Picking a favorite RPG setting is pretty much impossible for me—I buy RPGs for their settings all the time, and any new setting that is also detailed is likely to make me fall in love with it. So this is pretty much going to be a list of RPG settings that I think pass the bar—specifically, that they are worth playing in even if you don’t like the mechanics associated with them, or you have to make the effort to rework new mechanics to go with them.
Character sheets are mostly all the same—some are prettier than others, but they pretty much do the same job. A small number manage to make it harder to play the game, by being poorly organized or focusing on the wrong information, but most are just fine. But a small number of character sheets go beyond being just an organized list of character stats. The original Deadlands character sheet has the wound track up one side, marked by bullets, so that you can slide a paperclip along it to track how injured your character was. Fireborn has large boxes for your main stats, which are dice pools, so that you can set the dice on the character sheet and move them around as they are allocated. Dungeon World’s “playbook” combines character sheet, character generation rules, and all the rules you’ll need to advance your character throughout the game. The character sheet for the original edition of Immortal: The Invisible War helps you track the many ever-changing “halos” of your character. There are many others that I’m not immediately thinking of. But probably the best character sheet—both well designed and with excellent functionality—is the one for Eoris: Essence.
Sadly, most RPGs are either workmanlike in design or take “looks cool” too far and end up impairing readability (many World of Darkness games) and maybe even clarity (Kult 2nd ed’s avant grade design). The good news is RPGs have gotten much better—many fewer are just plain hard to read, and most have learned the value of whitespace. But the few that are truly stunning designs still stand out among the rest.
If you haven’t seen them, you should check out Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok, Burning Empires, Nobilis, the original color printing of Feng Shui, Underground, The Last Exodus, Outbreak: Deep Space, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. All of them go beyond just using good art and a clean layout, using innovative design techniques to make the game better than it would’ve been without them.
But the game that stands out among all of these as the most beautiful RPG I’ve seen is Eoris: Essence. Gorgeous art—as good as any I’ve seen in an RPG, or even a coffee-table art book. An excellent layout that is almost as gorgeous as the art pieces. All in two stunning oversize landscape-format books in a nice slipcase. And they brought the combo of beautiful and functional to everything—just check out the character sheets!