Adventures In Random Roleplay: The “Santa Vaca” Review — Do Sacred Cows Taste Divine?

Welcome back, dice fondlers! As promised last week, we’re taking a slightly different tack today. Instead of looking to see how we can add random elements to spice things up or free up creative blocks, I’m going to be giving you a glimpse into John Wick’s Santa Vaca. As John says on the cover of the book itself, Santa Vaca is a hack of the world’s most popular roleplaying game. That’s right, this time the “Play Dirty” proponent has taken his blowtorch to DnD with the stated intent of completely changing how the game works without changing the character sheet, thus leaving the game’s most “Sacred Cows” intact.

Purchase Santa Vaca

Cracking open the PDF and reading the Introduction should get you a good idea what you’ll be in for. After a promise from John Wick to re-engineer any of your toys you let him lay hands on, you’ll find the list of rules each of these hacks adhere to. As previously mentioned, each has to be able to be used with the bog-standard character sheet. However, further rules include that each set of mechanical systems must be modular, must be enough to distinctly change the game even if you’re only using one of the systems, and must have the feel of classic RPGs (read as: rules are vague enough to allow for interpretation.)

Modifying DnD Actions

Moving on from the Introduction, the first chapter modifies the primary action mechanic. While choosing to keep the d20 for this version, it alters the system to operate as a Roll Under system where player success and failure are player narrated. Further, there is an Extras mechanic that gives players minor mechanical bonuses or extra narrative control (one narrative statement per Extra) and is based on how HIGH the d20 rolls. Players can also bank these Extras in a communal Hero Pool to give themselves a 1d6 bonus die later on. Finally, as a reflection to the Hero Pool, the DM has a Peril Pool that can be used to add complications to a scene, with Peril Points based on the number of players at the table.

Creating Characters

The second chapter focuses on creating your heroes. Rather than rolling for Ability score distribution, the player is presented with four templates to choose from. After choosing your ability scores, you choose a Background. These Backgrounds each give an Ability bonus, a Camp ability (for use during downtime), a Trait (a minor beneficial ability), and a choice of six Heroic Flaws that you can either choose from or roll for. When your character invokes these Flaws, you add a Hero Point to the Hero Pool.

Next, you choose your Guild. The three options are essentially Class choices with the benefits one would expect from joining a professional organization. Your choice determines your starting Skills, Equipment, Hit Points, Guild Perk, and Guild Benefit. You also gain bonus points to put towards Skills of your own choice.

Finally, you choose your Alignment. Alignment, in this case, is a devotion for the four primal forces in this game hack: Order, Chaos, Good, and Evil. You have five points you can allocate to your choice of forces. Then, once per game, you can call upon a primal force and gain a bonus equal to your rating on a roll. At the end of the session, you also roll to see whether you’ve permanently gained devotion for a particular alignment. There is, however, an option to forgo devotion to the primal forces and declare yourself neutral. Being neutral gains you no bonuses… but also ensures that no one gains leverage alignment bonuses against you. With this final choice, that wraps up our Heroes section.

Magic System

Next, Santa Vaca transitions to the magic system. Instead of having characters memorizing spells per day, the system described here is a Charge system that allows for more flexibility. Magic is divided into the minor magic of Cantrips that don’t require charges to function and the greater effects of Spells that charge must be expended to use. A wizard’s daily charges are a function of their level, their intelligence, and their wisdom. Smaller Spells only take one charge, while larger spells take more (at least that’s what I was told. I couldn’t find a specific reference to higher level spells requiring a specific number of charges. I believe that’s a bit of that old-school charm being thrown in, but if you happen to find a definitive answer, let me know!) Some Spells have the ability to pump them up with charges listed in their description, like Magic Missile and Darkness.

Action Resolution Mechanic

Now that we have the Magic chapter covered, next is the Action Resolution mechanic. Rather than being strictly used for combat, it is an all-purpose Action mechanic that can be brought out when multiple actions all need to be tracked at once. Unlike normal Risks, in an Action Scene, the DM narrates what happens next. Action Scenes feel very familiar with them being broken down into Rounds, with each character able to take one Action per Round. Each Round progresses through several phases. Unlike DnD, everyone declares their Intent for the Round, then decides what sort of penalty they are willing to suffer to their relevant Ability in order to act faster than those around them. Actions resolve based on Initiative with Actions able to be resolved simultaneously. Key takeaways from this system are that Armor Class is extra Hit Points that you determine whether or not to use, and that Range is abstracted. There is even a handy chart for determining Range when two characters are simultaneously moving in regards to each other.

Equipment & Camp

The next two chapters are relatively small, but both contain interesting mechanical changes. First up is Equipment, which adjusts the standard equipment lists to function smoother with the rest of the game’s mechanical changes, for example citing which Guild has availability to it.

Following Equipment is the Camp chapter. Despite its relatively short length, Camp has some significant changes to structuring party downtime during travel. It gives a mechanic for securing camp and randomizing danger based on character precautions. It also allows for actions to craft or repair items, and for characters to be able to engage in activities that leave them with positive conditions for the next leg of their journey. For being such a short chapter, this one is really packed with good ideas for DMs that don’t normally find themselves inspired to create interesting encounters while the party is resting.


Finally, (barring alternate systems in the Appendices) we have the Guilds. This chapter is full of flavor for the three Guilds presented in the Heroes chapter. It lays out the Benefits and Perks for being a member of each of these Guilds, as well as the monetary cost for advancing yourself within a chosen Guild. There are also plenty of options so you don’t have to advance in one particular way each and every time.

Finally, at the end of the chapter, there is a warning that characters can absolutely learn Guild skills from unauthorized sources, but that none of the Guilds will take kindly to such spilling of secrets and will send enforcers after both the student and the teacher. It’s a nice final touch.


In the Appendices are an alternate Action Resolution system that ditches the d20 (hardly unexpected – the amount of probability swing on a d20 is horrifying in most RPG resolution), an alternate freeform narrative magic system that gets you what you ask for at a price that’s always too high (story-hooks abound), an interesting concept called Dire Peril that allows for those preferring to not let characters being murdered offhandedly can still inject drama into high stakes moments, and finally, Designer Notes covering some of the choices made. I’ll admit, I laughed pretty loudly reading the notes on Backgrounds, as I had a very similar reaction reading the Flaws in DnD 5E.

Overall? If you’re a fan of DnD and have no use for any other system, well, you probably won’t really care about this. I truly wish you would, I do, because there are so many beautiful game systems in this world (terrible ones, too!) that let you tell different stories than your table usually does, and Santa Vaca might just be the kind of crack in the door that lets you open up to other systems. If you’re the type that already loves taking apart your toys and gluing them back together wrong, you absolutely need this, if for no other reason than to see exactly how far you can change the feel of the game without having to kill all its sacred cows. For me? Well, it was an easy purchase, as John Wick is one of a handful people whose theories on game design and gamemastering are insightful enough that, even if you vehemently disagree with a stance of his, you’ll understand your own gaming preferences better for the experience. Solid recommendation.

Alright my dear dice savants, with that I leave you. Next week, we’ll be moving on to a new system and new considerations. In the meantime, make sure you…



Written by: Jason A. Clark

Writer, Salesman, Cartographer of The Weird Realms In My Head

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