Laboratory: Out with the Old

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.

Early Alchemy: Ghoststrike Oil

When I began playing an Artificer and gravitated towards the using of alchemical items I did a pretty detailed audit of the options I had available. I was disappointed, to say the least. I have a lot of gripes about the original Adventurer’s Vault alchemical items, so I had to start an entire series on this blog to address them—and hopefully improve them. I’m going to step back and calm down from all of my other frustrations and focus on one today: Ghostrike Oil.

This item looks like a good idea, but its limitations and lack of advancement make it so weak that I almost spit in the book. However, there is some merit to the concept, so I’ll look at that first. This is an item with potential for many reasons: 1/ it’s great that it doesn’t do damage, specifically, and isn’t getting in the way of other party members’ bread & butter powers 2/ it’s a rare enough instance where whipping it out gives you the relevance you’re looking for in the all-prepared alchemist.

As for my frustrations, the most irritating feature to Ghoststrike Oil is that it only targets undead. There is something to be said about gearing a power or item for a specific category of creatures or challenges, but the whole point of Ghoststrike Oil, it seems, is to negate a creatures insubstantial quality for a brief period to attempt lining up some hurt on the monster before it can land real damage to you or your party. However, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there are tons of creatures that can be insubstantial that aren’t undead, and there are tons of undead that aren’t insubstantial. What a way to limit the options for this item!

It’s flavor-into-cruch quality of rubbing magic oil on your sword (with its racy and unnecessary connotation) lends itself to the benefit of not having to make an attack roll *with* the alchemical item itself; one would think that spending a precious Standard Action to gain the anti-insubstantial quality for a single round would be enough, but no, even after that investment, you have to make a secondary attack at a fixed bonus to ensure your damage isn’t privy to the insubstantial quality. It gets worse: the oil can only be applied to a weapon or one piece of ammunition, so any party member using an implement can’t use this item whatsoever, cutting the usefulness of Ghoststrike Oil in half, once again.

What a piece of trash this item is. It’s my opinion that Alchemical Items, at their expensive costs, taxation for crafting, frustrating lack of scalability and an often investment of precious Standard Actions should render effects more equal to what they cost. Ghoststrike Oil is the opposite of versatile, it is the opposite of useful, it is the opposite of fun.

New Formula

Where Alchemical Items get me is that they have the potential to be versatile, useful and fun. So I’ll quit whining and post an idea that I believe should be more in line with the spirit (as it were) of this item. First of all, though flavor isn’t really the focus of this blog, Ghoststrike Oil was grandfathered in from previous editions of the game, and I don’t really feel it has a very alchemical feel. Alchemy, to me, implies a kind of chemistry with the world, and monsters, magical or otherwise, are sometimes defiling that chemistry. That’s some fun opposition, so I would be more inclined to make this item a “grounding” power that reverses a monster’s ability, altering their substance so they have to answer to nature.

Second of all, if there is going to be an attack roll involved and no immediate damage to the creature(s), then the entire party should be open to taking advantage of the situation. This not only makes it more fun for everyone, but helps to keep that alchemical item-toting player valued as a resource in the group. So the attack roll of my new item will just cause the creature to lose it’s insubstantial quality for a round. Not only that, but often times those creatures are hidden or have a natural invisibility or concealment quality. Let’s face it, those are the kinds of monsters you will actually most likely be targeting, not the limited kinds of insubstantial but also undead types. Therefore, a burst is a nice situational bonus to help make this standard action and expensive item worth it since invisibility and concealment do not grant bonuses to defenses against bursts or blasts.

Third, can we start to make alchemical items more valuable at higher levels? Are you 23rd level and still tossing Blinding Bombs? They do the same exact thing at that level as they do at 3rd level, with just a difference in attack bonus. Why doesn’t it add value, why doesn’t it act more paragon or more epic, why do alchemical items feel like the most expensive trinkets in the world? I’ve added some features to this item to hopefully keep it relevant at higher levels, making a whopping 17,000 gp consumable item worth its salt. That salt is a greater range, area and versatility; its balance lies in using the item against a wider pool of monsters (perhaps a phasing rakshasa or a teleporting devil) instead of a just an insubstantial creature (like a shadow, which, by the way, isn’t even undead). It would be unique if a creature had more than two of these qualities, and pretty rare to have all four, even at 28th level, so the item still has limitations, but a greater flexibility. So I present to you a more new and valuable crunchy item, The Substantiating Cloud.

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