Tool Enhancement: Alchemist's Supplies
Updated: Mar 4
I've been pondering writing this article for a while. While I LOVE the DnD 5e system for a lot of reasons, there are certainly some areas that I wish were handled better, and the use of Tools in the game is one of them. They are a huge part of the character creation process and come as part of Race, Class, and Background proficiency choices. But once you've chosen...then what? Well the information in the Dungeon Master's Guide is pretty vague and limited, giving little to no description of what every tool is capable of. In Xanathar's Guide To Everything, they expand on things a bit more with a description of what is in each set and some potential uses, but again there is no real, definitive system and certain areas feel unbalanced and make little sense.
Alchemist's Supplies are the perfect example of this imbalance in action. I have been reading Dump Stat Adventures articles on tools and how they could be implemented better, and their article on Alchemist's Supplies highlight the way Wizards Of The Coast handle them in comparison to the Herbalism Kit. I'd suggest reading it for specifics, but essentially I think that many people would agree that a Herbalism Kit conjures up images of plant work, a mortar and pestle, and natural ingredients for natural medicines; while mental images of Alchemist's Supplies feel like they would contain glass flasks, an open flame, and a much more complex magical result. So it is odd to me that the Herbalism Kit can specifically create potions of healing while there is only a slight reference to the potion-making capabilities of the Alchemist's Supplies. For me, the two are part of the same family but ultimately the Herbalism Kit does not have the sophistication of Alchemist's Supplies. A herbalist will spend much less time and money but ultimately create a far less potent mixture than an alchemist poring over their creations for hours. If either of these can make a potion of healing, its Alchemist's Supplies.
So what do I hope to achieve with these posts? Well I would love to start spinning some ideas and encouraging DMs to incorporate Tools into their games on a deeper level, because when done well I think it can really make a player feel that those proficiencies add something to a game! I'll be focusing on things that can be created or achieved with these tools rather than knowledge or skill checks, as I mostly think those depend on individual circumstances and most DMs can rule in the moment whether proficiency with tools are relevant.
You know me - I love to draw from real-world history and then bring that to DnD. So what is Alchemy in the real world? Well, in short, it is an ancient practice that combines protoscientific method with philosophy. It was historically practiced in ancient Asian, Islamic, and European cultures and involved the attempted experimentation, purification, and improvement of certain materials. This was usually with a rather fantastical aim in mind - the transmuting of gold from base metals such as lead, an elixir of immortality, or a disease curing remedy were common examples of these.
While a lot of ancient Alchemy's principles are rooted in things that seem rather improbable, a lot of the methods developed are still used today! It is a really interesting mix of spiritual theories mixed with practical application, and like many things this ancient practice resurged in popularity during the Renaissance period. It then went onto develop into something that resembles modern day science, particularly chemistry, far more closely.
From the above, its easy to see how Alchemist's Supplies have the potential to really spark the imagination - especially in the fantastical setting of most DnD games! The current entry for Alchemist's Supplies in Xanathar's Guide To Everything (page 78) is as follows:
'Alchemist’s supplies enable a character to produce useful concoctions, such as acid or alchemist’s fire.
Components. Alchemist’s supplies include two glass beakers, a metal frame to hold a beaker in place over an open flame, a glass stirring rod, a small mortar and pestle, and a pouch of common alchemical ingredients, including salt, powdered iron, and purified water.'
I like these components being listed in this manner - it gives a character some physical components that they know they can reach for within their pack. Things like acid and alchemist's fire are also incredibly useful concoctions and, along with soap, oil, and perfume, are a relatively decent start to tapping into the potential of someone proficient with Alchemist's Supplies. On top of that I would have a look at some of the more explosive options within available equipment - gunpowder (keg), gunpowder (powder horn), and blasting powder are all viable option and could be used to make bullets, or even bombs! If you have a Gunslinger in the party, they'll certainly be grateful!
I would also seriously consider allowing an alchemist to create potions from scratch. Yeah...I know. It might SEEM a little overpowered. But I would allow this to take place at suitable cost to the player - both time and money-wise, and with a DC in mind dependant on the potion's rarity. It makes sense that it would be cheaper for players to purchase ingredients and make it themselves than to buy the finished potion, and it would certainly be an excellent investment of time if the player could get hold of some of the ingredients during their adventuring! It feels like the kind of thing that could get an adventurer thinking creatively when it comes to looting or gaining treasure. It ALSO gives the player a chance to have some fun experimenting and making concoctions of their own, that don't already exist within the core books.
I do have some fun resource ideas too if you were looking for some ideas on how to implement Alchemy in your games in some way!
The Ultimate Guide To Alchemy, Crafting, & Enchanting from Nord Games. A really useful resource for creating a system to track crafting and alchemy within DnD. If you have a PC who is a tinkerer, artificer, or alchemist then give this a look.
Tome Of Alchemy from Frog God Games. Plenty of alchemy-themed adventure hooks, spells, magical items, and systems surrounding alchemical research and study.
Alchemy & Poisoncraft from Cabal Of Enchantment. Elements of this will probably run into my eventual article on the Poisoner's Kit, but there is certainly some alchemy content in here! Substance ideas, concoctions, explosives, and procedures are what I'd most pay attention to here!
Thunderstones & Smokesticks: The Complete Guide To Mundane Alchemy from Thieves' Cant Games. There isn't a whole lot to the very inexpensive book but it does provide a stepping stone, much like the article I've referenced at the beginning of this one, to creating your own rules and rewards for making better use of your proficiency!
Kibbles' Compendium Of Craft & Creation from Kibblestasty Homebrew. I've not properly dived into this one, but Alchemist is one of the special crafting types that they take a deep-dive into and it could prove a useful guide for your table!
I'd love to hear how Tools are used at your table. Do you create systems for your players to use? On the fly checks dependant on what a player wants to achieve? Or are they completely forgotten? Let me know!