Friday, August 14, 2015

Alchemy, Sages and the OD&D World

Alchemist: Given a formula, the Alchemist can duplicate it to make a similar potion at a cost of one-half the potion's value. Alchemists may conduct research, but the time and expense are twice that of a Magic-User, and they may only work on poisons.
– OD&D, Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures
Specialists, which have been part of the game since 1974, are one of the more neglected ways to spend money in Dungeons & Dragons. Which is a shame, because they are both a good way to remove excess gold pieces, and a powerful tool for world-building.

OD&D's basic economics don't stand up to much scrutiny, but we can figure the back of the envelope numbers for how much a potion is worth. The listed cost for a healing potion is 250 GP, and it takes 1 week to make one. An alchemist costs 1000 GP per month, so a week is close to 250 GP, making the cost of having an alchemist copy a healing potion about 375 GP. If brought to market, 500 GP is a reasonable price. (This is ten times the amount that the 5e D&D rules list for potions, which are standard equipment in that edition.)

U&WA specifies that specialists are available "to those in positions of power, i.e. with their own strongholds." This suggests an atmosphere like the famous Italian patronage system, where the rich and powerful sponsor alchemical laboratories to their benefit. They are joined in this by the intriguing Sage type, who have the stipulation: "They are employable only by Fighting-Men." This is a curious requirement that fits in with Supplement II: Blackmoor's idea that Sages are regulated by a Guild, which is jealously guarding its knowledge from wizards and priests, who it logically sees as "the competition."

Alchemy was an interesting mix of chemistry, astrology and occultism, influences that play an unfortunately small part in a lot of D&D. I think there's a particular richness to working it into a background – although perhaps not so subtly so that it gets missed. The overlapping alchemical and astrological symbols are a rich visual vocabulary for a D&D game.

☉ ☼ ☽ ☾ ☿ ♀ ♁ ♂ ♃ ♄ ♅ ♆ ♇
♈ ♉ ♊ ♋ ♌ ♍ ♎ ♏ ♐ ♑ ♒ ♓

One of the advantages of this approach is that it solves the reference problem where the players don't have knowledge their characters should have. By using our world's alchemy and astrology for that of the fantasy world, you create an accessible basis for things like clues, puzzles and riddles in the dungeon that both the players and their characters can and should understand.

Of course you could create your own as well, but it seems intriguing enough to me to insert references to these patterns and ideas in the D&D world.


  1. I agree. Neither Alchemist, nor Sages should be cheap, nor even plentiful in the game.

    In the real world, everyone does not "go to college." Why would we think that untrue for a medieval world?

    Rare and expensive is the way to go with this.

  2. Thanks for the post.

    I do use alchemy and its symbols for clues, etcetera.


  3. I also like the Sages mechanic because of two reasons:

    1- It reduces the idea of adventurers as supermen, or omni-capable professionals. I don't like the tendency in modern DnDs to have everything in the game be a skill that must be possessed by at least one or two PCs in order for the party to succeed. It should be ok for the PCs to be fairly limited in their capabilities, to give the opportunity for more NPCs and world-building, not to mention--

    2- Sages can die or run away, or require things beyond simple GP. Reliance on Sages can change the strategy of PCs if the Sages are brought into the dungeon, and Sages also create a wider circle of connections and subplots that contribute to a much more open-feeling world.

    So yeah, Sages and Alchemists and Archaeologists and whatever else can be really spectacular in campaigns.


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