Pathfinder Class Analysis 12: Alchemist

Pathfinder Iconic Alchemist

Something which I greatly respect about Pathfinder is the way in which Paizo has avoided system bloat. D&D 3.5’s run produced some truly terrible books, each of which came with a handful of new classes, dozens of new prestige classes, and mountains of new spells. And while Paizo has published books containing all of these, they’ve usually done so with a measured hand. The non-core, base classes are well considered and fit nicely with the 11 core classes. They’ve also been released under the OGL, which Wizards of the Coast did not do with their supplemental material.

So while I’ve completed my analysis of the core classes, I see no reason to stop looking at the rest of them.

Core Concept: While it may seem contrary to my statement above, I hate the Alchemist. In my mind, the existence of an alchemist class which gains access to impossible new heights of alchemical mastery invalidates every wizard who ever made time to focus on brewing potions. In the core rules alchemy is made out to be a great feat–not so for alchemists! They can brew potions in a minute flat!

Hit Die: 1d8 seems quite high, doesn’t it? What makes the alchemist deserve a larger hit die than the wizard? I suppose it might be argued, based on the class description, that “using his own body as experimental stock” has toughened up the otherwise squishy character. But I think 1d6 might be more appropriate.

Alchemy: As mentioned above, my least favorite aspect of this class is the way in which I feel it devalues alchemy. Creating concoctions in a single minute, and being able to create so many in a single day, makes run-of-the-mill alchemy look silly.

Once upon a time I was working on a class (never settled on a name for it, though I did have the working title of “Alchemical Surgeon”). It was primarily a healing class, and while it did receive some bonuses, it largely had to craft potions using the same process as any other class. The primary difference was that the surgeon was much more adept at using the potions, delivering them via needle prick, and allowing a single dose to be used multiple times rather that only once.

I think this would have been a much more interesting route to go than the one the Alchemist’s designers chose. Not only does it avoid the problem of devaluing non-alchemist alchemy, but it avoids another problem as well. The Pathfinder alchemist’s concoctions only work when being held by the alchemist. Something about the alchemist’s aura makes them work, blah blah blah, bullshit. It’s the kind of explanation people come up with when they need to implement a rule for game reasons, and can’t think of sufficient justification for why that rule would exist in the game world, so they just say “magic.”

My surgeon, on the other hand, was able to make concoctions more potent because he or she possessed knowledge of anatomy and knew where & how to inject the patient. That’s a much better explanation in my book.

I will say one positive thing about alchemist alchemy: I like the idea of a caster who can save spell slots to prepare later in the day with a minimal investment of time. That’s something I would like to see implemented better with another class.

Bomb: Bombs are pretty cool, I essentially covered my only issue with them above: they become inert when held by anyone but the alchemist. Which begs the question: what if the target of a thrown bomb catches it? Shouldn’t they be given a chance to do this since the bomb will become inert as soon as they posses it?

Brew Potion: Kinda obvious that this would be a bonus feat at first level.

Mutagen / Persistent Mutagen: This is actually a pretty damned cool idea, and works a mite better than the other two types of Alchemist alchemy (bombs and extracts). A better explanation for why it only works for the alchemist who created it might be that every mutagen must be tailored to the person who will use it, and they are so complex that it’s not really possible to understand another person’s physiology well enough to create a mutagen for them.

One thing I would have liked to see was more flavor. Functionally this is just an alternate form of the Barbarian’s rage ability. I think it would have been cool to have a handful of special monsters which the Alchemist could turn into at different levels.

Throw Anything: I like the Throw Anything feat. It was a clever addition to this class which I don’t know that I would have thought of myself.

Discovery: Perhaps this is just because I’ve been getting more old-school lately, but does anyone else think this would be much more interesting as a random roll rather than a choice the player must make? The impression I get of the alchemist is that they do a lot of random mixing “just to see what will happen,” so random discoveries would be appropriate.

Regardless of how they are chosen, however, I like how this ability is implemented.

Poison Resistance: I think it would be better if Alchemists simply gained immunity to poison at level 2, rather than receiving a resistance which slowly grows until it becomes immunity at level 10. But that’s a pretty consistent difference between Paizo’s design philosophies and my own.

Poison Use: Impossible to poison one’s self while using poisons. Straightforward and logical. I always thought this ability ought to be a feat.

Swift Alchemy / Instant Alchemy: These abilities only further speed up the Alchemist’s ability to create concoctions, and compound my primary issue with the class even further.

Swift Poisoning: Unlike performing alchemy quickly, applying poisons more quickly is pretty mundane and makes good sense to me. Though now that this ability exists, it ought to be an assassin ability as well.

Grand Discovery: This is among the cooler capstone abilities. Again it feels like it should be random, but that’s a pretty small complaint all things considered.

Alchemist Formulae: While I have no comment on the content of the Alchemist’s spell list, I like that the maximum spell level available is 6. There are several “partial casters” like the paladin who are primarily focused on their non-spellcasting abilities, but they normally max out at 4th level spells. The Alchemist leans in the other direction, with a heavier investment in magic. I’d prefer to see more classes like that, I think.

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16 thoughts on “Pathfinder Class Analysis 12: Alchemist”

  1. There actually is an archetype of the alchemist called Beastmorph. It uses its mutagens to do exactly what it says on the tin. It’s pretty darn cool and pairs well with another archetype called the Vivisectionist that gets sneak attack.

    I’m with Paizo on the poison immunity. There are too bloody many ways to get an immunity to poison, at least this time it takes a while.

    Discoveries go a long way to defining the build of an alchemist. I do not think they’d be better as random rolls.

    Side note: I have yet to play an alchemist, as I’m waiting for Paizo’s upcoming book Ultimate Campaign in which there will be rules for playing child characters. I really wanna play a young alchemical prodigy. :D

  2. I agree that the official fluff of the alchemist leaves something to be desired, but I also really like the concept of the class, and if the Wizards get huffy, all I have to say is “Get back in the lab”.

    Really, the Alchemist just strikes me as an extension of the Arcane School concept. Wizards may dabble in Alchemy, but at the end of the day, they are Transmuters or Conjurers or Evokers (or they become Universalists and full admit to being Jacks-of-All-Trades). The intellectual effort that Alchemists could have devoted to hurling fireballs or summoning demons is instead devoted to understanding their own anatomy and the properties of reagents.

    So yeah. I think we can pardon Alchemists if they can whip up potions a little faster than Wizards.

    I think your idea for the mutagen could easily be extended to the Alchemist’s extracts, too. They’re very specific to the Alchemist’s anatomy. Perhaps they even involve ingredients which are toxic to someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time building up an immunity.

    I’m envisioning a little homebrew rule: If someone else drinks an Alchemist’s extract, then they get a roll on the table of “fun and hilarious side effects”, which range from green hair and runny noses, to outright organ failure, getting worse as the extract level increases.

    Bombs could easily be more flexible, and I’d agree that much of the current flavour is contrived. But maybe bombs decay if not hurled within one or two rounds after “activation”. It allows for more flexibility (improvising demolition charges seems legit to me), while avoiding a situation where the Alchemist min/maxes around the mutagen, and gives all his bombs to the Rogue. It also allows bombs to be caught and hurled back, which also strikes me as legit.

    Finally, I think the Alchemist gives greater versatility to Intelligence. In the Core Book, the only class that really *needs* Intelligence is the Wizard. And being able to cast spells hardly makes you special. Wizards devote years of their life in intense study, trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe. Meanwhile, your friend can down a few pints in the name of the God of Beer, and HE GETS TO CAST SPELLS TOO! Your college roommate takes a few hits off the bong, and suddenly he’s calling down lightning and talking to animals. Never mind the kid down the street, whose mom was having an affair with that Incubus. Maybe one day, when you’re master of the arcane arts, you’ll show them all! But you’ll probably get eaten by a Bhargest first. In a world like that, why would you ever bother to be a wizard?

    But as an Alchemist? *No one* does what you do. In fact, no one *knows* what you do. They all said those chemistry textbooks were useless. Even the *Wizards* laughed at you. They could brew potions too, but they also know some cute party tricks to fool girls into thinking they were sorcerers.

    But you slaved away, stuck in your basement, milking beetles and dissecting frogs. When jocks tried to shove you into a locker when you were first level, you didn’t cast “Dazzle ” and run away. You threw acid in their faces and lit them on fire. When you were picked last for soccer, you chugged down a mutagen and dominated the pitch. And now that you’ll be 25 forever, you have all the time in the world to pick up chicks. Who’s laughing now, Gandalf?

    (As evidenced by the example above, I also don’t think discoveries should be random. If someone dedicates themselves to the discovery of eternal youth, it feels anticlimactic that their crowning achievement should be a poison touch).

    1. I really like the way you worded your last paragraph. It shows discoveries to be the culmination of all those experiments, not just the results of one or two weird mixtures. Also, now the Grand Discovery becomes an even cooler capstone!

  3. I don’t agree with you about system bloat and Pathfinder. The only ‘player’ books I think are worth owning are Core and Advanced Player’s Guide. Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat, Advanced Race Guide, and beyond are all just as useless as anything that WOTC sold in the latter portion of the 3.5 era.

    Sorry to focus on one minor point in your post.

  4. I think the proper trade-off for making concoctions (which other people should be able to use) is expiration. Another option would be to make them dangerous for others to use, but I prefer expiration because it also adresses the problem of accumulating too much stuff.

    I’ve used this in a few of my designs involving potions, but I don’t think I’ve posted it yet (probably part of Hexagram; should go look for that and write up a post).

  5. Bomb: Once ‘armed’ it can not be made inert. Much like pulling a pin on a grenade.

    Discovery: Making a player stick with a randomly rolled power is unfun. Playing that character is all that a player gets to do. They should play the character they want, not the character the dice decides for them. There are enough random rolls in gaming already. This is one of my main issues with the whole ‘old school’ model. Random rolls are for attacks and skill checks, not building characters. I don’t even much like the idea that people have to roll for HP.

    1. @Tetsubo

      Unfun for some players, maybe. You should nuance that statement. When I am a player, seeing how the juxtaposition of randomly determined features come together to develop into a unique character is probably my favorite part.

    2. As you’ve voiced this exact disagreement with me on multiple posts, I would think it’s pretty clear by now that you and I have different ideas of what is fun.

  6. This is a pretty well written analysis.

    I do however think you’re overvaluing alchemy. I never thought of alchemy as that good in Pathfinder. At early levels, it’s very expensive and you rarely have time to make anything. They require both an attack roll and save. When you finally raise your alchemy skill to reliably and quickly craft items, most creatures will be strong enough to save against the effects. If you’re a wizard, you’ll have better options by then. Even Paizo noticed this and introduced rules that allow alchemy items to be used as spell components.

    The same goes for alchemists. By the time an alchemist gets all of the abilities that speeds up item creation, alchemy items won’t be very useful. Their primary contribution is bomb discoveries — the alchemy items are only useful when they want to conserve bombs.

    One of my players is an alchemist who aimed to specialize in alchemy items. Ironically, he frequently says he wished he played a wizard instead. He feels like a halfarsed wizard that lobs bombs and can’t make use of alchemy items as spell components because alchemists are not spellcasters. Being technically not a spellcaster hurts because they do not qualify for any feats that require spellcasting.

    I disagree with randomizing character build decisions, but I do understand the tasteful appeal. I consider it bad game design to randomize character builds as it’s a long term commitment and takes choice out of the player’s hands. The dice aren’t playing my character — I am. Why do they get to decide what my character is like? It’s moreso with the alchemist because he becomes very lackluster at later levels if he doesn’t have the right discoveries. However, I can understand the taste of randomization and your suggestion could make an interesting house rule.

    But you’re right — there’s a lot of interesting campaign things that can be done with discoveries. I started to toy with the notion of giving homebrew discoveries to alchemists as they go adventuring. Party infiltrates an alchemy lab that turns slimes into humanoids? Maybe the party alchemist finds the bad guy’s notes and learns a discovery that lets him do that.

    The reason alchemists have a d8 HD is so they can be viable fighters. In Pathfinder, a class’s BAB correlates directly to their HD — d6 = 1/2 BAB, d8 = 3/4 BAB, and d10/d12 = full BAB. A 3/4 BAB allows a player to build an alchemist that uses mutagens and extracts to buff themselves into melee fighters in a Bane or Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of way. In fact, there’s even a prestige class for developing a brutish split personality.

    Overall, I do enjoy reading this and the rest of your class analysis. It’s fun to read your opinions about it, even if I might not agree with all of them.

    1. @Cyrad

      Despite not really being a Pathfinder player, I have to say I really enjoyed reading this comment. The save paradigm for class abilities can be somewhat problematic, unless there are also lesser effects on a successful save. Is that the case for PF alchemist concoctions?

      1. Alchemy items made by an alchemist are no different from ones made by a wizard. The only difference is that the alchemist adds his Intelligence modifier to the damage of splash weapons. The save doesn’t scale with the creator’s power. Most of them have a very minor effect on a successful save.

        Bombs, the true power of the alchemist, work slightly different. Discoveries allow the alchemist to change the properties of his bombs so they have a bonus effect. They work by having a powerful effect on a direct hit and a lesser effect to those affected by the splash damage. If the bomb misses, the target gets hit with the splash damage and can save against it. The save scales with level and ability score.

        The bombs are actually quite an elegant system of gradual success:
        1) The target can get hit directly and fail the effect save.
        2) The target can get hit directly, but save against the effect.
        3) The target can dodge it, get splashed, and fail the effect save.
        4) The target can dodge it, get splashed, but save against the effect.
        5) The target can dodge it and avoid getting splashed if they’re a monk or rogue.

        I kind of wish normal alchemy items were like this.

        I’m glad you enjoyed my comment. I really appreciate the follow up. Personally, I enjoy learning about other systems, even if I have no interest in playing them.

  7. I just tossed the quickened alchemy out the window and gave them the Master Alchemist/Master Poisoner feats instead at level spread.

  8. Have I missed something? Alchemists are no better at making potions than Wizards or any other spellcasting class and, because of their limited selection, you could argue they’re worse. Brewing a magical potion takes 2 hours if its base price is 250 gp or less, otherwise brewing a potion takes 1 day for each 1,000 gp in its base price. None of the Alchemists abilities speed up this process. Each ability which discusses the Alchemist crafting items faster than normal specifies “alchemical items” and magical potions are manifestly NOT alchemical items. Where is this ability which enables an Alchemist to brew a potion in one minute?

    I don’t see how an Alchemist devalues alchemy any more than a spellcaster devalues potions/rings/wondrous items. I can either buy the Tanglefoot Bag, or ask my buddy the Alchemist to whip one up for me. I can either buy the Shillelagh potion, or ask my buddy the Cleric to whip one up for me. What’s the difference? How does this make run-of-the-mill alchemy look silly? Furthermore, the Alchemist can’t actually make multiple items in a day until 18th level. At that level, you could argue almost anything looks silly don’t you think? I mean, Wish is still a thing last time I checked.

    1. I haven’t opened a Pathfinder book in something like 2 or 3 years now. You may be right, but my PF books are packed away in a box, so I can’t even really check right now.

  9. Honestly, I see the whole devaluation this as the same argument made for the bards. The alchemist is a specialist, so it makes sense s/he’d be better at making alchemical goods than the wizard, who’s more of generalist.

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