Just a guy who played D&D

The best and most memorable of RPG campaigns and the rich tradition of fantasy behind them all start in the simplest of ways, with fledgling entrepreneurs who look at the world around them and feel an innate, sometimes imperceptible desire to help shape the kind of world they inhabit.

Whatever collection of skills and talents they are imbued with are recognized, and as they grow in competence through experience, form the core of their identity. Never put to the side and forgotten, the abilities they bring to the table are in fact celebrated. Through them, these folk engage with their world. Although their journeys do not often turn out the way they expected when they first began, they can nevertheless look backward and recall how they arrived, by remaining true to themselves to the best of their ability.

And maps.

Lots and lots of maps help ignite the memory and the imagination.

Hyboria map

An illustration of The Hyborian Age primarily based upon a map hand-drawn by Robert E. Howard in March 1932.

 

“I liked to read Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and they all have maps,” Stefan Pokorny says of the road that lead him to Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, when he was 12. (note: Paul O’Connor aka Longbox Graveyard considers 12 to be the ‘golden age’).

Middle Earth map

Map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I think it even said in the Dungeon Master’s Guide ‘you should be drawing a map of your world,’ so that’s what I did,” he explains. “I immediately thought that one of the most funnest parts of playing the game was to create all your own stuff.

“It’s the creative part that’s fun.”

Pokorny

Stefan Pokorny, with some of Dwarven Forge’s terrain pieces

These days, when New York City native Stefan isn’t waiting for his Brooklyn building’s laundry maintenance person to arrive, he stays plenty busy with a career as an artist whose start, like the fantasy characters of RPGs and literature, lay in between the pages of a notebook.

Combining his devotion to medieval fantasy and D&D with a talent for sculpting, Stefan launched Dwarven Forge in 1996, offering pre-painted 3-D dungeon terrain to the gaming community, a business that endures today.

“It happened more out of desperation – I was trying to find a way to make money somehow, because I’d been a painter,” he discloses, dispelling the notion that this path was planned from the beginning. “I wasn’t really selling enough paintings to survive in New York City.”

He was working as a model painter for a company that would take his painted pieces, like small lighthouse figurines, and ship them overseas for mass production. At the same time, he was already beginning to build his own dungeon terrain for gaming, just for fun.

“I was thinking I could just take this to the next level (note: innocuous RPG reference there) and actually cast these things in resin and paint them. It dawned on me one day that I should do that – I should make dungeons.

“So that’s what I did.”

A friend from his neighborhood hobby store The Compleat Strategist suggested getting a booth at Gen Con, and with about 300 of his first dungeon terrain box sets, Stefan set up at a 10-by-10 booth at the world’s largest gaming convention.

When the convention doors opened, people ran to the booth and mobbed the place.

Four hours later, he was sold out.

Gathering contact info from would-be customers for the rest of that first convention trip (“there was still four days left!”), he headed home to prepare new stock.

“Now it’s been, what, 18 years? I dunno,” Stefan says humbly, happy if only for the fact that the same talent for art that drew him to fantasy in the first place continues to help him shape the world he lives in.

Stefan learned to sculpt while earning Master’s degree in painting from Hartford Art School, and on Dec. 19 will be celebrating the grand opening of his own, first art gallery, Zaltar’s Gallery of Fantastical Art in Brooklyn. Named after one of his oldest D&D characters, the gallery’s first show is titled ‘Transmutation.’

“It’s my transmutation from a classical artist to a sort of artist of the fantastical,” Stefan describes. “There will be a bit of both in the show.”

Drawing inspiration from classical artists like Michaelangelo and Bernini and contemporary artists, particularly Frank Frazetta, Stefan explains that the gallery is his dream come true – the full circle from fine to fantastical art.

 

frank_frazetta_afightingmanofmars

Frank Frazetta’s “A Fighting Man of Mars” from 1973.

“He was the man,” Stefan says of Frazetta, but he also notes that many of the artists who contributed work to those 1st Edition AD&D books captured his imagination as well.

“They were artists of the fantastic, and they stimulated your creativity,” he continues, noting that artists such as Donald A. Trampier and Clyde Caldwell had a big influence as well.

Trampier

Selection of art from Donald A. Trampier from the 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual

“I’ve finally accepted myself as being not just a regular artist, but an artist of Dungeons & Dragons and these kinds of things, and seeing that as being art in itself,” he explains, describing not just his body of work but his vision for what Zaltar’s can represent.

“I really believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of art. The way actors in theater are considered artists, and writers are considered artists. I think that dungeon masters are also artists, and should be seen as such.”

Initially featuring his work, Stefan considers calling for other artists’ entries in the future. Later shows may display maps that other dungeon masters have created, or painted miniatures.

Beyond the featured art show, the gallery will host other events throughout the week, like figure drawing classes and other traditional art programs, gaming nights and fantasy movie showings.

“It’s going to be a cauldron of creativity.”

Although Stefan doesn’t have a regular D&D group at this point, he still gets opportunities to game through the convention circuit, where he’s often invited to run game sessions. In addition, several of his ventures are funded through Kickstarters, and some of the rewards for contributing are a chance to go to NYC and play in a game run by Stefan – something a lot of groups chose to donate for.

“It’s a DM’s dream come true, to get paid to play D&D,” he points out. And those who play in Stefan’s games are in for a retro treat, since he still plays 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, having never felt the need to do anything else. Likewise, D&D video games don’t compare to what the pencil-and-paper style offer, “sitting around a table with actual people – taking the game wherever it might go, improvising. It’s ten times better than any kind of video game you could play.”

An upcoming Kickstarter scheduled for March will support Dwarven Forge’s World’s Greatest Modular Castle System. Past Dwarven Forge Kickstarters include things like Caverns and City sets. The latter of those projects made Dwarven Forge the 35th most-funded project of all time, surpassing Stefan’s earlier success with the caverns set (No. 41 or all time) and gaming tiles set (No. 48 of all time).

For the upcoming Kickstarter, Stefan teases that they may explore a new proprietary building material, similar in concept to the custom PVC variant ‘Dwarvenite’ used to make recent products. (note: he’s gonna have to go adamantine or something; Dwarvenite stands up to a lot of punishment without damage to the structure or color).

At the end of the day, it’s a simple thing that keeps Stefan motivated to continue following his passion, despite the lean times he’s experienced when Dwarven Forge’s future was in question (“At least we’re not losing money! So many years we were on the brink of going out of business.”).

“I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do, so everyday isn’t really like work. It’s just like playing, doing your thing. There’s times when it’s tedious, but it’s better than working in a coal mine – there’s lots of worse jobs I could have. There’s stressful times, for sure. But the greatest thing is that I own my own business, so I decide what I want to do and either sink or swim with whatever my decisions are. I’m the master of my own universe. There’s something to be said for that, and not following other people’s orders too much.”

Going back to his roots, Stefan will soon be publishing a book as well, in January 2016, that contains a collection of many of the meticulously drawn maps from his D&D games. Hundreds of his heretofore secret maps will be available for gamers to incorporate into their own campaigns, or just admire as works of art.

For Stefan, 2015 has been a crazy year (in a good way), notably because a camera crew has been following him around.

On top of his continued success with Dwarven Forge, Zaltar’s and the upcoming book, as well as being featured in several D&D-related documentaries, Stefan himself is the subject of a documentary called “Dwarvenaut,” directed by Josh Bishop.

“I was just a guy who played D&D with my friends,” Stefan reflects on the path that led him to where he is today, and bids farewell in classic D&D fashion. “Good gaming!”

Personality goes a long way

An enjoyable, if grainy, documentary called The Dungeons & Dragons Experience led me down an Internet spiral the other night that included the woefully produced Dragons of Autumn Twilight animated film and settled eventually on a nostalgic blast from the past that is the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.

This clip in particular, the intro from season 2 of the show, inspired a new alt creation for DDO as well as a question in my mind: what makes a character stick? Framed in the context of DDO, for me it all comes down to personality. New toons get rolled up all the time, and the vast majority wind up in the scrap heap. The most recent of these, however, carved out a niche for himself in my heart so i think he’ll stick around a while. We’ll get to that in a bit. As prologue, a peek into what makes a DDO character stick around in my stable.

As a rule of thumb, they must be ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres.

ddo_logo

Thinking, feeling, behaving

In DDO, with its static storylines and essentially linear quests, there aren’t any opportunities in-game to shape a character’s personality. You either accept the quests presented by NPCs, or you don’t. And in the course of completing them, your only real option is to follow the path to the end and eliminate a boss monster to finish it out.

For a game based on the preeminent model that the entire genre stems from, this has always struck me as somewhat odd. But, it is what it is and nevertheless i’ve been enjoying it since 2006. Incorporating my ideas of how any of my characters think, feel or behave within the confines of the game system occurs only in my imagination – there’s no way to make any choices that affect the outcome of quests in a measurable way.

To illustrate this point, my two main characters are vastly different. Schir Gold, currently a capped warlock, has many past lives which are all some form of ranged combatant whether magical or mundane. She is always chaotic neutral, sports Free Agent Fuschia hair and loves engaging with the forces of Xoriat or any quests or stories involving madness.

At the other end of the spectrum is Experimenta, a disciplined soldier in any incarnation who cleaves to her sword-and-board roots, these days as a vanguard paladin. Ever-mohawked and adorned with Stormhorn Specs Cosmetic Goggles, she fights to keep some semblance or goodliness and order in her world.

Do either of these characters make any decisions that affect the outcome of their progression? Not really, no.

There are some quests either of them could avoid, based on my perceptions of their individual personalities. Purge the Heretics comes to mind, a longtime sticking point with many players that sees your characters doing some rather nasty work. But i would argue that, if you take the time to read and think about them, there’s an enormous number of quests that paint your characters as not so good and heroic – more like a greedy mercenary who will do anything for coin and loot.

Individual differences in characteristics

You’ve chosen your class and race, allocated ability and skill points, picked feats and selected starting spells, played around with the much-to-be-desired appearance options and finally, chosen an alignment (which has everything to do with gear choices later on and nothing to do with any sort of in-game paths).

Most of the time, players make these choices based on performance. There are some exceptions though, like building a Swim Cleric/Lifeguard or following a single weapon fighting path on a pure rogue assassin (more on this a bit later). And if you’re me, all of your characters feature a scar across one of their eyes. Even my own swimcleric, Jumponin Watersfine, whose facial detail came from an unfortunate incident at Siber Atoll – the best place for a high dive.

How any of this factors into a character’s personality lies, again, purely in the realm of imagination. As a non-min-maxer, i have no spreadsheets or analyses to reference to eke out every possible point of spell power or DPS. Multiclassing to achieve interesting syngeries is likewise not an activity i engage in, although i do try to build reasonably effective characters.

Whenever i am faced with a choice, which in DDO amounts to things you get to pick when you reach a new level, my first consideration is “what would this character do?”

For Experimenta, that always involves anything with the word “shield” in it, so feats, enhancements and the like are prioritized along those guidelines. At the other end of the spectrum, Schir Gold picks up anything that sounds otherworldly to me. That began way back in her first life, when she started the epic destiny of Magister solely because of the ability to “phase out from reality briefly.” And yes, i still twist that in to this day, every time.

Parts come together as a whole

Talking builds in DDO is probably the most frequent topic of conversation on our guild channel, at least in the odd hours i’m typically on there. Although i consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about game mechanics, i detect once in a while a note of bewilderment from my fellow conversationalists regarding the choices i make.

At the end of the day though, it usually gets mentioned that playstyle is paramount, and finding a build that’s right for you is of utmost importance. Something can make all the sense in the world on paper, but in practice it doesn’t work out the same for everyone.

In this way, DDO always reminds me a lot of Magic: The Gathering (i.e. the greatest game ever invented). The pilot makes the deck, and the right player with a starter deck could conceivably trump a novice playing a tournament-worthy deck because of this.

Likewise in DDO, knowing how to play the collection of pixel and points you’ve constructed is more vital than choosing what to play based on a net build.

A large portion of my playstyle boils down to the imagined character personalities. Experimenta likes to be able to charge to the front, protecting her teammates with a combination of tanking and mild crowd control. Schir Gold prefers to pelt enemies with a dizzying array of effects like DoTs and AOEs while madly jumping and tumbling around.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc

i won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a half-orc.

And i’m talking about my new alt toon here.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc who, well, he’s the half-orc for his time and place – he fits right in there – and that’s Zzarak in Eberron.

zarak 1

Zzarak, as you may have guessed, is a half-orc. Inspired through several avenues, he’s been skulking around Stormreach lately, primarily making repeated forays into the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The seed of Zzarak was planted by Stefan Pokorny, a devoted D&D gamer featured prominently in the documentary mentioned at the start of this post. Pokorny, who incidentally parlayed his love of the tabletop game into a career by starting Dwarven Forge, a company that makes 3-D gaming terrain and accessories, mentioned anecdotally that he’s always liked half-orcs because of their nature as societal outliers.

Further down the Internet rabbit hole were the old D&D cartoon and the line of toys TSR put out. Many excursions were made to KB Toys for these (really dating myself here). The crown jewel of my collection back then was Warduke, one of the coolest and underutilized bad guy creations ever. If any DDO devs are reading this – give us some Warduke!

Another of these figures was, as you’ve probably guessed, this fella:

Zarak 2

Zarak, the evil half-orc assassin

Something about the hood, and the foundation of imagination that had already been built the other evening, plus an overflowing bank vault with rogue assassin-y stuff i might not otherwise use, led to the creation of Zzarak, neutral half-orc assassin of DDO.

ScreenShot00403

Like Experimenta’s first life, Zzarak is far from optimal. He’s doing single weapon fighting with a dagger – Assassin’s Kiss seen here – and the cosmetic indigo hood works nicely to complete the look.

So far, i’ve been enjoying playing this sneaky killer quite a bit. He (and by default, me) have been getting well-versed in the Temple of Elemental Evil. That quest is quite divisive in the DDO community, and personally i love it. Each time i play through parts 1 and 2, i enjoy it more and i hope to see more quests like this in the future.

As for Zzarak, i like to think of him as a fellow with a penchant for evil just like the monsters who keep attacking him, and in my imagination he’s desperately trying to communicate to them that he’s not there to ransack them – he only wants to help!

On a side note, the name “Zarak” was already taken, hence the extra “Z” in his name. Is there another half-orc assassin out there on Sarlona somewhere?

TL;DR

Despite a lack of real opportunities to make story choices in DDO, characters can still act and react to things differently, if you use your imagination.

Do your characters have their own personalities? Do they affect your mechanical choices or playstyle?

Giving your characters their own personalities and stories can make the game much more interesting. Give it a try sometime!