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.
Lots and lots of maps help ignite the memory and the imagination.
“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’).
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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!”