Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What is a 'Sacred Cow' ?


Every now and then on game design boards or blogs you hear people talk about "shooting a sacred cow." While I applaud this, the phrase is rarely ever explained nor are examples amply given. This post tries to do both of those things. Basically, a "Sacred Cow" in RPGs is a design mechanic or motif that seems inextricably part of RPG design. In other words, if you don't have this "thing", whatever it is, your game is not an RPG. Well this is, of course, absurd. In every field of art, science, and culture the envelope has been pushed and definitions of what a thing is or isn't has been stretched. RPGs are no different. In the last 7 to 10 years, many Sacred Cows have been shot dead and the definition of what a role-playing game is has been stretched a great deal.

But what are a few examples “Sacred Cows?” Here's a few off the top of my head:

Sacred Cow #1: Every game needs a GM
---Shooters: Universalis, Capes, Cutthroat
Sacred Cow #2: RPGs shouldn't deal mechanically with the idea of romance
---Shooters: Breaking the Ice, It was a Mutual Decision, Blue Rose
Sacred Cow #3: You must use dice for resolution
---Shooters: Amber Diceless, Castle Faulkenstein, Dust Devils
Sacred Cow #4: Each player should have only one character
---Shooters: Ars Magica
Sacred Cow #5: Characters who lose in combat should die
---Shooters: Dogs in the Vinyard, Toon, Hierarchy
Sacred Cow #6: All characters should be "people"
---Shooters: Cats, The Secret Lives of Gingerbreadmen, Puppetland

There are plenty of others. And sometimes, a design might require one or more Sacred Cows. There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of design patterns that have worked in the past. They've worked for a reason! However, there is also nothing wrong with taking a step out of what has been done and looking for something that hasn't. Don't be afraid to shoot some of those Sacred Cows. They could be the very thing holding back your design.




René López Villamar said...


Could I translate/comment this post on my blog?

It's a very interesting comment on an often overlooked part of the "jargon"

Troy_Costisick said...

Sure! That would be great. By all means, you are free to take anything I write and translate it for your own blog. I would be honored. I am very glad you found this post useful to you. :)



Jason said...

Sacred Cow #6 was slain in 1976 - Bunnies and Burrows.

Troy_Costisick said...

Wow, Jason. I've never heard of that game. Nice! What company produced that? :)



Frank said...

Bunnies and Burrows was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited.

KingSpoom said...

I was under the impression, and still am, that sacred cows aren't an inexplicable part of design, but specifically an inexplicable part of a series of design. "Dnd wouldn't be dnd without classes" or "clerics casting spells in full plate". Generally, something is a sacred cow when someone believes a mechanic is a relic from a previous version, and keeping it in the newest version is harming the product.

Jacques said...


While you have explain what shooting a sacred cow is, can you talk about why it's a good thing?

What does having GMless play or diceless or cats as players gain me over keeping the sacred cow alive to produce methane another day?

Do you feel that at times some games force you to shoot the sacred cow for the purposes of bouvine slaughter rather than good gaming?

Troy_Costisick said...


I sure hope not, Jaques. Doing something just for the sake of doing it is dumb. The importance of shooting sacred cows is to explore new avenues of expression. To see if there is more "there" out there.

Imagine if the novel, short story, or screenplay had never been written and we stuck to epic poetry and drama. That'd be terrible.

Same for RPGs. Not having a GM or whatever is breaking new ground to entice and satisfy a broader ranger of people. Roleplaying, as a medium, is a terrific activity. But there are barriers because people get stuck designing in the same rut. Breaking out of that rut opens up whole new audiences to our hobby. I consider that a good thing.



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