Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alchemists and resources - a hard nut to crack

So today I was reading a series of post on DIY & Dragons about resource management, and it reminded me of this old bugaboo of mine - the alchemist, and how to do it "right".

The fundamental problem is one of resource management.  Specifically, how many "kabooms" can the alchemist do?  An alchemist could do many things - a healing salve, a draught that turns you invisible, a bomb - for this discussion it doesn't really matter, I'm just going to use "bombs" but it doesn't have to be a bomb.  What matters is how often can these powers be used? 

With warriors, you... swing your sword.  It's an at will power.  With spellcasters, you have "slots", or "spell points" or whatnots, a daily allotment of magical power that you eventually run out.  And it makes sense - using magic is taxing, and eventually your mystical reserves are exhausted.  (In some systems, there are "cantrips" - small spells you have mastered so well you can use them at will. This is a good idea IMO but besides the point I'm trying to make).  

In the 4rth edition of D&D, the answer to how often a power can be was made rather explict - you had "at will power", "encounter powers" (usable once per fight) and "daily" powers (usable once a day).  And while I'm not fond of the ruleset, you have to admit that this is a pretty useful distinction. It's also one that is used very frequently in almost every gaming system, although it's not always made explicit (5e has sort of a soft version of this with the short rest vs long rest powers).  There are things you can do at will, and there are things you can do so many times per day.  It's convenient, and it works.  

So what about our alchemist?  How many bombs can she throw in a day?  Well... how many bombs does she have?  It's not like she is exausting some sort of mystical resources, they are bombs she already made.  Alchemy is an external art - you  make something that has power, the magic comes from the ingredients (and your craft), not some inner source of power (or god or whatnot).  So how many bombs *can* she have?  Unless the bombs are pretty limited in power, it shouldn't be "as many as she wants".   There needs to be some kind of limit to the alchemist's power (otherwise no one will want to be a wizard).  

In a number of systems I've seen, the answer has been limited to "X per day".  And well... it does work.  And it doesn't mean that the class will be bad - the alchemist in pathfinder is particularly well done (in D&D 2nd ed on the other hand, the alchemist was just a reskined wizard, which is kinda boring).  But it bothers me that the mechanism is the same as spells.  It feels artificial, it doesn't "fit", it doesn't feel right..  Are there good alternatives?  Ways to limit the alchemist's power?

Well there are a few false leads.  One is encumbrance.  Sure you can't carry a gigaton of bombs with you, but this particular balance lever can easily be circumvented.  A clever alchemist can get a bag of holding... or a mule, or a trusty henchmen or two and tada, limit circumvented.

Another one is money.  Bombs are expensive.  Seems logical right?  But this is fraught with difficulties for the GM. Suddenly the amount of money available is directly related to the power a character has, and that puts all sorts of constrain on the GM.  And what if other players donate some of their cash to the alchemist?  So this is not a great way to balance things.

Another false lead is time.  Bombs take time to make. Again a logical answer, but now the constrain is put on campaign pacing.  Crazy race against time to save the prince?  The alchemist will be hard pressed.  3 months of downtime for some reason?  The alchemist now has an arsenal sufficient to obliterate a small province.  

The best idea I've found so far - and this is what I need help with - is a "special ingredient(s)/resource(s)". This resource is/are rare and difficult to come by - even if the alchemist has 50 000 gp, if there are only 7 doses available... that's all he can get. Of course, as the character increases in level his capacity to access this special resource(s) increases.

A very clever system I saw was in a little booklet published in 1991 called "Lore of the Crypt Book IV: New Rules, Races, and Classes" (there is next to no information about this book online, I've written a review on the link above). In this system, there were 4 "activators" - special ingredients that the alchemist could use to power his concoctions, the source of the magical energy (there were other ingredients but they were just "flavor", the important part was the activators). The simplest was just incantations - but that resulted in alchemical spells that were much weaker than what a wizard could do, ie the alchemist was a 3rd rate wizard. But the other 3 activators were rare ingredients of increasing rarity and power. (These rare activators were all magical herbs - bloodroot, mandrake, and nightshade - but really they could be whatever the GM wanted them to be... gems? dragon blood? gnome hats?)

So the GM doesn't have to limit access to money to "rein in" the alchemist.  Instead, the GM can limit supply of these rare activators - the magic sauce. The presence of the cheapest activator (incantation, or some other freely avaiable stuff) insured that the alchemist always had access to *some* kind of magic, and the relative rarity of the activators limited how many more potent bombs the alchemist can have at the ready.  

Unfortunately, the little booklet never gave any indication on how rare or common these activators should be, ie providing very little guidance on how to balance this beyond vague "at this level, the alchemist should know where to get activator X" recommendations. I've never managed to find a solution. Should a level 5 alchemist find 3 activators per adventure? 20 per level? No idea. 

It would be nice to find a way to escape the "at will, encounter, daily" paradigm made explicit by 4e... 

edit:  This post by Diaghilev should be of great interest to any alchemy-interested player or GM...


  1. P.S. Be *sure* to read the end of the third post on resource management - https://diyanddragons.blogspot.com/2019/04/mechanics-for-resource-management-part.html - the ultimate resource is *player time*.

  2. Thanks for the mention!

    I've been thinking about what we both wrote about the elements that can control or balance an Alchemist PC's access to their abilities. We've mentioned player time, character time, character money, encumbrance, and special reagent access.

    I don't think it's ideal to tie *anything* directly to the expenditure of player time, since we're all trying to fit in as much gaming as we can in the limited time slots we have to play, so I'm keen to toss that one out. Character time is very abstract--we skip over weeks of downtime in a moment, so it tends to come cheaply, and winching down on what it can or can't be freely used for seems unpredictably unfair to me.

    Character money as a limiting factor is going to depend more on how the game system being used values cash than how the GM or players value it. The OSR stuff we discuss is in an entirely different realm than the tight coupling between cash and character power in 3.5E or PF-style D&D. That's more freeing for the OSR game, but it also means the player can't *expect* that they'll have cash to regularly convert into alchemy reagents. I think the uncertainty of that can be a downside--everyone expects that their character is going to be able to actually use the abilities they've earned by leveling up, which is why I made actually acquiring the ingredients in my Field Alchemy system largely free of monetary cost.

    I'm not too worried about the rest of the party giving the Alchemist all their cash to make bombs, as that's just as valid a use of their money as the characters collectively spending it on anything else that 1) they expect will benefit them and 2) that's very mobile. Mercenaries and hirelings, draft or war animals, a fancy cart or wagon, or even just buying potions/oil/acid directly, if that sort of thing is available in your game.

    I don't really *mind* balancing Alchemy against encumbrance; as long as some element of the process takes up actual slots, then it's tied into the inventory management mini-game. I agree that that element can be manipulated by acquiring pack animals and hirelings--but now the element of a sizable (?) baggage train is at play, and you've got more narrative surface area in your game anyway. We already expected players to buy pack animals and whatnot, except now when a griffon swoops out of the sky to carry off one of their horses, the party has to contend with a creature potentially stoned out of its gourd on amanita mushrooms or something once they find it.

    Anyway, that's why I landed on special reagent access. There aren't existing expectations for how easy to access or cheap to purchase a new element in the game will be, so it doesn't step on player toes with regard to the verisimilitude of the setting or game experience.