Review – Sabbat: The Black Hand (Vampire: The Masquerade)

Sabbat: The Black Hand brings a full book of information Vampire: The Masquerade’s third sect, the Sabbat (sorry, Ashirra, you’re #4 at best). The Sabbat are the vampires’ boogeymen – the monsters that the monsters are scared of. They care nothing for humanity (or Humanity). They venerate diablerie and seek the destruction of elders. They are religious fanatics bent on nothing less than the obliteration of the founders of the vampiric Clans. And they have no compunction embracing scores of vampires at a time or shredding the Masquerade to do it.

Sabbat: The Black Hand is not, however, the same sort of presentation as Camarilla and Anarch. For one, it  is substantially shorter than those two books (it’s around 125 pages). And, as will be discussed further below, it is firmly aimed at using the Sabbat as antagonists only, which really splits this book’s audience in two. Players who are looking for “how does the Sabbat work in V5” are probably going to have a much different opinion from players who are looking for “how do I play as V20 Sabbat using V5 mechanics?”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In general, I keep my V5 reviews to reviews of the book as something for V5. It’s almost impossible to do that, however, with Sabbat: The Black Hand. There is too much strurm und drang amongst long-time Vampire fans about the Revised (and therefore V20)-era notion of the Sabbat as a playable option to the V5 era where they are emphatically not. The V5 core book was, to my mind, not terribly clear on how things had changed day-to-day between the Anarchs and the Camarilla. But it was quite clear about the basics for how things had changed for the Sabbat – and they had changed a lot. As such, this review will discuss how this book can be used in a typical V5 campaign. But it must, of necessity, also consider how it can or cannot be used in other ways – how much things have changed in setting and in theme and in mechanics (or lack thereof) for the Sabbat. And I’m going to tackle it head-on, instead of what otherwise might be the more normal thing of introducing the Sabbat for those who aren’t old-school players.

Firm, explicit emphasis is placed on how the Sabbat are presented as antagonists, not as possible player characters. As the book notes, Sabbat vampires are entirely removed from humanity – and, therefore, they are entirely removed from one of the (if not the) central themes of Vampire: The Masquerade. Indeed, there is a greater emphasis on Paths of Enlightenment, because those are the very ways that the Sabbat uses to discard Humanity. But Sabbat: The Black Hand goes further than that, emphasizing how – despite its creed of personal freedom and revolution, the Sabbat largely consists of vampires who have been brainwashed and Blood Bound to the cause.

The Sabbat of V5 is in some ways a purer Sabbat, more reminiscent of the original conception of the sect. Gone are the byzantine political structures, the multiple ancient subsects, the pseudo-Masquerade, and the Camarilla-like politics that were added to make the Sabbat more functional for use as protagonists. The Sabbat has been ravaged by the Second Inquisition and flinging itself headlong into the Gehenna War. Mexico City has been abandoned. The title of Regent ostensibly exists, but is empty. Cardinals are just those Sabbat with a large enough war party and visions of grandeur. Instead, the Sabbat are stripped down to their antagonistic roots – a fanatical enemy hellbent on destruction and heedless of the Masquerade. It is not a coincidence that shifting the Sabbat away from the notion of being potential protagonists has also stripped them of many aspects that made that just another Camarilla – just another a worldwide political organization of vampires, albeit with a different sort of rhetoric and Blood Bonds.

This stance has had consequences for the Sabbat. Because they want to fight a Gehenna War, they generally don’t try to resist the Beckoning, and have died at an alarming rate answering that call. Further, with the rise of the Second Inquisition, the Sabbat’s nonchalant (at best) approach to staying hidden means that many of them have met final death at the hands of mortal hunters. Between these mass casualties and the removal of all that top-heavy political structure, the Sabbat is a shell of its former self. Indeed, Sabbat: The Black Hand suggests that in some ways it really isn’t even a sect anymore, more a collection of independent outfits with generally similar goals (of course, you could say that about the Anarchs as well).

So, let’s be blunt – if you want the Sabbat of the Revised/V20 era, this book probably isn’t for you. It’s not just that there’s a conscious withholding of mechanical support for Sabbat player characters. It’s that everything about the sect has been recast to make them antagonists (in some ways returning things to the very oldest presentation of the Sabbat, in other ways doing something entirely new).

What Is The Sabbat Up To?

OK, so we know from the V5 core book that the Sabbat want to stop the Antediluvians and a bunch of them have gone off to fight in the Gehenna War in the Middle East. Sabbat: The Black Hand mentions that there are Gehenna War hotposts other than the Middle East, such as Russia and South America (although it’s unclear how much South America/Brazil is Gehenna War vs. just a lot of Camarilla moving in to take advantage of Sabbat weakness). This is what the majority of the Sabbat are up to – fighting the ‘hot war.’ Probably more likely for player characters to run into are Sabbat fighting the ‘cold war’ – attacking (directly or indirectly) the vampires of the Camarilla, Anarchs, and Ashirra. They want to destroy the Camarilla. They want to end the Anarch Movement as well, although individual Anarchs might be seen as fertile recruiting ground (if only they could be made to truly understand the existential threat of the Antediluvians).

The most noteworthy meta-plot tidbit in all of that is that Alamut (longtime stronghold of the Banu Haqim) has fallen, possibly to Sabbat led by a Salubri. The indication is that Ur-shulgi, however, survived. (Note: This is presented from an in-character, euphemistic point of view, and the World of Darkness is famous for unreliable narrators, so no guarantees.)

Regardless, most of this action is conducted at the pack level, or a little higher. The Sabbat doesn’t follow a central authority, with Pack Priest’s tending to dictate the actions according to their Path of Enlightenment and personal preferences (there is no longer a distinction between a pack’s spiritual and temporal leader). Cold war packs might target Camarilla elders for diablerie, engage in mostly mindless violence to strain the Masquerade police, or prepare supernatural shock troops (of the shovelhead or Oblivion-controlled variety). A concerted assault on a city if often preceded by a call to “Crusade,” hopefully (from the Sabbat’s point of view) drawing in a variety of packs to take advantage of destabilization in the target domain. So a Storyteller wanting to run a more insistent sort of sectarian conflict will still have that option.

Bishops and Archbishops still exists, as there are still Sabbat cities left, although they are much fewer in number and often of much lower vampiric population than they once were. Some of these titles are flexible, and there are plenty of specifics to buck the generalities. For example, the famed Lucita remains active as a Sabbat leader, both Archbishop of Madrid (an otherwise Camarilla city), and directly leader of a pack with a hundred vampires. So that’s one vampire with multiple titles and acting as direct autocrat over a large number of Sabbat, while having a long-term presence in a contested city. Other locations identified as Sabbat domains are Belgrade and Tijuana. But there are far more instances of ‘some Sabbat trying to contest a city’ than the Sabbat actually holding a city.

Clan is of relatively little importance in the Sabbat, seen as a legacy of the hated Antediluvians. This is a new concept for the sect, as prior editions still saw great concern for the leadership of the Lasombra and Tzimisce, and what sort of antritribu there were around (although the Sabbat’s caitiff were recognized as a Clan of their own, the Panders). The concept of antitribu still exists – Lasombra and Tzimisce who aren’t in the Sabbat might be labeled antitribu, and anyone else in the Sabbat might get that tag as well. But it is presented as a term of little meaning, as individual distinctions are scrubbed away in the collective of the Sabbat. This is socially speaking, of course – vampires don’t lose their banes or their Discipline affinities just because they joined the Sabbat.

Beyond the overarching purpose of the Sabbat, one key discussion is the sect’s use of Ritae. Most importantly that includes the Vaulderie, the ritual that breaks blood bonds and binds the members of a Sabbat pack together. These bonds of loyalty are known as vincula. In many ways the Vaulderie is the heart of the Sabbat – from a storytelling perspective, it’s a clear signal who the characters’ enemies really are. Note, however, that (like all of these ritae) there are no mechanics provided for the Vaulderie or vincula (even though there is clearly a substantive effect; it’s not just an empty ceremony). Other formal rituals discussed include the Creation Rites (including the classic with “apply shovel to mortal heads; embrace them; bury them; see what happens”), Monomancy (formal duels), Blood Feasts (exactly what it sounds like), Festivals of the Dead (commemoration of the dead), Fire Dancing (demonstrating bravery and prowess by jumping through flames), Blood Baths (a baptism of a different sort), War Parties (the party before the more literal war party), and Wild Hunt (to paraphrase the Bard, “a blood hunt by any other name would taste as sweet”). And that’s just the formal rituals (or Auctoritas Ritae). Consistent with the Sabbat’s role as antagonists, there are no formal mechanics for these, but they’re still around to add flavor and background to the sect. Beyond those widespread, formal rituals are informal rituals (Ignoblis Ritae) and Path-specific variations.

Speaking of which …

Paths of Enlightenment

Paths of Enlightenment are how vampires who have left the concerns of Humanity behind stay in control and (sort of) keep the Beast at bay. Note that this isn’t a mechanistic thing in the same way it was in prior editions. This is, no doubt, because there’s no need to track the degeneration of vampires on Paths – in V5 such vampires are, by definition, not player characters. There’s no set of sins for each Path, to replace the sins of Humanity (not that Humanity has sins in the same way it did in prior editions). (I admit that it does amuse me that there’s a flavor reference to a ‘hierarchy of sins.’) Vampires on Paths don’t have Humanity scores, but there’s no mechanical replacement for Humanity – no “Path score” or the like. There is nothing stopping a Storyteller, of course, from coming up with their own version. For example, every Path has three ‘ethics’ that could be repurposed as tenets applicable to a vampire on that Path, with each vampire assigned a starting ‘Path score’ and accumulating stains and falling to the Beast if they deviate from their Path. Again, however, this is all a discussion of how one might shoehorn player character Sabbat into a setting that is expressly telling you not to do that. Another adjustment that would likely need to be made is that most packs, all of the members follow the same Path of Enlightenment, which is unlikely to be the case for a group of player characters.

So, what you are getting with each Path (beyond a nice full-page clan-like art introduction) is a singe-page write-up and, later in the chapter, ~2+ pages of pack and NPC suggestions. The intro for each Path has three ‘ethics’ (that, as mentioned above, might be repurposed into character convictions with the system hacking), suggestions on using the path in a Chronicle, and which Disciplines that Path favors (which plays into the presented de-emphasis on clan).

Sabbat: The Black Hand presents five Paths, and one of them is brand new and focused on the thin-blooded. So those who were hoping for V5 versions of the plethora of Paths in V20 (or Roads in Vampire: Dark Ages 20th) will be disappointed. Note that all of the established Paths, not just the Path of Caine, recognize Caine as the progenitor vampire, with the Sabbat as his Black Hand, and the supposed superiority of vampires to humans. The five included Paths are:

  • The Path of Caine: To my mind, the central Path of the Sabbat, focused on veneration of Caine, mostly through drinking lots and lots of blood, especially if it means lowering one’s generation through diablerie. The Noddists are fond of Blood Sorcery, Animalism, Obfuscate, Potence, and Protean (they like it for the same reason we do – it’s really good and killing other vampires).
  • The Path of Cathari: But despite what my mind might say, the Cathari and their philosophy of hedonism and cruelty are actually the most common path in the Sabbat. The Cathari are what you get when “and it harm none, do what thou wilt” is replaced with something like “do what thou wilt, so long as it harms someone.” Their shallowness and large numbers probably also make the Cathari the default mass troops of the Sabbat. The Cathari favor the physical disciplines, as well as Auspex, Obfuscate, and Presence.
  • The Path of Death and the Soul: An esoteric Path, in comparison to the other options, the Path of Death and the Soul focuses on understanding … death and the soul. The Necronomists generally keep a chain on their Beasts in a way that other Sabbat do not, and are more likely to stay away from the front lines of the Gehenna War. They favor Oblivion, Auspex, Blood Sorcery, and Dominate. I’m sure there’s a storyline to be developed that casts them as Hecata antitribu.
  • The Path of Power and the Inner Voice: Or, as I always used to call it, The Path of Whatever I Wanted To Do Anyway. I think that label is still apt, as this Path focuses on achieving success and power and forcing others to your will. They are more likely to focus on mental/social Disciplines than other members of the Sabbat. One images Dominate is the foremost among those, but they also favor Presence, Fortitude, and Potence.
  • The Path of the Sun: A new and unorganized Path, with flimsy ethics that are unlikely to hold the Beast at bay for long – but, then, how long do most thin-bloods really last in the Sabbat, anyway? What convictions there are focus on exalting the mixed nature of the thin-bloods, and taking advantage of that nature to wage war on Caine’s enemies.

In addition to these five, there’s also a note about Paths that are mostly no longer practiced by the Sabbat – the Path of the Beast (because it failed to prevent vampires from losing their minds), the Path of Honorable Accord (it’s too rigid and Camarilla-like), and the Path of Lilith (always odd bedfellows with the Sabbat, given their hatred of Caine).

For each of the above five Paths, there’s also a discussion of how player characters might encounter members of that Paths in several circumstances – vanguard (when the Sabbat are scouting or making limited forays), siege (when the Sabbat are actively assaulting a city), or dominion (for those rare occasions when the players find themselves in a Sabbat domain).

Discipline Powers and Rituals/Ceremonies

With no Loresheets, the new Discipline powers and rituals/ceremonies will be the main mechanical takeaway for players, adding eight of the former and seven of the latter (there are also a pair of alchemies). Indeed, a few of these powers seem substantially more useful to an Anarch or Camarilla Kindred that to most Sabbat vampires.

  • Unnerring Pursuit is an Auspex 2/Dominate 1 amalgam allows the vampire to track the target (probably for a night or two) by being able to see out of the victim’s eyes whenever they look at themselves in a mirror.
  • Scent of Prey is an Animalism 3 power that lets the vampire track the nearest mortal who had witnessed a Masquerade violation … so long as the mortal wasn’t already used to that sort of thing (so no detecting ghouls or hunters). This seems like a supremely useful power … for a member of the Camarilla. Might make for a good plot device in the hands of a friendly NPC, even if the players don’t want to spend this much XP to be better hounds for their Camarilla masters.
  • Tabula Rasa is (other than being my single favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) a Dominate 4 power than inflicts general amnesia on the victim (and it does work on other vampires). It probably inflicts stains on the user (if they’re not on a Path). It seems like it might be best suited for NPC-on-NPC use, as using in on a player character is close to just killing the character anyway, while a player character who would stoop to this is considered exceedingly cruel.
  • Mask of Isolation is an Obfuscate 3/Dominate 1 amalgam (lots of Dominate in here) power that inflicts Mask of a Thousand Faces on the victim, so they are no longer recognized by others. Using this power will probably inflict stains on someone not on a Path (and is arguably a bit subtle for most Sabbat).

  • Visceral Absorption is a Protean 3/Blood Sorcery 2 amalgam that allows the vampire to both feed and clean the scene by drawing all nearby inert blood into themselves while vaporizing solid remains. Like Scent of Prey, seems really handy for Camarilla vamps (although Protean/Blood Sorcery is an inconvenient amalgam for most). It’s biggest drawback might be that Earth Meld is so handy and iconic.
  • Umbrous Clutch is an Oblivion 4 power that throws the victim through their own shadow, probably rendering mortals catatonic, and forcing vampires to test to avoid frenzy.
  • Transitive Bond is a Blood Sorcery 3 power that makes the vampire’s blood retain its Blood Bonding powers even after it has left their body (a.k.a., the blood works like every vampire’s blood did prior to V5). This can be a subtle effect, but a powerful one, in a world where other vampires think of vitae as only being a problem when taken directly from the source.
  • Reclamation of Vitae is a Blood Sorcery 5 power that allows the vampire to severely injure (and likely kill) their ghouls (no matter where the ghouls are) to refill their own blood supply. Given the cost in stains and (I’m guessing) most players unwillingness to pay for a level 5 power that will kill off their Backgrounds, this seems best suited as a surprise maneuver in a climactic confrontation against the players’ coterie. They think they have the battle won, when their rival has a bloody second wind to keep on going.
  • Beelzebeatit is a Blood Sorcery 1 ritual that clears the local area of animal life.
  • Communal Vigor is a Blood Sorcery 3 ritual that works in conjunction with the Vaulderie, increasing the blood potency of weaker pack members and also making it easier for the caster (presumably the pack priest) to use social Disciplines on them.
  • Galvanic Ruination is a Blood Sorcery 3 ritual that shorts out the electronics in a moderately sized building (or equivalent area), including any backups that kick in. This allows a short-term bypass of security systems, but usually has side effects that will quickly spoil longer-term efforts at stealth.
  • Simulacrum Gate is a (very resource-intensive) Blood Sorcery 5 ritual that creates a teleport gate to a single other location.
  • Blinding the Alloy Eye is an Oblivion 2 ceremony (prerequisite: Shadow Cast) that scrambles cameras that can see the caster.
  • Harrowhaunt is an Oblivion 3 ceremony (prerequisite: Aura of Decay) that that will scare away mortals, and possibly vampires, from a moderately-sized building. Given the mass murder required, it won’t be of much use to all but the most callous characters.
  • Befoul Vessel is an Oblivion 4 ceremony (prerequisite: Necrotic Touch) that makes a mortal’s blood poison to any vampire who drinks it during the next day (it doesn’t last longer because it quickly kills the mortal too).

Storyteller Guidance

There’s more to Sabbat: The Black Hand than described above – zoomed in detail on the modern Sabbat or storyteller resources on how to use the Sabbat in a chronicles. This advice ranges from overarching stories to individual events to particular tactics to thematic elements.

Overall

Pulling back around to how I started this review, there are (I think) really two distinct audiences here – folks who want to learn about the Sabbat as they are in V5, and folks who want the Sabbat as they were before V5. As I mentioned earlier, I think that the latter group is kind of out of luck. There’s no mechanical support for Sabbat player characters (most importantly, no mechanical support for Paths of Enlightenment). But it goes beyond that, because I think that most groups that want to go to the effort of hacking together mechanics for these things will probably also want to resurrect story elements of the Sabbat as well (e.g., the Sabbat as an international political organization). And once you’re doing that, I’m not sure that you’re really getting much out of Sabbat: The Black Hand.

So, what about everyone else? Other than us completionists, it’s very much aimed at Storytellers (and intentionally so). If you want to use the Sabbat as a Storyteller in V5, then I think it’s clearly worth getting. What if you’re a player? As discussed above, there are new Discipline powers, but there aren’t any new Loresheets. I’m kind of surprised by that, because most RPG publishers try to cram player-oriented content in even the most GM-focused of supplements, in order to get a few more non-GMs to buy the book. If you’re new to Vampire with V5 and aren’t really familiar with the Sabbat, I would recommend getting this (even though it’s light on mechanics, it will still have a lot more useful information than, say, the Anarch book). If you’ve already got a good handle on the Sabbat from back in the day, then the useful setting information here becomes a lot less useful. The fact that there’s no mechanical content for things like Paths of Enlightenment or rituals will really narrow what you’re getting out of those sections. Sure, things have changed, but if you already have a general idea of what monomancy and fire dancing are, you’re pretty much set on those subjects. I think it will be a more personal call for these players on whether to spring for Sabbat: The Black Hand.

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