigns in three years, each landing in Kickstarter’s all-time top 50 money-makers, making Dwarven Forge one of the most lucratively crowdsourced companies ever.
What's interesting about Pokorny is that’s he’s not just an artist, gamer and entrepreneur, but he’s an insanely dedicated Dungeon Master who has been working on his campaign world of Mythras, which he began creating at age 12, some 36 years ago. His miniature terrain pieces are just one way of helping him visualize this world. When he DMs, he puts on a show, what he called “theatrical D&D,” using costumes, sound effects, smoke machines, as well as his massive Dwaven Forge layouts. (More on this below.)
“I’ve got my own sort of spin on D&D, to make it more of an experience. Obviously, I’m the guy that makes terrain. So right there, it’s more of an experience than just spirit of the mind.”
How does Pokorny do it? What makes his products so popular? Why does Dwarven Forge have so many loyal customers?
“I don’t know!” he says. “We’ve got good fans, good backers.” But surely there’s more to the Dwarven Forge story than that. I had an opportunity to chat with Pokorny to learn more about the origin story Dwarven Forge, the secret to its success, some DM’s tips for how to use the terrain pieces in a game, well as what special items and announcements to expect from Dwarven Forge this weekend, July 30-August 2, at Gen Con.
One likely sight if you swing by to visit booth 1201: Pokorny, wearing chainmail, bent over a gaming table, tweaking his tiny labyrinths, and inviting you to come play in his world.
Ethan Gilsdorf: Let’s talk about the artistry here. Stefan, how long does it take you to sculpt a typical piece?
Pokorny: Anywhere from several hours to several days if it's complex. Sometimes you just need to step away from it, sleep on it, and see your work with fresh eyes so inspiration can hit.
Gilsdorf: Now that your company is growing, are you still doing the sculpting?
Pokorny: I would say I still do about half of the sculpting. I try to hire really good sculptors. My forte is more in the stonework. I like to sculpt stones and architectural kind of things. My father was an architect. Stone, and that kind of stuff. I’m not good with putty – that two part epoxy they use. I hate that stuff. That’s why I don’t do the real miniature stuff. I probably could sculpt it if I wanted to try. I did a few details on this Kickstarter. I had a bridge that had a couple of dragons and a troll head, that are really, really small and detailed. I used regular clay. There was literally a toothpick and an Exacto knife sculpting these details. It’s hard to sculpt when it’s not putty because all you have to do is graze it and it puts a mark. But I manage.
Gilsdorf: Tell me more about your art training and its connection to Dwarven Forge.
Pokorny: I’ve been trained, from the time I was 15 years old, as a classical artist. I went to art school. I have a master’s degree in painting. And that was really what I thought I was going to do, was be a painter. But it was during the age of abstraction and being a realistic artist, it was impossible to get anyone to show my work. So as a Plan B, I started Dwarven Forge in 1996 and it just took off from the start. 18 years later, it’s still going!
Gilsdorf: So: “Dwarvenite.” What the heck is it? And why did you switch from using resin terrain to Dwarvenite?
Pokorny: Our older, classic sets are resin, all hand painted. Dwarvenite is the new, indestructible, yet highly detailed, material we introduced via Kickstarter in 2013. It’s not a polystone material, which is too subject to chipping and cracking. It’s actually a proprietary PVC derivative, modified to stay flexible, take paint and hold tight details in casting and tested to ensure safety and stability. Resin, while not extremely delicate, has to be handed and packed with more care. Dwarvenite can simply be swept off the table into one of our canvas totes to carry and store.
And it’s great! You can throw it against a wall, you can step on it, and it doesn’t damage at all. That’s been great for me, if I wanna go and play somewhere, I just throw everything into a box, or duffle bag, and a backpack, and just spill it out onto a table. So that’s been a godsend from the transportation aspect. And the customers love it.
Gilsdorf: Any thoughts on why your products are so successful at attracting Kickstarter funding?
Pokorny: I think when we post the goal, it’s not really a realistic goal. It’s not the goal that we really want. But I think if we were to go on there and say, “Hey, we want to hit 1 million,” that would probably turn people off. We try to be a little more modest. But really in our minds, we feel like we want to equal what we did last time. So that’s really just sort of a ghost goal, really. There’s always a bit surge at the end. It’s a big sigh of relief.
Gilsdorf: So you’ve raised millions on Kickstarter. Are you getting filthy rich?
Pokorny: While we’re very happy, I can’t say we’re getting rich. We’re trying to run the company smartly — get and pay the best people we can to help, invest as aggressively as we can into new development, our tooling, keep a better inventory of new products where possible, price products fairly, pay our taxes, and save a little bit for a rainy day.
Gilsdorf: How big is your company now? How many people?
Pokorny: We’re a very small company, a private two-person partnership. This year it went from me just working out of my home, even though I’d been in business 18 years, me sculpting out of my home, to having to rent an office space that was 600 square feet. That was, like, six months ago. To now having to move into a 2,200 square foot space. And I have at least 5 or 6 people in there every day. Sometimes I’ve got 10.
We’re sort of exploding.
We’re lucky enough to have some great creative collaborators. I’ve got writers coming over, I’ve got illustrators, I’ve got plumbers, I’ve got carpenters, I’ve got me sculpting. It’s craziness. And it’s all being filmed, on top of that. So it’s very exciting. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to lose my mind. I’m always just one phone call away from a nervous breakdown, honestly.
Gilsdorf: Being filmed?
Pokorny: I’m even producing my own TV pilot. It’s kind of a reality show about Dwarven Forge. They’ve been following me around for months and filming our processes that it takes to create these dungeons. They’ve been filming me in the office and they’ve been filming me running games in bars. We’re surrounded by a whole bunch of wacky people. We make the Jersey Shore people seem dull. It’s really a production that I’m pouring a lot of money into. I produced it myself because I wanted to make sure it was done the right way. I want people to see that we’re not just a bunch of smelly guys in a basement. That stereotype.
And I want to show that these games are great games for anybody. Girls love to play it. It’s not just losers that play these games. There are a lot of very creative, intelligent people that play these games. This is really what I want to show people. I have really high hopes for this and the footage we’ve got so far is fantastic. And it’s not just about D&D – it’s about Bushwick, the very artistic neighborhood out here it’s like the new SoHo, back in the old days of New York, full of crazy, wacky people doing crazy things. And it’s all part of this energetic sort of culture we have here. There’s just incredible stuff going on here.
Gilsdorf: What’s the big news you’ll be talking about at Gen Con? Any new products? I see on your Facebook page that at Gen Con, you’ve got you City Builder System available if folks missed your Kickstarter, as well as unique individual pieces available for sale. There’s also mention of a preview of your new book. What’s that about?
Pokorny: We will be at Gen Con, with some City Builder prototypes, and, if all goes well, a surprise new product. Our biggest announcement, at least to me, is the introduction of my campaign world of Mythras, my home grown personal world which I started creating when I was 12 years old, 36 years ago. Over that time, I imagined and re-imagined, created, and re-created Mythras and the City of Valoria.
We’re not just releasing the terrain, there’s also going to be the modules. Dwarven Forge’s first module. This will be our first foray into actually making adventures. From the time I was a teenager, I’ve been drawing maps from my own personal world. A lot of them no one’s ever seen. There’s the dungeons, the maps. People have been asking me to sell the maps, make them available. And 30 years later, here I am, about to launch it. So it’s really exciting for me. We are working on a large tome detailing parts of the world [“Maps & Secret Dungeons”] a collectible hardcover art book that features maps I’ve drawn by hand over many, many years of gaming. Of course, because we produce terrain and miniatures, you can actually build in 3D the whole scenario using our terrain sets.
I felt this was the time to introduce the City of Valoria since we were doing modular city components at this moment. I have been told that modules don't make money but I honestly don't care about that --- my partner won't be happy with that answer--- because for me, I have the best occupation in the world, a get to dream like a child, and then watch those dreams take form, like magic. And now it’s about to see the light of day. Once again, I’m scared, but I’m also very excited that I’ll finally be able to share this with so many people.
Gilsdorf: Wait, surprise new product? Can you say more?
Pokorny: I’m afraid we can’t do this yet. We also promised to unveil it at Gen Con for the first time. I can tell you that it is a special edition gamer product that is integral to our world of Mythras and a great complement to using our terrain.
Gilsdorf: Let’s talk about your latest set of terrain, the City Builder System. You’re leaving the dungeon. Now you want to build cities. Where did that idea come from?
Pokorny: This city that we’re selling now, this terrain, is modeled after my city that I’ve drawn out in the city of Valoria, in the world of Mythras. And this world is inspired by all my travels to Italy and Greece. Both of my parents were European. My mother was born in Rome and my father was born in Czechoslovakia. They both grew up in Europe and they came here later in life and they adopted me.
I’m half Korean, half American. They adopted me and we all grew up as immigrants in New York City. So, all of those things have been put into this world of mine, this combination of travels through Europe. And I just kind of picked up things here and there and threw it all into a campaign. And it’s a mishmash of a lot of things: Greek gods; the streets of my city are modeled after Pompeii, the houses are Tudor but then there’s also Czechoslovakian – Prague. What people are going to realize is, this city is based on my world, and then we’re going to release the map of the city with all the descriptions of the various taverns and inns of my own city with characters. We’re actually going to make miniatures of some of the main characters in the city, and we have stories that revolve around the politics and history of the city.
For instance, our city was built upon another city that was destroyed thousands of years ago. There’s ruins under the city, and there’s rat men and there’s were-rats, and there’s sanitation workers with their own guild. There are all of these exciting things that are part of this campaign. And I’m hoping that people are going to be excited about it and realize that, “Hey, if you’re buying terrain, you’re not just buying terrain, you’re buying the whole campaign world.” And we’re just going to keep unleashing more and more stories about this city so you’ll have a reason to have this terrain. Hey, if you’re not used to running adventures in cities, don’t worry, we’re going to give you the adventure if you want. That’s what I hope will be more of a boost for this whole endeavor.
One last thing: It’s going to be a book that’s a whole bunch of my maps with blank pages throughout the book so the Dungeon Master, the game master, can take this book, look at the maps, and then make up their own world. It’s an experiment, because people look at the maps and they’re fascinated by the maps. We’ll have one book that’s just maps and blank pages so you can design your own world, and then another book is going to be my actual campaign – I have history, I have illustrations, monsters, all that – and then a third book I think is going to be artwork. Maps, scribbles, everything related to my artistic drawings and things like that. Three books. I see it like a starting point for people.
I find that there’s people that have great imaginations and good writing and they have all these ideas, but they aren’t artists. They can’t draw. So I’ve drawn all these maps and I can present it to them blank, and they can make up whatever they want. I feel like this would be a good tool for them.
The funny thing is, when we made the modules, this is basically what our starting point was. I really hadn’t fleshed out any history for my campaign or really thought too much about it, I didn’t have to present it to anyone. So when I decided, now we have to present this to the world, I thought, “We’ve gotta flesh this thing out.” So I hired these guys who sat down and looked at my maps, and just started to make up stories. Like, “Hey, we imagine this, we imagine that.” And it was all inspired by the maps. They were helping me come up with all these ideas about a history, and it just grew bigger and bigger and bigger. And it’s still growing! And it’s all just inspired by looking at my maps. The names of the mountains, and there’s things on my maps that say stuff like, “The Hills of Ud and Nud.” And I have no idea who that is. I was going to make it up at some point, who Ud and Nud was, but I never did. So these guys just start making things up.
The Hills of the High Priest. I never made who the High Priest was, so they made things by looking at my maps. And I was seeing how it was inspiring them so much that I thought, “Wow, this is great! We should have a book like that. Other people might want to do that.”
Gilsdorf: What version of D&D do you play?
Pokorny: I played a little bit of second edition. My world of Mythras is a mix of first and second or else what I picked up along the way or make up. I’m very ignorant of a lot of other systems because we just kind of played D&D in my own little cave, little world. I didn’t really play out of modules. I just played in my own world. I’m really not much of a gamer, per se. I haven’t played a lot of games.
I just play D&D. So I’m ignorant of all these other games, these card games that everyone is passionate about.
Gilsdorf: What is your sense of how most people are interfacing with your terrain? How many people are using it for their D&D campaigns, are using it for other games, and do you get a sense some people are just collecting it and making layouts, taking pictures and stuff, but not actually using it during a gaming session?
Pokorny: I have no statistics. I have hunches, but I do know that we have a website where people are really passionate about what they build, and they take photos and they post it. There are some people that just like to build the stuff and takes pictures up close, as though you’re in the dungeon or the city, then they post it. But a lot of people just like to play with the pieces.
And I know that, our generation, they have children, boys and girls that are growing up that are going bananas for it. So a kind of second surge is coming now where the kids of the gamers are now growing up with our terrain, just loving it. It’s like when we were kids, and I grew up with Legos, and I think they’re luckier than us because they’re growing up with some really awesome terrain. I really feel that we’re going through a D&D or RPG renaissance right now. And I think a great deal to do with it, is just because of this. All the gamers have children who are discovering role playing games for the first time.
And they’re really excited about it. And I really feel it could be something big. If you think about it, look at how when D&D first came out, it spread like wildfire. And that was before social media or emails, text messages, anything like that. I personally have seen in Brooklyn, I posted signs up in the area saying, “Hey, learn to play D&D, come to this bar. We’ll give lessons, or run games in the basement.” I set up some terrain and I found a smoke machine and I found a cloak and armor and we had music, and people just went crazy for it. The room was filled every day. Seriously, if I wasn’t so busy, I would run these games every week. I probably would have all of Brooklyn playing D&D.
Gilsdorf: Sounds like another side project for you.
Pokorny: We have plans for that. If it gets big enough, I’m going to open my own game store and start playing these things, we’re going to send people out to run games. I really feel that, when you look at the other game stores in New York – the Die 20 store, the Brooklyn Strategist – these places are full of people! They’re full of hipsters and a younger generation of people who are saying, “Hey! There’s something I can do here other than go to a bar and drink. I can play these really cool games.”
And there’s this generation that’s not totally blown away by video games. It didn’t happen to them, they just grew up with it. It was always there. So this, to them, is more of a new thing. And to us, video games were new to us. Like, “Wow! Check that out.” They’re actually kind of going back in time. This is cool. This is cooler than the video games that kids play now. It used to be, “This is what the nerds play.” But now, this is what the cool people play.
Gilsdorf: And your version of D&D, as you DM it, is pretty theatrical.
Pokorny: When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by those magicians who used to go out there and do magic acts on the street, and I remember being mesmerized by these guys, the circus, the magicians, these kinds of things. I grew up in New York, you know, where there’s crazy shows and events. I think all this influenced me a little. So I try to put on a show. I’ve got costumes, I’ve got the miniatures, I’ve got props, I’ve got sound. I’ve got sound effects. You open the door and I’ve got a creaky door. When the mummies attack I’ve got the mummy growling, I’ve got a smoke machine. I try to act out as much as I can. Theater.
I play these games sort of in the dark. I think when everything’s dark, people are more concentrated on what you’re saying. There’s less distraction. So all my games, what I call it is “theatrical D&D.” And it’s not the only way to play. I’m perfectly fine to just play a regular D&D session without any of that stuff. It’s a piece of cake compared to what I’ve got to do to run these games. It’s wearing me out. It takes me like, four hours to set up. And days to plan, to set up, and then I’m just drained. It’s like I’ve been drained a couple levels at the end of the game. But people love it. They pay me a lot of money to come out here, and I run games for the patrons up on the Kickstarters now, like $3000 a game.
Gilsdorf: Whoa. Three grand?
Pokorny: I guess I’ve sort of become a professional Dungeon Master. It’s a pretty big deal. Wow, people pay me now, to play D&D! And why not? I feel like any artist gets paid for what they do. Dungeons & Dragons is kind of an art. It can be done in an artistic way. I feel like it’s sort of a mixture of theater and writing. It’s a mixture of a lot of things. It’s its own art form. All on its own. I feel like people should understand that. But there’s nothing like it, so I feel like people really don’t know how to classify it.
Gilsdorf: I’m wondering about your thoughts on the difference between playing a role playing game, D&D, with miniatures and a map, and in your case, with three dimensional dungeons and buildings, versus none of that . When you’re playing and the props are in front of you, do you find yourself and the other players focusing on what’s happening on the board, and not having to imagine the game in their minds?
Pokorny: That’s an interesting question. When I run a game, it’s usually a little of both. I usually, before I had the city, I would start off in my city and it was all theater of the mind for a couple hours. And it was only until they got out and into a dungeon that we started to play on the table, so to speak. And I think it takes away a little bit from the total imagination and it becomes a little more of – I wouldn’t say a war game, but people start to look at the table.
And they start to look at – let’s face it, my terrain is pretty good to look at. So they start looking at it, and they marvel at all the little details. I cover it all with cloth, so each room I uncover, they’re immediately going, “Oh, wow.” People are taking pictures. It’s kind of a different experience. I don’t think it’s better or worse, it’s a different experience, that a lot of people haven’t experienced before.
Everybody that’s willing to drop a few thousand dollars on a layout like that, most D&D is theater of the mind or if they have miniatures, they just pop them down on a mat. And they’re mostly imagining stuff.
That’s why, when we go to the miniatures, I realize that they’re focusing on the miniatures now and all the characters are painted, they’re moving them around, and all the monsters I bring out are painted. And it’s really kind of a cool experience because it’s rare that you find someone that really goes all out, painting everything. Every room fleshed out. It’s a fun experience, I encourage them to role play their characters so it’s not just you moving your things around like Monopoly.
And I’m acting out the characters, and I try to make sure that it’s still an RPG game, it’s not a war game. But even when you have the rooms, there’s a lot of things that go on. You have to talk as the monsters. What I find I do less as, when I’m playing with the props, is that I’m not describing to them the rooms. Because they can see the room. Whereas with the theater of the mind, I have to describe the room to them. So what I try to do, I have the musical, the sound effects, I’ve got the props, I’ve got the miniatures, so it’s very intimate, in kind of another way. Which is fun.
Gilsdorf: How do you set it up in advance, and how much time do you spend pre-game setting up the terrain?
Pokorny: It takes hours! 2 or 3 hours to set it up, everything with little bits of cloth, and as we move through each room, I take away a section of the cloth. And it’s fun, because they don’t know what’s going to be coming. And they really huddle around and they move their miniatures like, “I’m gonna go here, and you go there.” Obviously, the reason to use the miniatures is to know where you are. Because in the theater of the mind, it’s hard to really imagine where anyone is. Especially if 16 kobolds come out, you’ll have no idea who’s where, or what’s going on.
But it’s kind of cool to actually see 16 kobolds in the dungeon.
Gilsdorf: So you have this massive dungeon you’ve laid out on the table, but you don’t want to reveal it all at the time to your players. How do you handle that?
Pokorny: I find that cloth is the best, T-shirts, or I get a big sheet of felt and just cut it up into little squares. Because let’s say they’re going down a passageway that comes to a T shape. I’ll just roll it back, and when they get to the T shape, I’ll stop it there. Cloth is the easiest to manipulate. That works best.
Plus, if I get a whole bunch of bits of cloth, I can put some fake bits here and there so that they don’t know – “Oh! There’s going to be more dungeon over there.” You just put more cloth around, and then they don’t know. You sort of trick them.
Gilsdorf: It sounds like Dwarven Forge has been an unexpected turn into you life and artist career. You wanted to be a traditional artist. You ended up an entrepreneur. Not what you planned, but that’s the way life turns out sometimes.
Pokorny: That’s how life is. It gives you lemons, you make lemonade.
Gilsdorf: There are worse things you could do.
Pokorny: I make a very effective lemonade.
Gilsdorf: And you still get to make art.
Pokorny: What this game’s all about, it’s about you, using your imagination. People using their creativity. That’s what I love about what I do. I unleash this terrain, and people come and they post pictures online. It’s a community they share with one another and are very excited. I’ve got the best backers, customers, in the world! They’re a great bunch of guys, girls. too. And it’s a wonderful experience.
It’s so much more fulfilling to me than the art world. It’s a horrible world. The gallery owners spit on you, the clients abuse you, they make appointments with you, they never show up. They treat you like a prostitute. I’ve felt so horrible all the time. And now in this world, of gamers, I feel so privileged. I get so much great feedback from people. It’s a wonderful place to be in. I want more people to get into this. I want to share my work with others, and I feel like I’m just an artist creating stuff for D&D and getting it out to other people.
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Right tool for the right job. You probably heard a parent or grandparent say it at least once at some point. And it’s true in so many cases. If you spot a small tear in your living room curtains or near to hem a pair of pants, you can always use the good old fashioned […]