During the COVID-19 pandemic, fans of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and other tabletop role-playing games suddenly found themselves at a crossroads. Should they stop their campaigns, pausing months or years of continuous play, and wait things out? Or should they make the jump to digital formats — virtual tabletops like Roll20 and One More Multiverse? Some who made that jump may never go back, but others simply can’t wait to gather around the table once more.
Nate Taylor, chief creative officer at Dwarven Forge, hopes that when groups do gather together in person that they consider playing with his terrain — arguably some of the most beautiful and sturdy tabletop gaming accessories around. Founded in 1996 by classically trained sculptor and painter Stefan Pokorny, Dwarven Forge is well known in gaming circles as the gold standard for TTRPG terrain. Visit any major convention, from PAX to Gen Con, and you’ll see its booth from a mile away — elaborate scenes featuring ornate underground caverns, bustling city streets, and towering castles.
Now the Brooklyn-based company is launching a crowdfunding campaign for a lavish new set of completely redesigned terrain. The Kickstarter for Cities Untold: Lowtown runs now through Feb. 28. Polygon sat down with the team to learn more.
While competitors like WizKids and Tabletop World can be less expensive to own, Dwarven Forge terrain is far more robust and intricate. The secret is a proprietary PVC compound called Dwarvenite, which is sturdy enough to stand on while also delicate enough to be hand-painted — either by fans, or by the experts at Dwarven Forge. The results are incredible.
“Affordable is one of our challenges,” Taylor told Polygon in a recent interview. “But appeal is not.”
With this new set, Taylor and his small team of artists are trying to make its terrain more modular — like Legos, he said — and more usable than ever before.
“At the end of the day, we’re making tools — storytelling tools,” Taylor said. “We’re making things that you can use to build out your story, to wow your players, to drop everybody into their own movie, right? You want to make your scene, so if [...] our terrain doesn’t end up on people’s tables, we’re not doing it right. It shouldn’t sit in the closet somewhere.”
Cities Untold: Lowtown tells a story in and of itself, a story of the seedier parts of town in places like Absalom, Neverwinter, or Waterdeep. Vignettes include the kinds of dimly lit wharves, rural cottages, and gang hideouts that you’d expect to see in Blades in the Dark — or the heist-focused Keys From the Golden Vault. But making a set like this isn’t as easy as it looks, and the design challenges for Taylor and his team were many.
“How do we make something that has character dynamics and feels really unique,” Taylor said, “but also then can break apart like Legos and build other bits? One of the biggest challenges is figuring out modular geometry that works with things you’ve done in the past; it’s going to give you as many different options as possible.”
“But how do you modularize something that has a lot of character, a lot of interesting shapes and weird geometry?” Taylor continued. “How do you have it not be repetitive if everything is wood? There’s different textures, different colors, different shapes, there’s beams projecting and whatnot. So I think we’ve cracked both of those.”
Much of Dwarven Forge’s success over the years, Taylor said, comes from its multidisciplinary team. They include sculpting lead Elye Alexander, a carpenter with a bachelor’s degree in poetry from Harvard, and Michelle McGriff, the company’s most senior sculptor, whose specialty is carving micro-fine details and textures using nothing more than a sewing needle. They even have a recovering architect, Tobi Lieberson, to help bring the entire collection of components together.
“I get to drive our creative team, which is awesome,” Taylor said, “because essentially 95% of our company is product development. We’re just always trying to make the new thing. [...] Very much the way [a] film director would drive a film, I’m also getting to collaborate with the greatest artists in the world.”
While the vast majority of Dwarven Forge products are sold pre-painted, the company also does a healthy business in unpainted scenery. It even has its own line of paints, and a YouTube channel filled with tutorials to get you started. But why not sell its work as STL files, ready for folks to 3D print at home? Well, that’s hard to do when literally everything in the collection is handmade.
“I think there’s something about the analog process that infuses some of the spirit of the creator in the work, in the imperfections,” Taylor said. “There’s something about our pieces — in how our 90-degree walls are not always 90 degrees. I think the imperfections somehow impart that human touch, and I think the joy is somehow you can feel the joy of creation in the piece.”
“When you sell someone that STL you don’t know what quality their printer is, and how it’s going to print out,” Taylor continued. “80% of people are buying the things pre-painted. [...] It’s done, it’s durable, it’s not going to break, and it’s painted. It’s already ready to go.
“We can guarantee you the thing you get is going to be as awesome as the thing that we were playing with when we’re testing it.”
Cities Untold: Lowtown pledges start at $158 for a hand painted starter set.