Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons introduced the Alchemy skill to the game, and along with it a few alchemical items that characters could buy and use while adventuring (earlier editions had alchemical items but didn’t really have codified rules for them). The 3.5 rules changed the skill to be a branch of the Craft skill, but otherwise retained the same structure. Over the years, as the game added more and more options (new feats, spells, etc.), alchemy was strangely one of the neglected areas. Very few new alchemical items were added to the game and the ones that were there from the start were low-powered, making alchemy something generally only employed by low-level characters before they gained access to high-level spells and other powers. Pathfinder, however, has been gradually adding more and more alchemy to the game. Ultimate Equipment has a sizeable section for alchemy and numerous other books have added a few items (including more powerful ones) here and there. The recent Undead Slayer’s Handbook, for example, has quite a few new alchemical items in its pages. Most notably, the Advanced Player’s Guide added an entire class devoted to alchemy: the alchemist. This has made alchemy a much more prevalent part of Pathfinder than it was before. Nevertheless, alchemy is still an area that has not seen as much new material for it as other areas like feats, spells, archetypes, and traits. But now, the Alchemy Manual helps to redress that balance a little.
In a game awash with so many options that most will rarely, if ever, see use, the Alchemy Manual stands out as a book that is likely to see a lot of use. A first glance, it may seem like a book for the alchemist class—and in a way, it is, as alchemists will certainly get a lot of use out of it. However, one of the nice things about alchemy is that it can be picked up, learned, and used by just about any character. Craft is a class skill for virtually every class, and alchemical items don’t have limits on who can use them, unlike many magic items, even though they often create near-magical effects. The Alchemy Manual focuses on the skill, Craft (alchemy) and the items produced by that skill, and not on things like alchemist discoveries, which are limited to the alchemist class. In fact, some people might be a little surprised to discover that there isn’t a single new alchemist discovery in this book. This is a book usable by everyone, and that’s one of the best things about it. It has a huge number of new alchemical items (broken down into different styles of alchemy) along with a few new feats and tools to expand the versatility and options available to users of the Craft (alchemy) skill.
The book opens with some new rules regarding “Spontaneous Alchemy”. This is a method through which characters can speed up the process of creating alchemical items. It’s a more expensive way of doing alchemy (and thus not a way to run a profitable business with), but it is a way for characters to get what they need when they need it. Despite its name, spontaneous alchemy is not literally spontaneous. Some items will still require a day or more to complete. However, it is considerably faster than the standard method. The description for every alchemical item in the book contains a “recipe”, which lists the reagents needed for spontaneous alchemy as well as a specific process. Reagents were first introduced in Adventurer’s Armory as a way of augmenting spellcasting and have not seen much, if any, support in books since. The Alchemy Manual expands the uses of reagents to include spontaneous alchemy. The two inside covers contain the stats of all the principal reagents (accompanied by some beautiful artwork), and sidebars throughout the book introduce a few other, less common, reagents. Processes are the methods through which characters perform spontaneous alchemy, and most processes require specific tools such as a crucible or retort (stats and prices for these items are included in the book). Characters shouldn’t rush into spontaneous alchemy, however, as failing a Craft (alchemy) check by 5 or more results in a mishap. There are also two new feats associated with spontaneous alchemy: Instant Alchemy decreases the time to create an alchemical item even further, and Sure-Handed Alchemy provides bonuses to the Craft (alchemy) check to reduce the chance of a mishap.
After introducing and describing spontaneous alchemy, the entire rest of the book (except for the centrefold) looks at various styles of alchemy, providing numerous new alchemical items for each type, along with a few new feats, new poisons and drugs, a new archetype for barbarians, and even two new universal path mythic abilities. This isn’t a very long book (32 pages like all Pathfinder Player Companion books), but it’s very impressive just how many new items are squeezed into it. I haven’t counted them, but the opening pages claim that there are nearly 100, and I’m willing to take the book at its word.
The different alchemy styles include things like Belkzen war alchemy, derro fungus alchemy, dwarven magic ales, Katapeshi drug crafting, Varisian fireworks, and more. The addition of these various styles not only adds flavour to specific regions or races in the campaign world, but also increases the versatility of alchemy, creating a huge variety of different things characters can do with Craft (alchemy). The “Homunculi of Lepidstadt” section includes new rules on creating improved homunculi using alchemical reagents. “Oenopion Ooze Alchemy” includes a new feat, Craft Ooze, which allows characters to combine their alchemy and magic item creating abilities to create oozes like gelatinous cubes and black puddings. “Pei Zin Herbalism” allows characters to use Profession (herbalist) to create alchemical items provided the items include specific, plant-based reagents in their recipes. “Thuvian Wish Alchemy” introduces mythic alchemical items. These powerful items can be used by anyone, but are much more potent in the hands of mythic characters. The back of the book contains a table summarizing the recipes of all the items in the book along with the recipes for items in the Core Rulebook. It makes a handy quick-reference tool.
The book’s centrefold introduces four magical containers. These items enhance or alter alchemical substances stored in them. I’ve often felt that these centrefolds in Pathfinder Player Companion books (while sometimes wonderful like the map in People of the Sands) waste a lot of space with artwork that doesn’t contribute to the game and very little text. This is, unfortunately, somewhat the case here, too. However, it’s not as jarring as it sometimes is, as there is more text than usual.
I tend not to get hugely excited by books that are mostly new “crunch” options for the game. The fact of the matter is that Pathfinder has a ton of options already and new ones tend to get lost (in my mind, at any rate) amidst all the others. However, the Alchemy Manual introduces a ton of new options that I can see immediate use for. With alchemy not receiving quite as much attention as feats, spells, and archetypes, this book stands out as a collection of things that truly enhance the game. As such, this is a book that really does excite me. I can’t wait to introduce its new options into my games.