Alternative Alchemy for Gurps (Part 2 of 2)

Repeated from the previous post:

I’m not a fan of the Alchemy rules in Gurps Magic. If you look at the list of sample recipes, they’re mostly ways to get an advantage temporarily by drinking the potion. I think that’s great, but recognizing that’s what it is, it would be much better to have, instead of a list of recipes, a set of rules for designing your own. (Better? Gurpsier, anyway.) So, here are what started out as some quick notes on how such a system might look, and swelled up into what I think is a pretty nifty look at a particular fantasy niche. I’ve split this post into two parts: the first one deals with elixirs mostly from the buyer’s point of view, and includes the rules for designing an elixir, setting its cost, and using it. This second one is more focused on the alchemist’s perspective, and includes information on how to brew elixirs and other alchemical substances.

Producing Elixirs

To produce a given elixir, an alchemist requires the following:

  • Raw ingredients. These cost 1/5 of the selling price of the elixir, or $8 per character point for a potion, ointment, or powder. An alchemist can use impure ingredients, which cost only 1/10 of a pure elixir’s selling price, but will only produce an impure elixir.
  • Time. An elixir takes one day for each $100 of selling price; round up. Even if using impure ingredients, calculate time from cost for a pure elixir. The elixir brews constantly, but requires only about 8 hours of actual work each day. The alchemist can work shorter hours (Haste, p. B346), but this does not affect the time it takes for the elixir to brew. The alchemist can also take a break from brewing, but no more than every other day; the elixir will keep, but the brewing will not make progress, on the alchemist’s days off.
  • A laboratory. See Magic, p. 211.
  • A recipe. Many elixirs (the GM’s call) are common knowledge and any given alchemist will know how to make them at -1 to skill. For an uncommon elixir, make an Alchemy roll at -1 per full 10 points the advantage granted is worth. On a success, the alchemist is familiar with the elixir; on a failure, he or she must track down a recipe. Access to a guild library or other reasonable source permits a Research roll at the same penalty as the initial Alchemy roll, and a bonus ranging from +1 to +5 depending on the size of the library (+1 for one worth $1,000, +2 for a $10,000 library, +3 for $100,000, and so on). On a success, a recipe is found, and the alchemist can proceed, although he or she takes a -2 unfamiliarity penalty on the first attempt to brew the elixir. Each recipe is an Average technique, defaulting to Alchemy-1, that can be raised up to Alchemy+4 (or Alchemy +6 with the Technique Mastery perk).

At the end of the brewing period for each elixir, the alchemist rolls Alchemy, at -1 unless he or she has put points in the technique for the recipe in question.

  • On a critical success, the alchemist produces twice as valuable an elixir, or two doses instead of one; the GM decides and determines the details.
  • On a normal success, the elixir comes out right. With impure ingredients, it’s impure.
  • On a normal failure by 3 or less, the alchemist bungles the process somehow and ends up with an impure elixir; if he or she’s using impure ingredients, the resulting elixir is very impure.
  • On a normal failure by 4 or more, the ingredients and time are wasted.
  • On a critical failure, the alchemist ruins some of the equipment he or she’s using; replacements will cost $100 for each day of brewing. If this is more than the cost of the whole laboratory, assume that he or she’s also set fire to part of the building, has to pay damages to bypassers caught in a cloud of hazardous fumes, or something of the like.

By assumption, an alchemist, like most skilled professionals, works roughly 25 days a month, enough to brew a $2,500 potion. For more expensive elixirs, the alchemist should roll once per month. A monthly roll is interpreted as follows:

  • On a critical success, the alchemist makes double progress over the course of the month.
  • On a normal success, the alchemist makes one month’s worth of progress.
  • On a normal failure, the progress comes up short by MoF × 10%. In addition, once the work is finished, he or she must make a final roll against the technique in question; if this roll fails, the resulting elixir is impure. Make only one such roll, regardless of how many failures the alchemist has rolled over the course of brewing.
  • On a critical failure, the elixir is ruined, and the alchemist sustains additional losses of $2,500.

Other Concoctions

In addition to advantage-based elixirs, alchemists can produce other wondrous substances. These are divided into three categories: uncommonrare, and legendary.

Uncommon Alchemical Substances

The recipes for these substances are the closely-guarded secret of alchemists’ guilds or distinguished lineages, taught only to those who are deemed proficient (journeymen in guilds, or independent practicioners otherwise) and loyal. A Duty is a common prerequisite. Some possibilities:

  • Advanced Materials: Alchemy can produce the equivalent of any kind of physical material of the next TL. These are mana-sensitive materials, but otherwise function just like those that become available at the next TL. For example, a TL 3 alchemist can produce magical gunpowder, while a TL 1 alchemist could create magical iron. In addition to the normal Alchemy roll, this requires a success with whatever skill would be used to produce the equivalent mundane material, but at the alchemist’s TL: Chemistry for gunpowder, Metallurgy for metals, Pharmacy (Synthetic) for ether, and so on. The cost is twice that of the mundane material at the next TL. Widespread availability of advanced materials at TL X can eventually lead toa TL X+1 setting.
  • Healing Potion: A stock item wherever soldiers, duellists and adventurers make up a significant part of the clientele. One dose of this potion instantly heals 1d hit points; $200.
  • Paut: Magic in a bottle: each dose restores 1d magical ER or FP spent on magic; $200.

Rare Alchemical Substances

None of these substances are widely known; to discover the recipe for one, an alchemist must either invent it, delve into ancient sources, or become an accredited grandmaster in the alchemists’ guild. Unlike common elixirs and uncommon substances, rare ones default to Alchemy-3, even when a recipe is available. With the exception of prima materia, none of these substances can be brewed out of impure materials.

  • Alkahest: The universal solvent. Each dose does 6d corrosive damage with the enhancements Affects Insubstantial and Cosmic (Irresistible Attack). $1,000.
  • Azoth: The universal cure. One dose is enough to completely and instantaneously heal any poison, any sickness, and any amount of injury, but cannot bring back the dead. Potion or powder; $5,000.
  • Homunculus: An artificial person, typically tiny, but with a pure soul, whatever that means. The homunculus is an Ally, available on 15 or less (what does it do on a roll of 16 or more?), and built on 75% of the alchemist’s character points. (The real reason it’s tiny is to save points on ST, which is 1 for a 6-inch homunculus.) It takes 200 days, a dose of takwin, and $4,000 in other ingredients, to bring a homunculus to term and nurture it through its abbreviated infancy. A greater homunculus (100% of the alchemist’s point total, with the Special Abilities enhancement, and usually human-level ST) requires 500 days, three doses of takwin, and $10,000 in other ingredients.
  • Philosopher’s Stone: Can convert any substance into any finer substance, such as base metals into gold. Unfortunately, it costs $1,500 per ounce (one dose), or slightly more than gold. With a forge, and successful rolls against Metallurgy and Armoury, an alchemist or weaponsmith can also make any metallic weapon share in the mystical properties of silver (or gold). This requires one ounce of the philosopher’s stone per pound of weapon weight; a weapon so treated functions as one of pure silver against anything vulnerable to silver, but breaks no more easily than before. Any metal object can be treated the same way but made mystically gold-like instead; this protects against completely against corrosion (except that caused by the alkahest).
  • Prima Materia: The universal matter. This substance can function as an ingredient to any alchemical concoction, including itself! A ‘dose’ is one ounce, worth $2,000. It’s also the only substance that can contain the alkahest; one ounce of the former is sufficient for a jar big enough to hold one dose of the latter.
  • Takwin: An artificial organic substance that can facilitate the growth of any living thing. Any seed or egg buried in it will grow to full life; it can also be used to grow a homunculus. A dose is about a pound, and costs $2,000.

Legendary Alchemical Substances

The recipe to a legendary substance can only be acquired through some kind of quest, whether one involving travel to distant lands, or trafficking with supernatural beings, quite possibly of a demonic persuasion. Even with the recipe, legendary substances default to Alchemy-5, and can never be made from impure materials. Anything is possible, but the following two recipes will suffice for examples:

  • The Angelic Stone: To make this invisible, weightless substance, one dose of which cannot be measured, the alchemist must first take on at least -10 worth of religious disadvantages. He may spend the points thus gained on IQ, Will, or the skills Alchemy and Meditation. To begin the process, the alchemist must also have at least seven doses each of the azoth and the philosopher’s stone, with which he or she purifies and heals his- or herself during the process. It takes 2,000 days to brew, and consumes $40,000 worth of ingredients; furthermore, these are not regular 8-hour working days, but take up every waking hour, half of them spent in prayer and meditation. The alchemist must make a Meditation or Will roll once a month to maintain the lifestyle; on a failure, the progress of the Stone is set back a full month! Only the alchemist who makes the Angelic Stone can perceive it, let alone consume it. Upon ingesting – or assuming – the Angelic Stone, the alchemist gains the Divine Favor advantage at level 16 (see Powers: Divine Favor).
  • The Elixir of Life: To produce one dose of this elixir, the alchemist needs one dose each of alkahest, azoth, the philosopher’s stone, the prima materia, and takwin, and $80,000 worth of other materials. It takes 4,000 days to brew, and only the alchemist who makes it can consume it. Once ingested, it grants Doesn’t Breathe, Immunity to Metabolic Hazards, Unaging, and Unkillable 2 permanently; alternately, it brings the dead to life. Or maybe it has some other effect, no one really knows.

Further Details

The Alchemist’s Trade

A competent alchemist with skill 12 can earn a Comfortable income and support a Status 1 lifestyle. He or she has a shop comparable in size and traffic to that of any other Status 1 craftsman; setting one up typically requires a roughly $3,000 initial investment. This is an entrepeneurial or freelance job with an income of $1,400 a month, modified by the margin of success or failure of a monthly job roll (p. 516).

In a guild-dominated area, a skill 12 alchemist is only a journeyman, and works for a master for a $700 monthly salary. The guild might ban the sale of impure elixirs to protect their reputation; in that case, incomes for all guild members are a little lower, but there might be a thriving black market in impure “spillage”.

A master alchemist with skill 16 will typically have a large, well-equipped laboratory worth +1 for himself, and auxiliary facilities for apprentices and hired journeymen. He or she might spend half of each working day on a more expensive elixir (with effective skill 11, after +1 for the laboratory, -1 for the elixir technique and -5 for -50% time spent), and the other half supervising apprentices. With two apprentices, each with Alchemy-10 or thereabouts and +1 for the master’s supervision, the master can expect an extra income in the range of $2,500 to $3,000 each month, but each apprentice also consumes $300 in upkeep at a Status -1 standard of living, comparable to the household servants. All in all, the master him- or herself will enjoy a Wealthy income, enough to support a Status 2 standard of living. Setting up such a shop requires an initial investment of some $15,000, but most masters will start with a more modest establishment and build on it gradually.

Supporting skills

Chemistry and Thaumatology are always suitable as complementary skills (Action, p. 5), as is any skill that offers relevant knowledge regarding the applications of the advantage in question (e.g. Botany, for an elixir that grants Plant Empathy).

Chemistry can also be used to produce alchemical ingredients from cheaper materials. An alchemist’s lab is suitable for this purpose, but can’t be used to brew an elixir at the same time. A chemist can produce $50 worth of alchemical ingredients for a specific elixir from $10 worth of common supplies each day. This requires a successful Chemistry roll; on a failure by 3 or less, impure materials, worth $25, are produced instead. A chemist with skill 12 can therefore expect an income roughly half of an alchemist’s; in some settings, alchemists are the only ones with the Chemistry skill, and this work is done by apprentice alchemists.

Tech Level

These rules assume TL 3. At lower tech levels, Alchemy is otherwise identical, but laboratory equipment is much less productive. At TL 0, an elixir takes one day for each $25 of selling price; one day per $50 at TL 1; and one day per $75 at TL 2.

At TL 4, production times are halved (one day per $200), but a TL 4 lab also costs twice as much as one at TL 3. Higher Tech Levels will likely lead to either revolutionary change or total stagnation in Alchemy, but that’s beyond these rules.

Herb Lore

Herb Lore functions just like alchemy, with the following exceptions:

  • Raw ingredients: The ingredients for an herbal elixir only cost 1/10 the price of the finished product. They’re not produced with the Chemistry skill, but collected from the field. A day spent gathering and a Naturalist roll produces $20 worth of herbal ingredients. A small garden takes 100 square feet and one hour of work daily, and can produce $800 worth of ingredients each month during the local growing season.
  • Equipment: An ordinary kitchen is sufficient for Herb Lore, and a campfire and basic travelling equipment only impose a -1 penalty. A $1,000 assortment of equipment is sufficient for a +1 bonus.
  • Brewing time: Double the time required to produce an elixir with Herb Lore.
  • Tech Level: Ignore tech level completely- in fact, remove it from the skill description! Herbalists are just as effective at TL 0 as they are at TL 3 and beyond.
  • The herbalist’s trade: With their slower production rate, herbalists only make an Average income that supports a Status 0 cost of living, while masters with Herb Lore-16, a proper workspace, and possibly an apprentice, will make twice as much money and have the option of a Status 1 lifestyle. Since their ingredients come from undeveloped land, herbalists are much more likely to live in the countryside than cities; a rustic air is common in the profession.
  • Other concoctions: Herbalists can produce healing potions and paut, but not the other uncommon, rare, or legendary alchemical concoctions listed. They have their own secrets, too, no doubt: love potions and witches’ brews, perhaps.

Design Notes

So, this second part is focused on things a player with an alchemist character might want to know and do, but it includes some concoctions that adventurers would often shop for: paut and healing potions. I changed paut from 4 FP to 1d FP to keep it in line with the healing potion and leveled advantages, and upped the price on both to $200 from their costs in Dungeon Fantasy 1, because that’s exactly two days of work for an alchemist.

A wizard shopping for elixirs might buy paut for $100 to get 1d more energy points, or ER (Magic) for $600 to get 1d energy points that replenish at a rate of 1/5 minutes if he or she knows the Recover Energy spell at 15. With roughly a 50 minute duration to the Energy Reserve elixir, either one might be a better deal depending on intended use.

The daily budget calculations for an alchemist with skill 12 look something like the following: -$20 for ingredients, + 1.9% × $200 for critical successes, + 60.6% × $100 for normal successes at effective skill 11, +28.2% × $75 for an impure result on a failure by 3 or less, + 1.9% × -$100 for critical failures. This sums up to $64 per day on average, or a monthly income of $1,600 if the alchemist works 25 days a month. Since skill 12 means a job roll will produce roughly 15% extra income, this is close enough to the listed income of $1400.


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