As a side note to my previous blog post, questioning an example of Latin usage in Vampire: The Requiem, it is actually noteworthy that I'm actually reading, and getting actual kicks from, actual RPG setting material.
I begun my RPG career using settings created by other people. Being a real Tolkien nut as a kid, the first game I bought was I.C.E.'s classic Middle-earth Role Playing. One of the first longer campaigns I ran was a Dragonlance game. Star Wars was also a big thing for us back in those days. At some point this changed, however. For many years I felt that using ready made settings was a bit of a cop out, the refuge of lazy or unoriginal Game Masters. I felt that my time would be best spent creating something truly original and unique.
That is, of course, pure bullshit. Stories are stories, regardless of where they come from.
The turning point for me was perhaps the Pathfinder game I begun running last year. Admittedly, opting to use the official setting was, to begin with, largely a matter of convenience. It just didn't make sense to spend lots of time and energy designing a setting for a game so heavily based on clichés of the fantasy genre.
Lately, though, I've begun to feel the same might apply to other, less clichéd types of games as well. World building can be lots of fun and quite rewarding, but ready settings have many benefits as well. You might have more time and energy to spend on the details of the story and characters. The details of the setting might be a good source of inspiration for your stories. Also, seeing as how the setting has already been worked on for a considerable length of time, probably by several people, it is likely to be much more detailed and complete than anything you're going to come up with on your own.
Of course, as with any thing, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. I'm sure there are many settings out there that are far from perfect, whether incomplete, broken some way, or just plain boring and unoriginal. But there are real gems out there, I'm sure, both among traditional genres and the more exotic.
There are two distinct types of setting material out there, though. There are those settings particularly designed for RPG's, and those originating from other media. Regardless of my formative years spent in love with Middle-earth and Star Wars, right now I'm inclined to think that the settings best suited for gaming are those designed for the purpose. For one thing, it is nigh impossible to really recreate the mood of your favourite novel or movie. Also you might be more wary about changing things and stepping on canon's toes, which isn't necessarily good for your storytelling.
So much for the general. But what about specific settings? I must say, I don't really have all that many cool, original games in my collection, nor am I particularly familiar with many of the settings out there, having for a long time favoured generic rules over specific settings (and, you know, being too poor and shit to buy tons of games). The majority of settings in my collection are actually licensed games, I think, which I'll skip for now.
Pathfinder I have already mentioned on several occasions. As for other D&D-ish worlds, if I wasn't already so invested in Pathfinder, DragonMech could be worth a closer look, and of the official Wizards of the Coast stuff, Eberron is likely among the more interesting. I think I'm also growing to like World of Darkness. I don't own any of the books yet, but I might eventually have to get some. (I think the current, rebooted version may actually be more to my liking than the classic version.) I'd certainly be interested in discovering some more exotic and original fantasy and sci-fi settings, I don't have too much in that vein in my selection. Although variety is a double-edged sword: one never has time to play all the games one would want!