Laboratory: The Right Tool for the Job

Welcome to the Laboratory, a series here at Rules As UNWritten solely focused on Alchemy in 4e Dungeons & Dragons. Alchemy is a cumbersome, confusing and rather unsupported subsystem in D&D, and this series aims to improve that. Check out previous posts in this series here, and as always, feel free to voice your reactions to our take on Alchemy and the new and reworked options we’re offering.

Engineers of Fantasy

The Artificer in 4e D&D has a penchant for looking like a mechanic in their traditional depictions. They can be anything you want them to be, hence the beauty of the game, but they get that persona for a reason, because their magic focuses on items, things, knick-knacks, and the manipulation of them all. Bombs, poisons, grenades, glues, tonics, solutions, gases, ointments, and machines of all kinds are loaded on their backs, belt, across their shoulders and in their boots. The Artificer is stacked. At least in depiction. But that’s because they’re also associated with Alchemy, and Alchemy involves the crafting of a variety of *things*. But what do those *things* do? Why is having all those things comparable to having a sturdy sword and shield?

The reason is that, although it is arguable that the sword is perhaps one of the most productive tools ever invented, it is still just a single tool; it’s function is limited. The many powers in D&D 4e open up the limitations of that sword, but the game does attempt to keep their functions somewhat in the spirit of the weapons and implements that we use. That’s not always true of course, there are many powers that are outside the normal purview of a class’s role (Blinding Barrage, for instance). I’m actually quite fascinated by how we can make the mechanics of the game manifest into unique action sequences or solutions to problems. I get inspired when a hero uses a tool for a purpose other than the main intent of its design. It’s when Korben Dallas saws through the cement flooring around Ruby Rhod above him with a machine gun enough to make him crash through that flooring to the lower level. It’s Luke focusing the snowspeeder tow cables around the legs of the AT-ATs to bring them tumbling down despite their impenetrable armor. I won’t get started on the master of his tools, Indiana Jones, or the master of all tools, Jackie Chan. The heroism—the intellect—isn’t in their equipment, it’s in how they use them.

Then Alchemy is Just for Filling in the Gaps?

WotC’s preliminary material for Alchemical formulae and items is mostly just a few bombs and some weak skill and healing trinkets. In those few items though, their overall purpose is highlighted: they cover and support responsibilities of a variety of roles. Bombs like Alchemist’s Fire are generally considered the duty of controllers. Woundpatch boosts the hit points gained when spending a healing surge, something that definitely fits in the leader role’s repertoire. Alchemist’s Acid is single target for acid damage and additional ongoing acid damage, and that definitely looks like a basic striker tactic. So if a party is lacking in any department, Alchemy can help support those needs.

But as time has passed, a ton more options have been released. There are many more powers, class features, magic items, feats, even henchmen have been introduced to help fill “gaps” in a party’s makeup. They’ve even retooled the constraints of racial ability scores so that characters can be more versatile. These are all good things that have evolved in my opinion, but the filling out of the role responsibilities means that filling gaps isn’t as necessary as it used to be. Alchemy becomes just another cute thing to play with instead of being a valuable resource. And those two words mean a lot to a lot of players: not only do players want to be awesome at what they do, they want to feel needed in their adventuring party. They want to be a valuable resource.

Alchemy Can Be a Valuable Resource

When Alchemy was considered a valuable resource, it was therefore also considered in demand, and thereby limited, or expensive. Alchemy doesn’t seem to be in such high demand anymore, now that there are many more options, at less cost in resources, for the player. But this blog isn’t all about griping and the recent history of 4e D&D. It’s about solutions. What can Alchemy do now since coming across a “bomb” power, or more support for healing, or an extra marking feature once here and there isn’t so hard to come by? Well, for one, we can stop thinking of Alchemy as a filler, and start considering its versatility as it’s primary asset. I don’t want to play a character that fills gaps in a group, who wants to be second-best at everything? I want to play a character who can do what all the rest of the party can do, but I can do it whenever I want. It’s expensive, and takes quite a bit of preparation, but I’ve got the right tool for any job and you’ve got yourself a jack of all trades. Now I’m a renaissance man MacGuyver who you can always look to when things in a battle start to get hairy, when everyone is out of immobilization powers, or someone needs to be sequestered from the thick of things. And being looked to, and solving those combat sticky wickets, is what will make me feel like a valuable resource.

New Formula

For this Laboratory I’m going to feature a home brewed item that doesn’t so much as fill in the gap of a lacking role, but help solve a specific kind of threat. There are a ton of threats in the game, but each of them has a weakness. Exploiting that weakness should be the touchstone of Alchemy. Alchemical items should be the right tools for the job. They’re few and far between, and expensive as hell, but if you’ve got them, you’ll be happy you did.

The threat I chose to engage is the brute monster. Now, that’s rather broad, but the brute, in general, is capable of doling out a lot of damage and taking a lot of damage. A sword is a good tool for the job, but I happen to think that this one is even better. I present, the Backbiter.

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