If you’re reading this review, you’re probably familiar with Sabbat: The Black Hand. That’s the official Sabbat book for V5, which places the sect entirely in the role of antagonists, actively refraining from providing material that could be used to make Sabbat player characters. Into that void have stepped a number of Storyteller’s Vault books that seek to capitalize on that decision by writing basic mechanics to make playable Sabbat characters. The Black Hand: Playing the Sabbat is one of those. I don’t typically look at third-party content here (there’s too much official content for all of the RPGs out there), but I decided to take a look at Playing the Sabbat because (1) I know there’s a relative lot of interest in this sort of third-party content and (2) the authors of Playing the Sabbat are some authors of Sabbat: The Black Hand. As a STV product, Playing the Sabbat primarily exists 135-page PDF.
For the most part, Playing the Sabbat tries to present a way to use the Sabbat as protagonists, while still being consistent with what the Sabbat are in V5. This is not an effort to recreate the Sabbat of years gone by – although the mechanics presented will get you most of the way there. The basic mechanical ‘holes’ for Sabbat characters in V5 are rules for the vaulderie, rules for Paths of Enlightenment, and rules for other ritae. Playing the Sabbat hits all of those, plus a few more.
Paths of Enlightenment/Leaving Humanity
The basics of Paths are fairly obvious, in part because of the way that ‘normal’ morality isn’t really hard-wired into the Humanity system in V5 – If there’s no chronicle Tenet violated by torture, murder, or other brutality, a character doesn’t get Stains for those actions (indeed, this was one of the five things I said I would like to see changed about V5). So you just make Chronicle Tenets that are based on Sabbat ideals you want to emphasize, and that strips out of the game a lot what we think of when we think about Humanity. Then characters take Convictions based on their personal Paths. But there are more distinctive elements. Characters on Paths will replace Touchstone mortals with Touchstone ritae, so Touchstones will still exist as a possible source of Stains (along with embracing or Blood Bonding mortals, or committing Diablerie). Replacement of mortal Touchstones/Convictions could happen gradually over play, but given how most Sabbat games to work I expect that characters will just be created who meet the requirements to go onto a Path and just start there. Stains still reduce a ‘Humanity’ rating, although conceptually that represents a sense of self. And characters on a Path will basically never fall into wassail, as they take aggravated Willpower damage instead of losing that last dot of ‘Humanity.’ Thematically it ends up a bit of a muddle. There are things that work – the Path is part of your sense of self, the Sabbat is another part of your sense of self, so you can lose your sense of self by deviating from Sabbat ideals and social structures, but you can mitigate that by acting based on your Path. But I’m not sure what it means, conceptually, for a character to take Stains because they allow a Touchstone Ritae to be disrespected. I’m not sure why (thematically) being on a Path would stop you from losing your last dot of ‘Humanity,’ when you’re gaining Stains based on things unrelated to Humanity anyway (although it does make sense with regard to Diablerie). I’m not sure why Blood Bonding or embracing mortals would make a vampire on a Path lose ‘Humanity.’
There are several sets of suggested Tenets, emphasizing different aspects of the Sabbat – open war, infiltration, anti-Antediluvian crusades, or the cult-like atmosphere. There’s also a “goth club” set of Tenets, which I’m torn about. On the one hand, I love goth references and I often draw character inspiration from music, so I love a Tenet like “love will tear us apart” (yes, I’m aware the song is post-punk, not goth, but it’s a foundational influence for goth). But the inhumanity of the Sabbat is pretty far from anything I would value about goth; the concept seems better suited to an street-level Anarch or Camarilla game.
Playing the Sabbat provides information on five Paths, but not the five Paths as in Sabbat: The Black Hand. The Paths of Caine, Cathari, Power and the Inner Voice, and Death and the Soul appear. The thin-blood specific Path of the Sun is replaced by the Path of Lilith (I imagine that there isn’t all that much overlap between ‘old-school players who want to play monstrous, inhuman Sabbat PCs again’ and ‘players who walk to play half-vampire/half-mortals of a style new to V5’). Each Path gets a bit less than two pages, with more flavor information, suggested Touchstone Ritae, suggested Path Convictions, a “Path Compulsion” (that necessarily comes into play whenever the vampire would have lost their last dot of Humanity, or may optionally be used instead of clan compulsions), and new advantages unique to that Path. Each Path has five such advantages available to purchase, ranging from 1 to 3 dots (a character may only purchase an advantage if they have at least as many Path Convictions as the dot cost). In general, these advantages benefit the entire Pack (they’re all regularly drinking each other’s blood, after all). For example, a vampire on the Path of Caine can take advantages that let the Pack members communicate telepathically, hide from technological surveillance, prevent supernatural detection, enhance the benefits of Diablerie, or learn Blood Sorcery.
The inclusion of the Path of Lilith here seems like a bit of an oddity. There was a conscious decision made to – other than Lilith – stick to the Paths presented in the official Sabbat book, rather than re-introducing the plethora of Paths/Roads that have existed over the years in Vampire. But they did add in the Path of Lilith. And there’s even a comment that the Path of Lilith is growing in the Sabbat, which contradicts the presentation of the Path of Lilith as a “forsaken” Path that is diminished in that Sect. Sabbat: The Black Hand even points out that one of the struggles for the Path of Lilith was the complicated and often antagonistic relationship between the Path of Lilith and the Caine-centric Sabbat – but the discussion on the Path of Caine in Playing the Sabbat actually praises Lilith. My total speculation is that the authors happen to like the Bahari and decided to fit it in here. Which is fine – I happen to like the presence of the Dark Mother in Vampire as well. But it still stands out.
The Vaulderie is in a lot of ways the heart and soul of the Sabbat. It breaks normal Blood Bonds and creates a communal Blood Bond (known as the Vinculum) between the members of the Pack (the Sabbat: pretending that they aren’t just as controlling as other vampires since 1493). The rules presented here are straightforward. Participating in the Vaulderie with your Pack creates a weak Vinculum Blood Bond, and participating in it more increases the strength of the Vinculum. This strength is, however, capped – no Blood Bond 6 domination. It’s also egalitarian, as the strength of the Vinculum is consistent across all participants (unlike some past systems where the Vincula between the Pack members were of random strengths and needed to be tracked all of the time).
There are other Vaulderie+ Ritae, such as one to send everyone to Blood Bond 6 for one night, and another to create a permanent low-level Bond with an anointed leader (normal Vincula can eventually fade away if not renewed).
The Vaulderie is presented along with broader rules for Packs, which replace the Coterie rules – although it’s mostly just a question of different advantages. Sabbat Packs have an Arena (instead of a Domain), and they buy dots of Rove, Clout, and Grasp. More dots in Rove means more territory and a harder time for enemies to detect the Pack or interfere with its travels. Clout makes it easier to call upon other Sabbat for aid. Grasp makes it easier to mess with mortals within the Pack’s Arena. There are an array of Pack types presented. Like Coterie types these are mostly suggestions, but at least they have names that are easier to remember – carriers, crypt ticks, hacktavists, janitors, jyhad cell, menagerie, paladins, press gang, raiders, removers, ritualists, wanderers. Each Pack type does also get a Pack Ignoblis Ritae with a mechanical benefit. Hacktavists, for example, have infiltrated some local government networks, while paladins have stronger vinculum bonds with vampires when they serve the same patron.
Of course, Packs, like Coteries, can have other Advantages or Disadvantages, and Sabbat have always tended to use communal Havens, so there are more Haven options. A Haven might be infested with vermin, have a sanctum for performing ritae, or an interrogation room.
Sabbat: The Black Hand mentioned various Sabbat Ritae but, of course, declined to provide any systems for using them. Playing the Sabbat rectifies that situation, providing rules for Creation Rites, Festivo, Fire Dancing, Games of Instinct, Monomancy, Palla Grande, Sermons of Caine, War Party, and The Wild Hunt. I’m not going to go into how they all work, but I do note that Creation Rites plays into the book’s systems for quickly going on a Path, providing some extra in-game justification for why a starting character is already on a Path. Games of Instinct heals aggravated Willpower damage, which is otherwise a bear to get rid of (and further mitigates the cost of losing ‘Humanity’). The new Ritae Background is required to use Auctoritas Ritae.
Also introduced are a series of Numinous Ritae, which are of a much more mystical bent that other Ritae and are gated behind Loresheets and a special Background extra. They are intended to be rarely used, inflicting aggravated Willpower damage on the participants, usually requiring expensive material components, and having a hard once-per-story limit on their use. Effects of these Ritae include bringing vampires out of Torpor, enchanting weapons, warding an area against non-Sabbat vampires, enhancing benefits from Diablerie, and protection from magical spying.
Other New Mechanical Content
There’s quite a bit of mechanical content in playing the Sabbat beyond the minimum needed to make the Sabbat playable.
Predator Types – When hunting with the Pack, Sabbat usually just succeed but leave a bloody mess. But they might still feed alone and, of course, they need to pick a predator type during character creation. The most immediately notable thing about these predator types is that they hand out an extra Discipline dot as compared to the normal books. They all make the character lose at least one Humanity, but since the whole point of Sabbat is that they don’t care about Humanity, this is basically a non-cost (indeed, it’s required to make the character immediately eligible to go on a Path). So it’s good that these predator types are all listed as “Sabbat Only.” When you did a bit deeper into the predator types, you can see that they’re mostly darker, Sabbat versions of the core book types – Scavenger (Bagger), Reclaimer (Blood Leech), Hedonist (Siren), Absolver (Osiris), Domina (Consensualist) – or variations on ‘how do I violently kill them’ (Masochist, Ripper, Executioner).
Discipline Powers – There’s a lot of space to be explored with the option to have many power options at each Discipline dot level, and the V5 books haven’t done a ton of that. Playing the Sabbat includes 23 new ones, along with 7 more Rituals. Note that, as compared to core book options, these powers are relatively likely to be amalgams or have prerequisites. Some notable options include:
- Bestial Spirits (Animalism 3/Presence 1 Amalgam) – drive a small number of nearby weak mortals into the equivalent of frenzy
- Bring it On (Presence 2) – forces nearby enemies to try to attack you instead of other targets; this plays against a lot of Presence stereotypes, which I really like
- Dreams of the Past (Auspex 2/Obfuscate 1 Amalgam) – be able to examine what a location or object looked like before it was destroyed
- Empty Hands (Obfuscate 1) – hide any object on your person; now your katana-wielding loner doesn’t need to wear their trenchcoat
- Flense (Protean 2/Dominate 1) – another high-powered Protean combat power, this fleshcrafting version increases damage and isn’t halved and might inflict crippling injury conditions; this is too good, really – I don’t really miss over-the-top combat Vicissitude
- Trophy Hunter (Protean 1/Dominate 1) – take on the appearance or voice (but not both) of someone you just killed
Loresheets – I love loresheets, and Playing the Sabbat has 18 new ones. Many of these are Pack Loresheets, which can only be purchased with Pack dots, and mostly represent working with/for a particular high-ranking member of the Sabbat. I really like the concept of a communal loresheet – it’s something they should use in official V5 books (although they would be Coterie Loresheets there, of course). Ten of the new loresheets are Pack Loresheets. The other eight options are Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand, House Goratrix, Sascha Vykos, Lilith the Dark Mother, The Bratovitch, The Throne of Caine, The Zantosa, and The Oaxaca Diaries.
- Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand is focused on non-Sabbat, allowing some friendly interaction with the Sect. It’s also the only reference you’re going to get to the True Hand.
- Lilith the Dark Mother is essentially another Bahari loresheet (yes, I still like Lilith; no, I’m not planning on making another Bahari loresheet video). Options let characters learn Lilith lore, appear mortal in most ways (have a hearbeat, eat food, and enjoy sex for only 3 dots), have additional shapeshifting forms, or flip the Impaired penalties into bonuses.
- The House Goratrix loresheet is noteworthy in that it presents a Goratrix who is still around (father than being destroyed back in the 1990s) and who is female. I’m not sure why, in a book that otherwise tries to stick fairly close to the V5 presentation, the information on Goratrix is so far removed from canon (the presentation here is consistent with V5 in that House Goratrix is not actually aligned with the Sabbat, although Goratrix “herself” is).
- The Vykos loresheet is available to non-Sabbat, although the highest-dot powers are not. Consistent with the popular NPCs interests, this loresheet has options for appearance altering, academic research, or learning Blood Sorcery.
- The Bratovitch and Zantosa (both Sabbat or Tzimisce only) are the old Revenant families.
- The Oaxaca Diaries (Sabbat only) is about the Sabbat’s decision to abandon the old ways and enter the Gehenna War.
- The Throne of Caine (Sabbat only) is for those who want to be spiritual or political leaders in the Sabbat. Or maybe you just want to be a cab driver.
Gear – For me, more mechanics for stuff isn’t of tremendous use in Vampire, but there are some over-the-top things the Sabbat might like to use – nail guns, chainsaws, car bombs, and Molotov cocktails – that are detailed here, plus a handful of relics.
Of course, most of a Vampire book is usually “fluff,” not “crunch,” and Playing the Sabbat isn’t just a collection of mechanics. One addition that cuts a bit against the presentation in Sabbat: The Black Hand is an extensive section on antitribu. With Sabbat: The Black Hand rejecting almost any significance of clan in the Sabbat, there’s a lot of space left to fill in, and Playing the Sabbat spends about a dozen pages on the topic, including not just the prime 13 but also Salubri and thin-bloods. These are first-person presentations from members of the particular anti-clan. Some of these are full of braggadocio (Brujah, Tzimisce) and others are more of the ‘how we fit in’ variety. And then there’s the despair of the thin-bloods – “life sucks, and then you die, and then you die again. God please don’t let there be anything else after the ‘again.'”
There are also a few pages on Sabbat chronicle themes, and a few more pages on safety tools in the context of Sabbat games, which tend to be heavy on over-the-top violence and gore.
The Black Hand: Playing the Sabbat does a professional job of laying out the basic information needed for using the Sabbat as protagonists in V5. It mostly stays consistent with the V5 presentation of the Sabbat, so it’s not going to satisfy those who want V5 mechanics to describe the Sabbat of prior editions. But for those looking play V5 Sabbat, the book covers all of the bases and it does it well. In some ways the heart of the content feels basic because it a lot of ways it is – it’s not like this material was left out of the official Sabbat book because it was too complicated; it was left out for brand management reasons. But it is vital to play as Sabbat – maybe you can get away without mechanics for most Ritae, but you’ve got to have Vaulderie mechanics and you’ve got to have something to replace/supplement the Humanity system.
There’s also some material for non-Sabbat games – Discipline powers, some of the loresheets, and the gear. I can’t really compare what’s on offer here to other STV options because, as I noted above, I don’t usually deal with third-party products. I like the extra helping of Lilith and I am kind of perplexed by the changes to Goratrix, but both of those are personal preferences. Ultimately, despite this material, I doubt that most folks are looking at Black Hand: Playing the Sabbat unless they want to, you know, Play the Sabbat. But if they do want to play the V5 Sabbat, then this is a great way to start.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may receive commissions from affiliate links in this article.