5e, dndnext, houserules

Alchemy in D&D

alchemy-labOn multiple occasions throughout the years my friends and I have discussed how to best insert alchemy into D&D. Across each edition, alchemy has taken different forms. Sometimes it’s presented as a skill. The (awesome) potion miscibility table in AD&D was a form of alchemy in its own right. And in fourth edition, various alchemical compounds found their way into the consumables catalog along with potions, scrolls, and whetstones. Now that I’m playing fifth edition, one of my players asked how he might mix a little alchemy into his bard’s bag of tricks. That sounded like a good excuse to dream up a little sub-system that might work as part of the game. In the spirit of a more “hackable” D&D, I thought I would share those ideas here.

Before I get started, let me come right out and say – “this may be covered in the DMG, which I don’t have yet… and it might not work well at higher levels”. I’m starting to use the low-level stuff in my campaign, but in any case, it was a fun exercise.

As the idea is to mix alchemy into an existing character, I’m not looking to create a full-blown alchemist class. I don’t think that would be in the spirit of the game right now, and it’s been pointed out to me that a pure alchemist might just not be that much fun to play. Once you run out of components or concoctions, you’re in a tough place. These are problems that could probably be addressed, but that’s not my goal this time around.

In the future, I could see alchemist being a background, but right now I don’t think I want something that strong either. I do think that the existing customization and proficiency systems allows for some room to build out a little alchemy sub-system though. Rounded out with some starter formulas and a feat to connect a character to the art, I think we might have a workable system that adds another layer to a bard, rogue, or even a wizard.

 

Alchemical Experimentation

Many physical compounds can be combined with almost magical results if mixed with a steady hand in the proper proportions. Ranging in complexity, the formulas for these mixtures are assigned a level from 1 through 9. A character attempting to create an alchemical mixture must be proficient with alchemist’s tools, have or know the formula, and have the requisite material ingredients (which are consumed in the attempt). The cost of material components is generally proportional to the level of complexity of the formula.

Cost of alchemical ingredients =  25 gp  + 125 gp for each formula level beyond 1st

You may mix multiple doses of a formula at once, depending upon the equipment you’re using. A small, traveling, alchemist’s kit is only big enough to make a single dose at a time, while a permanent lab could be built to produce dozens of doses in a batch.

Successfully mixing a batch is based on your Intelligence ability, the level of the formula you are using, and your proficiency bonus if using alchemist’s tools. On a successful check, your create a number of doses of the mixture based on the amount of ingredient spent. On a failed check, all of the ingredients are wasted in an explosion, causing 1d10 fire damage per level of formula to the alchemist.

Mixing DC = 11 + formula level

Alchemist mixing ability = your Intelligence bonus + proficiency bonus (if using alchemist’s tools)

General time to mix = 1 × formula level in downtime days

 

I’ve used the 50 gp market value of both the healing potion and alchemist’s fire in the PHB as a starting point for crafting costs. If we consider both of these as 1st level formulas, and the most expensive poison in the DMG (purple worm poison @ 2,000 gp according to the preview pdf) as a level 9 formula, we have a pretty good scale for alchemical market value– 50 to 2,000 gp. According to the crafting rules (PHB 187), ingredients to make these concoctions should cost roughly half of these market values.

You’ll also notice that I’ve strayed from the PHB’s crafting rules with the time requirement. The standard suggests that one of these simple, 50 gp elixers would take 10 days to complete; a complex, 2,000 gp poison might take 400 days! Alchemy should be time-consuming, but I think capping the process at 9 days is more than enough. Of course, I imagine a few formulas may have very specific time requirements, and those should be called out in the alchemical formula as exceptions.

Now that we have a rudimentary system for determining success in mixing compounds, let’s look at a couple of samples. These come from ideas that my players have had and a reproduction of the one piece of alchemy that I see in the PHB (alchemist fire).

 

Alchemical Formulas

 

Flash Bang

1st-level alchemical mixture

Range: 20 feet

Ingredients: magnesium, sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal (25 gp)

All creatures in 10 foot radius of target must make a Constitution saving throw (DC 11) or be blinded and deafened until the beginning of your next turn. The creature is only deafened on a successful save.

At Higher Levels. More refined Flash Bang formulas can be created at levels 3, 5, 7 or 9 and the saving throw DC scales accordingly: 10 + mixture level. At 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th levels the radius increases to 15 feet, 20 feet, 25 feet, and 30 feet respectively.

Shot of Courage

1st-level alchemical mixture

Range: Consumed

Ingredients: alcohol and opium root (25 gp)

Consuming creature gains 3 (1d6) temporary hit points.

At Higher Levels. More refined Shot of Courage formulas can be created at any level (2-9) and the temporary hit point effect increases accordingly: 1d6 × mixture level.

Smoke Bomb

1st-level alchemical mixture

Range: 20 feet

Ingredients: chlorine gas, potash, sugar, and nahcolite (25 gp)

The 10 foot cube around the target fill with white smoke and are considered heavily obscured until the end of your next turn or until a wind of moderate or greater speed disperses it.

At Higher Levels. More potent Smoke Bomb formulas can be created at levels 3, 5, 7 or 9 and the size of the obscured cube increases to 15 feet, 20 feet, 25 feet, and 30 feet respectively.

Sticky Bomb

1st-level alchemical mixture

Range: 20 feet

Ingredients: tree sap, adhesives and small black powder charge (25 gp)

Target creature must make a Dexterity saving throw (DC 11) or be restrained until the beginning of your next turn. Creatures may use their action on their turn to make a Strength saving throw to break the restraint early. A Large or larger creature has advantage on this saving throw. The square occupied by the target is considered difficult terrain for 10 minutes.

At Higher Levels. More potent Sticky Bomb formulas can be created at level 3 ,5, 7 or 9 and the saving throw DC scales accordingly: 10 + mixture level. At 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th levels the radius increases to 10

 

There are some miscellaneous considerations that help round this idea out. Two that first come to mind are the idea of a laboratory and differentiating alchemy from poisons (the PHB has both an alchemy kit and a poisoner’s kit after all).

 

Alchemical Laboratories

A serious student of the art spends years collecting and perfecting the equipment in his or her personal laboratory. Far from portable, these eclectic collections of glassware, heat sources, drying racks, and stills are often located in cities where esoteric ingredients can be purchased. Using the more sophisticated equipment in a lab increases the chance of success, granting advantage on checks to mix a formula. In large cities, laboratories may be available for rent or lease.

 

Poisons vs. Alchemy

Any formula that has the poison keyword, deals poison damage, leaves its victim in a poisoned state, or otherwise leaves its victim with a disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks is considered a poison, not an alchemical mixture. Crafting poison is covered in the DMG (pg. 258) and is not covered by these alchemy rules.

 

Finally, I created a new feat which helps connect the player character with this new system. The Alchemist feat is supposed to reflect a serious dabbler in the art, not a lifelong professional.

 

Alchemist Feat

Prerequisite: Intelligence and Dexterity of 13 or higher

Years of experimentation and a couple of found formulas have left you with a working knowledge of chemistry and eyebrows that seem to be in a perpetual state of growing back.

You gain the following benefits when mixing alchemical formulas:

  • you gain proficiency with Alchemist’s Tools
  • you may add both your Intelligence and Dexterity bonuses when making an alchemy check
  • you need 1/2 as much time to mix a formula as would normally be required

This is certainly a work in progress and writing it out has already helped me correct a few things. Obviously, this has not yet been play-tested, but I suspect that I’ll have at least one player who gives it a go and we’ll adjust from there. What do you think? How are you mixing a little alchemy into your fifth edition D&D game? Have you seen alchemy systems in other games that might be adapted?

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