Friday, July 26, 2013

Late Review: Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand

Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand
By:  Steven C. Brown
1998, 127 pages

Amongst all the books I own and all the books published for Vampire the Masquerade, Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand (DSotBH) has the worst reputation.  Older VtM players hate this book because DSotBH introduces the True Hand or Tal’mahe’Ra (as opposed to the Sabbat’s False Black Hand) as a group of vampires who want to save the world from the worst machinations of the Camarilla and the Sabbat and bring back the Antediluvians who will scour the unworthy vampires from the world.   Beyond just their world saving mission, the True Hand also has the most diverse membership of any sect in the World of Darkness.  They count vampires, mages, wraiths, a mummy and an abomination (a werewolf that has been Embraced) amongst their members.  Finally, this is the book that finally explains what Vicissitude “really” is and the crusade to annihilate this alien invader from the Deep Umbra.
            The issue with DSotBH is that there are two books between its covers:  the book that the author intended and the book that was published.  I’m being generous when I say that because I saw a lot of potential for DSotBH as I read it.  The book is full of plot hooks, story concepts, and chronicle ideas that would be great for either a high level Vampire the Masquerade chronicle or a crossover game.  However, these are not fully developed or explored by author; instead these ideas are buried in the text.  As I have just finished a campaign where the PCs had topped out with over 150 XP spent each, I can say that having high level content for groups that have grown beyond the power level of their initial city would a great resource.  DSotBH should have been that book, but it was not. 
            The most obvious problem with DSotBH is that it ties together too many strands as it tries to build a grand metaplot for White Wolf’s Storyteller Games, Vampire the Masquerade, Mage the Ascension, Wraith the Oblivion, Werewolf the Apocalypse, and Mummy.  The RPG groups that I have played in have always wanted to bring together characters from all these different system into one grand chronicle.  The True Hand offers a way to do that because this sect was founded by Mages and Vampires, it has at least one Mummy as a member, its base of operations, Enoch, is in the Underworld, it has been known to work with some tribes of Werewolves, and members regularly travel to the Deep Umbra.  Except for Changelings, the True Hand offers an in world sect that recruits pretty much anyone and everyone. 
True Brujah from V20 Core book
            While the True Hand is dominated by vampires and their desire to build the “Army of Gehenna” to assist the sleeping Antediluvians in destroying unworthy vampires (those not of the True Hand), the True Hand also fights the Shadow Crusade against an alien creature that they accidentally brought back from the Deep Umbra.  Known as Vicissitude, the signature discipline of the Tzimisce, this alien creature infects those who imbibe Tzimisce blood and eventually takes over their bodies and minds.  The Shadow Crusade offers Storytellers a real villain for their campaigns that can’t be overcome by violence or politics.  Vicissitude is a force of nature that can corrupt anyone, and more importantly Storytellers can use this to create a sense of paranoia amongst players. 
            Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand also offers three new clans, the True Brujah, Nagaraja, and Old Clan Tzimisce, as options for players.  Two new Disciplines are included as well, Temporis, the time based Discipline of the True Brujah, and Nagaraja’s Nihilistisc which is based on decay and death and interacting with Wraiths and the Underworld.  Biothaumaturigic Experimentation, a new path of Thaumaturgy, along with some new Thaumaturgical rituals are introduced as well.  Most VtM players are familiar with the game breaking annoyance of the higher levels of Temporis that allows players to manipulate time including summoning the past into the present at Level Nine. 
            In addition to the new clans, DSotBH also has a summarized version of the rules for creating Elder characters.  By reprinting the character creation for Elders, DSotBH becomes a self contained “Epic Level” book for players and Storytellers looking to run high level games.  However, the rules for character creation weren’t proofread.  Otherwise why would the section on “Maturity” be included along with the Elder Background Age without an explanation of how they interact?  It’s confusing and honestly, Maturity shouldn’t have been included since it makes no sense.  Templates are included as well to give players ideas for characters, but none of them standout.  Most of the templates are rather obvious.  True Brujah Antiquarian and Globe Trotting Assassin don’t show the same creativity as found in the Clanbook Series.  The entire template section should have been cut. 
            The concepts and mechanics are flawed, but the artwork in DSotBH is probably the worst part.  Worse than dated, the artwork is full of examples of the worst excesses of 90s comic artwork.  Even the cover looks ridiculous with the woman cutting a man’s neck, but her face is doubled between a smile and licking blood from the man’s neck.  I’m not sure what Discipline that’s supposed to represent.  It just looks awful. 
I will stab the alien Vicissitude thing from outer space 
            Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand is not the worst RPG book that I’ve ever read, but it’s close.  What redeems DSotBH is that it does have some good ideas, but the presentation and implementation are awful.  The History of the Black Hand is a mish mash of ideas that references things from later sections of the book instead of explaining them immediately.  The section on Enoch in the Underworld should have been included in the history of the True Hand to tie everything together rather than separating Enoch’s history from the rest of True Hand’s history.  If anything, a map of Enoch would have been helpful along with a list of locations and rumors about the city itself.
            The major problem with DSotBH is that it included too much material that isn’t fully realized.  Instead of including the section on templates, the author could have included sections on how to integrate the True Hand into the World of Darkness.  An adventure that introduces powerful PCs into the plots of the True Hand would have been helpful.  Finally, the True Hand can’t come across as the “good guys” in the World of Darkness.  There are no “good guys.”  That’s kind of what makes it the World of Darkness.  Powerful beings manipulate mortals and fight over the dwindling resources in overcrowded cities against other manipulators as the end of the world rushes towards them. 
            The World of Darkness needed a book that offers advanced characters options for stories against powerful, new enemies, but this book failed to deliver that.  The World of Darkness also needed a book that allowed various groups, Mages, Vampires, etc., to interact as party members against a common threat, but this book failed to deliver that too.   Probably the biggest mistake of DSotBH is that it tries to tie together all the various White Wolf game lines together with Vampire the Masquerade taking the lead.  Publishing DSotBH as a Vampire the Masquerade book puts all the other creatures as subservient to the needs of vampires.  If the book had been focused on mixing the various game lines and published as World of Darkness book, then I think that it would been received better and been more helpful for game groups since almost every White Wolf gamer I knew wanted to run crossover games.
            Is Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand the worst book published for Vampire the Masquerade?  It could be if only for the fact that it was White Wolf’s attempt to create a book to support crossover games or high level content.  While the ideas are good, the presentation is awful.  I couldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they wanted to complete a collection of VtM or WoD books.  If you really need information on the metaplot, I’d recommend going to, because White Wolf nuked the True Hand when they updated to Revised Edition.  Literally Nuked! 
            Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand is available at DriveThruRPG as either as pdf or print on demand or you can find the original available on


  1. Oh, don't i remember that one... yes, flawed like hell from the get-go. The hand of the antediluvians angle (good gouys, seriously?), the "we are the Ur-conspiracy playing all others" posturing, the Trujah and then overpowered Temporis only enhancing "mary sue special bloody pony princess" vibe, incredibly rashly sketched souleater crossover plot that DEPROTAGONIZED A WHOLE CLAN if actually adressed in one's game, connections with other supernaturals that seemed gratuitous more than anything. Yes, i can see why the book took so much flak.

    That said i hated Kindred of East and much of its WHOLE LINE of derivatives, considerably more. At least with DSotBH the authors did not try to make us RE-swallow the crap.

    Just sayin'

    1. I think you just listed everything that was wrong with Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand in one paragraph. Why are my commentors so much better at summarizing than I am? But in truth I don't mind a flawed book because that means there was a good idea and it just got lost or screwed up along the way. A flawed book is full of good ideas that can be salvaged and used for campaigns. I think DSotBH falls into the category.
      I haven't read Kindred of the East. But I'm sure I will soon. Should be fun...or awful...

    2. I can agree with you on that - take away the smug "unique specialness" and the book is quite the mine for ideas on multi-domain, globe-trotting plots or interesting concepts to add a new layer of secrets & mystery to one's game.

      Taking a cue from True Hand's Enoch, who's to say the Giovanni or other cabals of necromancers could not make strongholds of their own from the shadows of cities victimized by great destruction, like Pompeii in 79AD, the Chicago of the Great Fire of 1871 or 1945 Hiroshima?

      Or a bunch of kindred in one's city begin to drum up paranoia in one's city with weird rumours about a certain bloodline or novel discipline popular in some circles actually being a sign of demonic pacts or infestation?

      Not to mention the awesomely direct option of a game centered on a city turned upside down when a justicar & his archons gank the prince and half the primogen for supposed membership in an elusive cult to the antediluvians with ties in the Sabbat...fact or excuse and does anyone care in the scramble to fill the void?

      The Hand is an ok group when one takes away the presumption and pretensions of uniqueness.

      About Kindred of East...well, good luck with that!

    3. Those are all great ideas for campaigns for globe trotting supernatural creatures. Most of my campaigns are more personal and simple. I do like your idea of other cities in the Tempest like Hiroshima. A few other good ideas for that would be Berlin 1945 with Nazis surrounded by the oncoming Soviet Army. Carthage would be another great city especially with the Brujah connection. Hmm...I think I need to run a Wraith game!

  2. Couldn't have said it better myself, I always thought that there were some great ideas in the DSotBH book but that they got lost amidst a load of rubbish and (often) contradictory rules and poor artwork.

    1. Thanks so much! I hope to do more of the "worst of White Wolf" book in the future. Keep reading!

    2. If so, may I suggest Berlin By Night? It is at least funny, unlike WOD: Gypsies.

    3. It's already on the list! I could use something funny on that list!