This time I’ll start from obviousness - as women we aren't a minority at all. We state more or less 50% of different groups, definitely of different societies. Why then this fact still doesn't have a reflection in fantasy and tabletop hobbies? During the DnD is a Woman campaign I've read through multiple comments. Almost each and every one of them mentioned a women’s rocky start to the hobby. The long roads that they usually had to build with their very own hands and creativity to eventually be able to play a session. Sometimes it was about being excluded by a male party directly. Other times, they were unable to find clothed miniatures, in other than surrender poses. They were browsing for hours to find genuine female miniatures. Why do we have to trail blaze our way to the hobby? Even though we're smart, strong, and diligent enough to do it, I dream about a world where we wouldn't be forced, prompted, or expected to do so.
I’ve decided to start a series of interviews with enterprising women in our hobby. With brave daredevils, leaders, brilliant DMs, and adventurers in tabletop gaming. As the first interlocutor, I invited AJ Winters, an Australian writer, actor, and awesome storyteller who creates magical worlds for a living. We’ve discussed her start in the hobby, the problems that she encountered at the beginning of her DM adventures, and the newest project that she’s working on - an Australian D&D series starting on Twitch on the 2nd of August. Let’s dive in to know her point of view!
By Emilia Kharie Popiela
Kharie: Let's start from the very beginning. How did you get into the RPG world? What were your first experiences with both playing and DMing?
AJ Winters: When I was 16, my Mum and I tagged along to my Dad’s work trip to New York and upon arriving at the hotel, booked by his company, we walked straight into Dexcon 15. It was like walking into Narnia; fauns, fairies, fantasy creatures galore. My Dad may not have been happy, but it was 16-year-old me’s absolute dream! Seeing the smile on my face, they bought me a ticket and I spent the entire weekend role-playing and playing my first ever D&D game.
Kharie: Oh my, I can imagine it was an awesome experience, this first encounter!
AJ Winters: When I got back to Australia I tried to drag others into a game, but it wasn’t until University that I was able to find friends with enough passion as me to start a campaign. I have always been a writer, and so when I learned I could also roleplay in these worlds I was creating, it lit a fire within me.
Kharie: Could you say something more about your first campaigns in Australia?
AJ Winters: My first campaign actually started as a leaving party for one of my friends. I decided to host a One-Shot for him, and built an entire evening out of it with potions that the players had to drink and riddles to solve. We had the best time laughing and role-playing with each other; so much so that we tried to turn it into an international online campaign. Unfortunately, it didn’t last past 2 or 3 sessions, but that became the motivating force behind turning my passion into a stream show.
Kharie: In what circumstances you became a DM? Did you feel like a precursor as a female? Or maybe it used to be a common experience in your social bubble?
AJ Winters: With my background in film and theatre, I could see how this “hobby” of mine could turn into a fully immersive role-playing live show. So I joined some online groups via Facebook and discord and started a video call with some females who were passionate about RPGs, to ask them what they’d like to see in the TTRPG space online. They were 100% behind me using my production company to build a female lead TTRPG stream company and future campaign. But my first goal was to make a reputation in the community as a player and DM before launching my channel. So I spent 2 years playing in other online stream shows, and even guest DMing 2 seasons of a homebrew campaign. When I saw how receptive people were to my style of playing and my world-building, I knew it was time to hit the ground running with my own content creation.
K: So in your case, a hobby was unfolding gradually into something bigger. It's interesting how you felt at the very beginning that it's something for you and that you've consciously decided to get better at it, to gain some skill, having already a bigger picture and plan sketch in your head!
AJ Winters: I really wanted to make an inclusive space and channel with a female DM at the helm. Unfortunately, I had a few people who tried to convince me I’d do better on their channels instead of starting my own. However, this was balanced by many people voicing how much they believed in my dream, and how excited they were to see what I could do.
Kharie: Have you ever experienced any kind of exclusion due to your gender or beliefs that you had to overcome or find another way to take part in any event or activity?
AJ Winters: I have been incredibly fortunate to not run into any exclusion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t present in the TTRPG space. I have made every effort to foster a community with inclusion and creativity at the heart, especially being a female and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. When I started this endeavor, I laid down a significant demand of no harassment, no disrespect, and no exclusivity. This is a space for everyone and creativity comes in all shapes and sizes; so why not showcase what those who haven’t seen the spotlight yet, can do.
Kharie: Is this a common thing in your area to be a female DM?
AJ Winters: Unfortunately, I have not run across many female DMs in the streaming space, especially from Australia. It’s definitely still a male dominant space, but the female and non-binary DMs are starting to come to the forefront and that is absolutely incredible to see.
Kharie: I agree! I think it would be awesome to see more females in the hobby! Could you say something more about making the gaming space more inclusive?
AJ Winters: 100%. When I was casting the upcoming D&D campaign for Winters Tales, I wanted to find players and performers from different backgrounds to help tell unique perspectives and stories. Inclusivity is about providing a safe space for everyone; allowing people to be heard and seen. And so I have encouraged each of my players to show themselves how they’d like to be seen so that the viewers can feel represented by them. To see someone in a show that they feel a connection to, to feel as though someone like them can be at the forefront of this hobby and content creation; was important to me.
Kharie: Do you have any tools, techniques, or kind of approach you apply as a DM to make people feel more comfortable, seen, and respected?
AJ Winters: As a DM I focused on adding safety tools to my games, to foster open communication between my players and myself, and include all pronouns in my introductions to NPCs. I strive to create a realistic world where characters that my players interact with are real and complex, so including non-gender conforming people into my stories was also crucial. I do checklists with my players before games about what they are comfortable with, topics they want to avoid, and what they’d like to see within the game or the world we’re playing in. My players for this upcoming campaign are absolutely amazing and agree wholeheartedly about inclusivity and representation. Stories are never just told from one perspective, so why would we limit ourselves in our own storytelling?
Kharie: I totally agree and that's, I believe, a huge advantage of inviting representatives of different minorities to the show - the different points of view. While I can understand that there is something tempting in sticking around our own perspective as it's a well-known land that we know how to work with, lacking of different insights, in my opinion, make the whole story less colourful and textured. It makes it somehow flat and unrealistic.Could you tell me something more about the technical details regarding your show? Where we can find you, when, and what is the whole thing about?
AJ Winters: On the 2nd of August at 8 pm AWST on Twitch.tv/WintersTales we kick off our flagship D&D campaign, set in an entirely homebrew world. We are streaming live from the first D&D studio in Australia with a female DM, a diverse cast, and a unique plot; with the 6 characters waking up in the first episode without any memories. This means the players don’t even know who they are playing; not the race, the class, or any part of their backstory - not even their name. The campaign is all about identity as the characters have to unravel the mystery of their situation whilst finding out who they are. We are excited to bring you this new story, and especially proud of how unique will believe it will be.
Kharie: I keep my fingers crossed for the project! Could you say a few words about what inspired you to create it, to make the Winters Tale project real?
AJ Winters: I adore storytelling. TTRPGs gave me the chance to tell stories with others; to combine my love of writing, world-building, and performing into one incredible experience. My inspiration for this particular show was to create a fully immersive story for the players and the audience. The set is tangible with Props and Puzzles for the players to interact with, the plot line of memory loss pushes the cast members to experience D&D like never before, and the SFX we’re planning will give some visual immersion to top it all off. I live by the quote “you don’t know how far you can fly until you spread your wings,” and this project was just that; I am aiming to soar. I have gathered my experience in theatre and film and brought it together for the production, the set design, and the storytelling medium that is live theatre. I knew that if I wanted to try and make this dream a reality, I needed to put in 110% to make it happen. That was my inspiration.
Kharie: I like that quote. And also, regarding the wing’s spreading - what are your current aims and plans connected to the project?
AJ Winters: The Australian TTRPG community is incredible and I want to be able to show off what Australia can do! Right now, there are no D&D streams from studios like Critical Role or Dimension20 coming out of Australia. It would be an absolute dream to build and run a production company in Western Australia where multiple TTRPG streams can have sets and streams running, to show what Australia is truly capable of. So instead of just wishing it would happen, I am striving to make it a reality - one step at a time.
Kharie: Awesome! I wish your dreams will come true and I'm happy that the Australian TTRPG scene gains this show thanks to you!
AJ Winters: Thank you, I appreciate that so much! At the end of the day, we are all still fighting for equality. This show may just be a small part, but I am so proud of my team for being a positive step in the right direction. We will not stop fighting, for all.
Kharie: We won’t! Thanks a lot for your time and support!