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Tome of Alchemy – A Review

Review in Summary

Published by Frog God Games, Necromancer Games, and authors Courtney Campbell and Matt Finch, Tome of Alchemy set out to provide a more detailed ruleset for crafting items than that provided by the official rules for DnD 5e. It provides hundreds of new alchemical and magic items, several news spells, and detailed new rules for crafting items and for researching spells.

The new items cover a range of types and uses. Ointments, potions, and permanent gear, all in a wide variety of item types which goes well beyond what’s in the official rules. Tome of Alchemy contains no new weapons, armor, or wands (consider Frog God’s Tome of Wondrous Items or Kobold Press’s Vault of Magic if that’s what you’re looking for), but the nearly 30 pages of new alchemical items provide rich fodder for players looking to dig into crafting and using alchemical items which go beyond the exactly two such items in the official rules. 

While the collection of new items is exciting, perhaps the biggest draw here is the item crafting and resource management system, as well as a system for researching magic item recipes which is conspicuously absent from 5e’s core rules despite mentioning magic item formulas as a requirement. 

Chapter 2 details a system of “essences” which can be collected from slain creatures and used as requisite materials for crafting magic items. This encourages players to hunt appropriate monsters if they want to craft items in a way that goes beyond the method in Xanathar’s which leaves the DM to guess a CR-appropriate monster that the players must confront to craft an item. Similar systems can frequently devolve into an unpleasant spreadsheet management simulation, but Tome of Alchemy also offers market prices for essences so that players can fill in gaps at the DM’s discretion if the DM doesn’t feel like improving a quest to hunt down a Death essence.

The book is a little rough around the edges with a handful of editorial and layout issues, but the concepts of Tome of Alchemy are well implemented and much of the complexity is written in a way that you can use as much or as little as you want to suit your preferences. If your group wants a better way to handle crafting alchemical and magic items in 5e, Tome of Alchemy is a great option.

Tome of Alchemy is available for both DnD 5e and for Pathfinder 1st edition. This review is based on the version for 5e, and Frog God provided us with review copies.

Tome of Alchemy is available both digitally and physically:

Tome of Alchemy - Turqoise

Time to do Some Research

The ability for wizards to write spells into their spellbook is a staple of DnD dating back decades, but, for all of the editions that I’ve played, the process for finding new spells has always been incredibly vague and left entirely to DM discretion. While that’s often fine, it does often leave DMs to swing to the polar extremes of “sure, you can have whatever you want” or “no one else within 100 miles has a spellbook for you to borrow”.

Tome of Alchemy’s first chapter includes a section on researching spells and items that provides an objective way to handle the subject and includes rules for requiring skill checks to do the research. Players must first use Charisma (Persuasion) to gather information about the spell or item, then must find an arcane library of sufficient size to contain what they need, then they must make a successful Intelligence (Arcana) check to do the research. The DC’s scale quickly, so players will need to invest in their Arcana skill and still expect to fail from time to time.

This both provides an interesting downtime activity for artificers and wizards and places a limitation on how many spells a character can feasibly collect unless they manage to loot another wizards’ spellbook. For wizard players looking to collect everything under the sun, this provides an objective limitation which will make it difficult to solve every problem by knowing every spell.

Oddly, the DCs for checks to research items are low compared to those for researching new spells. It’s unclear if this is intended to allow non-wizards to use the system reliably or if the authors just felt that wizards needed more guard rails. Either way, the numbers are difficult, and there’s a formula for research time which I don’t think is really necessary, so I encourage you to use these rules as a basis and adjust the math to your group’s preferences.

Tome of Alchemy - Mithril

The Essence of Crafting

The “essence” system introduced in Tome of Alchemy provides a somewhat abstract way to provide materials for crafting items. Nearly all of the items in the book come with an alchemical formula which requires some set of essences. The authors were careful to steer clear of official items, so for anything official you’ll need to improvise a formula based on the included items.

Most essences are collected from dead creatures using alchemist’s tools and arcana checks, though “mineral essences” are literally just bits of metal or dirt. The book includes tables with monsters from the SRD and what essences they provide. Weirdly, this includes intelligent humanoids like drow and orcs, leaving the party the grim possibility of collecting that resource. Have a talk with your players about the philosophical implications there before they explore that option.

The rules do mention using additional essences to reduce crafting costs, but I’ve been unable to find  a formula for doing so. Even without that option, the need to collect and store some essences to craft magic items can still add a fun mechanic to the game. The list of essences is detailed enough to feel meaningful without becoming overwhelming, but if you want to simplify it further you could forgo the subtypes of essences (flight, speed, fear, etc.) and stick to just the broader types (air, water, salt, etc.), allowing your group to opt into as much or as little complexity as you prefer.

Tome of Alchemy - Onyx

A Lot of These Things Explode

Many of the items in Tome of Alchemy are deliberately dangerous. The “How to Use This Book” section discusses the implications of the book’s contents, and recommends allowing access to the book’s contents sparingly. Many of the items included could be problematic if they’re easily available, so using them as an occasional novelty can be fun without breaking things in a metagame sense.

But the risk of explosion and other hazards doesn’t stop there. Tome of Alchemy includes detailed rules for how fire spreads, how gasses dissipate, the specific effects of various real-world substances like chlorine and propane, a table of throwable alchemical weapons taking up nearly two full pages, and a similarly large table of alchemical mishaps for when your players inevitable fail to fail craft something.

Many of the included items (both alchemical and magical) have similarly explosive and dangerous effects. There are gloves that you trigger with alchemical substances like fire and acid and then use them to punch things and hope that it hurts enemies more than you. There are fancy goggles that give you eye strain (“cusps”). There’s literally a flamethrower in here.

Pain Points

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Tome of Alchemy is its handling of math. Many of the included subsystems rely on a series of formulas which can make using the included rules frustrating. Parts of this math could be simplified or outright removed and none of the fun of the system would be lost.

In addition, many items provide numerical benefits which feel more at home in Pathfinder than in 5e. The book also has a version for Pathfinder, so it’s possible that some of Pathfinder’s math bled into the 5e version. It’s nothing that will stop you from using the book, but it may feel out of place among official 5e content.

Some parts of the book are strangely organized. Chapter one introduces the basic concepts of the book, and the section on crafting and research is inexplicably followed by the section on fire and how it spreads, which feels confusing and out of place.

The selection of items notably omits armor and weapons. While that’s perfectly fine in a book about alchemy, it does limit the usefulness of the crafting system. Including a table of items from the SRD with associated alchemical recipes would be a massively useful addition, even if it were just a small selection of items to give DMs a basis for their own recipes.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like from Tome of Alchemy. The core concept of the crafting system is great despite my minor complaints about some of the mathematical details. I really enjoy the essences system, and I appreciate the detailed examples of essences taken from various monsters.

If I bring this into my game, I’ll likely make some adjustments to the math, and I encourage you to make those same adjustments to suit your party’s preferences. I might also offer the players a few of the included items as treasure like a 6-pack of something fun like Alchemist’s Fist so they can play with it a bit without it taking over the game.

Despite a few rough edges, I’m very happy with Tome of Alchemy. I would absolutely use this for players interested in crafting in 5e as a replacement or complement to the official crafting rules.

Tome of Alchemy is available both digitally and physically:

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