Other than Fantasy - the REAL Role-Playing Game
OTF is more than just a new game; it's a redefinition of role-playing. While OTF is, in a sense, stand-alone, since the GM is encouraged create a world of his or her own based on the principles of OTF, many of those principles can be applied to any role-playing game. With any luck, reading this will help you pick up something that can be used to improve any RPG.
OTF was apparently developed by a group of gamers who were getting tired of the same linear role-playing one often sees, or more specifically they were probably sick of thin-plotted, hack & slash dungeon crawling. What they came up with is a dynamic game that focuses more on actual role-playing. Remember that Gary Gygax came up with D&D some thirty years ago based on combat with miniatures in his basement. Since then, many commercial role-playing games have evolved little, as far as the fundamentals of the game are concerned, which is only natural since you can't make much money selling a rulebook the size of this document. What the designers of OTF did was create a game that attempts to change the way the game is played entirely. Character generation is very simple and combat and feats of skill or luck all fall into one simple method of determination. The only thing that hasn't really changed is the basic game architecture of having the GM (or primary GM) create the setting, having the players create their characters and then playing in a style not too far departed from what most people are used to.
I was introduced to OTF years ago by one of the creators, and after trying to introduce the concept to subsequent rpg groups, I made this document, since the simplicity of OTF seems to be an obstacle to classic die-hard D&D types (not to mention, this is more complete and organized than any verbal explanation I can give). In addition to the rules, I've interlaced this with some concepts I've drawn upon from my OTF gaming which are often different from conventional role-playing.
The GM and the Players
Much of the responsibility of good OTF gaming falls on the GM, thus he or she needs to be an excellent GM. How does one become an excellent GM? A lot of practice and an inordinate amount of thought dedicated to the game helps, but it does take some natural skill. While it probably also helps to have an intelligent GM, oddly enough, the best GM in a crowd may not be the smartest, because it's like chess; intelligence probably helps, but it's skill at the game that really matters. Hell, the GM that introduced me to OTF certainly wasn't the brightest individual I've met, not to mention, he seemed pretty much useless in all other aspects of life, but he was surely the damn finest GM I'll probably ever meet. So it doesn't hurt to let everyone try GMing so you can find out who is the best. If anybody in your group shows any hint of desire to GM, let them have at it. If anything, you should be able to learn something from them...may be good, may be very bad. Bottom line is, out of a group of 6-8 players, you can usually find 2 or maybe more that have some pretty good ideas and aren't bad at using them. If you have a really excellent game, a good player can only contribute so long as a player, before they have so many ideas that they're bursting at the seams to do some GMing. Rotating GMs can break up the routine and add a little diversity.
As far as players go, it may be difficult to get 4 or 5 people in the first place, but you need to find creative players that contribute to the game. In a linear game, the players can simply walk through the GM's campaign. But in an OTF game, players need to take control of their fate to some degree. One of the problems we faced playing OTF, is that some of the players would get stagnated, because they'd expect the GM to do all the work for them, but at the same time, they expected the OTF flexibility that they had become accustomed to. This would lead to them sitting there saying, what are we going to do now? It's sort of a catch-22, because in order to have a flexible game, you can't have a rigid plan, which means, you don't really have a campaign in the traditional sense.
Any tool can be abused. Often, it's the concept of the campaign. A good GM will always have an interesting one ready. Not everyone is genius enough to rival a well thought out campaign without any planning. However, most GMs turn that well thought out campaign into a rat maze. Many use it as a tool to infringe upon a player's freedom, but a good GM will let the players stray completely from the campaign. Freedom is a big key to OTF. Always let the players take control of the game, even if they screw up your plans. I, myself, have found it difficult when I have something elaborate planned and the players stray, but like a good GM, I put the players first. Also remember, it's easy for a player to get discouraged not only by the GM, but by the other players, because they may try to bend the player towards doing what they want (in an attempt to stay on the path of your campaign). A good GM can handle when individuals wander from the party. Be prepared to abandon your plans for the player's pursuits, if need be (even if the party needs him to achieve whatever). Remember, the campaign is a tool best used when you just start out or when the players are being slugs. You can sometimes save it for when the players are done with what they're doing, too.
For more, check out this page by Heather Grove. She hits the nail right on the head.
Everyone knows background is vital to role-playing. An extensive background can help players lose themselves in the experience, especially when they have the opportunity to shape that background and become a part of it. While there are some very deep backgrounds to draw from in other RPGs, I personally believe that if done right, a custom background is the best by far. The only problem is that it takes a very, very good GM. And that GM has to devote a decent amount of time and energy to develop the world they create. The flip side is that the GM ends up owning the game in every aspect.
Remember, custom worlds are full of surprises. After all, if players have no idea what the world is like, it's only natural that new things often unfold. The players won't know more about the background than the GM, either. It's more difficult for players to think, "Hey that's bogus...so and so would never do that." Of course, if you don't have the time to start your own world, or it just doesn't seem like a good idea, you can always make a hybrid. Most people are familiar with GMs adding their own worlds to known ones. Another idea is to have a custom world, where the GM adds another to make things more interesting. Multiple worlds also supplement having multiple GMs. They can keep the GMs from stepping on each others toes, too. Below is how our last OTF game was set up.
Basically, we had portals from world to world, which weren't exactly open to the public, with the exception of the gate to the custom fantasy sub-world which wasn't common knowledge and the gate to the alternate timeline, which required incredibly rare technology. I'm not saying that mixing fantasy with sci-fi is a necessary element to OTF, but merely illustrating how our last game was set up. Mixing the two seemed odd at first, but I got used to it, and it's really not as bad as it may sound.
Also, on the subject of background, give the players an opportunity to help create the background. Then, when they make a new character, they will feel quite comfortable in the setting they helped to create. Encourage them to help write material for your world. For example, if a player comes up with a page or two on their custom religion, use it! Start small, and slowly make their custom religion (in this case) a major one. The player will enjoy seeing their creation grow in your world.
The Big Picture
Develop a panoramic view of your universe. A great example is the perspective in the real-time strategy game Rebellion. If you've ever played it, and you think about it, there's a lot going on. While playing, it's just fleets, sectors and the key planets. But if you put on a twist of reality and analyze it, you would be affecting the lives of billions of people. Troop and fleet movements affect untold numbers. Each battle, which is a few clicks for you, would be an experience for the thousands who fight it it. You have a complex galactic economy that is directly affected by the manufacturing demands you stipulate. In reality, a change in planetary production would greatly affect the economy. Notice how as you are playing, an individual planet can undergo so much change. It may begin as a rebel planet, then fall into imperial hands. As the war develops and naturally moves, the planet's proximity could make it a hub for, let's say, ship production. Then as the tide of the war sways, it might be a good idea to scrap the shipyards and shift the focus to mining and refining. Little details like that can add some flavor if maybe that planet is the character's home. Then, of course, there are all the missions...from abduction to sabotage, and each mission has a purpose. A simple espionage mission can have a lot of impact. Maybe you find information on planetary defenses, which you send a team to sabotage, which allows a fleet to take control of the planet, and so on and so forth. Sound like a campaign? Yep. And best of all, every move purposefully contributes to a grander scheme. It's not a collection of random events and encounters, although it may seem that way to a character, at first. Now all you do is have the characters fill in some details and watch things unfold. And if they fail their mission, it's easy to see that the game certainly doesn't stop. The universe isn't going to wait for the characters; if it was their only chance, they blew it. It's history, move on.
And remember, this is just for perspective. Don't go overboard, making all your campaigns fit into the confines of Rebellion or it will quickly become boring and repetitive because of the limited number of mission types in that game.
Puzzles vs. Mystery
If you want puzzles, go play with puzzles. They're generally best left out of role-playing, as far as I'm concerned. Examples of what I'm talking about are often found in modules. GMs all too frequently present the puzzle in a cheesy manner which makes it obvious, since they point something out they normally wouldn't have, or if they don't point it out, the players may not get it. And then it's even more lame when the GM starts giving hints. If puzzles are an integral part of your gaming and they are so clever the players can't even believe you came up with them, fine...keep the puzzles. But at least make sure they're not vital to the character's survival or any such thing. If you're running a campaign, try to avoid making the solving of a puzzle necessary for completion of it.
I was once talking to someone about role-playing games that illustrated exactly what I was talking about. He mentioned a GM presenting an empty room with only a nail on the wall. All sorts of nightmare gaming comes to mind: First, any time someone brings up a room as their first rpg story, I immediately think dungeon crawling. Next, I think about how some lame GM would center some sort of plot or puzzle or importance around this nail, merely because it was mentioned. Players might go so far as to investigate the nail and so forth. This is ridiculous! It's a nail! Who cares?! What kind of idiot GM would have a trap/plot/puzzle/artifact in the form of a nail? Well, this GM, as it turns out, because indeed, there was some major turn of events involving the nail.
If you want to be clever, go with conspiracies and mystery. That doesn't necessarily mean you should make your game into a mystery. Just add the element. Make some intricate framework that weaves smoothly with your background. As for conspiracies, I'm not talking just about the 'everybody is out to get you' conspiracies. I mean more of a toned down illuminati thing for example, where the players may gain enough information to wonder why so and so is helping such and such organization. The above probably makes no sense--tell you what...look up some of the conspiracy theory type stuff on the web, if you need simple examples of what I'm talking about. One problem is, some GMs will come up with something so clever they want to leak the information out. Don't be tempted to do so. If they never get it, just suck it up and wait until you're never going to see them again or something. Then you can go, "I can't believe you didn't figure out that microdot on Rimmer's swimming certificate. I mean...he couldn't swim! Didn't that make you wonder?"
Abandoning the Rules
Tables, charts and rules can often detract from a game. One of the objects with OTF is to streamline everything, so you can save a lot of time that can be used for real playing. This also serves to take away any distraction the rules may present during the game. Unless you've never dug through a rulebook to look for anything other than the price of tea, you've been a victim. Now, I'm not saying abandon all paper, because an OTF GM will likely have some home grown references as a minimum, but I am saying to lose most of the rules (on paper anyway). You may definitely want to keep the books. Some of the more valuable info is in items and prices, if nothing else. If you're running a fantasy setting, the spells are good for ideas, or for lazy GMs who just use those spells alone.
Basically, the GM is the rulebook (and he doesn't exactly make it up as he goes, there is some basis). You can argue with him, and hopefully, logic and reason will prevail in letting either side win, but when nobody concedes, the GM needs to put the hammer down. There is a bit of a democratic process involved, though. If everyone disagrees with the GM, he better check himself. Really, the whole thing only works when people are reasonable.
Getting back on track, you can't have a game without any rules, of course. You're just going to be ditching antiquated concepts like hit points, armor class and all sorts of stuff. So just how are you supposed to handle combat? Well, first, you leave all the non-casino dice at home. That's right, all you need is some 6 siders. You'll need at least one for the GM and one for each player. Here's a working example:
Joe Sixpack wants to take a swing at Jimmy Dean (an NPC). The GM and player each roll a six sider and here are some possible outcomes (player rolls are on the left):
1 to 6 - Joe throws a bad punch as Jimmy deftly dodges it.
None too eloquent, but hopefully you get the idea...
Now you each roll again for damage if there was a connection.
Let's say the first roll was 4 to 3:
1 to 6 - Jimmy felt it, but that's about it.
The rest, between extremes, is all up to the GM. This can take some time to master, but with practice, a GM can get this down to an art, giving quick and meaningful outcomes to rolls. Obviously, the first roll will affect the second, which is why you may have them roll to hit and for damage before you tell them the results of either. Also, these examples assume evenly matched characters. If Joe Sixpack is a lean, mean, fighting machine and Jimmy is a pansy, the outcomes are going to be incredibly skewed in favor of Joe. Also, as they get more and more beat up, it's going to be easier for them to go down, so if they were evenly skilled but Jimmy just finished taking care of some other guy, he's obviously going to be at a disadvantage.
The GM needs to take into account a lot of variables and be as fair as possible. Of course, a 6 to 1 doesn't guarantee anything. A perfect example is if Joe Sixpack is going to try to bust down a door, and the player tries and rolls 6 to 1; the GM might say it had no effect. In which case, Joe gets the idea that it's going to take a lot more than his body weight. And remember, any feat of skill or luck is a roll, but don't be stupid about it. I don't know how many times I've seen GMs have players roll to hit an unconscious person. That's asanine, and an extreme example. Sleeping is somewhat understandable, so the person may have a chance to wake up (making sure the character doesn't trip and fall, I guess), but if they are in a coma and I have to roll, I'm quitting. That goes for anything that should be automatic (like kicking someone curled up on the ground).
Like everything in OTF, character generation is streamlined. It generally takes longer to come up with a decent name (a good name is critical in my game) and background, than to come up with everything else. Traditionally, OTF character sheets had only 2 attributes and we'd roll for both attributes and skills. It worked fine, but I have this thing about luck when it comes to character generation. I think it's best for players to choose their own strengths and weaknesses for their character. While there are several different ways this could be handled, here is my suggested way: have 6 attributes: strength, agility, endurance, intelligence, psyche (or magic ability) and appearance. Notice the lack of charisma or persuasiveness. They're left out purposely, since the character will define those traits through role-playing. The scale for each trait is 1 to 6++, 3 being average. Players are given 18 points to distribute, being allowed no more than a 6 for any attribute (leaving 6+ and 6++ for later). What about alien or race differences? Tailor a system like the one I use for fantasy, with which you start off with all 3s, but 'dwarves' get 4 endurance and 2 agility, 'humans' get 4 strength and 2 magic ability, and 'elves' get 4 magical ability and 2 strength. You can move points around, but no trait can be changed by more than two points. This is just a suggestion; customize to your tastes. You can even do without attributes entirely and it's not really noticeable when you are used to it, but they are very helpful when otherwise evenly matched characters are fighting or something of the sort.
Skills use the same scale (1 to 6++) and we generally go with the 1 point per 500 Xp, 1000 Xp from 5 to 6, 2000 Xp for the first '+' and 4,000 Xp for the second '+'. A good starting point, for example, would be to give the player their pick of 10-12 skills, along with a starting Xp of 15,000. Work with them on what point values they can and can't have. They could end up choosing the following skills, for example:
Sword Play 2 - Demolitions 2
Almost anything is a skill. I had a character with 6++ in pizza making, for instance (sometimes you just have to be silly). By the way, if you have a 6++ in anything, you're probably renowned for it. A rough equivalent would be if you had a 6++ in chess, you'd be a grandmaster (Bobby Fischer, Gary Kasparov, and the like). Don't let characters get a 6++ unless that's all they do and they are extremely experienced. Also, a character may often have a deficit in skills...such as a 30,000 Xp character with 45 points in skills. Just because a character gained experience, doesn't mean he gained or honed any skills. There's nothing wrong with it. Just save the skills improvement for an appropriate time, since experience can just be general. Also, notice how skills and experience are so directly linked? There's a really good reason for this. You don't have to slaughter untold numbers of creatures crawling around in dungeons to gain experience! Yes, it's a pseudo-subtle way of eliminating hack & slash. And, unlike D&D, you don't really gain experience on single actions very often. It's more of a rough sum of the actions the player made that day/night.
This brings us to experience, with which OTF uses a non-exponential system. A character is usually 10,000 to 200,000, which means they're quite the veteran at 50,000 experience. Usually only NPCs get above 100,000, and upwards of 200,000 is for god-like, legendary NPCs that the characters rarely meet (unless they're really mixing with the elite).
Generally, you start an average brand new 16-24 year-old character with around 15,000 to 25,000 experience. As long as they make decent contributions, everyone gets about 1,000 a game. If you pull an especially interesting all-nighter or a character distinguishes themselves, you might possibly go with 1,500. It's up to the GM. And experience starts to slow down after a point. I mean, your first barfight may be quite an experience... but if you do it everyday, it loses it's beneficence. This is a good way to motivate your characters away from repetitive playing.
Ditch alignment. Remind your players they should be consistent in regards to their character's morality if necessary, but don't write it on a character sheet.
Class should just be what the character best falls into at whatever point in time. It shouldn't give the character much in the way of advantages or disadvantages, and it should never be a lockdown from which they can never stray. Think of it in terms of a job description. Really, the only advantages are the skills you gain in the job; the disadvantage is people expect you to act like your character class (which players should try to do). Changing class in OTF is about as easy as deciding what class you want to change to. Your character may start out as student or street sweeper until they choose a profession or do something that defines them more. Then one day, your character is drafted and suddenly his or her character class is soldier. In OTF, sky's the limit when it comes to character classes. Don't get hung up on it.
Hit points and armor class? I'm surprised these are still fairly popular (certainly in computer rpgs, anyway). Simply put, don't even think about it. Don't think of a character's condition in terms of numbers. If something happens to Joe Sixpack, tell the player in words...."you're exhausted from all that running", "your hand's still throbbing pretty bad from getting slammed in that door", "he hit you pretty hard and you feel like you're going to pass out soon", "You're bleeding to death", and that sort of thing.
Finally, I'll mention money only to bring up one point: unless your objective as a GM at a certain time is to starve or bankrupt a character (which is sometimes feasible), don't worry about food or other fairly inexpensive survival requirements. A character should feel relaxed about walking into an establishment and ordering food or drink, without worrying about saving up for that cool sword they want (although in a really good game, players won't care about their character's possessions). Anyway, it slows the game down that little bit when they do the 'paperwork'.
What we end up with is a character sheet with name, age, height/weight (possibly a description/picture), character class, experience, gender, race, attributes (strength, agility, endurance, intelligence, psyche/magic/whatever, appearance), character background (which quite often fills up 3/4 of the character sheet[s]), skills, money and items.
A little more on items: If you've done any amount of role playing, you've probably run into some guy that loves to regale people with his stories of some awesome and peculiar character in some awesome campaign (dungeon crawling, no doubt) and this often includes: "And he had this badass <insert lame artifact here> that he stole from <insert name that has no meaning to you>. It had 25 intelligence and he could get one wish a day from it." And so on and so forth, as you're pummeled by facts you could care less about. Getting to my point, when I hear this, I think to myself... I remember when I didn't really know how to play (didn't play OTF that is)... I used to have the same sort of materialism going on. Players were more concerned about the cool items and extravagant amounts of money (as well as large amounts of meaningless experience) than they were about the gameplay. If you're truly playing OTF style, you shouldn't care about getting a cloak and ring of protection +5, because it just doesn't matter... it's pointless. One way to break players of this habit is to give them all the crap they want and then take it away to illustrate that it didn't matter... it shouldn't have much of an impact on playing.
Anyway, character generation is probably one of the most flexible parts of OTF. The ideas above are merely suggestions (that work). You might want to use 1-10 for the attributes; maybe you hate my character class concept and want to complicate it more. That's okay...this is just a good framework.
Hack and Slash Alternatives
If there's anything I hate about classic role-playing, it's hack and slash. It's so repetitive and mind numbing. When it comes to fighting, have some purpose behind it other than "the monsters live there". Think of how much more meaningful it is when you're fighting a person with a name and personality, with a real purpose. If I say you're fighting Darth Vader, it's vastly different than some guy in black, isn't it? The other thing that bugs me about hack and slash; you roll, it's a hit...roll again, 8 damage. What does that tell you? You did eight points of damage. That's it. You don't know how you hit your opponent; don't care. What's eight points of damage amount to? It's a number...that doesn't tell me much. What you need to do is describe damage like: "He whacks you upside the head with the baseball bat and you stumble backwards feeling dizzy." or "The bullet goes right through your left shoulder and it's quite painful. Given the intensity of the situation, you can still try to use the arm, but it's definitely going to hurt like hell and you'll probably be cringing at every use." You don't need to be medically specific, of course, since you want to keep everything real, and who knows in real life the exact extent of any wounds suffered? You can later describe the wicked bruise they're sporting or tell them that the bullet was a hollowpoint and made a severely nasty exit wound.
To keep things interesting, one way to do close quarters combat, is to have the 'combatants' stand up and semi-slow motion what they're going to do. Whoever has the initiative might say, "I'm going to punch and do this, blah, blah, blah" while showing what he'd do, and the other person says, "Okay, I want to respond by grabbing your arm and slamming it like this to break your elbow, blah, blah, blah". Then each person rolls, and the GM decides on the outcome, giving a verbal description. Although generally less spectacular, it works the same with swords and the like. You may want to go without this method sometimes, but it's definitely a must if the characters are fighting their life long nemesis or something of that sort.
Also, in both melee and more importantly ranged combat situations, it often seems like everyone has a completely different picture of what's going on. A simple way to alleviate this problem is to draw a quick overhead sketch of what's going on so that the characters know their relative position and can maneuver accordingly. Also, in such situations, it's best if players ask about the environment rather than rely completely on the GM's description. Players might assume that because they're in a forest, there are some good bushes to hide under, or that all the trees are a few feet in diameter. A better understanding of the enviornment can help stave off... well... misunderstanding.
Yes, fighting is often inevitable, but if it makes up the bulk of your game, you're not playing OTF, no matter how fancy and fun it may seem. Like anything, if it's overdone, it will get boring. I've seen too many games revolve around exploring some place with a weak plot and a bunch of fighting. There's little I find more frustrating. Don't start a fight to kill time. That's what so many GMs do, and it's poor GMing. It's like a movie. If it has nothing but fighting, it probably blows. Have a decent background for crying out loud, and do something besides fight all the time. A good example of non-fighting action is the courtroom trial we had in one session. Some of us played lawyers, some witnesses, etc. It's probably not a good idea to do something like that twice, but the one time we did, it was hilarious; more importantly it was a change of scenery...something different, with no fighting. This is just one of many combat alternatives (much like in real life). One of the best games I ever played lasted for hours and there was only a brief (minute or two) skirmish. The rest of it was interacting with npcs in what turned out to be a very interesting game even though the plot was very simple. What made it good was that I lost myself in the dire situation (my character's that is).
Fate and Fame
One thing I've seen in roleplaying which I believe to be a mistake is that some GMs like to let the characters wallow in obscurity forever. Sometimes this can be attributed to rpg systems which, when followed precisely, keep the characters relatively powerless. An important facet to remember as a GM is that this can be quite an escapist game and, well, who wants to pretend to be a peasant, nobody, lackey, etc? When you role-play, it really needs to be a step into fantasy, and to further this, the characters should be caught up in major events, leading to the likelyhood of fame, fortune and such. In other words, for some reason or another, they are important people. They are characters that can make a major impact on the universe in which they dwell. They shouldn't be fighting random monsters... they should be interacting with the major characters of the setting, affecting and affected by the politics and world events in that setting. In short, they should become part of the history of your background.
To get your players started, they need to START OUT as different than normal. Some examples of starting off with skills/powers: Luke Skywalker has the force, Golgo 13 has amazing sharpshooting skills, the girl with the dragon tattoo has l33t hacker skills, etc. Or a character might just be related to someone: Jon Snow is the son of Eddark Stark, Paul Atreides is the son of Leo Atreides (and has special powers), etc. And of course, some have things bestowed on them, like Robocop or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The point is that the characters get caught up in adventure because they aren't mundane in the first place. And instead of the "party meeting in a tavern" nonsense, it's less awkward to have a team of skilled individuals that are simply hired into a situation (think A-Team). Of course, an alternative is to isolate members in some sort of conflict situation (like the Thing, Aliens, Jurassic Park).
The Power Player
I think it's sad how in D&D, the DM's guide suggests characters be retired at a certain point. The High Level Campaign book they publish points out why they do this - "Encounters are more difficult to construct because the DM cannot simply throw monsters at characters...". Obviously, since OTF is not built on throwing monsters at characters, high "level" campaigning is not much of an obstacle. No matter how powerful a character is, a good OTF GM can handle it with relative ease.
A good example of high level playing: the Merc War we had in our game. We did a 20-year skip (after which, we played the game as if it were 20 years in the future), and one of the other player's characters had amassed a small empire over 20 years, since he started on the road to power 20 years in the past. I got onto the playing field by using the most powerful documented NPC (220,000 Xp) as a player character, controlling him and his ancient empire. To top it off, I also controlled the Collective (which wasn't a merc faction, but definitely had a role in the war). Geeky rpg rant aside, the point I'm trying to make is that we opened up a new realm of playing by using high level characters.
A simpler example...ever played Actraiser? It's pretty straight-forward if you have. Give the character followers and have him come down as an avatar and all that.
It's only natural that a player creates a central character, close to their personality, that they want to mold into a badass. And when that player is a badass, it opens doors. You're just slamming the doors if you suggest the player retire the character. Bottom line: Let players retire their characters into a pseudo-NPC status if they so choose, but as a GM, don't force the idea.
Variety is the spice of life. One of the best ways to break any game monotony is to have the players make another (additional) character. If they're good players, they'll make something dissimilar to the character they already have (hopefully, they're not so uncreative as to have all their characters the exact same as one another). Multiple characters are also good for hybrid backgrounds, so you aren't coming up with excuses for Joe Sixpack, the computer cracker, to end up in the fantasy world. For instance, with one game (the game overall, not a single game) I had 5 sci-fi characters (two died meaningfully) and 3 fantasy characters (one of which, I seldom played). Also, you can often broaden the depth of an NPC by letting the players use him or her for a game (they can still play their normal character, too, of course). Best of all, with your players playing both villains and heroes, bad guys often become more developed and far more emotionally salient than some random character made up by the GM.
A lot of GMs let the characters have multiple characters, but they fail to have multiple parties, so I guess I should mention that since, generally, that's the best way to handle various characters. This way you don't have to come up with reasons for characters to swap in and out (and multiple parties are also good when the players are all shift workers...). Although fun, try to keep the parties from bumping into each other too much, to avoid cheesiness, which leads into the next section...
As a GM, try to avoid convenience. When something just happens to be there, it takes away from a game's realism. People just happening to be there can be a different story. Our last good group had about 7 core players and some non- frequent extras, all of which were on different shifts. It wasn't easy weaving us together smoothly, but as if the mechanisms of getting characters together weren't bad enough, this one GM would always keep us in a small web of NPCs which led to circles upon circles of coincidence. We roamed about 2 galaxies, yet we always managed to bump into the same people. A really good example of what I'm talking about: the next generation Star Trek movies... it's pretty cheesy how they keep coming up with ways to have Worf away from DS9 just for the movies. Avoid having a small universe and try to keep it real.
Don't be a sellout. Here are some examples to illustrate:
1. Sean has a cyborg character that I take down. I walk up to the body and fire a few shots into the immobile body with an incredibly high power weapon, leaving only charred scrap. We find out later that the character lives and even Sean concedes that his character should have been toast. Sellout: the GM, of course, who wanted to keep the character alive for campaign purposes.
2. Josh's character Sabboth rigs Dargus-7's ship with enough explosives to destroy the ship ten times over by paying off the maintenance crew when it has its next depot overhaul. Even though my character travels with Dargus-7, Josh tells me beforehand since he's pretty excited about the whole thing. When the time comes, instead of being blown into bite size pieces, the ship merely crashes and both Dargus-7 and my frail character not only survive, but escape without a scratch. All the while, I was shaking my head at the GM. Sellout: the GM again, for the same reasons... he wanted the characters around for later. Also note how I could have placed my character away from danger, but I didn't. Using player knowledge to the character's benefit is a major faux pas.
3. I played a few non-OTF games under this terrible GM once, where my character got into a conflict with one of the other characters, and thusly all of the other characters. When I kidnapped the character I had a problem with and ducked out in this rather large city, the others tried to hunt me down. I took comfort in the fact that the city was quite large and that soon enough, they should give up. I considered leaving, but if I would have left, then they would have came after me, whereas, if I stayed, they just kept looking in the city. Eventually, after a week or more, they found my character and killed him. Sellout: Everyone but me. It really sucked how, no matter what I would have done, they would have found me. Of note, is the fact that I could have hightailed it when I saw they weren't going to give up their search of the city, but I stuck with my original plan (which they didn't understand, of course).
4. A group of characters that can barely remember each other's names is sitting at a table in a bar/pub, when my character spots trouble. Instead of warning the other characters, my character stands up and goes to the bathroom, leaving the others to deal with it. Later, the players scoff at my abandoning them. Sellout: Me? Nope. If I would have given the others a hint, then not only would I have not played my character realistically, but I would have done exactly as expected, which would have made things boring anyway. The lesson here is to play your character, do the unexpected and avoid being the cheesy textbook hero type. The most important thing was that I kept it real, because in real life, even semi-scrupulous people may just duck out to save their skin.
The more realistic the game, the better. When you bend things toward ridiculously unlikely and the just plain unrealistic, you ruin the game. As for characters, when you play a character realistically, and not like some hollywood hero, you add realism to the game. If the players can lose themselves in the realism of your fantasy campaign, then you might just be playing OTF correctly.
One of the more difficult aspects of gaming can be smoothly adding characters to a game, or having a group of characters get together. Often, GMs will just put the characters in the same location and leave it to the players to become buddies (typical tavern meetup cheese). I find this to be particularly unreal, and this is one of those spots where I think the GM should try hard to go above and beyond, inventing situations that truly force the characters to get chummy. The best way to do this is not only to present them with some sort of difficulty, but to isolate the characters as well or give them a situation where they really need each other for a fair period of time. Think of movies... there are lame ass ways of getting the stars together like in The Rock or Independance Day (clunky ways of bringing together the geek and the action hero) and then there are situations where it just seems natural, like Aliens (if you were found on that planet, wouldn't you stick close to the marines so that you could get the hell out of there?). There are situations where you need each other, and then there are situations where you direly need each other... quite a difference, really.
Why is this important? Because characters should be realistic and as such should have a motivation to hang with the group. Some players like to play characters that miror themselves and when they put themselves in a situation where they run into a party of adventurers trying to slay a dragon, they might be inclined to change direction and skip the unnecessary risk. Not every character is hero... some take time to grow into it.
An additional way to add depth to a game is with visual aids. While players should be imaginative enough to picture things for themselves without them, it's nice to have some concrete illustrations. These include pictures, drawings or renderings of characters and non-player characters, buildings and structures, planets, weaponry, items, vehicles, spacecraft...pretty much anything you can think of. The most useful are probably maps, which are quite helpful in orienting a player's sense of place. If you have miniatures and such, these are also useful; if not, crude drawings with pencil and paper can help a player picture things in small-scale situations.
For a GM setting up a custom sci-fi world, I recommend getting some graph paper and drawing up some star maps and as many spacecraft as you can. I also recommend rendering some pics of at least the key planets in your game. If you don't have any 3d rendering software, you can grab POV-Ray, which is a completely free rendering program, from the POV-Ray home page. Check out this page for a few examples of what you can conjure up. If you're really motivated, you could go so far as to make models of your spacecraft. Then you could use them to show scenes from your campaign... something I've been meaning to do myself, but just haven't gotten around to.
To have the perfect game, you need a lot of innovation and creativity. Keep it fresh. In the beginning it may take a lot of work, but once you get the ball rolling, it gets easier. Eventually, players get absorbed into the game and make contributions instead of just sitting there blindly following a campaign.
Be flexible, too. Take the slow motion illustrative fighting, for instance. It's probably pretty obvious how it became part of our playing...one day, somone showed what they wanted to do, instead of just saying it, and it worked well, so we adopted it as part of normal playing. This goes for game elements, too. One of the advantages of having a light rules structure is that the GM can accomodate things without having to bend many rules. It fosters player contribution (like wanting to have a character with 6 different personalities). Instead of having to make rules changes, the GM can just say sure, and let the player handle the mechanics. The only thing the GM has to do is maybe balance the character if the player wants something overly advantageous (like a character that can morph into any shape, is nearly indestructible, etc. - of course, advantages like these are mostly handy in combat, which shouldn't be the focus of the game anyway).
And, the most important part, which I shouldn't need to tell you, is "have fun". I know it sounds corny, but I've seen many a person lose sight of it.
The Rock was produced by and is assumedly a copyright of Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions.
Aliens and Independence Day are copyrights of 20th Century Fox.
Star Trek, Worf & DS9 are under copyright by Paramount Pictures.
Star Wars Rebellion & Darth Vader are under copyright by LucasFilm Ltd.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) now belongs to Wizards of the Coast Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.
Actraiser is a copyright of Square Enix Co., Ltd.
POV-Ray is a trademark of the Persistence of Vision Development Team.