The D&D documentary captures Dwarven Forge founder Stefan Pokorny at his geekiest and most vulnerable.
There is a sequence an hour or so into The Dwarvenaut, where Dungeons and Dragons DM and artist Stefan Pokorny sits in his Bushwick studio without air conditioning, when I noticed a supisciously familiar fan in the background. We have four of those identical fans in my currently stuffy, cramped East Village apartment. A minor detail, innocuous to many, but it just highlights how Pokorny is just a man, one who is living his dream the best he can. It’s what makes The Dwarvenaut interesting, as it is entirely focused on its subject.
The film is doc equilvanent of a Daniel Day-Lewis film. There is a lot else going on, some other people are there, but Pokorny is the singular focus. This may be as alienating to viewers as the man himself. Born in Korea, but raised in New York City to an Italian family — the second to adopt him — Pokorny is exactly who you imagine when you conjure the image of someone who has devoted his life to Dungeons and Dragons. The Bushwick based artist runs and founded Dwarven Forge, who — according to their website — create a “vast assortment of handpainted terrain and accessories” for D&D campaigns. If this man and his sect of nerd culture does not interest you, turn away now. There is the occasional interview with other Dwarven Forge employees, but Pokorny is The Dwarvenaut‘s star.
Director Josh Bishop does a fine job painting a picture of Pokorny’s life, but at times The Dwarvenaut feels like a missed opportunity. Plenty of tertiary elements of Pokorny’s personal life wind up being glossed over. The driving focus of the film is on Dwarven Forge’s third and latest Kickstarter — a city builder set that comes with a module (a built in story with characters, beats etc.). If the fact that a company calling itself a business is this reliant on Kickstarter feels unsettling, you aren’t wrong. Dwarven Forge is the perfect example of an artist with little business skills running an empire on fan donations. Yes, it’s expensive but it makes you question Pokorny’s intention to ever drive revenue to the point where fundraising is unnecessary. He certainly shows no intentions. The campaign — like any — has its ups and downs, but that’s been done before in plenty of docs. It’s not new.
What is the most compelling are two of Pokorny’s most personal pillars. The first is family. There is your typical origin story segment early on in the film, but later on it is revealed he has lived through the death of both his parents, as he now approaches 50. The coda is a solemn visit to their grave and gives an emotional jolt most of the film lacks.
There is a latent, almost backseat approach to the way Bishop approaches Pokorny’s relationship to alcohol. He is subtly portrayed, in the darkest moments, as a man with an addiction. Yet, The Dwarvenaut is not about this, or overcoming it. Like Bishop says “yeah, the man is an alcoholic, but that doesn’t really mater,” and meanwhile doesn’t provide enough evidence to the point or counter. While maybe a point the director wanted to flesh out, but could not find time — or get close enough to the subject — to elaborate, this is simultaneously the most interesting and least balanced aspect of the doc. Either make it a talking point, or leave it out next time. We don’t deserved to be teased with a dire thread only to be tossed out by the wayside 50 minutes in.
It’s easy to recommend The Dwarvenaut to anyone with at least a passing interest in niche art or gaming. Pokorny is alienating and that’s precisely the point of the film. Plenty will find him intolerable, but if you can make it to the end you will understand the man underneath the hood and cape, and maybe even consider picking up D&D for yourself.
The Dwarvenaut is coming to VOD platforms on August 5th.