Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Retrospective: The Compleat Alchemist

Back in the day, I'd swallowed Gary Gygax's line about avoiding "inferior" third party products designed to be used in conjunction with Dungeons & Dragons. And, while there's no doubt that Gygax's stance was nakedly self-serving, I don't think I missed out on a lot. Of the non-TSR supplements to D&D I recall seeing, most of them didn't look particularly useful or appealing. Notable exceptions to this were the three volumes of the "Compleat Series" from Bard Games, the first of which was entitled The Compleat Alchemist.

Published in 1983 and written by Steven Cordovano and Stephan Michael Sechi (of Talislanta fame), The Compleat Alchemist was a slim, 46-page paperback book that presented a new class for fantasy roleplaying -- the alchemist. Like all such books of this type, it makes a weak attempt at claiming utility for any fantasy RPG, but even a cursory examination of the book's rules and terminology make it clear that it was written with D&D in mind. That only makes sense, because, in 1983, D&D was close to the peak of its popularity. And, of course, I didn't mind at all, since D&D was what I was playing and with which I hoped to use this supplement.

What appealed to me about The Compleat Alchemist was its verisimilitude. I won't say "realism," because that's both a loaded term in gaming circles and because it doesn't make much sense when you're talking about rules for a bogus science. What the book did well was present a comprehensive and plausible set of rules and systems for simulating an alchemist's ability to create elixirs, powders, venoms, devices, talismans, and the like. The book provided lots of lists of rare ingredients and the process of mixing them to create things, as well as the chance that such mixing might have adverse or unexpected effects. At each level of experience, an alchemist gained many new abilities, expanding his repertoire of creation and, while any given creation might not be particularly impressive (though many, especially at high levels, were), what impressed me most was the breadth of options available. Alchemists were every bit as flexible -- and useful -- as magic-users or clerics, making them a viable alternative character class, which very much appealed to me.

As it turned out, I never used the alchemist class in my campaigns. No one ever expressed any interest in playing one and, well done though its abilities were, I never found any need to give them even to NPCs. That was largely my experience with most new character classes beyond those presented in the Players Handbook: cool in theory but largely irrelevant in practice. It's a pity, too, because, as I said, the alchemist class was cleverly designed and not just a one-trick pony, like so many alternate character classes. Still, I liked this book well enough that I bought its two companions when I saw them (which I'll discuss in future posts), in the process breaking down my resistance to buying products other than those carrying the Official Dungeons & Dragons label on them.

Man, I was such an idiot.


  1. My group had access to The Compleat Adventurer as kids and DID make use of a couple classes from the book. I've since acquired both TCA and The Compleat Spell-Caster, but The Compleat Alchemist has totally eluded my grasp.

    My current writing project is an homage to these books, though specific for B/X. Nearly complete, Brian DeClercq will once again be doing the cover art for the (perhaps unimaginatively named) "The Complete B/X Adventurer."

    : )

  2. Is the content of this book the same that appears in the later The Arcanum?

  3. We did use the Arcanum in olden times, which was a full roleplaying game set in the days of Atlantis and other lost continents, and included most of the classes, spells, and concoctions from the "compleat" series plus several others and some innovative races. The main difference from AD&D as I recall was that armor reduced damage.

  4. At least you had the option to diversify your game beyond TSR product. In Darwin (Australia - yes I reside here) There was D&D and AD&D by TSR, and there was Games Workshop's Warhammer zine White Dwarf. Which is why my D&D included some awesome adventures by Carl Seargent designed for Warhammer.

  5. I sure like Alchemists as an idea-- I think Pathfinder's current class seems promising, but I've never seen it in play.

  6. This is one product I'm sorry I didn't buy at the time, since the idea of an alchemist has always appealed to me.

  7. You don't give *any* specific examples of the alchemist's abilities. *Any*.

  8. Is there any visible relation between this book and Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler?

  9. Boy, there's an play session sample for you.

    "Auceps: Why, Sir, I pray, of what fraternity are you, that you are so angry with the poor Otters?

    Piscator: I am, Sir, a Brother of the Angle, and therefore an enemy to the Otter: for you are to note, that we Anglers all love one another, and therefore do I hate the Otter both for my own, and their sakes who are of my brotherhood.

    Venator: And I am a lover of Hounds; I have followed many a pack of dogs many a mile, and heard many merry Huntsmen make sport and scoff at Anglers.

    Auceps: And I profess myself a Falconer, and have heard many grave, serious men pity them, it is such a heavy, contemptible, dull recreation.

    Piscator: You know, Gentlemen, it is an easy thing to scoff at any art or recreation; a little wit mixed with ill nature, confidence, and malice, will do it; but though they often venture boldly, yet they are often caught, even in their own trap...

    Solomon says of Scoffers, that they are an abomination to mankind, let him that thinks fit scoff on, and be a Scoffer still; but I account them enemies to me and all that love Virtue and Angling.

  10. @suburbanshee: now that's an excellent set of character classes for an accidental-adventurers/medieval martian invasion game! I'm in.

  11. Judges Guild had some great modules back in the early 1980s... like Dark Tower, Maltese...something-or-other... Had a few others!

  12. Heh, I actually have the second edition of the Compleat Alchemist - one of the very, very early publications of Wizards of the Coast, in 1993. Picked it up from American Eagle in Northgate, right before they went under.
    This one is more "universal", being re-formatted to allow a White Wolf ST to adapt the content as well.

    I can't speak to the first edition, but the abilities in the second are interesting.
    Characters select a series of processes they can perform, which grows with experience, and unlock new types of "product" every few levels - the first tier is low-potency, short-duration potions and mixtures: then powders: compounds/venoms/oils: devices and traps: Talismans and amulets, and so on.

    Some of the high-level things include clockwork beasts, Haemonculi, and improved versions of the earlier mixtures. They also become able to synthesize more powerful ingredients. There's a bit of randomness involved, and the results can get very nasty for an unprepared or sloppy character. The actual process of synthesizing is surprisingly fast-and-loose for the sheer amount of detail they put into the "front end", with the prices of hundreds of ingredients & dozens of applicable processes.
    There's a lot of "assumed setting" which is fairly easily-adapted, but can be irritating to hack into shape (at least for me).

    Also, you have to love any rules with "Chance of explosion" any time a character uses their abilities.