Review – Forbidden Religions (Vampire: The Masquerade)

RPG Kickstarters frequently spawn multiple supplements, and the Onyx Path campaign for Cults of the Blood Gods was no exception. The final supplement from that one was Forbidden Religions. Which I believe also makes it the last Onyx Path published Vampire: The Masquerade book. Is Forbidden Religions a revelation, or a last gasp? Let’s take a look.

That Old Time Religion

Forbidden Religions pitches itself as a sourcebook on faiths that are clandestine and taboo within Kindred society – perhaps perverse or malicious or threatening to collapse entire domains. This is somewhat overstating things. Many of them aren’t forbidden, or they’re forbidden only to the extent that they’re inconvenient for some local vampire in power, not because they’re doing anything heinous. Or they are doing heinous things and they’re in power, because, alas, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Many of them are just odd or inconvenient. This doesn’t make them less interesting, but this isn’t a collection entirely made of ‘even more evil’ stuff than normal vampire society – which is a good thing. Here’s a vague notion of what you’ll find in Forbidden Religions:

  • a Methuselah cult of Ventrue warriors, notable for being led by a neonate and being a perhaps a bit too aggressive with the Second Inquisition;
  • militant Tremere who want to restore the Pyramid;
  • Nosferatu who worship the Nictuku and offer them sacrifices (the Nosferatu bogeymen who are said to seek the destruction of the entire clan on behalf of the Nosferatu Antediluvian) in hopes of being spared;
  • The Heralds of Ur-Shulgi; for those familiar with the Vampire meta-plot, prior to V5 these vampires basically ruled the Banu Haqim after Methuselah Ur-Shulgi rose from torpor, got really pissed at all of these vampires putting their notions of God above their loyalty to Haqim, and tried to purge the clan;
  • a fratricidal diablerie cult who believes that if Caine’s essence is just consolidated enough then they’ll be able to get rid of the Beast;
  • a scam/cult of vampires who believe that by pretending to be a mortal family they can transcend undeath (aka die and leave everything to the ghouls who run the cult);
  • the Eremites (named after a type of Christian hermit) believe in enlightenment through self-denial and isolation;
  • a group of vampires who believe Golconda can be achieved by uplifting the mortals around them (and then drinking from said uplifted mortals);
  • a group of Hecate who (falsely) believe that they have been selected to carry out the Capuchin’s mysterious plans, but are really just being used to do someone else’s dirty work;
  • vampires who still think that it’s all about those signs of Gehenna we fixated so much on in the old metaplot (anyone still looking for a woman with a crescent moon birthmark?);
  • a Hecata-focused Gehenna cult that seeks to bring on the apocalypse through ecstatic practices and murdering every supernatural being in the vicinity; they also track the efficacy of different methods of resisting the Beckoning;
  • a cult centered on a ritual that frees the vampire from literally drinking blood, but requires human sacrifice … oh, and it makes the vampire more vulnerable to diablerie, which I am sure has nothing whatsoever to do with their founder’s penchant for diablerie;
  • the vampire version of hillbilly horror;
  • a vampire ‘dining club’ that uses its exclusive-but-publicly-known ‘dinner’ events to hide their kidnapping and consumption of other vampires’ Touchstones; and
  • some wannabe infernalists.

The first thing I would note is that only a couple of these are decently workable for player characters in an even somewhat normal Chronicle. Militant Tremere or Ventrue; helping people out – sure, those can probably be readily worked in. But Vampires who want to hang out by themselves in a cave for months at a time? Vampires who never want to break their act of being mortal? Various iterations of “I want to kill everyone who isn’t part of my cult (and maybe many of the other people who are in my cult)?” Those aren’t great player character concepts. They might make good NPCs, but not PCs.

And that’s why, to me this is almost exclusively a Storyteller book. Sure, there are some Loresheets that don’t require the character to be a member of the cult. But to me what you’re really looking at here is a source that Storytellers can mine for ideas (some of these cults are presented as location-specific, but would be easily moved from their presents locations to a city of the Storyteller’s choice). Some of the cults that are least suitable for PC use are the most interesting as NPC story hooks – it can the very weirdness or incompatibility for ‘normal’ characters that makes them interesting.

And there are good story hooks in here. Fanatical assassins make easy enemies. Weird, isolated Kindred cults make great stand-alone stories. Some of the cults immediately lend themselves to more complicated political/moral plots – do the PCs care enough to try to free other Kindred from the grip of an obviously fraudulent religion, or do they just take advantage of the situation? That’s just the easy stuff – with some expansion many of these could produce long-term entanglements in a Chronicle as well. There’s a lot of room to play as the PCs try to figure out whether those Gehenna cultists are well-intentioned researchers or seeking to unleash unholy terror. Those “infernalists” may have no special powers whatsoever – but what happens when they start to attain real political power?

Mechanics

Some of the cults listed above have specific mechanic rituals to make them function, but these aren’t going to be of use to any but the most disturbed of PCs. Those are not the only mechanics, however.

There are a couple handfuls of merits and flaws. As a merit you might resist the power of True Faith, or as a flaw you might attract those who have True Faith. Any vampire might be interested in a Cold Dead Hunger that makes it easier to resist Hunger frenzy. The religious might suffer a crisis of faith, taking Willpower damage as an additional negative consequence of bestial failures.

Taking up more space are six new loresheets:

  • The 1444 Chamber (Hecata only) makes a character an agent of the ruling council of the clan;
  • Blood Ascetism might be necessary for an Eremite (mechanically these would work for any character who makes a big deal out of denying themself human blood, although the flavor doesn’t quite match up);
  • For the most part Gehenna Cults is about finding and hunting those cults down;
  • A vampire who wants to literally spread disease, possibly supernatural in nature, can check out the Plagues of Gehenna;
  • A militant Tremere can become Praepositor (Tremere only); and
  • Similarly, a the Spear of Orthia (Ventrue only) is looking for zealous and stab-happy Ventrue applicants.

The clan-specific Loresheets are probably the most readily useful, because they could be chosen in a wide variety of Chronicles and don’t require that a character be warped in a very particular way.

Final Thoughts

Forbidden Religions is, ultimately, a really narrow book that’s best-suited for Storytellers and diehards. I’m the sort of fan who backs the KS, collects the included PDFs, and then pays again to get the print-on-demand version (because apparently I like to look around my library and wonder how it came to take up so much space). And Forbidden Religions does a solid job presenting the subject of these very niche vampire religions, in a way that Storytellers can pick and choose how to use in Chronicles. But it remains the case that the overwhelming majority of them range from fairly unsuitable to completely unsuitable for use as a player character. The handful of clan-specific Loresheets don’t really make up from that, from the perspective of someone who’s considering this purely from the point of view of a player of the game. Forbidden Religions has a place, but it’s a narrower one than most other Vampire: The Masquerade books.

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