Monday, January 12, 2009

Collecting Spores, Molds, and Fungus

So I've started playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As far as "sandbox" (how I hate that word) games go, it's pretty entertaining. One little tidbit that I see the game has, and which I want to investigate a little bit more, is the Alchemy system. You can collect plants and animal parts as you wander around, and if you have the right gear - alembics, mortar & pestles, etc., you can brew up various helpful (or not so helpful) concoctions.

Now, my RPG collection is far from exhaustive, but from what I've seen, there just aren't that many RPGs that get into the whole concept of Alchemy. Spell components or some analogue to them show up a lot, but a solid set of rules for Alchemy seems a lot more rare - I believe Chivalry & Sorcery has some kind of rules system involving enhancing spells with various herbs and crystals, but that's not exactly the same thing. Other systems, such as Rolemaster, have rules for using herbs to grant healing and attribute enhancement, and even had rules for preparation and addiction (which happened once in one of the RM campaigns I played in - pretty amusing to have the mage hooked on one of the healing herbs...munch munch munch...).

So now I'm curious - what RPGs out there have strong, detailed, functional rules sets for "Alchemy" or at least the creation of Potions? And by this I mean, not just "The GM decides what components you need as a means of sending you out into the wild in search of them so you can blunder into a lot of random encounters". I'm talking about rules that will give a list of herbs and other alchemical materials, what effects they provide, and how a PC put them all together in order to create something useful.

My gut feeling is that this is actually pretty rare - it's something that'd require a lot of bean-counting and grocery-listing - what one of my players contemptuously referred to as "playing doll house" - and unless you have a wizard-heavy party, it would be a colossal bore for all the other players as the wizard's player keeps insisting that the party search for herbs everywhere, and spends a lot of game time brewing up stuff that doesn't even work half the time.

But on the other hand, something like this might be kind of cool. Rare plant and animal parts, as well as rare materials such as metals, gems, and other minerals, can add another layer of plot-hooks and treasure rewards on top of the usual gold & silver. Also, even if your party lacks a mage who has a knowledge of alchemy, perhaps you've got a rogue who finds various mild poisons or other concoctions handy, or there could be an NPC alchemist who occasionally hires the party in order to help him acquire some rare materials for his works.

Anyhow, I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts as to systems that have good solid rule sets for using Herbalism, Potion Brewing, Alchemy, or other similar rules, and if you've encountered these and used them in gameplay, how it worked out.


Chgowiz said...

I think something as "optional" versus a core mechanic would be interesting. If a mage or cleric wanted to be an alchemist, it would be nice to have the option. It would also make for a nice NPC.

Actually, in my games, most often the healing and "common" potions are more about alchemy than magic, at least in my head. I've not gotten into it far enough to go further, but when people find healing potions and the like in monster's lairs, it's not always going to be a human brew that heals someone (an example is the "draught" that Merry/Pippen were given by the orcs as they were kidnapped and taken to Isengard.)

I'm really surprised that in the 30odd years of various D&D magazines nothing has been published for that kind of thing.

Badelaire said...

I'm pretty sure I've seen, somewhere and at some point, articles around herbs - probably a small list of magical or rare plants and in game effects for their use. There's probably also something out there as extra rules for rangers, druids, clerics, and mages - perhaps something late 2E in one of the Complete guides?

And I agree with you on the whole potion thing - it makes more sense that potions are "magical" not because someone zapped some colored liquid with a spell, but because they are Alchemically brewed up with certain special rituals and ingredients.

Chris said...

Volo's Guide to All Things Magical (2E FR)had a whole chapter on the alchemical uses of plants, organs and gemstones.

Ars Magica made it an integral part of magical casting. Rare objects from herbs on up to dragon hearts could be harvested for their inherent vis.

Viriatha said...

Fantasy does not have such a system inherent but the rules are open enough to additions that I can, and am, creating it. Each time I create a new monster, I'm including "economic" uses of various bits. In addition, I'm creating, slowly, potion recipes that can use these bits. Then adding both to my personalized treasure tables.

Like many, I think this is an extremely overlooked possibility. So I'm opening the option up for players - but leaving it up to them to choose to be involved or not as suits their style.

Viriatha said...

Ok, apparently it cut off my first word in the previous comment: that should read "D6 Fantasy does not have..." Sorry

sirlarkins said...

I know GURPS Magic has rules for alchemy and a big list of various formulae and how to concoct them into potions, powders, pastilles, etc. But, with only a few exceptions, precise ingredients are glossed over in favor of a straight monetary cost.

A search for "alchemy" on the Pen & Paper Database turned up these results:


Alchemy & Herbalists (d20 System (generic))
Mineral Alchemy (d20 System (generic))

Magazine Articles:

"Alchemy Begins in the Forest" in Dragon #301
"Alchemy Rules for RuneQuest" in Tradetalk #6
"Better Living Through Alchemy" in Dragon #280
"Extended Alchemy" in EN World Player's Journal #1
"Fires of Alchemy, The" in Dragon #334

szilard said...

I'm a big fan of the Alchemy system in Oblivion, but largely because of the ability of the computer to keep track of everything. In a tabletop game, that same system would be incredibly cumbersome.

Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to abstract an alchemy system of this sort without robbing it of a lot of its flavor.

Brunomac said...

I tend to think of potions in my game as all magic, without thinking too much on the herbs and spices in it. Sure, I guess there are some in there...

I've had a lot of rangers, druids, and various herbalists in my games, and I always had to wing it with the uses of natural herbs. When I have a room of magic plantlife in a dungeon, like a mushroom chamber I had players in recently, I just give all the shrooms various magic properties, and just say "Oh yeah, there's also a non-magic kind that is good to eat, and another that helps cure pimples when rubbed on skin."

SuperSooga said...

Qin: The Warring States has Outer Alchemy (or inner... I always get the two mixed up) which is basically a school of magic dedicated to creating potions. It has a pretty good selection of options but I'm yet to look into it in much detail.

BlUsKrEEm said...

Fourth Ed's Ritual and Alchemy (from adventurer's vault) systems attempted to make a working TT alchemy system. By simplifying components down to four (five?) classes it becomes much more manageable.

Unfortunately my players don't like the Ritual System, and the Alchemy system is poorly implemented (as is much of the Adventurer's Vault.)

Scott said...

Bard Games' The Compleat Alchemist is what springs to mind for me. It's regularly available on eBay around original cover price.