Friday, January 29, 2010

REVIEW: Supplement #1: The Alchemist

Supplement #1: The Alchemist is a short (5-page, one of which is the cover and another the Open Game License) PDF product by Charles Rice. It introduces a new character class for use with OSRIC, although it could quite profitably be used with almost any old school/retro-clone version of D&D. The PDF is clearly written and cleanly laid out. The cover artwork by Joe Calkins is nice enough, better I think than that included in previous Vigilance Press releases, but it doesn't really suggest an alchemist to me.

The alchemist class is not described as either a player of non-player character class, leaving that up to the referee to decide for his own campaign. That's for the best in my opinion. In the old days, the term "NPC class" was code for a new (probably overpowered) PC class. There was an unspoken assumption that only TSR could create new PC classes and so there was this kabuki dance in the pages of Dragon when it came to clever new sub-classes, which everyone involved knew would be used for PCs, even if no one would admit this outright.

The alchemist is one such clever new class, one that both represents a genuine literary archetype and employs a different mechanical model than any of the existing classes. Unlike, say, the magic-user, the alchemist has no inherent magical abilities, relying instead on various formulae he can make (often at significant cost), such as acids, poisons, and medicines, in addition to the ability to create potions. The effectiveness and extent of these formulae increases with level: low-level alchemists are both limited in their abilities and prone to unpredictability and error, while high-level members of the class are much more powerful. At 20th level, alchemists has mastered the ability of transmutation and, depending on the referee, may attempt a potentially wide variety of changes between materials and states. I'll quibble that this ability is earned at too high a level for an AD&D-style character class, even as I appreciate its openness to individual interpretation by the referee. Regardless, the rules for alchemy are simple without being simplistic and offer a lot of options without being overwhelming.

Interestingly, the alchemist uses the thief combat and saving throw tables, in addition to the thief's Hit Dice and armor selection (weapons are more limited). This called to mind Gary Gygax's proposed mountebank class, albeit without the implications of deceit and quackery. Still, it wouldn't be hard to play an alchemist in that vein, which may explain why I was so taken with it. It's definitely a "non-magical magical class," if you get my meaning, and, as such it might not suit every type of campaign. In a more low-magic, pulp-inspired setting, I can imagine an alchemist being a very useful addition to an adventuring party. Even in a more "traditional" group, the class would have its uses, with acids providing an alternative to lockpicking and medicines to clerical healing, for example, although neither replaces the more potent abilities of those other classes.

I like the alchemist and would certainly allow a player to take it up if he wished to do so, but then alchemy and alchemical-inspired "magic" plays an important role in my Dwimmermount campaign. In the end, I suspect one's reaction to this product will depend greatly on what one thinks about alchemy and how it ought to be presented in a fantasy setting. The Alchemist definitely takes a generally more "mundane" approach, with alchemy being similar to a more fantastical form of chemistry -- a "science," even if it's sometimes less than exact. Again, that may not be to everyone's taste, thus limiting the utility of this product if you don't share a similar perspective. If you do, it's well worth its $1.00 price tag.

6 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Get This If:
You'd like expanded -- but not complex -- treatment of alchemy and want a class designed to take advantage of it.
Don't Get This If: You're happy with the existing approach to alchemy and don't see the need for an alchemist class.



    Paizo has already been playtesting an Alchemist class for their Pathfinder game (3e). Still, glad to see an Old School version.

  2. Interesting, this looks like a similar take to my own Alchaemist for AD&D/OSRIC.

  3. I've been using the Bard Games version of the Alchemist class for over 20yrs. Very handy class. The BG version has one basic spell that all alchemists learn to activate the "rare earths" in their concoctions. That keeps non-alchemists from just looking up a "recipe" and whipping up the often powerful compounds. BG's "Charlatan" class sounds very similar to EGG's idea for a "Mountebank" class. I;ve had one player play one and his PC was a big hit.

  4. Interesting, this looks like a similar take to my own Alchaemist for AD&D/OSRIC.

    That's a rather nifty class you've created yourself!

  5. I've been using the Bard Games version of the Alchemist class for over 20yrs.

    Ah, Bard Games! I wish I still had copies of their books. I recall some really fun stuff in them.

  6. Hey James, thanks for the review!

    One comment on the transmutation ability: I thought it was open-ended and powerful enough to equate it with the "wish" ability, so that's why it comes so late.