How a 'Dungeons & Dragons' Superfan Made $2 Million Building Castles

"I want to destroy the stereotype that gamers are losers."

Director Josh Bishop was walking on clouds after his film, The Dwarvenaut, screened for the crowd at Fantasia Film Festival in Quebec, Canada last month.

“I had one guy approach us after the screening, and he was visibly shaking,” he told Inverse. “He had trouble even saying anything to us, but what he did say was, ‘I have been gaming for thirty years, and I…’ I kept thinking he had probably been teased a lot in his life, and he really seemed to get something out of our movie.”

The Dwarvenaut is an intimate look at one Dungeons & Dragons player, Stefan Pokorny, following his ambitious Kickstarter initiative to build and sell original fantasy world models. The film is so rich with Bishop’s obvious admiration for Pokorny that it’s easy to imagine a lifelong gamer feeling affirmed by it.

A Dungeon Master who wears eyeliner and sells board games online, Pokorny might fit some old stereotypical definition of a helpless nerd, but he’s actually a highly evolved geek; as a thriving adult who earns his living through passion projects, some might even call him a living embodiment of the American dream.

The film’s trailer presents Pokorny as a certifiable weirdo, cutting quickly between shots of him yelling, running on convention floors, and wearing costumes in public. The full film, however, depicts a much more nuanced man. One of the first scenes in The Dwarvenaut follows Pokorny at a street festival in New York, and though he’s wearing a huge top hat, he really doesn’t stand out amid the bellydancers and street performers. He smiles, greeting friends and waiting in line at a food truck while explaining in voiceover that he’s found his home among gamers and artists.

Pokorny is instantly recognizable to many gamers, and stands out at Dungeons & Dragons fan conventions because of what he’s created. He says the exposure he and his company received during the Kickstarter process – and the fame he’s gained since The Dwarvenaut began touring the festival circuit – hasn’t wigged him out too much. “I had been filmed because of the Kickstarters,” Pokorny told Inverse, “so I was already used to being onscreen. It helped that Mike, the camera guy, was like a ninja. Half the time I didn’t even know he was there. Every once in a while, I’d be startled, because Josh would say, ‘hey, do that again, what you just did,’ and he’d have Mike run across the room to take it from a different angle.”

Josh Bishop credits Pokorny’s unique, candid personality for making the filmmaking process easy. “I was really given a gift with a subject like Stefan, because he’s very, very generous, emotionally,” Pokorny added. “Well, you had to talk me into the title. I didn’t get it. I was worried about being called a ‘dwarvenaut’ and now I’ve kind of grown into it. It’s funny, now I say to people, ‘I’m the dwarvenaut!’”

Judging by the interviews in the film, it’s not often Pokorny has to introduce himself at all, at least to the legions of gamers who already know his castles. Pokorny proclaims several times in the film that “these are my people,” and he displays genuine emotion when asked about that community.

“We’re not losers, you know? I’ve met great, inspiring people through gaming, and I wanted that to be clear in the film,” he said. “I mentioned that a few times in filming, I want to destroy those stereotypes that we’re anti-social. Dungeons and Dragons is an incredibly social game! In fact, a lot of gamers who stuck with the hobby now have their own children, and they’re at just the right age to play D&D, which means those lifelong gamers are able to share the love of that game with their kids. There’s a whole generation who grew up on video games now discovering the joys of tabletop gaming.”

A shot from the film depicting Stefan Pokorny as a child.

Josh Bishop

It’s striking to hear Pokorny call legacy, and family bonding, some of the primary draws of Dungeons & Dragons, because the film examines his tumultuous upbringing and stresses his occasional feelings of loneliness and rejection. A child of an American soldier and a Korean young woman, Pokorny was put up for adoption in Soeul, brought to the States only to have his first adoptive family reject him, and a second family take him as their son.

Pokorny with his adoptive family in New York City.

Pokorny said he was surprised, upon seeing an early version of The Dwarvenaut, at how personal the film actually was. “I didn’t really know what to expect, because you,” he said, indicating Bishop, “weren’t a fan of the game, and you didn’t know me from my company. I was surprised at how personal it was, and then I thought, ‘well, he did keep asking me for photo albums, and I just handed it all over to him…”

The candid attitude is clearly an integral part of Pokorny’s worldview; he appears in The Dwarvenaut as counseling his hungover friend, getting drunk over and over himself, settling into bed after updating his Facebook page, and sitting at his parents’ grave, thanking them for adopting him, not hiding his tears. The fact that Pokorny didn’t fully realize how intimate a look at his life The Dwarvenaut was going to be is astounding – as he seems to have no qualms with being so open with the camera. He reminisces about his days as “a bad kid”, getting kicked out of school at such a high frequency that the school stuck a photo of him on the door, advertising that he wasn’t to be allowed in the building.

Pokorny delivers monologues on his background in a muted voice, but comes alive when he’s describing the worlds he’s worked so hard to make tangible; he’s a commanding, exuberant Dungeon Master, and he seems to particularly adore setting up dangerous, terrifying choices for players to make, when the world seems stacked against them. Pokorny’s dungeons are full of strange noises and ominous structures, and his players move forward despite being under-armed and alone. It’s obvious, though Pokorny doesn’t say it himself, that he identifies with the plight of Dungeons and Dragons characters: forging something for himself in a world that’s proven wild and relentlessly challenging for him.

Although The Dwarvenaut is a meditation on the man himself, Pokorny seems hopeful that the film’s message is universal. Both he and Bishop want the film to portray a devoted D&D player as multi-faceted, sensitive, and social, but Pokorny specifically wants to make gamers out of us all. “There’s a renaissance in gaming happening right now,” Pokorny says, “and I really hope that this movie can show that to people.”

The Dwarvenaut is now available to stream on iTunes and VOD.

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