Best Setting is definitely one of those categories where you can't help but notice that things are missing. So much work and creativity is poured into the various game settings that they are easy to latch on to, and they form the core of many of the games and products that we reviewed. Everyone has their favorite setting, or some element of a game world that appeals to them, and seeing it missing from the list brings up the question of why.
Figuring out how to judge a game setting is tough. Rules are easy. Most long time gamers can look at a set of game rules, maybe play through them a bit, and see what makes them tick. Settings on the other hand are pure art, and art is hard to judge. Especially when the subjects are so different. Personally I think that measuring a city book like Five Fingers against a core setting like Qin is basically impossible to do fairly. That's why it's so important to judge each book on its own merits, rather than trying to compare them to one another. It's easy to read Five Fingers and see why it deserves the nomination, but it's much harder to figure out if it is "better" than something like Qin, which has to explain large sections of the world while leaving room for actual rules.
Unfortunately that does lead to some regrettable results sometimes. Every nomination in this category is a d20 product. That's a bit disappointing, and comparing products as a group might correct that a bit, but it would also mean that one of these very worthy products would have to be dropped to make room for something else for no reason other than it's system, which really shouldn't come into consideration in this particular category.
So, why these products and not some of the other great entries?
Mostly it falls back to the old excuse: there's only room for five. When it came down to it we had to pick the five settings that we felt were the absolute best based on their own merits, and the list we came up with was a good one. I may be a bit biased though, since there is only one product from my personal list of 5 that didn't make the final list, and in retrospect, I think that it may have been a bad choice anyways.
For me, these work well because, though they share a common system, they are all presented differently. Each really exemplifies a different design philosophy in a way that many other games just couldn't match. There were plenty of great settings entered, but in my view these made the cut because they weren't just great, they each did at least one thing in some extraordinary way. Who could deny that Ptolus is the most thorough setting book ever produced? It's well thought out, cohesive, and contains everything you will ever need to play for years on end. Five Fingers is a bit more open, choosing to instead paint itself in broad strokes, giving all the central information you need in a concise, entertaining fashion without weighing itself down with tiny details. On the other side of the scale, Helios Rising does an excellent job of presenting an entire star system and its inhabitants, giving GMs and players alike a ton of material to work with, and a variety of worlds to explore.
I guess the only really defining thing the nominees have in common is that they present real, living worlds, complete with enough information to sit down and put it all right to work.
That's not to say that they are the only ones who did that, however, they just did it in some way that made the five of us agree that they belonged as the top 5. There were a number of other exceptional entries, and though I don't have time to detail them all, I'd like to touch on a few:
I'll start with Burning Empires and go into a bit more detail here, since was the game that I originally put up that didn't make the list. I don't usually talk about my votes, but I think this is one that I have to mention, because I think it was wrong. Don't misunderstand, the setting for Burning Empires is fantastic, and very few games make you just want to sit down and see what you can come up with the way it does, but it doesn't really fit this category well. Sure, it has an overarching setting, but the real meat of the game is the setting the group itself makes. That's where the heart of the product lies, and though it deserves the nod because it makes that so easy and illustrates what can be done so well, stuffing BE into this category is like shoving a square peg into a round hole. You can't make it fit without shaving off a lot of what makes it unique. The setting provided for BE is fabulous, but that's not what makes it exceptional. It's the tools that help you make your setting that make it stand out.
Dictionary of Mu was another one that didn't quite make it in this category. Likewise things like Thieves' World, Qin, Tuala Morn, Golden Age, and Castlemorn were bandied about. The books themselves are fantastic, and do an excellent job of painting a picture of the world and the kinds of adventures that await the PCs, but they just didn't quite make it.
Also, since the role of PDFs in other categories was questioned I thought I'd point out that two products which received serious consideration were Fort Griffin and the Last Free City, which were both incredibly good products, but failed to make the list by a slim margin. Both make extremely good examples of how well a PDF can compare to print products in any category.
Well, I'm late heading home so I'm going to end this here. I know it was short and a little abrupt, but I'm still a bit exhausted from my vacation. If anyone has any questions feel free to ask and I'll go into a bit more detail.
Next up: Best d20/OGL.