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.