In some ways judging the d20 products was very easy for me, even though it required a lot of work. The reason is simple of course, I'm already extremely familiar with the underlying mechanics. It's certainly a lot easier to judge a game when you can tell at a glance how it all fits together.
It's a lot of work, however, because a huge percentage of what we received was d20 based. I don't have my notes or anything, but I'd guess something like 2/3 to 3/4 of the entries used d20-ish mechanics I say "ish" because I'm lumping in things like True20, Passages, and Mutants & Masterminds.
Here is one area where I definitely can't complain about the outcome. I don't usually share my votes for fear of betraying how other judges voted, but on this one it seems safe, since every vote I cast ended up on the list. Here at least you can see exactly how my tastes line up.
The choices I made here fell into place pretty easily. Like other categories I find myself wishing that there was room for a few more outstanding products, especially taking into consideration how many d20 products we received, but when it comes down to it the products that were selected were nothing short of amazing.
The Warlords of the Accordlands series was likely the most pleasant surprise of the entrants this year. I hadn't heard much about it going in, and most of what I did hear wasn't very flattering. I don't know anything about the CCG it's based on and of course I didn't have to put up with the delays that I know tend to frustrate fans, which left me a bit more open to enjoying the game for what it was, rather than what it wasn't. What it was is an incredibly good read, providing everything that a GM might need to run a campaign in a very compelling world. It offers some neat, new mechanical tricks, provides large amounts of world information, offers great cartography and art, and includes an interesting mega-campaign to take characters from first level all the way to 20. We combined all four of these books into one product for the purposes of the award, but any one of those books would make a great addition to this list.
Etherscope- Upload: Etherpunk is another one that I was only peripherally aware of before the awards, yet hits on every cylinder. It shouldn't be any surprise really, since Goodman Games is continuously churning out good products, but the Etherscope line in total has proven to be exceptional at every turn. I wish I had it with me so I could go into a bit more detail, but it takes the d20 Modern ruleset and tunes it in some very interesting ways. Even leaving off the great mechanics, you still find a fascinating world that cries out to be played in, compelling adventures, and strong reenforcement of its themes at every turn. No one should think of Goodman as just a company that has managed to bottle up the "old school" vibe and sell it. These products prove they have a lot more to offer.
Mutants and Masterminds: Ultimate Power has been nominated over and over again, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that it made it here as well. Everyone who knows d20 knows that Green Ronin consistently puts out some of the best products that the industry has to offer, and yet even in this year of very strong entries from their camp, Ultimate Power shines through. This book takes the already incredible Mutants and Masterminds second edition rules and really opens them up to the players. It makes power creation easy, quick, and comprehensive. I'd challenge anyone to find something it doesn't allow you to do.
Five Fingers: Port of Deceit got my vote first and foremost because it was quite possibly the single best book I read. Sure there are some books that do certain things better, but this one really grabbed me across the board. It's extremely well written, entertaining, visually appealing, and though it contains few rules, those that are there are short, easy to understand, and could pop right into any d20 game. I absolutely loved it.
I saved Helios Rising for last because I was asked to go into a bit more detail on why I liked it so much. Let me start by saying that this book is huge, and it's packed from beginning to end with gaming goodness. It doesn't waste any time jumping right in either. From the time you open it up you're getting advice on how to use it and what kind of campaigns to run. What really makes this book work for me though is the way it's laid out. Besides the fact that it's a good read to start with, or the fact that it provides excellent rules for playing everything that it presents, it's just so darn easy to find exactly what you need for the setting you're playing in. Each chapter is like a mini sourcebook with the history, geography, rules, and hooks you need to slip it right into your game. In short, the book takes everything that's great about the already fantastic Dawning Star setting, expands it, and makes it better. Any chapter in this book would make an excellent purchase, and as a whole it's phenomenal. Even if you don't use the Dawning Star setting, or don't even play d20 Modern, I'd say this would be a good buy. There is enough information and adventure ideas here to easily find inspiration for any number of sci-fi games.
I guess in retrospect that's not huge amount of extra detail, but I suppose that if anyone is interested I'll make a bit more effort when I get to work on the next series of blogs I'll be doing.
So, what didn't make the list, and why? The why part is easy really, and I already touched on it above. The things that were nominated were absolutely amazing. Even though some of the products that didn't make the list were amazing as well, the quality of the competition here can't be stressed enough.
Still, there are a few things that I can think of right away that need to be mentioned. First and foremost is the Honorable Mention, Ptolus. The vast majority of complaints that I heard this year revolved around how few nominations Ptolus received, particularly in this category. First I suppose I should point out that Ptolus did actually do very well for itself in every category where its strengths were really allowed to shine. It received nominations in Production Values, Setting, Cartography, and even Product of the Year, though it didn't fair quite as well in this category. Part of the reason for that is that Ptolus is really a setting book, and though it does present its setting very well, it already got a nomination for that. It's huge, and it's pretty, but it got a nomination for that as well. It's full of densely packed information, and among the best products released this year, but it got the nod for that as well. Hopefully everyone can see that it wasn't overlooked, it's just that, in the d20 category, we were looking for different criteria, and at it's heart Ptolus was built to tie existing d20 material together into a cohesive whole, not expand it in any meaningful way. It's a great book, and it deserves the place it got on this list every bit as much as it deserves the actual nominations that it received, but it just couldn't quite make the final list.
Another neat product was Passages, also brought to us by the same company that produced Helios Rising. This one is almost unique among d20 derived games in that it completely deconstructs the ruleset and rebuilds it until it's almost unrecognizable. Believe me when I say that I mean that in a very good way. The authors didn't bother with preserving the sacred cows, instead they took the clay it was built from and molded it into the form that fit their creation. Passages takes chances, it goes out on a limb, and throws out all of the old d20 stereotypes. It gives you the unexpected at every turn, and almost challenges you to call it "just another d20 game". Based on some of the finest literary works that the world has to offer, this book makes you a passenger in some of the greatest stories ever told. Any element of this book, its rules, setting, or writing, would make an excellent purchase. As a whole it is nothing short of extraordinary.
There are a lot more products that really deserve some spotlight time here, but I've been at this for two hours already, and I have work that needs to get done. Instead I'm just going to mention the next series that I'm going to do on this blog. I have one or two commentaries left in me, but beyond that I think I'm going to move on to a simple spotlight format. Breaking down each individual category always leaves me wishing I had taken the time to mention just a few more things, and the actual reviews I used to do were a bit too time consuming. Instead I think that I'll start putting out a post whenever I have the time with the highlights of a few products that I think deserve a second look. It won't be much, just a paragraph or two, but hopefully it'll allow me to share my thoughts in a less structured way. Let me know if there's anything you'd like to see me start with.