Take Marwencol, set it in Bushwick, replace World War II with Dungeons & Dragons, and you have The Dwarvenaut. The endearing documentary, directed by Josh Bishop, just made its world premiere at South by Southwest. It tells the story of Stefan Pokorny, a Bushwick-based maker of Dungeons & Dragons sets and gamepieces who initially seems to confirm all the stereotypes about D&Ders, but ends up making you feel guilty you ever had those snide prejudices.
Dressed in a sort of Gandalf hat as he appeared at a q&a yesterday, Pokorny said he was initially hesitant about participating in the documentary, which was originally intended to be a sizzle real for a reality show. “Movies have been made about this kind of stuff,” he said. “And they always make us look like, you know, basement-dwelling, smelly losers of the world. And I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t want that, I don’t want to be a part of that.’”
He trusted Bishop, a Windsor Terrace-based filmmaker whose previous doc was Made in Japan, in part because he was a fellow Black Sabbath fan. But Pokorny did set one condition before agreeing to participate: “Only if you show how we really enjoy ourselves, and how we go out, and how there are creative people [who like D&D], there are smart people and they take showers, they do get married and they do have children. They have lives. And maybe we’re a little quirky but we’re normal, you know? Most of us. Right?”
The crowd laughed.
Truth is, it would be hard to describe Pokorny as normal. To say he has “childlike enthusiasm” is an understatement. Take the scene where he’s wearing a medieval helmet in his office on Scholes Street: “We’ll be like the Knights of Bushwick!” he yelps, oblivious to the fact that his officemates are hard at work meticulously fashioning miniature wizards out of clay.
Of course, such eccentricity is par for the course for Bushwick artists (the doc begins with a shot of Matthew Silver at Bushwick Open Studios)— and, make no mistake, Pokorny considers himself an artist. He grew up with a gift for drawing and painting and then carried it over into Dungeons & Dragons when he started playing the game at the behest of a camp counselor at the age of 12 or 13. Growing up in New York City, he spent time “drinking, doing drugs, partying hard” just like anyone else (now almost 50, he can still hit the bottle pretty hard).
Eventually, Pokorny founded a company, Dwarven Forge, that sells incredibly detailed miniature dungeons at places like Gary Con, the D&D convention held every year in the hometown of D&D creator E. Gary Gygax (at one point, Pokorny has a serious nerd-out while visiting the modest house in Wisconsin where the game was invented). The Dwarvenaut catches Pokorny as he tries to raise $2 million via Kickstarter for his next miniature world, a town called Valoria that’s infested by rats with spears. (The close-ups of this fantasyland, augmented by fog machines and lute music, are fantastic.)
Pokorny is also in the midst of moving to a bigger office space, next to Sugarlift and across from Livestream. He’s excited about the massive paddlewheel boat sitting in the creek behind him, and dreams of turning it into a pirate ship (he might soon host an event on the boat, he revealed during the q&a). The move is stressful, but “when you can move to a new place where you have the potential to have a pirate ship, you do it.” No arguing with that.
Pirate ship or no, it’s heartening to see this quirky Bushwick entrepreneur expanding in a neighborhood that the Times recently declared over. “Every door you walk by, there’s someone making things. It excites me,” he says. But the movie isn’t entirely feel-good. Pokorny was shaken by the death of his adopted parents (his biological mom was Korean and his biological dad was American, but he was raised Italian-American-ish). And he’s under a lot of stress to raise that $2 million and keep his business flourishing.
“It dawned on me from the very beginning,” said Bishop. “I’m in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Look at this: He’s a dungeon master that’s just trucking this whole crew of weirdos through a castle being attacked from all angles.”
Still, as he plows through various trade shows day-drinking and participating in late-night hotel hangs that end in wrestling and wedgies, it’s clear that Pokorny is in it not for the money but for the camaraderie. He honestly believes he’s “helping save the world” by promoting D&D. “The thing about D&D that’s so great is it’s a game where you cooperate. It’s not like you’re out to kill each other— you’re actually cooperating to kill whatever evil is there.”
That kind of cooperation happens best in person—not virtually, as is increasingly the case in the digital era. “The important thing is that people get together and sit around the table like humans and interact with one another,” Pokorny says, adding, “I find that more and more in this world everyone is walking around staring at their phones and it’s literally like a zombie apocalypse happening before your eyes.”
If people do move entirely away from IRL gameplay, Pokorny will probably be just fine. “One day I will retire,” he said, “and I’ll have a lot of pieces to play with.”