Laboratory: In-and-Out of Combat
May 30, 2011 Leave a comment
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.
I’m a big fan of versatility in the game. It’s the main reason I play an artificer with a heavy alchemist bend. I sometimes have to sacrifice heavy damage, controlling the battlefield, supporting my allies or drawing fire away from them for the ability to do it all. I could go into all the things I feel like I’m sacrificing for this precious versatility, like gold, feats, and actions, but I’ll cover that later, hopefully in an in-depth post about the economy of Alchemy. As it stands I love alchemy because it can provide a tool for many different scenarios, some of which are applicable outside of combat.
I’m fascinated by powers that do this too. They’re usually utility or racial powers, but I greatly enjoy their usefulness as the system can handle them both in and out of combat. Some powers that come to mind are Jump, Knack for Success, One Heart, One Mind, and Warlock’s Leap. If powers like these can be used outside of combat, they’re mostly functional for either investigation or exploration. These can sometimes be some of the most fun parts of D&D, and they’re integral enough to the experience of the game to support them with extraordinary powers. But the designers of these powers know that it is difficult to invest in a precious utility slot if it is *only* useable outside of combat. They see the benefit of making powers that can accommodate both, and I’m digging that.
Alchemist as Explorer
How does this apply to alchemy though? Well, so far we have a small list of formulas that already attempt to serve an in-and-out purpose. Lockburst Chalk is one, though rarely as helpful I might pose as the designer may have hoped. Clearwater Solution is another, again, so limited in scope that I can’t imagine anyone taking it. Goodnight Tincture is only viable outside of combat, but at least they were thinking about supporting investigation and criminal tactics instead of just all volatile bombs. Sovereign Glue is classic, and if you’re creative enough you might find use for it in combat, but it’s unlikely. Tracking Dust is also only viable outside of combat and falls in line with Lockbust Chalk, and Universal Solvent is next to useless for the investment required (a save? after all those conditions that need to be met? at least make it automatically break the immobilization…).
So the potential is out there, and there are some items more recently designed that are getting closer to the in-and-out concept nicely. This is not to say that I disagree with items that can only be used outside of combat, but don’t the in-and-out items make for more fun? I like my cake, and I also like eating it, so we’re going to do what we like—it doesn’t work like that in life, but this isn’t life, this is the awesomeness of fantasy.
Exploring is a major scenario in the D&D experience, as suggested earlier, so I’m going to focus on that for now. Exploring is a lot like Investigation, but it usually involves less social skills and more perception and knowledge skills. The DM sets up a series of clues that build up to a complete story, given out piecemeal to provide drama and excitement. I’ve DM’d before, so I know that sometimes you just need to put up a wall that they cannot get through, or even know they need to get through in order to hide some of the pieces of that tension. But aspects of the game, especially things like rituals, can throw a curve ball for you as a DM if the player somehow circumvents your labyrinth. It took many years for me to get over the controlling of revelations in a dungeon—you cannot do it. Inherently, the players want to out-think your BBEG (read: you), and if they come up with a good idea, especially if they’ve invested time, thought and resources on using something for that idea, you should reward them, and not stifle their excellence in investigation. That takes a little patience and a little quick-thinking, but it will all work out I promise.
The best part of this is that you get to use, or get to watch your players use cool toys. The toys can be powers, rituals, or skills, but in this case, for me, they are alchemical items. In thinking about how to design one of these toys, er items, I want to use it as much as possible, and that’s the core reason to make some of them in-and-out of combat applicable.
From the list above, Warlock’s Leap got me thinking. This is a 10th level daily utility power for the Warlock. That’s nothing to sneeze at in terms of investment. If you’re not familiar with the power, see above. The beauty is in the fact that the player does not have to see where they are teleporting. This is huge. And anyone who knows anything about Nightcrawler can tell you, kinda dangerous.
So maybe we can make something that eases the burden of players who can teleport (Fey Step changed the game) for some in-combat utility. It shouldn’t be easy to do, but a get-out-of-jail-free card is sometimes nice. It shouldn’t have to be an escape either, but perhaps a really useful positioning tactic. So I’m keeping in mind that characters who can teleport may need to pass through surfaces that they cannot see through, as the rules indicate a character must have line of sight to a square in order to teleport. Again, it shouldn’t be easy, because that’s an important aspect of world building and environment for the DM, and the sake of physics in the game.
As I said though, usefulness outside of combat could be cool too, and even helpful to characters who cannot teleport. The exploration can get a bit more revealing, a bit more exciting when you can see past the impenetrable walls that the DM has laid before you. Who needs clairvoyance to see what’s beyond a door when you can alter the substance of the wood itself to see right through it? Maybe this formula gives you a one up on the monsters in the next room, maybe it gains you intelligence by spying on the dealings in the inn room one door down, or maybe it helps you confirm the actual size of the pile of loot inside a safe.
Any way you cut it, this item can be useful to an explorer and even potentially useful for characters with the facility to teleport. I think it’s a step up from previously published items because it is automatic, engaging and interesting, moderately useful at all levels of play, and rewarding to players using the fine feature of teleportation. I hope you print it, cut it and copy it into your own book of formulas at your table. Enjoy.