Laboratory: What is Alchemy?

Welcome to the Laboratory, a series I’m developing for Rules as UNWritten solely based on Alchemy in 4e Dungeons & Dragons. I hope to explore this aspect of the game for many reasons, the purely selfish one being that I’m currently playing an artificer in a campaign as we blog. The other reasons are based around improving the game, getting better at recognizing overall balance and specifically consumable items/resources, and because there just aren’t enough options out there for a burgeoning alchemist. The system should be versatile enough to allow someone captivated enough with alchemy to specialize in it while allowing enough good options for those wishing to merely dabble. Currently, I don’t think it’s all that well designed, though there is promise.

What’s the Difference?

First things first though, we’ve got to get to the core of what makes Alchemy different from other mini-systems in the game, primarily, Ritual Casting, since that set of rules is similar and often called out as a host for replacement with the Alchemist feat, as a class bonus feat, or otherwise. They should be different, and there should be a reason why. Well, right now there are some major differences:

  1. Alchemical formulas are generally less expensive to learn than rituals, and the component cost for a single foundation level item is also generally less expensive than casting a ritual of the same level. Costs go up though, and crafting higher level items starts to get very pricey, but so does the execution of higher level rituals.
  2. Alchemical items can be used in combat, but clearly not crafted in combat. You need to come prepared.
  3. Alchemical items can be crafted or purchased and simply handed off to another ally. This makes for good versatility, but I wonder how hard-pressed your allies would be to use those items as they are generally standard actions (that discussion is for another post). Rituals do, however, often benefit the whole team, but in less crunchy ways.
  4. Flavor wise, alchemy doesn’t involve magic, though the use of arcane or exotic components makes up their component cost.

That’s a decent contrast between Ritual Casting and Alchemy, but what gets to me is the suggestion in the Adventurer’s Vault, where Alchemy was first introduced, that Alchemy is an effective alternative to Enchant Magic Item (along with Disenchant Magic Item and Transfer Enchantment). It seems like Alchemy was built as a mini-system to replace this one set of rituals, not necessarily all rituals. I stand perplexed why Alchemical Formulas aren’t just simply rituals in their own right. Why tax players with a feat, or the replacement of a bonus feat, for wanting to spend tons more of their precious earnings for items that may or may not be helpful in encounters? Again, I digress into arguments that may be more suitable for entire posts on their own. It is more important that we recognize the differences between the feats as written, but expand and capitalize on their differences for better game play than to alter the systems altogether.

Defining Alchemy:

  1. Alchemy is not magic, but it uses arcane or exotic components to craft.
  2. The use of alchemy results in a consumable item that can be used at a later time.
  3. Alchemy, in general, has a variety of uses and therefore lends itself well to resolving specific challenges, but not necessarily to all challenges. (Alchemist’s Fire might be great against trolls, but not so hot against hell hounds, for example).
  4. As of right now, no alchemical item requires the consumption of any resources on a character’s part, i.e. healing surges, item daily powers, etc. This helps distinguish them from potions or elixirs, which are made through the Enchant Magic Item ritual, and puts all the weight for their power in how much gold is spent to make them or purchase them (I suppose you could consider the action used in combat part of its weight as well, since we all know those standard actions are precious).

With alchemy defined in a nutshell here, I’ve been itching to get into the guts of the system and try some things out for myself. Part of the reason I’m attracted to Alchemy so much is its ability to be very versatile. I’ve always found that versatility is a powerful force in D&D, and since the beginning of 4e I’ve found that many classes have capitalized on this aspect, making them a tad more like 3e wizards in the sense that more characters have more tools for different jobs, and every power they have has a distinguishing feature. Alchemy pushes this versatility further, but at the price of gold. Now, I have a lust for coin as much as any other dungeon diving adventurer, but I beg to question whether or not the investment in alchemy is worth its weight. Many might feel initially that the costs of alchemical items don’t balance with their yield. Instead of changing anything with the prices, I’d rather supply supplemental choices for alchemical items that feel like you are really getting your money’s worth, without unbalancing game play.

New Formula

Without further ado, I propose the following home brewed formula to get started on a new alchemical portfolio for my character, and for yours. The Dartsap has all the typical qualities of what I feel defines alchemical items: it’s consumable, it doesn’t use any resources other than gold and actions, and is particularly effective for a specific range of challenges or encounters. Dartsap might appear a bit like a poison, but why require the extra application action when the result is satisfying enough to use it as an item in its own right.


I hope to expand on Alchemy more in the upcoming weeks with more exploration from the Laboratory. Please let me know your feedback on these home brewed formulas and any other comments you have about Alchemy.

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