alchemy makes you go bankrupt

In this post, I set out to

  • propose that the 4e alchemy system is overpriced for its power;
  • prove it; and
  • offer a solution.

    Alchemy is not used

    I remember that in earlier editions, my D&D groups relished tossing holy water, and, even better, dousing enemies with oil and lighting them on fire. However, in my current group, no one seems very excited about the alchemy rules.

    Furthermore, I don’t think there have been a lot of message board posts, Dragon articles, or gamebook support of alchemy after its introduction in Adventurer’s Vault in 2008. People don’t seem very interested in the 4e alchemy implementation.

    My first intuition is that alchemy is overpriced: the cost for making a one-shot level 1 alchemical item is 20 gp! That’s a big chunk of change for a level 1 character, comparing unfavorably with “free” for at-will, encounter, and daily powers, so they’d better deliver. I decided to crunch the numbers and compare alchemical items against at-will attacks.


    STEP 1: How much damage do alchemical items do?

    I’ll look at 3 representative items: holy water, alchemical acid, and alchemical fire. I’ll assume level 1 characters using level 1 alchemical items vs level 1 monsters. All these items attack Reflex with a +4 bonus, which is comparable to level 1 characters’ other attacks, and hits the average level 1 monster’s Reflex defense around 60% of the time. Damage expectation will be based on 60% of the damage scored on a hit plus 40% of the damage scored on a miss.

    Alchemical Item Stats:
    Holy water: 1d10 radiant damage, used as a minor action
    Alchemist’s acid: 1d10 acid and ongoing 5, half damage and no ongoing on miss.
    Alchemist’s fire: burst 1, 1d6 fire damage, half damage on miss.

    Holy Water: Holy water is only used against creatures with radiant vulnerability, so let’s assume vulnerability 5. Average damage on a hit is 10.5; hits 60% of the time; damage expectation is around 6 damage per use.
    Alchemist’s Acid: There seems to be nothing vulnerable to acid in the Monster Manual I, so we won’t worry about that. Average damage is still good: 5.5 damage on a hit, plus damage expectation approaching 10 HP from ongoing 5; 2.75 damage on a miss. Damage expectation is around 10.5 damage per use. (Caveat: It’s not quite as good as it seems, because multiple ongoing damage doesn’t stack.)
    Alchemist’s fire is a little harder to calculate, because it’s burst 1. We can calculate damage per creature caught in the attack, though: 1d6 on a hit and half on a miss: 2.8 damage per creature, or 7.8 if they have vulnerability 5 fire.

    STEP 2: Calculate At-Will Attack Damage

    I’ll choose three representative at-will attacks: Magic Missile, Scorching Burst, and Reaping Strike with a longsword, to compare alchemical damage against. Note that I’m choosing controller and defender damage here: relatively low. My level-1 fighter and wizard have an 18 strength and intelligence respectively and no other damage optimizations.

    Magic Missile: autohit: damage expectation of 6.
    Reaping Strike: 1d8+4 on a hit, 4 on a miss: damage expectation of 6.7.
    Scorching Burst: burst 1, 1d6+4 on a hit: damage expectation of 4.5 per creature, or 9.5 if they have vulnerability 5 fire.

    STEP 3: How do the alchemical items compare with at-will attacks?

    Holy water‘s damage output is around that of Magic Missile, although the fact that it can be used as a minor does give it a lot of utility. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll have to spend two minor to use it: one to take out the vial and another to throw it.

    Alchemist’s acid does pretty well: almost 4 HP more damage than Reaping Strike.

    Alchemist’s fire is a dead loss against Scorching Burst, doing about 2 points less damage on an otherwise similar effect.

    Alchemist’s acid is the big winner here. If you have a vial of the stuff, it’s actually worth the minor action to get out the bottle, which is not necessarily true for Alchemist’s Fire. We’ll only talk about Alchemist’s Acid going foward.

    STEP 4: Calculate the Cost

    The average level 1 monster has 32 HP, and, in 4e combat, PC and monster numbers are usually evenly matched. Roles aside, in the average battle each PC has to account for 1 opponent. It takes 10 encounters to earn enough XP get to level 2; let’s say that’s about 8 fights, and the remaining 2 encounters are skill challenges and quest XP. So, during Level 1, each PC has 8 opponents to kill, or 256 HP to get through.

    If the PC throws 1 alchemist’s acid per encounter, instead of using at-will attacks, then one attack, which would normally do 6.5 damage, will instead do around 10.5 damage. That adds up to 32 bonus damage over the course of 8 encounters – enough to have accounted for 1 full monster. How much did it cost the PC?

    Level 1 alchemist’s acid costs 20 GP. The PC threw 8 bottles of it. It cost the PC 160 GP.

    At level 1, a 5-character party earns 720 gold. That means each PC gets 144 gold. The acid-throwing PC has spent all of his monetary reward for level 1, and is 16 GP in debt, from throwing one bottle of acid per encounter. What did he get in exchange for all his money?

    He did 32 points of bonus damage. In other words, instead of the party having to deal with 40 monsters at level 1, it only had to deal with 39.

    Alchemy prices scale with level. A level 26 character throwing 8 bottles of Alchemist’s Acid is spending 360,000 gold: most of the 450,000 gold he or she will earn for that level. Even if the expense is split among the party, a heavily alchemy-using party is always going to be behind the curve on money, and therefore magic items.

    An obvious counter-argument is that my hypothetical party is using alchemy too much. A party would be better off if they only used it situationally, not once an encounter. I agree, and I’ll go further: the party would be even better off if they never used it at all.

    Besides, a character who spent a feat on alchemy probably wants to throw around vials of volatile substances: to feel like a crazy alchemist. Throwing one bottle an encounter seems perfectly in line with this character archetype. If you’re limited to throwing one or two bottles a character level, it seems like alchemy is not living up to its promise.


    How much damage would alchemical items have to do in order to justify their cost? Honestly, if using one such item per encounter is going to sap all my earnings and more, the item better KILL MY OPPONENT DEAD WITH NO CHANCE OF MISSING. Otherwise I honestly don’t know whether I’d use it.

    Obviously such an item would be really weird for game balance, so let’s not go that route. Instead, let’s lower the cost of the existing alchemical items.


    One way to go is to divide the price by some number – say 10 – so that it is an affordable option. This will be tough, though: you have to get the price right. Too expensive and alchemy will be a player-wealth-killing trap; too cheap and players will spam alchemy instead of using their other powers. The other problem is that we return to the early-edition days where people were expected to keep track of how many arrows they’d shot.

    Luckily, the geniuses behind 4e and Gamma World have already come up with a solution for this issue. You can give players more-powerful attacks; you limit their use. You make them encounter powers.

    Alchemical items are a perfect fit for the Gamma World ammo rules. When you whip up some Holy Water, you’re not making a vial; you’re making a batch. You can now use one vial of Holy Water per encounter.

    If things get really hairy undead-wise, you can Go For Broke and start throwing Holy Water as an at-will attack. That means you’re using up your supply. As soon as the encounter ends, you are out of Holy Water. (An added wrinkle that just occurred to me: when you’re Going For Broke with alchemical items, if you ever roll a 1 on an attack roll, you just used up your last bottle.)

    Is alchemy now too cheap? I don’t think so. The alchemy-using PC has already paid a lot: they’ve spent a feat on alchemy (or opted not to take Ritual Caster), and paid the market price for the alchemical formula (70GP for the level 1 items I’ve discussed here). For all that investment, the PC should be able to do an occasional +4 damage without going totally bankrupt.

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  • 10 Responses to “alchemy makes you go bankrupt”

    1. Brandonshire says:

      In the last game I DM’d I had a player who was pretty into the idea of being an alchemist, and we were always trying to find ways to make that a bit more viable of an option and to make it make sense to actually _make_ alchemical items rather than just buying them. I think the furthest we got was discounting the items she made (rather than bought) by around 10% or so, and then we started looking into ways to make using Mage Hand do something interesting with alchemical items. (She also found a Deep Pocket cloak which made drawing an alchemical item a free action).

      This however I think nails it. I was actually just thinking earlier today about how much I like the Gamma World gun rules.

      As a possible expansion (though maybe this would make it a bit too good, not sure) you could even rule that when you’re actually an alchemist yourself and you’re making up a batch you get a full “batch” for the normal cost of the item, but if you’re just buying a vial of the stuff in the store it costs the same but it’s only one use as they normally are. This I think nicely represents that profit that presumably has to be built into the price of an alchemical item you guy in a store vs the cost of making it yourself (otherwise why bother?).

    2. Brandonshire says:

      Oy, wish I could go back and edit that reply to fix a few typos…

    3. paul paul says:

      Oh my god! I just realized, maybe alchemy as a pointless moneysink is meant to be a simulation of real alchemy! I take back all my criticisms.

    4. Anonymous says:

      I’ve looked over the alchemy recipes(rituals) in the Compendium and I think the Gamma World rules work excellently with all the recipes that contain the words “Make an attack:”

      The others? Not so well.

      Perhaps tweak this so that only alchemy item recipes(rituals) that contain “Make an attack:” can be made into batch items to be used with the Gamma World rules and all other alchemy items perhaps make half price?

    5. paul says:

      That’s a good point.

      A fun (and approximately equal) alternative to cutting prices in half is to use the Gamma World rule for Omega Tech: whenever someone uses a non-attack alchemical item, they make a saving throw. If they succeed on the saving throw, they keep the item. If they fail, they’ve used it up.

      The exact price point can be adjusted: for instance, if you’d like to cut the price further, you could say that having the alchemy feat gives you a +2 on the saving throw.

    6. […] reconsidering last week's post about making alchemical items into encounter powers. Maybe part of the charm and flavor of flaming oil, holy water, and the rest are that they are […]

    7. […] 1d8 damage on the first round and 1d8 in the second. Of course, it was more complicated than its watered-down 4e equivalent, Alchemist's Fire: with Flaming Oil, you had to douse a guy with oil and then make an easy attack roll to set the […]

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    9. Mord Trevak says:

      I see only one reason why 4th edition made alchemy work this way: so the PCs don’t just beat every dungeon by rolling a barrel full of alchemist’s fire into the cave and shooting it. And since my DM puts very few limits on alchemy, I intend to start doing just that.

      Every group has a moment when they need a nuclear option, be it a Wrath of God spell or a Wish for a ballistic missile. Our alchemist has crafted ours: a keg full of 200 vials of basic-level Alchemist’s Fire. When this baby goes off, everything in Burst 1 will take 200d6 of fire, halved on a miss. I don’t care what kind of monster that hits, if it ain’t immune to fire, it is dead.

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