Let's fix Vulgar Alchemy

Vulgar alchemy has one large issue, possibly two as I see it.

The clear issue is that it takes a lot of work, more work than a lesser breakthrough to develop a shape an material bonus which is not widely applicable.
The less clear issue is that it takes shape a material bonuses out of the hands of the story guide to add new bonuses has he or she sees fit. If a character is spending resources to develop new shape and material bonuses it becomes disruptive to come up with new appropriate bonuses that are awarded without character effort. (This isn't necessarily a problem for everyone).

Vulgar alchemy is included in several mystery cult write ups, making it difficult to ignore.

We should develop an alternate virtue for vulgar alchemy that doesn't have these issues. People can slip this replacement virtue into their own games instead of the official version and thereby make their games better.

Any suggestions?

First thought off the top of my head: just change it so that it makes the standard bonuses more effective for you by some alchemical process. You'd need to decide whether the increase happened before the Magic Theory cap (making it mostly useful for small bonuses) or afterwards (potentially getting a bit much?)

I'll have a bit more of a think and see if I can come up with something with more flavour.

Like this?

For enchanting, it has the possibility of being better than Puissant Magic Theory, for other uses not so much. Of course a character could have both. Or we could make it better

Edited to increase the cap to MT +3

I actually find the second issue to be worse. Still trying to persuade my regular group to ret-con it out of existence.

What do you think of the substitute version?

My take is that It's functional, and not too many magi wouldn't find it wasn't of use to them. But it isn't really fun.

I'm starting in a new game, and suggest to the SG that we use the version here:


She responded with another tweak, that I will try to get her permission to post.


Is this more powerful version better?

Here they are, based on the idea that it should be a smidge easier to find new bonuses than to conduct original research :wink:. This hasn't been playtested, and the numbers could probably do with a second pass, but I'm happy with the overall structure.

Balance-wise, I don't see a huge benefit from new s/m bonuses, as you're always capped by your MT. If you use the massive canonical list, you can probably cap out for most items/potent spells without too much trouble The main control in this system is that the GM says what bonuses are available, and so can err on the side of caution when extrapolation from the canonical examples.

Step 1: Identify potential shape and material bonuses
Roll Int + Magic Lore to identity potential shape and material bonuses an object may have. The ease factor is based on how obvious they are, e.g. it’s easier to work out that leaves could benefit Herbam than that red coral is good against demons.

You can also do this the other way, and roll to work out what shapes or materials would give a specific benefit. This is a bit harder than studying a specific shape or material, generally +3 to ease factor.

The GM determines the maximum magnitude and scope of the bonus. These will generally follow the core book patterns, e.g. bonuses to forms and techniques are smaller than those available to very narrow areas.

The magnitude and scope determine how many breakthrough points you need to make the potential bonus a real one.

Scope - Extra Breakthrough Points Needed
Minor magical focus - 1
Major magical focus - 3
A form - 5
A technique - 7

Example: You would need 9 breakthrough points to unlock the shape bonus of +4 to Herbam from leaves.

Step 2: Experiment to find out how to implement them
Experiment while creating an item or spell (with potent magic) that utilises the potential bonus. Assuming you create an effect that is a valid target for the bonus, you get breakthrough points equal to the magnitude of the effect, but you cannot gain more points than your Magic Lore from a single effect. You also increase your lab total as usual based on the shape/material bonus in question.

While your research is ongoing, you cannot reliably use the shape or material bonus, though you may recreate a previous project and gain the bonus (you gain no new breakthrough points).

Example: if you have a magic lore of 3, you can get up to 3 breakthrough points per successful experiment, assuming the effect was at least 3rd magnitude. If you have a Magic Lore of 6, you could do this in two seasons, assuming you created at least a 4th and 5th magnitude effect.

Step 3: Teach others
Once you have enough breakthrough points, you can now reliably incorporate the shape or material bonus. If you write a Magic theory tractatus or summa, or teach someone Magic theory, they also gain the ability to do so.

It's kinda boring I think. Functional, but boring. the more powerful version is the same, but with a bigger plus. Irrelevant, let's keep it simple.

KathyD's solution ... I'm not sure if it's a proposed new content for vulgar Alchemy, or a set of rules that allow any magus/-a to discover new S&M modifiers.
Somthing which I think should be possible by all magi, without requiring a virtue, using Original research. It's a very simple dicovery though.

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My rules are intended for magi with the Vulgar Alchemy minor virtue.

I agree with the two issues, though I'm on Tellus's side that latter is worse.

I don't like this because it steals from other existing things.

I think KathD's solution is closer to something I'd like. I like that the SG sets the values and scopes, and the magus is searching for them.

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Agreed on all points.

I'd actually been thinking of a multiplier, but I think you're right that an addition is a more balanced way to go. It does mean that the virtue is virtually identical to "you get +2/+3 to your lab total" from any other source, which is a downside.

I might be inclined to simplify to make the increase to the total and to the Magic Theory cap consistent.

KathD's rules are very much like the published version just made somewhat easier. As such I think that they are an improvement from the TMRE treatment, but they still run afoul what I and a few other see as a problem in that magi are spending seasons looking for new shape and material bonuses at all. This makes introducing new shape and material bonuses to a game unfair to those who research new ones.

Not being able to introduce new shape and material bonuses is a problem I'd like to see fixed.

I'm not sure how having to spend a two to three seasons finding a new shape/material bonus prevents you from introducing them into a game, I must admit. I would always want to have finding new bonuses be a seasonal activity, as that feels more in keeping with how hermetic magic generally works.

If you don't want finding new bonuses to be a seasonal activity though, you could e.g. give [magic lore x 5] breakthrough points to spend as per my original post, and make spending those points instant? If you increased your magic lore, you'd get more points to spend. And/or you could reward magi with breakthrough points for new shape/materials when they adventure, e.g. if you defeat a powerful magical tree, it gives you an understanding of how to incorporate leaves as a shape bonus. The last option would incentivise leaving the lab, which is rarely a bad thing :wink:.

The main question is how do you want magi to find these bonuses. Should it be from a seasonal lab activity, or should it be via some other mechanism? Once you've got that worked out, the next question is how hard/time-consuming/random do you want it to be (TMRE is at the extreme of this spectrum!).

What about having the new Vulgar Alchemy virtue give magi a boost when it comes to working with Reagents via Lab Total boosts and/or more efficient learning of formulae or something?

Reagents can already give +1 to +3 to Material bonuses according to the upper box on page 76 of A&A, so that facet of the original virtue would be covered.

Better still, replace the Vulgar Alchemy virtue with Mythic Alchemy from Hedge Magic. It could probably be a minor virtue for Hermetics, since they already possess some of the benefits, such as the ability to extract vis.

We're really thinking along much different lines

The reason why introducing new shape and material bonuses through research is a problem is that the game is (IMO) more enjoyable if there isn’t some list of known bonuses but instead storyguides use their judgement to approve or deny them as they come up.

While this may not have been how everyone understood the list of bonuses prior to TMRE it does fit with it. Consider the expansion list of shape and material bonuses in the fourth edition Wizard’s Grimoire, it’s on page 101...

and 102, 103 and 104… and it’s in a smaller font than the rest of the book so it didn’t take up even more room. Is that the sort of list you make when you consider each item as a result of painstaking research?

Here’s an example of play created to show my feelings on the issue.

How I prefer

Player (excitedly): My character is going to create a lesser enchanted device that duplicates the effects of eyes of the eagle. It’s going to be an amulet in the shape of an eagle’s head and I’ll use rock crystals for eyes. There’s a bonus for rock crystal on the list can I get a shape bonus for eagle eyes?
Storyguide: That’s sweet, take a +3
Player: awesome! (high fives another player)

Your proposed rule

Player (excitedly): My character is going to create a lesser enchanted device that duplicates the effects of eyes of the eagle. It’s going to be an amulet in the shape of an eagle’s head and I’ll use rock crystals for eyes. There’s a bonus for rock crystal on the list can I get a shape bonus for eagle eyes?
Storyguide: That’s a good idea: first roll magic lore + int then [stuff] several seasons [more stuff] experimentation rolls [stuff] profit (see Kathd's post for details)
Player: ...(quietly drags his or her crushed soul off to play some other game.)

Some hyperbole to be sure but I think that there is a core of truth.

You're asking how to change the way we add things to the list and I'm advocating to pay less mind to the list, make it a mere set of examples.

Well, you always have two routes. One is that the list from the books is not exhaustive, more are known. That doesn't mean more couldn't be researched. Another is that you make it easier to spread information about new bonuses (short article instead of PhD thesis), and other magi could find some and spread word of them. Maybe a lot would come out of House Bonisagus's requirement to share information.

You talk of TMRE p.32ff Vulgar Alchemy, right?

AFAICS this Minor Hermetic Mystery Virtue just allows a magus to find new Shape and Material Bonuses as a side benefit of experimenting on ArM5 p.96 enchanted devices:

  • The first benefit of Vulgar Alchemy is the chance, to improve ArM5 p.107ff experimentation on lesser enchantments or charged items by an additional bonus limited by both the ArM5 p.107f Experimentation Bonus and his Magic Theory score.
  • And the second benefit, costing no extra time, is the chance find one or more personal Shape and Material Bonuses to apply to later projects and divulge to worthy sodales.
    The SG moderates this by giving or withholding bonuses to rolls Testing the Components (TMRE p.34), so the player can't force a specific Shape or Material Bonus into a saga.

An Example of Vulgar Alchemy is on TMRE p.35 box: in one season Julius gains both his illusion powder plus personal Shape and Material Bonuses of +3 from foxglove petals and dock leaves for concealing illusions (or such - the example is not precise here).

I don't see where that takes more work than a lesser breakthrough. This Minor Hermetic Virtue is useful mostly, if your magus is inclined to regularly experiment on enchanted devices anyway: but MoH p.25ff Conscientia of Bonisagus or other magi with the MoH p.26 box Minor Hermetic Flaw Exciting Experimentation would revel in it.
By having a Vulgar Alchemist's sodales respond to specific Shape or Material Bonuses communicated to them with similar bonuses they discovered themselves, SGs can fine tune the value of this Virtue.


Yes, I see where you're coming from now, and we are thinking along very different lines. :slight_smile:

If you want VA to keep the thematic focus on shape and material bonuses, then one of the suggestions for increasing the cap on bonuses seems ok. Another idea would be to convert some of the usual bonuses into e.g. a minor vis reduction for the item based on how suitable your bonuses are.