Dwarven Forge

Inside the studio behind tabletop gaming's most artistic miniatures.

Story & Photos: Michael Stewart

The town guard is on high alert. Lizardmen have been sighted in the canal, and it’s believed that they’re staging an amphibious offensive under the cover of night. The townsfolk, hearing the commotion, step out onto their balconies to watch the conflict unfold. Swords are drawn, and a lone archer readies his crossbow. Just then, a horde of Ratmen burst from the sewers, flanking the guard.

“It's going to be a three-way fight. And nobody wins,” says fantasy enthusiast Nate Taylor, narrating the scene laid out on the table before us.

Battle with Lizardmen

Two years ago Taylor backed a Kickstarter project from a New York-based company called Dwarven Forge. The project’s goal was to produce a full run of tabletop gaming terrain tiles, the kind of miniature landscape you’d use with a game like Dungeons & Dragons. Now, the thin, mohawked Taylor is employed seasonally by Dwarven Forge, conceiving and building detailed setups, then shooting elaborate product videos. Meanwhile, the company is deep into their third project.

“The first one was dungeons, the second one was caverns, but this is like, the world,” says Stefan Pokorny, founder and chief sculptor of Dwarven Forge.

We’re standing in the Bushwick studio space occupied by Dwarven Forge, officially a company of three, but one which can swell to 14 people with freelancers when running projects. The team only moved into this space a couple weeks back, just before their most recent project launch. “We would have died without it,” Pokorny says of the space. “All these pieces are handmade. So, at a given time, there's a team of 12 people sanding, painting, pouring molds. Everything you see: sculpted, molded, cast, sanded, painted. It's pretty nuts.”

Bushwick studio

It’s hard to imagine that kind of detail-oriented labor happening here. The space is sparse and messy, and is reminiscent of a child’s rec room, save for the decorative medieval armament. Little pieces of toys are scattered on tables. Lean in closer and you realize, of course, these toys are the product, and that product is actually wildly detailed miniature works of art.

“This is where all the wizardry happens,” Taylor says, motioning to a wide desk covered in sculptor’s tools and clay. It’s Pokorny’s desk, and it’s situated such that it overlooks the rest of the studio like a captain’s chair. Pokorny sits down and adjusts the large illuminated magnifying glass clamped to the table – a crucial tool that allows him to work on a microscopic scale. His specialty is architectural and stone work, as evidenced by the reference photo of ancient masonry on his desk. The level of detail in the bridge piece he’s working on, which includes delicate fractures in the stone, is absolutely incredible.

Assortment of paints and rooftops
Pokorny painting

Like his peers, Pokorny, a classically trained sculptor and painter, played Dungeons & Dragons growing up. But Pokorny’s imagination spilled out of his brain and onto the tabletop before him. He enjoyed illustrating maps, and crafting dungeons from foam core. “After that I went on to art school for another ten years. So I learned how to paint and sculpt, all without realizing that in the end it would allow me to go back to the beginning and do the shit that I was doing as a kid,” Pokorny says. “Little do they know that all my art classes were leading to this,” he adds, motioning to the stacks of miniatures before him.

Approaching a cabinet on the back wall, Pokorny unfurls an enormous, hand-drawn map and holds it up. It’s a map of Valoria, the capital of his fantasy world of Mythras, and the city he’s been building for 30 years. “It’s not fine drawing,” he says, claiming that if it’s impressive that’s only due to scale. But the level of detail is outstanding, and the map clearly denotes markets, landmarks, and neighborhoods right down to doors and windows. If you were to visit Valoria armed only with this map, you’d have no trouble locating Hilmer’s Fine Swords, the Magic Users Guild, or the lute vendor on Lyre Lane.

View of tabletop
Second view of tabletop

Pokorny ultimately plans to make this map available in a map book, so that tabletop gamers can visit Valoria. He gets excited when talking about how this tome will be different. “It’s going to have maps, but then there’s going to be stories – tales about the people that live there, rumors going around in different parts of the city. And then there will be blank pages for the Dungeon Masters to create their own adventures or dungeons,” he says. “It’s half-filled, and they fill the rest. We’re giving them a canvas.”

That intention, fostering creativity for fun’s sake, is at the core of Dwarven Forge. The team reels when they discuss the intensely imaginative stuff they’ve seen produced using Dwarven Forge parts. Some backers are using 3D modeling software to build with their parts before they receive them, and others have hacked their own new pieces using X-Acto knives and glue. Pokorny holds up an example, a tiny wall piece that has been modified with a battery and LED in order to create a flickering wall torch.

Dwarven Forge terrain tiles and Lizardmen lair

Not only does Dwarven Forge enjoy this open source approach, but they plan to officially support it with a modder-specific parts package soon. “The whole point of Dwarven Forge is handing people these artistic tools. And they use it in unexpected ways that you never even thought of,” says Taylor. “It’s staggering. There is endless creativity that is empowered by all this stuff.”

The good news for fans of Dwarven Forge is that there’s no end in sight. The team readily admits that there’s always more work to do – a whole world’s worth of pieces to create and share. Out of curiosity, I asked Pokorny how long these specific pieces spread out before us took him to create. How many man-hours to sculpt, mold, and paint? “When you consider dreaming of it all from the time you're little?” he says, “These are all ideas from my past. If you think about it, honestly, it's a lifetime in the making. A lifetime.”

Additional Reading