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Alchemy Alternatives

by Ilya

Alchemy For Fun and Profit!

Alchemy is rarely done ORPGs (online roleplaying games, aka MUDs). The few games with alchemy systems are nearly always limited. Let's spice things up! How? My recipe follows.

I'd like to tell you how any alchemical system can fit into the game world. Then I'll explain how the system will work.

How Alchemy Usually Gets Fit into ORPGs

Alchemy usually seems to get dumped into one tiny box: brew. Some class, perhaps clerics or mages or druids, gets a spell which allows them to create potions. That's it. Use the brew skill, and get a magical potion.

This is a travesty. It's a single-shot shorthand used in place of a system with such potential beauty and detail!

Better Places, and Ways, to Place Alchemy

Ilya's Alchemy. It's so much more than simply making things out of other things.

An Alchemist

An Alchemist

  It is about making gold from lead, cures from weird body parts, and items of power from who knows what. Watch as our hero scours the realms far and wide for the perfect reagent! Gasp as he rocks the world with torrential energies from arcane experiments gone awry, nearly killing himself in the process! Cry out with disbelief as he masters the elemental forces of the known universe! Shudder in contemplation of the mind-bending horrors our hero can unleash, controlling huge groups -- see pre-teen girls convinced that pink is not the ultimate color! See teen-age boys truly believing that feminine perfection is not embodied in the twisted, gene-spliced body of Lara Croft!

To succeed as a new game system, alchemy must be interesting, dangerous, rewarding, and unique. Especially unique. It must have results or powers or advantages available in no other way.

I can't stress this uniqueness enough! How many cleric types are made nearly useless because of a superabundance of healing/sanctuary/curedisease potions? Their powers are hardly unique when you can carry around a backpack full of dozens of their most powerful spells. How many magic-using types are equally irrelevant because of the duplication of their magical powers in potions of invisibility, scrolls of enchantments, and magical winged shoes of flight? Do not allow it to be this way with alchemy! If you are going to add a new system like this, make sure it does some things better than other systems, and has unique services, results, powers, or features. Perhaps stone skin (or whatever similar effect you have in your game) should only be available through alchemical means. Maybe the most powerful enchantments on items can only be accomplished via alchemical processes. Whatever the details, be sure that your alchemists can do some things that nobody else can. (End of rant)

Alchemy should be interesting, dangerous, and rewarding.

  • Interesting -- perhaps only a few formulae, components, and reagents are known at first, plus several analytical methods. Now go have a blast! Test new methods, test new formulae, experiment with new components. Be the first on your block to make an atomic weapon, or a potion of mist form, or a time stop gas bomb, or whatever. If the players know that there is a lot of power out there, it will be fun to go looking for it.
  • Dangerous -- is the potion you just made a poison or an elixir of eternal life? How exactly do you find out? When you try this new step in a process, will your compound explode or remain stable? Is it predictable? You'll never know till you try, and therein lies the risk.

    Alchemy may not be quite as exciting as sneaking in to the dragon's lair and running off with his treasures just as he awakes and blows you out of his cavern with a fiery ball of flame (and you live to tell the story, barely)! Think of the other end. Hack-and-slash combat at its worst is riskless, joyless, boring repetition. Alchemy will be way better than that!

  • Rewarding -- uniqueness of alchemical results and power of the alchemical effects should help assure that there are plenty of rewards for the alchemists that live long enough! Soon the NPC potion shops should go out of business because of their new-found competition from player alchemists. The sky's the limit.
  • Details of the Alchemical System

    The alchemist's world may be likened to a regular, 5-sided form composed of five triangles of equal size and shape. These are the five pillars of alchemy: process, component, reagent, effect, and analysis.


    Processes are the steps in alchemical formulae. They may be common, they may be subtle, but they are always necessary to produce the desired result. More obvious processes: dry, grind to powder, soak in water, expose to air, heat, knead. More subtle processes: place in proximity to a certain plant, set outside in the light of the new moon, allow only to be touched by virgins, or never expose to the sun.


    A component could be anything at all: a drop of liquid, a twig, a bit of hair, the wing of a gnat, a scraping from a sea slug, a bit of magnetic rock, a hunk of lead. Components are the basic building blocks of alchemy.

    Likely components are subjected to processes simple and arcane in the hope of creating a powerful effect -- will it be gold, or fairy dust, or a powder of invisibility? Will it be instant death when touched, or eternal life if rubbed on the skin?

    Alchemists search the world around for the perfect ingredients for their mysterious experiments -- components!


    Reagents are the stuff that make things happen. Processes require components as their basis, and reagents for ignition. Components are the fuel for the fire. Reagents are the match.

    Reagents are in a special class. Many alchemical processes simply cannot occur without the assistance of a reagent. Special attention is paid by alchemists to these very important elements in nearly every alchemical formula.

    If alchemists search the world around for components, then for reagents they search not only the world around, but the sky above and the seas below to root out the precious elements with which to spark the reactions they seek.


    Where would alchemy without analytical methods? How shall an alchemist even guess at the likely value of a component, or the possible outcomes of a reaction, unless able to somehow measure and test these?

    Analyses are the alchemist's predictive and evaluative tools. With them, the alchemist decides which component to try and which to reject, which process to use, and which to reject. Especially important is analysis for purity.

    An analysis may be simple, such as a touch of the tongue (for traces of salt or sweet or perhaps a more subtle tastes). An analysis may be complex and involved, perhaps with special equipment, and steps as numerous as an alchemical formula in its own right.


    Ignore for the moment unintended consequences of alchemical formulae (such as death or injury). Concentrate on results.

    Effects are the payoff of alchemy. A formula should produce a healing oil, or a stone that floats, or a book that reads itself aloud, or whatever else it is that the alchemy does.

    A formula may have unintended results. It may produce a slick surface when glue was intended. No matter. Teflon was born in just such a way. A result is a result. It's your job to figure out how to take advantage of that.

    Effects are the payoff. They are the reason alchemy is done.


    A few examples will hopefully serve to stimulate the imagination.

    • process (common) -- alchemical things you do to components
      smoke expose aerate sun expose moon expose
      steam warm scorch burn
      cool freeze shock electrocute
      soak dissolve dry dehydrate
      blend grate chop grind
      rub pound bury

    • process (uncommon) -- These can be either "Nevers" or "Evers." Either the item has never been touched by a virgin, or never exposed to the sun; or else the item has only been touched by virgins, or only always been kept underwater, etc.
      looked upon sun exposed moon exposed touched
      wet dry exposed to air kissed
      warm cool underground in/under water
    • analyses
      taste touch look at rub scratch

      Plus all the processes above! Processes belong here as well because they can operate as analyses -- expose your glimonia root to the moon, then offer to your subject. If it glows red, the subject is a virgin, and both are ready for the next step in the process. If it doesn't glow at all, then you know something new about your subject, or about the glimonia's purity!

    • components
      Components can be absolutely anything you please, from a certain kind of mineral, to a body part, to a leaf, a liquid, a particular shape of wood, and so on! It would probably be unwise to try to create a list here since it would be necessary to fit it into the specific game desired.
    • reagents
      Reagents are as components -- anything you want. The only limit I see is that there should be fewer of them, and they should be rarer.
    • effects
      true invisibility weapon immunities longevity armor hardening
      smoke screen soundproofing enhanced hearing perfect disguise
      hair coloring skin coloring false disease acid
      transmutation elemental form love potion enhance flames
      regeneration quick learning slipperiness perfect reflection
      climbing jumping unbreathing hair removal

    A Bit More on How to Get There

    Many of the processes require certain bits of information not normally known to mud servers, though added easily enough. You'd have to begin keeping track of things like status of virginity, the nature of the light in a location (moonlight, sunlight, lamplight, etc), and then little flags on each item with their exposures (ever been exposed to this? ever been touched by that? etc).

    It seems to me that the effects is where this could really shine. Take some time to think of effects that aren't just one more way of hashing up an enemy -- there are plenty of combat effects that boil down to magic missile (only bigger and harder). We don't really need more of those! Subtler effects could be more useful and interesting, and might make roleplaying more interesting too (creating impatience perhaps? or sneezing? or itching?).

    This brings us to another world entirely, but it really isn't THAT far from where even the hack-n-slashest among us already are. Adding, for example, involuntary 'player progs' is so useful, and can also be very funny. These are sort of like disease and other ongoing effects, but more complex. You might be able to implement them as affects, I suppose, akin to spells placed on the character. It's just great to see people doing stupid things and then paying later! So have Joe blow the mighty fighter jump into the thorn patch and wrestle the evil beast with the nasty goo all over its body. He wins, and lives, but MAN does he have an itch that he can't entirely control! Maybe he sneezes too, or shivers, or faints, depending on treatment and the like.

    This needn't be an onerous burden on players. It can just be fun! And in the end, that's all I am looking for -- ways to make things fun. I'm all in favor of this one.