A Path Of Enlightenment is an alternate code of morality to which a vampire subscribes to in an effort to stave off the Beast.
The vampiric Beast is a powerful manifestation of savagery, temptation, and chaos. It is a needy, visceral thing, which needs to either be appeased into docility or dominated into submission. Humanity allows neither of these things to a vampire. Maintaining Humanity is antagonistic to the needs and drives of the Beast, and maintaining it is to be at odds with the Beast without the proper tools. Human morality is impractical to vampires, whose very unlife depends on breaking many of humanity's taboos. While humans find drinking blood horrifying, vampires depend on it to survive. Humans condemn murder, rape, and other unsavory activities. Vampires murder all too frequently, and every exsanguination is rape of a level beyond human capacity and comprehension. All these factors slowly add up to one conclusion: vampires are ''not'' human, so the Path of Humanity is useless (and downright dangerous) to them.
From this tenet, centuries of study and experimentation by scholarly and spiritual vampires have led to the development of alternative codes of morality, the Paths. A Path seeks to reconcile a vampires beliefs and morals with their undead condition, to give their unlives a way of thinking that is compatible with the needs of the vampiric body and the demands of the Beast. Paths are active modes of morality, compared to Humanity's passivity. While a vampire with Humanity as his moral compass slowly loses ground to the Beast, a Path follower fights it or accepts it as part of his/her being.
Paths are as diverse as mortal religions are. They range from the completely practical, like the Path of Honorable Accord, to the esoteric and religious, like the Path of Bones. Some like the aforementioned Path of Honorable Accord seek the total subjugation of the Beast, while others like the appropriately named Path of the Beast seek harmony and integration of the Beast and the rational self.
Paths are not necessarily antagonistic of humans, and some even place harming humans as anathema to their codes of conduct, but they ''are'' antagonistic of Humanity. Even Paths like the Path of Blood and the Sharia El-Sama (a vampiric reinterpretation of the Muslim faith), which place humans as beings worthy of protection from vampiric depredation, consider Humanity inferior and dishonest, in the sense that trying to be human is improper of beings who are not human anymore.
In Vampire: The Masquerade, characters adopt Paths of Enlightenment in order to stave off the Beast without maintaining their Humanity. Paths are largely the province of the Sabbat, as Camarilla vampires adopt Humanity at least partly to enforce the Masquerade. In the Dark Ages setting, the Paths and the Humanity trait were replaced with the very similar concept of Roads.
The transition to a Path is ''not'' easy. A prospective Path follower literally has to rewire the way he/she thinks into a completely new and alien framework. A Path like the Path of Bones not only denies that murder is a sin, it actually holds death as a concept worthy of worship and praise(in the correct circumstances, a path seldom allows for some sort of mindless rampage), an attitude that would horrify any rational human being.
Part of the process of switching into a Path is adopting a different set of Virtues. Almost all paths replace one or both of the primary Virtues (Conscience and Self-Control) with an alternate set consisting of Conviction and Instinct, respectively.
Conviction is the virtue that replaces Conscience, and it basically represents a vampire's subscription to his new ethical code. Just as Conscience indicates a vampire's capacity for remorse for his actions, Conviction indicates his LACK of remorse, his ability to justify his actions in the context of his chosen Path. Paths which espouse Conviction follow codes of ethics which are dreadful by human standards, but are effective and sensitive in a vampiric context. Conviction is actually a virtue that does exist amongst humans(religious fanatics, political extremists and military officers all show signs of this trait), yet Conviction in a vampire indicates a level of disconnection and moral aberration much more extreme than any human could possibly obtain, short of said human actually bargaining with infernal powers or somesuch. The Path of Death and the Soul with its academic approach to the studies of the vampiric form and intense use of test subjects for investigation, is a good example of a Path that necessitates Conviction.
Instinct is the virtue that replaces Self-Control, and it basically represents a vampire's relationship with the Beast. Whereas a vampire with Self-Control tries to deny and control his Beast, a vampire with Instinct embraces the Beast as an essential part of his/her being. Vampires who follow Instinct allow their Beast to frolic, obtaining satisfaction, power and even wisdom from letting their primal sides come to the fore. While Conviction is a trait that can theoretically be found in extreme cases of humanity, Instinct is a purely vampiric trait: humans have no Beast, hence they have no capacity for this trait. The appropriately named Path of the Beast is an example of a Path which necessitates the Instinct trait.
Switching from Humanity to a Path is also quite impossible for a vampire who has average to high levels of Humanity: his/her connection to their living morality is still too strong. A vampire is ready to adopt a Path when he's fallen enough to admit that Humanity is failing, that he needs some other code to believe in(in game terms, a vampire may not attempt to switch to a Path unless he's at Humanity 3 or lower).
Starting out with a path
A player can opt to begin a character on a Path of Enlightenment at creation time. Doing so, the player reconfigures his virtues accordingly (in revised edition, this means that Conscience may become Conviction and Self-Control may become Instinct. Virtues which replace the normal human virtues begin at zero, and must be bought up to at least one. Paths also require a minimal willpower attribute. Path choices may be limited by clan and sect relationships - in particular, Camarilla vampires strongly discourage Paths in the sect in favor of Humanity.
Adopting a path
Adopting a path during play is a more complex roleplaying experience. A character must find a guide to teach them the path, and must reduce their humanity attribute to a sufficiently low value (3 or less) that adopting a new outlook is even morally possible. It is completely possible for a character to fail at adopting a path and instead reach Wassail.
Living a path
Each path adopts a seperate Hierarchy of Sins which impacts the character's path rating. Unlike the hierarchy of sins for humanity, path hierarchies usually involve condemning humane behavior. This is not to say that a follower on a path is''necessarily'' a psychotic killer, but their reasons for preventing a murder may be radically different than the human perspective. A follower of the Path of Night, for example, will discourage murdering innocents in order to let them grow into the full flower of depravity ''before'' killing them.
Whether the appearance of a path is nonviolent or not, the follower of a path is inhuman. Following a path grants a vampire control over their beast, giving them the ability to ride the wave in a frenzy and to wake up during the day, but it does not make them human. Path followers appear inhuman to normal human beings.
How much a path follower deviates from humanity is actually quite varied, some paths draw upon human concepts and drive them to an extreme (such as the path of honerable acord). Others are more religious structures that accomidate the vampires natural impulses towards voilence and brutality while still excerting a moral sturcture and internal logic (such as the path of the night). Other adopts a bizzare and alien morality, which makes the follower a truly frightening monster: a vampire not bound by good or evil who can perform the vileist deeds without risk of degernaration (such as the path of metamorphesism). their is in a fact great deal of variation in how 'evil' path followers are. Many paths are not directly inclined towards wanton aggression, rather their sensabilities of good and evil are differant (or perhaps in many cases good and evil do not exist for the individual)this can result in a great deal of variety inpath followers by the standards of human ethics a metamorphesist is far more evil and inhumaine than a path Path of Harmony follower.
Differences Between Versions
Paths of Enlightenment were introduced in the Sabbat Player's Guide to explain how Sabbat could operate without Humanity. In 1st and 2nd edition Vampire, ''all'' Sabbat characters were on a Path and in fact had distinct virtues (Callousness, Instincts and Morale). In 1st and 2nd edition Vampire, ''all'' Sabbat were Shovelheads, and the resulting climb out of the grave stripped away all humanity, leaving the resulting fledgling open to a new viewpoint.
In Dark Ages: Vampire, an alternate system of Roads was introduced, which also added the concept of switched virtues. Each Road adopted Courage and two other virtues, either Conscience or Conviction and Self-Control or Instinct. This system was eventually used in the Revised edition of Vampire, along with a change in paths for the Sabbat. Instead of receiving a path on creation, most Sabbat neonates and ancillae still followed humanity, although at very low levels.