Saturday, May 18, 2013


So, alchemy was a peculiar pursuit wherein the transformation of materials through processes we now think of as chemical reactions were in some way representative of, or a means of inducing, a parallel series of transformations in the human being conducting the experiments. At least that is my understanding of it. I have this rather sumptuously comprehensive Taschen tome called Alchemy and Mysticism (by Alexander Roob) wherein there are hundreds of utterly arcane illustrations including many where the processes of sublimation and calcination and putrefaction and the stages of rubedo, albedo and nigredo and the actions of sulphur and quicksilver and Sal Ammoniac and a bewildering plethora of other things are represented, bizarrely, by green lions swallowing the sun and burning herons and drowning kings and a menagerie of symbolic strangenesses. This is terribly funky and simultaneously very different from contemporary fantasy.

I am consistently disillusioned by contemporary fantasy, which I guess is not that unusual in an OSR guy. There's this thing I see when I look at contemporary fantasy art where everyone looks so effortlessly cool, it's like the baroquification of old-school fantasy, everything is blown up to magnificent proportions and idealised and gleaming, like the baroque's exuberance of superfluous drapery and putti and Rubenesque folds of adipose tissue manifested as hypertrophic musculature and buckles and goggles and bondage gear, cunningly modernised such that it does not offend the aesthetic of the consumer of contemporary fantasy, an entity whose predilections my mind cannot adequatuately encompass. I understand that this is what the people must have but I prefer an approach that veers from the kitsch of awesome and cleaves instead to the kitsch of grotesque. Veers, drunkenly, out of control.

So, alchemy in contemporary fantasy is a way of drawing upon the exciting dynamism of steampunk and the brass cogs and machinery thereof and the way the bluish glare of crackling electricity provides exciting backlighting on the face of the goggle-wearing alchemist. This is not alchemy. There is a lot of mileage gained from the good old mad scientist and experimental primitive cybernetics and vat-spawn and things which ooze forth from cauldrons and quiver and pulsate and venture forth to wreak upon the unfortunate world whatsoever it in their nature to wreak, and neither is this anything to do with what was going on in the minds of the alchemists that really existed (though peradventure 'tis encroaching upon the mark). Nay, alchemists were egotists of the highest order and were participants in a discipline rare among the arts of the Occident wherein personal paths to the ineffable were made accessible by the pursuit of a series of rigorous tasks. It was somewhat of a blasphemous thing in the shadow of the monolithic One True Church to be following a path you believe will improve your metaphysical standing without the need for a Church-appointed intermediary to guide you on the way. And this was a path that required you be rich enough to be educated and to waste years of your life fucking with alembics and burning things 'til they change colour and taking in the profound significance of that. Which I guess rendered the alchemists somewhat more capable than the common hedge wizard of evading religious persecution at the same time as further restricting themselves to a periphery.

So maybe it is no surprise that people aren't enthusiastically playing characters who spend months at a time striving to transmogrify the neutered monkish toad of tallow to achieve the transcendental hermaphroditic dragon of sublimated verdigris but there are, in the infinity of possible combinations of stuff in reality, things that can be done that will be more interesting than nothing at all and could be applied to a D&D game in the Meager-Lands or your personally preferred variant thereof.

Another thing that is interesting to me regarding intersections of alchemy and D&D is the notion of the Magnum Opus and how it parallels the improvement of the D&D character, through levels, from the base lead of the first-level shitkicker to the transcendent gold of Name Level. There is a thing I keep alluding to but have lazily neglected to upack as yet wherein the economy of the acquisition of gold from threshold guardians in the underworld equates to temporal power and spiritual and metaphysical power. There is a profoundly resonant symbolic array available here with which a number of exuberant interpretive flourishes can be made. One of these which occurs to me now is that the alchemy in D&D is all of it, all the characters are in some way alchemists or symbolic proxies at large in the world and through their actions in the crucible of the Earth's bowels are astonishing transformations made.

The thing I want to do is draw sustenance from the utter strangeness of the imagery and ideas at play. It is interesting to me how much more strange the things are from the time we are in a roundabout way pretending to play dress-ups within than are the cultural manifestations we have created in vague emulation of them. The things that urge me to reinvent them are anything involving elements and elementals and the bizarre chimerae of transformations and other things which take my fancy involving poetic relationships to substantiality.

Elementals, in the classic Paracelsian form have decidedly more character than vaguely anthropomorphic animated chunks but I am inclined to go further. I recall a trendy late '90s post-apocalytpic game that embraced the elements-as-humours correspondence and had delighfully grotesque embodiments of Phlegm and Bile which I shall leech from, these and Foucauldian similitudes and manifold obtuseries and distorted misinterpretations of the thingness of things to produce a bit of fluff and crunch that shall be the philosophical path to perfection of the mad scholars of the Occidental Empire and perhaps yet-another-reason-to-go-into-holes.

So the things are made or discovered by crusty alchemists toiling in their laboratories for thankless decades but can be utilised by whoever knows the appropriate lingo; the Spagyrist's Cant or the Green Language or whatever. The things which impart XP only do so while they remain with the user, losing, destroying, consuming the thing negates the XP gained (i.e. they are lost, plunging the character back into mundane reality).

There are twenty;

1. Tenebrous Glede: burning dark and cold, a living coal of the antithesis of fire, fusing ash and drawing in smoke and transforming such stuff into that which it has previously been. The cold saps energy from those who remain too close and the overwhelming frigidity of a large conflagration in reverse is as dangerous as an inferno.

-The thing will initiate the process of burning-in-reverse to that which has been burnt. The un-fire has all of the requirements of fire such that it must be fed ashes to remain "lit". 20 XP

2. Nereid Clyster: An elemental oceanic madness inhabiting the insides of her host, appearing as green turbulence behind the eyes and the stink of brine and kelp and as fickle indifference. Imbuing the entity is a painful and bizarre ordeal.

-Usually found in a silvered basin , may require a clysterer to introduce to the host. It imparts water breathing 1/wk and renders the character Chaotic, and costs 1 point of Charisma and Constitution permanently. 100 XP

3. Bladed Chrism: A seemingly innocuous oleaginous substance embodying sharpness, simultaneously fluid and wounding. It needs keeping in a crystal decanter and will obey the bluntening glyphs inscribed thereon but spilled forth it will cut through whatever it touches, rapidly disappearing into the depths of the earth.

-80 XP

4. Russet Glimme: An excoriating cinderflicker entropy of the passage of aeons glimmering in a fragment of moment, a thing that burns though vision like the sun, staining magenta and turquoise afterimages onto the retina. A little man of rust living in a lead box.

-Whoever carries Glimme in his box triples XP gained for the duration of the partnership but that individual and any companions age 1 year every day of the association.

5. Thanatos Flask: Gilded flask with the glyph of putrefaction inlaid in cinnabar. Waves of thick odium emanate therefrom. The foetid grey stuff inside is a contagious life-in-death. Releasing it is doom all-but-certain and implacable.

- Touching the stuff requires save vs. death or die immediated in horrific agony, only to rise again in 1 turn as a fiendish mockery, anyone killed by such will rise as one also, et cetera, ad nauseam. 500 XP

6. Void Embrasure: A hand-sized triangular hole in the world in a disk of black glass , whatever is cast in is gone forever. The vast wrongness of the thing is entrancing and the inside edge is the keenest imaginable.

-120 XP

7. Calcination Sprite: Little stark-white grimacing girl who moves rapidly backwards through reality and stinks of vinegar. Her retreat will quickly sequester her in an inaccessible part of yesterday unless she is crammed in a blazing alembic where she will serve in the Work in dutiful recalcitrance.

-in the confines of a working laboratory the sprite will glean 1d12 XP a month.

8. Quacksalver's Ghost: Like a mercurial shadow wherein is couched the essence of dubious chicanery. The ghost infuses others with a false and misleading sense of the apparent truth of the efficacy of whatever ineffective remedy is in the vicinity.

- -3 Wisdom penalty to the carrier and the effect of a Potion of Delusion applied to anything resembling a potion, unguent, elixir etc. 100 XP

9. Xanthic Pigmy: Frequently manifesting as a lizardly heresiarch bowed and pious in sulphurous devotion, its muttering is a volcanic reek. At night it seems quite intent on being present in the dreams of sleepers and praying there. Fierce disruption of bodily humours accompanies this phenomenon.

- Every morning roll 1d4 for each character/hireling ;
1. Bilious Rancour - +1 to STR, -3 to CHA.
2. Phlegmatic Torpor - unflappable morale and movement halved.
3. Melancholic Insight - +2 Wisdom and -4 morale.
4. Sanguinary Dyscrasia - +2 Reaction and forget 1 spell at random.
-200 XP

10. Chrysopoeic Effulgium: Weird grey lambency, gets stuck to fingers, when wiped off onto something a remarkable transmogrification may result.

- Will transform up to about a fist-sized lump of lead into gold, gold into ivory, ivory into shit, shit into antimony, antimony into ambergris etc. 50 XP

11. Infibulated Rebis: Purest metaphysical hybrid essence of perfect completion assailed and defiled by an abominable enormity on the far side of the real. The Rebis cannot be possessed but shimmers in the mind's eye for a frozen moment. In that moment a miraculous transformation may be achieved.

- Any two ability scores may be swapped, or hit point may be traded for XP at 1:300 ratio or vice versa. Only works once.

12. Fulgurous Orm: Scorched grey vitreous serpentine thing, coiled in weird tension. It is clumsily uncouth and heavy and blind and possessed of crackling intensity lying latent within.

-Can capture lightning bolts and other electrical discharges, requires successful Charisma check to discharge captured lighning without disastrous backfiring. 400 XP

13. Many-Ken: A thing like a squinty old geezer made of parchment and angles that lives in a book and knows practically everything that can be known. This omniscience cannot be instrumentalised because the Many-Ken will only speak of that which occupies its mind at that time. Torturing him with malapropisms may assist in gleaning vaguely appropriate information.

- After  2 turns of torment there is a 3% chance he'll be able to answer something but will only do so in annoying riddle-speak. 120 XP

14. Crucible Goose: A thing of waddling ceramic with a blazing elemental furnace in its belly. It is slow and fragile and very hot. It is possible to invest essential stuff into the crucible and be empowered by the performance of procedures of purification.

- AC 8 MV 30' (10') hp 3 . XP may be recouped from treasures rendered into the goose. It can start random fires, however. XP 50

15. Nigromantic Poesy: Black letters floating in the air, spelling out incantations that unlock portals betwixt the world and a series of catastrophic unworlds as should not be breached lest doom overtake all. The characters flicker and dance and reconfigure into a variety of different yet equally inimical configurations.

- The effect is Abominable. The words are in the lost archaic Lingua Nigromantica but those who can and do read the words aloud rend a hole in the real that allows ingress of something else;

1. An Ocean of Hate

2. A flensing wind as strips the skin and blows forever and ever on

3. A Skulking Wreak of Flint Archaics

4. An Armature built in Grey Domdaniel of incinerating majesty unbound

5. Thirty million Deaths a-riding

6. Dissolution, complete

It doesn't matter what it is, reading the Poesy ends the campaign there and then and ruins the setting and any adjacent settings. 0 XP

16. Molybdochalkos Athame: A blunt knife of a dull and heavy alloy, warm to the touch and marked with a crab. It has about it the virtue of elemental neutrality and can be used to neutralise poisons and mordant humours and render caustic vapours sweet.

- Neutralises poisons, acids and alkaline substanes, after three uses it will be transformed into a blackened bone. 60 XP

17. Bird of Phlegm: The bird is a word that may be inhaled to live in the lungs and sinuses, expectorating enthusiastically and imparting unflappable stolidity.

- Permanently snotty, -1 to Con and Cha, +1 bonus to saving throws. 80 XP

18. Salamandrine Azoth: Incandescent in its elemental purity, the thing may be induced to crawl into the breast of the dead thus to reignite the stilled heart with the animate spirit of life.

- As Raise Dead. 1000 XP

19. Vortex Grail: A chalice of alabaster in which is densely concentrated whirling wind and the sound of a distant howling and the intoxicating fragrance of petrichor. Poured forth it wreaks a terrible havoc.

- A whirlwind destroys whatever isn't tied down and causes 1d8 dmg per round for 3d6 rounds in a 30' radius until it blows iself out. 300 XP

20. Carnifex Antimony: A fine black powdery stuff that can be applied as an eye cosmetic. The one to whom it is applied immediately sees the world in terms of flesh to be cloven and bones to be broken.

- +3 to attack and dmg for one day and -3 to Charisma permanently, comes is a little wooden box with three applications' worth. 200 XP



  1. These are really nice, the Chrysopoeic Effulgium, Carnifex Antimony, and absolutely the Void Embrasure stand out for me.
    Like Courtney said on G+ I hadn't thought of the relationship between gold and gaining power quite the way you put it until now, which is a reeeally interesting idea, I'm just not sure yet how to shoehorn that into my game.

    I still want to run with what Scrap was saying a little while ago about being able to gain XP from more than just finding treasure (fame, exploration, etc. it fits with my setting), so it may come down to if you straight-up give an alchemist your gold he'll transmute it into extra XP, but there may be side effects.

    1. Thanks, mate. The historical alchemy thing runs kinda counter to my own conceptions of bloodstained gold equals power and there is no other way of achieving fighting prowess and magical puissance and followers and shit than actually going into monster holes and wresting power from them. But I always feel like there are interesting mechanical things that people just don't do so I veered away from bloodstained gold fundamentalism.

      If I was going to play it out I'd go with something like this; The Occidental Empire and the Catholic Analogue Church of Munificent Whateverness and all the other big factions and everyone who has ever been a mover or a shaker know that the way to create power and potential gods is to plunder the demon-holes. So there is this imperative in the fabric of society to send the shitkickers into the dark that they may be forged into the champions the monolithic factions need to maintain their grip on power. Because, according to The Wire, that's all their is, factions creating inertia and it is to me the fundamental foundation of mediaevalism - dynamism be damned, the crusades were just plunderfests designed to distract the warrior-caste and reinforce the staus quo.

      I'm rambling again, wintertime means cheap red wine :)

      Just one more thing, Scrap's a genius as we all know and there are so many things that can be done with a reward mechanic if you can be bothered doing radical reconfiguration. I'd love to see more alternative approaches like XP for far travels a la Rients from years ago.

    2. Tell me about it, we've been straight into the red wine. Standout so far has been Langmeil Hangin' Snakes, we had Lust Collides from Some Young Punks last night (amazingly trashy label was better than the wine).

      As a wholesale changeover of approach to gold=XP that would work great.

      In the end I prefer going out and getting dirty and bloody for XP, but I also like the idea of coming in to see your local insane geriatric alchemist with a sack of gold for a quick boost.

  2. I can't belive how long the words 'vortex' and 'grail' have been living in the same dictionaly without anyone putting them together, and now I never want them to be apart.

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  4. I must say I am glad to see someone at least doesn't just marginalize Alchemy into either "fantasy mad scientist" or "anime earth bending".

    And I would agree wholeheartedly as well with the enrichment of a campaign using alchemical symbology and "The Great Work". I would argue only briefly that at least initially, Alchemy was more Levantine (and by that logic Oriental if we consider china The Far East) then anything else- a subject matter hotly discussed of Coptic, Greek, and Abrahamic Scholars and ranging all the way to China, going back before the time of the Romans. I wouldn't wish to belabor the point though, seeing as I get the sense that you understand what stenography of all the Lions and Herons actually mean, but would actually go further to say that The Alchemist, if to be present in a campaign, wouldn't likely be just sitting in a hovel on the fringes of town, but exactly as you said, "all the characters are in some way alchemists" trying to transmute the lead of their common selves, and by subjecting themselves to very specific tests, trying to clear away the dross of misconception and bad thinking, take up a sword (separation), go out and try new things (conjunction), and be forsaken by everyone they known (distillation) and die for this pursuit if they had to (coagulation).

    Though they were very much the preeminent thinkers of their age, I would be wary of using Paracelsus and Agrippa as good basis for Alchemist Adventurers- Agrippa himself traveled only because he kept getting kicked out of towns. It does bare to mind that Casanova was himself an Alchemist and an honest-to-goodness adventurer.

    To get back to my original point though, I would say your idea is great as outlined in your post- just keep in mind that if you wanted to, Alchemy could go much further, and offers a great means to bring an otherwise Eurocentric campaign out of Europe and even a great basis for a Wizard to take class levels in Warrior or a Cleric to dip into Sorcerer.

    Something to consider, at least.

  5. Nick, thanks for contributing this most thoughtful comment.

    Alchemy's Eastern origins make it an early example of hippie Westerners borrowing mystical self-help traditions from the Orient. I do have a vague recollection of it being tangled up in Enochian Judaism and Masonry but I always thought of it as Western without really seriously pursuing its origins.

    Your descriptions of alchemy-at-large are intriguing and reinforce the vague notion that I would like to incorporate the stages of the Work in some way into adventure or dungeon design a la Joyce.

    I like the idea that Mediaeval Europe had these archaic Oriental undercurrents by way of cosmopolitan Roman-types long dead. This is the place for Orientalism in my setting. I am absolutely, avowedly intent on the grubbiest halfway-between-16th-century-Flanders-and-Hell Europeanesque kinda setting but there is a place for exuberant Rabelaisian erudition and far-travelled crusaders etc. indeed, faux authenticity can be gained from acknowledging historical Europe's connectedness.

    As to classes, I'm a BECMI atavist so no switcheroo but anyone can be an alchemist if they speak the language.

  6. I cannot say enough how cool this is.

  7. Yeah this is brilliant. Occurs to me that alchemy could be an easy way to break one of TSR's commandments regarding not including 'real' magical material in the game world . . . including obscure alchemical symbols (or even just simple alchemical symbols - the elements, the zodiac, etc) as part of a text or a puzzle or whatever could be a nice way to let the players learn and apply hard/obsolete knowledge.

  8. Hi Tom, very nice and interesting blog. I just wanted to comment on the whole thing really because it's great! I also wanted to recommend a movie that is (IMO) very much the epitome of the "dung ages" that sprang to mind after reading your blog: "The Flying Dutchman": I think it's a movie-edit (abridged) of a mini-series that ran in the 90's in the Netherlands. It's set in the time period you seem to be going for with your Middenmurk campaign, and while there's not much supernatural going on (there is a dwarf though), I think the aesthetic of the movie would appeal to you ;) There are subtitles (turn on captions), but at times the translation is a bit off.