Laboratory: All Consumables Should Be “Alchemy”

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’ve often noted that when a PC needs a specific thing to happen at a specific time, Alchemy can be that go-to guy. In 4e D&D, you don your Christmas tree of items with all their synergies and great versatility, but inevitably there’s going to be an instance or situation where you just need a bomb, or a way to pull that Vrock down from the sky, or a way to get the warlock back on her feet from 10 squares away. Generally speaking, consumables of all rotes actually serve these desperate instances, one, because you might want the benefit of teleporting like an eladrin, but you don’t want to play an eladrin (Fey Step Potion), and two, you might want to tip the scales of a certain skill in your favor once in a while, but don’t want to drop the coin down for a slotted item that is always active (Talent Shard). Alchemy comes with the benefit of versatility and low expense.

Alchemy Is More Than Chemistry

Potions, oils, elixirs, heck even feather tokens are all built on the premise that the magic they have is cool and helpful, but not something you want to be doing exclusively. They’re also rather inexpensive for the effects they provide. This is why I believe, as we approach the dawn of a new iteration of D&D, that “Alchemy” should be separate and defined from other forms of magic item making in that the category of crafting is limited to single-use, consumable items of all kinds. A potion should be “alchemy,” an elixir should be “alchemy,” and poisons should be “alchemy.”

With Wizards of the Coast pronouncing that they hope to eliminate a lot of the jargon in the next edition, this would be a welcomed streamlining of item crafting that would help make alchemy important and viable again. Some might feel that clumping magic item crafting into alchemy is disingenuous because alchemy is supposed to represent some form of mystical chemistry and less magical enchantment. They say that alchemy shouldn’t allow an effect that alters your form to appear like another creature (Elixir of Chameleon Power) because that is a magical effect, and something not achievable by science. They say that alchemy is rudimentary chemistry and basic science used as an interpretation of magic-like effects, only useful for things like like fire bombs and noxious gases.

I feel like you could certainly paint your own campaign in that light if you’d like, but I’d much prefer we scrap the pretense and remember that D&D is based on the premise of a magical world. How did Dr. Frankenstein raise his creation from the dead? Um, science. How did Peter Parker become the deft web-slinging hero of Spider-Man? Yup, science. I actually prefer to think that alchemy is just a refinement of magical and mundane materials in Dungeons & Dragons; you’re simply adding the right bit of this with the right bit of that, so that when you need it, it does its thing and then its gone. And, oh yeah, it’s relatively uncontrollable and can get you in some serious sticky situations.

If that’s the definition, then who cares if it is magic or not: it’s versatile, consumable and inexpensive. Alchemist’s Fire, Tanglefoot Bags, Potions of Heroism, and Flash Flower reagents should all be alchemy, and they should all be separate from enchanting a blade or shield with dedicated, permanent, and pricey magical abilities.

Covering Your Bases

All that said, I want to offer another item that follows those principles and opens yet another door to a budding master of concoctions (Severus Snape). In this case, I’ve noticed the repertoire of alchemical items out there is decidedly lacking in supportive materials. Healing, granting saving throws, increasing defenses, providing resistance…all these techniques are generally considered in the “leader” department, but most alchemical items tend to be debilitating, harmful or, like, they just stick things together. Useful, sometimes. But also useful is getting your rogue unstuck from an icy slowing effect so he can dart forward and stick his knife in the baddy, or freeing your wizard from a disorienting dazing effect so she can do more than sustain her well-placed vortex spell.

If versatility is going to be part of the definition for alchemical items (and consumable items in general), and I definitely believe it should be, then support utilities should be part of the arsenal as well. Considering the fact that one of the primary practitioners of alchemy is considered to be the artificer, a leader, some extra items to provide different auxiliary effects I think is warranted. And let’s face it, the Wound Patch is disgraceful.

So here is an offering of crunch that might help your alchemist, or any character in need of a little support option: the Analgesic Spur. I hope you enjoy this concoction, and whether you do or don’t, I’d love to hear your reactions to its design in the comments below!

Laboratory: Paragon Alchemy?

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.

As I eagerly await the release of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, I want to continue feeding the gaming atmosphere with little objects that are useful. This is a perfect opportunity to drop a few more items I’ve been working on in my series about alchemy. One of the things I’ve heard about the book so far however is that there is an emphasis on lower level tiered items, as well as common to even mundane things to spend your cashola on. All good things for sure, but it got me thinking more about how Alchemy is often overlooked in the higher tiers.

Paragon Options, Kinda Absent

I’m very fortunate to play a character that’s made it far enough to break the heroic/paragon plane. My character will be 11th level in a few weeks, and though I certainly won’t bore you with the details of him, I will inform you that I’m, as you might expect, going further down the alchemist rabbit hole. I’ll be taking the Alchemist Savant Paragon Path from the Eberron Player’s Guide. You can read a summary of benefits here, but mostly I want to note the Alchemical Innovator feature. Now, you don’t need this PP to learn or make items from formulas at a higher level, this feature merely gives you a few for free. So it got me thinking…what options are there at higher levels? What formulas are a cut above the formulas offered in the heroic tier?

The highest level formula I can find out there is for Deathcap Spores, a 12th level formula which, by the way, came out in Dragon 370 and has no scaling options for creating items of higher level than 12th. I fully realize I can make a 28th level Tethercord at higher levels, but that formula was available at level 3. At what point do you reach a level where the formulas themselves are more powerful? What makes learning Deathcap Spores more difficult to master than the Tethercord?

Accessing more powerful conditions and advantages, that’s what. Not only does it create a pace for all three tiers (look how rings aren’t really going to enter the game’s treasure parcels until early to mid paragon), but it keeps things interesting. An alchemical bomb is pretty interesting to you at a lower level tier, especially if you don’t have a Scorching Burst like power or powers with a damage type. Those effects become much more common at paragon, so alchemy has to up the ante. In terms of flavor, are there not alchemists in the Far Realm, the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos concocting deadly or bolstering items out of their rare and otherworldly chemicals and machinery? Stopping a raid from githyanki pirates or a horde or demons is certainly going to take more than a few Thunderstones, even if they have the bonuses that might actually bypass those creatures’ defenses.

Keep It Interesting

One of the things I discuss in the series quite a bit is the versatility of alchemy. For some reason, as originally written a lot of alchemical items seem like simple bombs or poisons, and the ones that were designed outside of those categories were rather dull. At higher tiers, the items can get a wee bit more interesting, allowing for options that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.

The versatility you have with a Beastbane item at level 4 is helpful since you most likely don’t have an option like that at that level in your regular repertoire. At higher levels though, every player at the table has a paragon path, they each have 5–8 magic items, character themes, and a host of powers and feats that make the team ready for anything. Learning formulas at higher levels still requires time and money, so in turn they should provide new options, more versatility, and more power. Alchemical items are not just bombs. When you become the hero of a kingdom and your experience begins stacking up, a fire bomb will come in handy every now and then, but it’s just not going to cut the mustard for saving a country or uniting the world. Those are paragon tasks, so you’re going to need something a bit more impressive. So I’ve devised some higher level options for you experienced alchemists out there who are looking for something other than a little Tanglefoot Bag or Lockbust Chalk to stuff your pockets.

New Items

The Suspending Mire uses an effect that I’ve never seen in the game as of yet, so to be completely honest it is not really tested. I can’t imagine it is overpowered though, just really handy in certain situations. With no damage component, and a steep cost that comes with a chance to miss, keeping a single monster busy, without stunning or dazing them, might be something up your sleeve that no other character at the table has.

As I continue playing and DMing in paragon games I am realizing how something like the Aura Shield could make a player very happy to shed all effects caused by auras even if for a single round. Auras are a key to most elites, controllers and solos, so having access to this concept too early in the span of levels might be an escape pattern you don’t want your players to have. At a late level 15, you can expect to see Aura Shields cropping up several levels thereafter in the pouches of characters who aren’t even alchemists. The reason is that there is no scaling to hit bonus, the close burst 1 zone is automatic, and at the small cost of a minor action, this little item can change an entire encounter. Game changing options should be harder to achieve and more rare in the game, hence the late level formula.

I hope you take these items, install them into your game, and let me know how they run. We’re here at Rules as UNWritten to continue pumping the blogosphere with helpful crunchy morsels you can always take with you, so steal, use, and share as much as you like!

Laboratory: In-and-Out of Combat

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.

Exciting Exploration

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.

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.

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.

Laboratory: Alchemical Items are 3e Scrolls

The Laboratory is a series for Rules as UNWritten that focuses on the subsystem of Alchemy in Dungeons & Dragons 4e. Alchemy was released with the resource book Adventurer’s Vault in 2008 and has been scantily supported by Wizards of the Coast since then. Alchemy offers a crafting mechanic that piggybacks the rules for Ritual Casting in that a player must have a feat to craft items themselves and then master formulae for specific items before they can craft those items. The items that these formulae unlock are consumable materials that have a variety of different effects such as combustion, poisoning, healing or altering weapons and implements. The concept as a whole is interesting and has great potential for fun, but there is much lacking in the system that we here at Rules as UNWritten feel could be altered and supported for better game play. That’s where the Laboratory comes in.

Alchemy is a Different Mechanic, and Should Be Treated That Way

Last time, in the Laboratory, we began the series by exploring what the definition of Alchemy is and what makes it different from other mechanics in the game. We learned that Alchemy is generally less expensive than rituals, crafted items can be used practically in and out of combat, alchemical items can be passed around to other members of a party for good versatility, and in terms of flavor, alchemy doesn’t directly involve magic. But we also set out to truly define what makes an alchemical item different from other consumables and wondrous items. There is where we found the true reason why one would take Alchemist over Ritual Caster as a feat, since one ritual in particular, Enchant Magic Item, is capable of crafting any physical item in the book other than alchemical items: Alchemical items do not sap any resources but their cost in components. They do not require a healing surge, the expenditure of a daily item power, they do not require a specific kind of power to be used, and they are not required to be worn or wielded for an ongoing effect. You can call on alchemical items like minor powers that only incur the cost of their crafting. They are like how scrolls used to work in 3e and 3.5e.

Scrolls in 3e+

For those who never played 3e or 3.5e, scrolls were different from 4e. In 4e, scrolls are solely attached to rituals. In 3e+, any arcane or divine spell could be cast upon a scroll to be used at a later time without using one of your allotted spells slots, of which you had a finite number. Scribing a scroll required a feat (or feature) that allowed you to do so, a cost in gold commensurate with the level of the spell (and what level you were, don’t get me started), and, get this, XP. I love unearthing 3e+ sometimes to remind me how far the game has evolved, for better or for worse (my opinion is better, clearly).

Scrolls gave you an extra power to use! It was consumed in the casting, and there’s no telling if you were going to hit or miss with it, but it was great when you were in a pinch, or had a great spell that wasn’t always applicable to most situations (like loading Passwall instead of Feeblemind). I don’t know about the rest of you gamers out there, but there are a ton of powers out there I want to try other than the ones I’ve chosen for my character. Or even if you had the opportunity to use just the right power for the job more than once per combat, how nice would that be? There are a few options out there already that indeed do this sort of thing, so it’s not as if 4e has left this tactical versatility out, but alchemy has its design knee deep in the concept, it just needs a little pushing to make it more attractive to the general adventurer.

The Problem

I think that WotC sees this as the case, that Alchemy is more or less an in (and out of) combat versatility measure, much like scrolls were in 3e+. I think the problem is that the game designers do not give enough credit to the investments made to utilize these alchemical items. Alchemical items take just as much investment as they used to as scrolls (except for the dreaded XP drain, so stupid), but they don’t deliver nearly as much punch as a spell (read: power) would as a caster in 3e+. You have to take the feat or feature, gain the formula for one particular item, craft the bloody item, then expend a precious action to use that item, all on the risk that you could also miss. The risk is worth taking, but the payoff should be worth it.

The most basic illustration of this comparison is shown through Alchemist’s Fire. Alchemist’s Fire is basically Scorching Burst, an at-will power for the Wizard. Having this formula is great for a character that doesn’t have a controller power like Scorching Burst so that they can round out the versatility of their powers and have that “grenade” in their back pocket for when conditions are perfect for having Scorching Burst. But in the three years since Adventurer’s Vault has been published, at-will powers have evolved and the investment one makes in crafting an Alchemist’s Fire has not. I still think that this, and a few other formulae are still somewhat viable, but the utilization of them, the support (read: features, powers, feats) for them, and the punch that they pack is just not balancing. Some re-calibration is called for then. We’ll discuss the level of power that alchemical items can and should pack in our next Laboratory, but for now, how about a refreshing new item that might be more worth your character’s time, money and effort then some of the weak sauce printed in 2008.

New Formula

This alchemical item brings a nice versatility for targeting monsters with resistances, immunities, or vulnerabilities and packs a punch to boot.

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.