Sabbat: The Black hand is a supplement for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. For those unfamiliar with the roleplaying game, it was extraordinarily popular during the Nineties and one of the biggest influences on LARP as well as several media franchises. Elements were incorporated into Blade and the Underworld movies plus cropped up in True Blood’s later seasons. It is set in a horror themed version of our world where vampires live among us and secretly pull humanity’s strings. Grimdark Magazine reviewed the 5th Edition core book of the game and was mostly very positive.
Unfortunately, there was one serious flaw with the book and that was the absence of one of the main sects of the game. It’s a bit like doing The Lord of the Rings and forgetting to include Sauron’s people. The Sabbat are not the “evil” vampires since most vampires are some kind of bastard or another but they’re certainly the evilest. Without them, the game felt significantly less than complete and many people felt like one of their favorite player character options was missing. Storytellers were also denied one of the most popular antagonists that could easily be thrown in a game to wreck havoc.
This book, written by long time V:TM writer Justin Achilli, goes a long way to rectifying that absence. It also has serious flaws of its own but successfully does, at least, fill a hole that was extremely noticeable in V5 games. Those who are seeking rules for how to play Sabbat are still going to be disappointed, though. Not only does the book state that it is only meant for antagonists but it specifically precludes any rules that would make Sabbat playable in V5. There are no rules for Path followers, Loresheets, or series staples like the Vaulderie.
I generally don’t judge books by what they don’t offer but I should note this absence is something that shouldn’t be glossed over either. Vampire: The Masquerade is a game about playing monsters and acting like the Sabbat are a “bridge too far” is a strange choice. Yes, they’re the most absolute scummiest of all vampires with regular massacres of humans and Hannibal Lecter being how one of the smarter members of their group would act. However, it’s all make-believe anyway and being worried about games with them as protagonists is like worrying about metal god and devout Christian Alice Cooper acts in his private life.
But what does the book provide? It does update the Sabbat to 2021 with descriptions of how the sect has changed in the past fifteen years. In many ways, it’s a significantly simpler sect (not quite dumbed down) with various factions having all been expelled or killed. There’s no more False Hand, Inquisition, Loyalists, or Clan factions. Instead, the Sabbat have all become Antitribu with Paths as their primary guiding influence. They are at their most feral and united, all ready to wage war on the Antediluvians with those who want to stay behind forced to defect to the Camarilla and Anarchs or become food.
The gameplay rules in Sabbat: The Black Hand are rather light with some material on how to create horrifying ghoul abominations, zombie Thin Bloods, and EVIL Disciplines. The biggest complaint I have about the book, related to my one that it doesn’t have player character options, is the fact that it is incredibly expensive for its 134 pages. The Camarilla and Anarch guides were over 200 pages each and a similar cost, which is a difference of (using basic math), 70 pages of content. These 70 pages could have been used to talk about Path rules, Loresheets, how the Sabbat got to be in its current state, or other useful material.
I give Sabbat: The Black Hand a lot of credit that it is a direly necessary one and one that I am happy to have in my library. The descriptions of Paths, changes to the Sabbat, and visceral horror on page is all top notch. However, I feel like this book could have easily been paired with the V5 Companion (that was free) to fill out the page count. As it is, the book is overpriced for its size. Its something I recommend for Storytellers, though, because V5 without the Sabbat is just not the same animal as previous editions. Antagonists or not.
Play Sabbat: The Black Hand