Tabletop games run on characters. Players have characters, the GM has characters, and occasionally even the system deposits characters into the game because … world building. Depending on the game, these characters might have varying degrees of depth. I’ve played in games where the characters were loose flavor text tossed on top of a carefully balanced stack of skills, and I’ve played in games where characters’ rich backstories, personal goals, and distinctive personalities drove play.
If you play long enough, some characters may begin to take on a life of their own, representing far more than the set of stats that they may or may not have. These characters might be informed by the system that they were created in, be it D&D, or Apocalypse World, or even The Quiet Year, but they are the result of an incredible amount of creative work on the part of their primary player and the story they’re part of. They often no longer feel like characters that only exist within the bounds of their game, but like constant companions who get to take center stage once a week, or once a month, or however often we play.
So what can we call these characters? What term would best pay respect to their personal and narrative importance? I’ve clearly been using character, but the word feels vague. Characters include everyone, from the chosen one in a teen vampire drama, to the equivalent of the cabbage guy from Avatar, or to the dungeon merchant who must live in the 9th basement of this cave because he’s sure as heck never getting out. Player character, or PC, is less vague, but harshly impersonal; it brings to mind rules discussions and games jargon more than the feeling of companionship and narrative euphoria that comes from working with a character who you truly love and connect with. Player character is also falsely exclusive. While not every NPC is going to resonate, GMs almost always end up with a few beloved favorites.
And so we move out of tabletop jargon and to, being children of the internet, the term OC (or original character). While not as common a term within tabletop gaming, for me OC taps into over a decade of fledgling, exciting creative work, beginning when I was just finding my footing online. It reminds me of long conversations with my friends as we wrote something that we didn’t yet know was called fanfiction about Amazing Agent Luna or Tamora Pierce’s Provost’s Dog series, creating characters that we could call our own and dropping them into these already-created fictional worlds.
When we weren’t writing fanfic, we were writing our own stories. I remember a stack of composition notebooks, passed around between me and two of my closest friends, where we each took turns writing passages from the perspective of our own OCs. We placed these characters in a world we had all created together, and they responded to events that no one of us had complete control over. The story was collaborative and consuming, and over time, the characters evolved, and learned, and still have a remarkable presence in our lives despite us having not touched the story for years.
Even though I started playing D&D around the same time, roleplaying in the battered composition notebooks was my first introduction to the character building and collaborative storytelling that I find now in tabletop RPGs. I call Rula and Caro, my characters from the notebooks, my OCs all the time, but the feelings I have for them are no different than the ones I have for Silk, my Blades in the Dark sharpshooter, or Morrigan, my ghoul from Monsterhearts. So who am I to say that Rula and Caro are OCs, but Silk and Morrigan are not?
In this series, we’re choosing to tell you about our OCs—rather than our characters, or player characters, or PCs—because OC speaks to the importance that these characters can have in our lives even outside of the systems they were created in. We’re telling you about our OCs because to use the term serves to break down the completely artificial barriers between independently written narrative fiction and collaborative tabletop storytelling. We’re telling you about our OCs because we want to hear about yours, no matter how old you were when you created them or how legitimate the world tells you they are. And hey, maybe we’re telling you about our OCs because words are, ultimately, just a little bit arbitrary and it looked really good in the graphic.
So welcome! Here you’ll learn about the characters who built us into the people we are, who started out as flavor text on a min-maxed elf sorcerer, who popped into existence by accident because there really needed to be an NPC to just do this one thing and it spiraled out of control. They’re goofy, they’re serious, and they share a whole lot of our most internalized struggles. We love them.
Let me tell you about my OC.
Read the rest of the Let Me Tell You About My OC series.
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.