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!

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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.