Welcome back readers! Here is another entry in our Questions about Class series, this time focusing on the alchemist. As you may (or may not) know, Flying Pincushion Games is about to release its next book, Into the Breach: The Alchemist. So we thought it was a good time that I, Jeff Harris, sit down with fellow Pincushioneer Kiel Howell to talk about the class.
JH: First of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions!
KH: Thank you for having me! It is a pleasure to be on this side of the questions!
JH: Can you give the readers a little about yourself and your role at The Flying Pincushion?
KH: Sure! I'm Kiel Howell, I typically go by theheadkase online (PSN too!). I've been contributing classes/archetypes/alternate classes/items/spells/feats/everything to The Flying Pincushion products since the first Into the Breach book (Into the Breach: The Summoner, stay tuned to the website for updates on that book). I hesitate to call myself senior staff, because I don't really think like that and what we do at Flying Pincushion is a super unique and collaborative environment.
JH: So what exactly is an alchemist? Isn’t he traditionally just some guy that turns lead into gold, and hunts after the philosopher's stone?
KH: That is a common trope of alchemists, making gold from any other less expensive materials and searching for how to make/find the philosopher's stone. That stone, by the way, has its own branch of tropes that are varied and worth looking into! I won't get into it here, but it is not always about life everlasting with the philosopher's stone.
Alchemist's are so much more than just money-making, long life searching, amoral scientists. Their powers and mindsets are varied depending on which world or even genre you are in. Some are straight potion makers, some are scientist/wizards that replicate magic, some are volatile chemical makers. Still others are poisoners, people resurrecting lost arts, herb sellers, and tinkerers. There are quite a few versions of alchemists across the planes of literature/film that it is really hard to peg down one "supposed to be" description. Heck, in the show Full Metal Alchemist, they bend the natural world to whatever shape/composition they want with equal exchange, with surprisingly little focus on turning every day dirt into gold.
JH: Do you think that the Pathfinder version of the Alchemist, bombs and all, still fits with the model that is put forth in traditional fantasy and medieval history?
KH: Medieval history is so hard to accurately represent and still make it fun. An alchemist in the Dark Ages would literally have been a person who was more likely to be a swindler than any real sort scientist or magician. Often, what we would refer to as an alchemist from that time would really be more akin to an apothecary, if they were a good one. The Pathfinder Alchemist can indeed fulfill this role, but again, I'm not so sure it would be super fun to only make medicines that are dubiously effective or to build a character who makes small amounts of coin selling snake oil (if the GM even has NPC's you can sell to).
As far as traditional fantasy goes, with the wide ranging types of alchemists there are, I would say yes, Pathfinder does a pretty excellent job representing the tropes. Especially with archetypes and Discoveries. My personal favourite, though, would be in our upcoming release Into the Breach: The Alchemist. Mark Nordheim put together the Academician archetype, and without giving too much away, I'm super excited for the Insightogen and trapping abilities he wrote.
JH: Do you think that an Alchemist is still a viable character, and still serving his role if he does not have bombs? There are several archetypes that replaces bombs, do these still fall into the realm of an Alchemist as you see them?
KH: Bombs are fun. Especially with some of the Discoveries (dispelling bomb, precise bomb, and stink bomb) they are a supportive force to be reckoned with. I think that is the true power of the Alchemist class, support. There are builds for tanky mutagen based alchemists and bomb chuckers, but there's some powerful support options with the infuse and combine discoveries (and the discoveries we have in our book) for a group to really benefit from. Archetypes that give up bombs for more support focus tickle my fancy and I absolutely play that kind of character far more than the mad bomber.
JH: How do you feel about the extracts class feature, as they are “spells” that are not really spells, do they make sense to you, or does it stretch immersion when the magic but not magic issue arises?
KH: Speaking earlier about the wide range of "what an alchemist is" in literature/film, it doesn't break immersion for me nor the tables I've ran. It is definitely one of the lesser chosen classes I've seen but those that have brought characters have typically had a blast (with or without bombs) with those characters and it is, to some degree, because of extracts. The alchemist gets up to 6th level spells in extracts, can learn new formulae from a wizard's spellbook, and they are an intensely personal creation for the alchemist as can be seen by the fact they are made by using a part of one's own magical aura and become inert if they leave the alchemist's hands. There are discoveries that allow you to share extracts with teammates, and true strike is a 1st level formula. That's a personal favorite combo of mine.
But, the extracts are not spells, and thus can't be used to qualify for magic item crafting. This is a whole can of worms that I won't tackle here, because this facet of extracts DOES bring me out of immersion. An alchemist in Pathfinder is set up to be an item crafting genius, they create extracts by using bits of their own magical aura, but those extracts can't be used to make wands, armors, rings, weapons, or insert-favorite-magic-item-type-here. I can see the side that Paizo wants to represent, that they aren't magic spells and thus can't be used as magic spells, but I still want to have my cake and eat it too!
JH:Do you think that poison and poison use is a reasonable class feature for all Alchemists to gain, even if they are of a good alignment, as traditionally poison is not a tool of the righteous?
KH: This is a very good point to bring up, but I won't be getting into my views on what Alignment constitutes. I do believe poison use is a great class feature for the alchemist as it makes the most sense as a class to put it with them. A good character can choose not to use poisons, and while I understand that you basically are wasting a class feature slot, there are also plenty of archetypes that do away with poisons as a class feature. There are interesting character concepts to play as well that are both good and poisoners. I have one long running character (e.g. hasn't died in 10 levels!) who is NG aligned by the name of Mardruth. Mardruth's family was killed by raiders led by the story's antagonist (before becoming the BBEG of course). Mardruth has a dagger coated with various poisons that he re-applies on a consistent basis which he plans to use on the antagonist...the very same poisons used to kill the different members of his family.
So, while it may not be traditionally called righteous to poison...history is written by the victors :)
JH: If there was one new ability you could give to the Alchemist, what would it be and why?.
KH: (Shameless plug) Oh geez, it would have to be Edward Elric's ability to transmute objects without a transmutation circle, which I've tried to represent in the Natural Transmuter archetype in the upcoming book. There's so many possibilities and character fluff that kind of ability can provide. I just want to be able to idly transmute toys as a teenager while sitting around a campfire with grizzled adventurers.
JH:Paizo has provided the Alchemist a way to share extracts, ala the infusion discovery, do you think that mutagens should have a similar ability?
KH: I'm a big fan of the infusion discovery. Mutagens, on the surface, make sense to allow it to be shared with companions. Looking at it a little further though, it makes far more sense to not allow it to be shareable. The classic image of a mutagen can arguably be derived from Robert Louis Stevenson's book, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Drinking a potion that morphs one's self into a physical different person (which in this case is a terrible person) is exactly what a mutagen does. Enhancing and changing physical characteristics while also penalizing or changing mental characteristics. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde doesn't exactly explore the possibility, but it certainly makes sense that the mutagen (or serum in the book) was made to interact specifically with Jekyll's body composition. Unless another party had his exact physiological makeup, that party would probably die or become seriously ill if imbibing the mutagen (or serum). Keeping in line with that, the alchemist in Pathfinder makes the mutagen with his own magical essence and tailors the ingredients to his own body chemistry. He wouldn't be able to share his mutagen, but perhaps someday there will be an archetype that creates mutagens specifically for his teammates (why didn't we think of that?!)
I do believe the Botanist from our upcoming book allows the character to use the mutagen on the plant companion, but that isn't exactly sharing with other team members and is a special case.
JH: Discoveries, are there too many, not enough, and what sort of new discoveries would you want to see if you had your way?
KH: Discoveries are the lynch-pin to alchemist abilities, so there can never be enough! They really do allow for almost any type of character to be made and be different from any other alchemist around.
The kinds of discoveries I'd like to see would focus more on healing (which we have in this book!), necromancy, and magic item crafting.
JH: In your opinion, how well do you see the Alchemist stacking up against full spellcasting classes such as the wizard, sorcerer, oracle, and cleric? Are they on par, or do bombs and poison in your opinion still fall short of qualifying the Alchemist as a true “blaster.”
KH: I'm a little biased against spellcasters, so take this with a grain of salt. In a pure numbers game, full spellcasters will always win. Period. A level 20 wizard will always have metamagic feats and a huge array of spells that can literally erase you from existence. Alchemists only get access to 6th level spells and bombs, while great, are more supportive and situational. So in that sense, no a garden variety Alchemist will never be a true "blaster" compared to a garden variety wizard.
But, with discoveries and the Alchemist's ability to force the corner cases with his status effect bombs, that's a different story. Precise, stink bombs are extremely useful and can shut down casters and melee attackers alike. Mix together feats that allow 2 bombs to be thrown in a round, and the alchemist can stink and dispel bomb the heck out of a full caster. It really comes down to how creative the player wants to be with their alchemist.
JH:It could be said that the Alchemist is an equipment dependent class, and they inherently have the ability to craft a number of unique alchemical items with greater speed and skill than those who simply have the Craft (alchemy) skill, do you feel this is an undervalued, overvalued, or a balanced ability?
KH: I wouldn't say the Alchemist is any more equipment dependent than a fighter or barbarian, and certainly not more than a Monk. Pathfinder is a magical equipment heavy game. As far as the value of quickly crafting, I think it is balanced from a development perspective—at least with respect to current crafting rules—but it is undervalued from a player/GM perspective. Without getting spoilery, I was playing a certain famous adventure path from Paizo. In the particular session, the party wizard couldn't make it to the game. There's a puzzle requiring all different schools of magic, and my alchemist was able to use his extracts to solve it. It really does depend on how outside the box the player/GM can think.
JH: Have you ever had to ban or have you seen the class banned at a table?
KH: I haven't banned it, but I ran a lot of Core Rulebook only games in the past which excluded the class. I've read stories on Paizo's forums of folks banning certain archetypes or nerfing the stink bomb discovery...but no outright bans on the base class itself.
JH: What is your advice for building a successful Alchemist?
KH: Go crazy and be inventive, just like the spirit of the class. My favourite character I've ever played was a Gnome Alchemist who specialized in Dirty Tricks. He would shrink himself to Tiny sized, carry a bag of iron spikes and a regular hammer, drink a true strike extract, and go around nailing people's shoes to the floor. It was so much fun and still was helpful to the team. That's the other bit of advice, Alchemists are inherently supportive, don't be afraid to exploit that trait.
JH: Thank you for taking the time to have this chat, Kiel!
KH: Thank YOU for the wonderful questions, and don't forget readers, check out Into the Breach: The Alchemist when it is available!