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SXSW Review: THE DWARVENAUT Rolls the Dice and Scores Hit Points

SXSW Review: THE DWARVENAUT Rolls the Dice and Scores Hit Points

If there were an SNL character named “The Guy You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation at the Nerd Convention With,” Stefan Pokorny could be the inspiration. Pushing 50, often wearing a large plush wizard hat, and speaking in a nasal monotone, he checks off most of the role-playing gamer stereotypes on the list, save perhaps for a distinct lack of neckbeard. Yet this is the point: director Josh Bishop means to show us that even a person you might write off has a story to tell, and a life of triumphs and tragedies just like the rest of us. You start The Dwarvenaut thinking you’d never want to spend time with the guy; you end it realizing you just hung out with him for 84 minutes, and they weren’t half bad.

Pokorny started life with numerous reasons for feeling different. Korean by birth, he was rejected and sent back to the agency by his first adoptive parents, then taken in by an Italian mother and a Czech father. Finding solace and community in Dungeons and Dragons, he eventually founded his own miniatures company, Dwarven Forge. As a narrative ticking-clock device, director Bishop frames the documentary within the final days of a Kickstarter project that isn’t doing as well as its predecessors. Dwarven Forge makes modular playset pieces for fantasy miniatures, and while their cavern and dungeon sets were early hits, the more elaborate medieval town collection isn’t initially as popular. Pokorny speculates that this is because most campaigns only begin or end in towns, with most players and dungeon masters thinking that underground is where the real action is. After all, the flagship game isn’t called Houses and Streets, though the addition of a swarm of small mutant rat-men livens the backdrop up immensely.

Pokorny is more of an artist than a salesman, with a vision of a fictional fantasy world for DM’ing that grows every time he creates a new set. The movie doesn’t go into it much, but he gave control of Dwarven Forge to Jeff Martin some years back, who seems a little more adept at running things. One of the company’s strengths is knowing its audience–as we watch Pokorny pitching his product, it’s clear that the prospective buyers were either already interested, or simply weren’t yet aware that this was a niche being filled. Bishop keeps things visually interesting by following his subject all over the world, from Gen Con to Venice, Italy…and eventually, to pay respects at Pokorny’s parents’ graves.

If you have mental stereotypes about D&D players, The Dwarvenaut won’t likely dispel them, but it can show you the humanity behind them. If you’re interested in how independent toys get made (yes, yes, they’re miniatures, but seriously, they’re toys; I’d buy action figure-scaled versions in a heartbeat), you’ll learn a little. I would have liked to find out more about how the business operates: for example, is Kickstarter their only profit model, as it would seem from watching the movie? That said, I’d much rather watch Pokorny walk through Gen Con then have him read accounting statements aloud, so I get why the directorial choices were made.

Three burritos for The Dwarvenaut, which deserves to forge a path beyond the niche audience of hardcore die-rollers.

3 burritos

image via screencap/David Magdael & Associates, Inc.

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