Fundamentals Of Alchemy

What is Alchemy?

There are two discussions when it comes to alchemy. The first is the popular, known, public idea of alchemy: a sort of proto-chemistry, mixed with superstition and philosophy, that took root in ancient times and was phased out in the 1700s as makeshift proto-science gave way to rigorous European enlightenment ideals like the 'scientific method' and 'reproducibility' and 'being comprehensible to other people'.

The second is the secret face of alchemy. Using techniques hidden from the mainstream for centuries, alchemists take the mundane items and purify them, pulling their true, spiritual meaning from their basic, profane physical forms. They then take this purest essence, mix it into a weird liquid, and chug it so they can do supernatural things for a brief period of time. Or, they sell the drinks for money and power. Or they use it to imbue metal, stone and flesh with an artificial form of life. Or they use it to make a pageboy cap deflect mind control rays.

And somewhere, in there, they might even experiment and further the fields of their study.

The truth is, once upon a time, the public and secret faces of alchemy were one and the same. Alchemists used to be a mix of scientist, magician and philosopher, pursuing an ideal form of knowledge or expression of self- such as the fabled quest for the Philosopher's Stone, or the creation of the Elixir of Life. Nowadays, however, most alchemists are at best scientists and magicians, and few alchemists have much care for the philosophy of alchemy anymore. Alchemy is still powerful, especially in today's world of science and rationalism, but their secrets are not as valuable as they used to be. Alchemy may have made gunpowder, but it was pragmatic, state-driven necessity that made the musket, and then the rifle; Alchemy may have created personal steam engines centuries before the locomotive, but it was science that made the steam engine replicable, and capitalism that made the production line, and the million trains, cars, and guns that followed. Alchemists have perenially been a paradoxical lot, a group who are strongest when working together but incessantly jealous of one another's knowledge and abilities. And so alchemists have slowly been left behind. Without a willingness to unite and work together for their common needs, they have grown more divided and easier for the true powers of society to pick off, or subsume.

Nonetheless, alchemists still exist, in their hundreds, even thousands. They transmute and craft substances; they make their arcane liquids, known as 'tinctures'; they create new life in the form of homunculi and animate the unanimated in the form of glamim.

And the thing that makes all of this work is alcohol. All alchemic practices rely on what the old texts call 'aqua vitae', the water of life: a purified form of alcohol that serves as a base for other purified ingredients. Aqua vitae is used to both create and maintain alchemic substances. It is the single core ingredient that alchemists need to practice their art. For centuries, alchemists with the fortune to have access to medical alcohol or scientific alcohol have done so; most alchemists have refined their aqua vitae from spirits. Most street alchemists these days call it 'hooch'.

And the Volstead Act has made the most common ingredients of hooch much, much harder to come by. By no coincidence, the era of Prohibition has taken an existing imbalance between the 'establishment alchemist', with his academic or state backing, and the itinerant, independent alchemist who is loyal to no one but themselves- and widened it immeasurably.

And so the street alchemist, inevitably, must buy from illegal sources- and inevitably, ends up working with them. Because an alchemist who can purify whiskey into hooch can also brew moonshine and make money for the mob.

The following section breaks alchemy down into how it works in the game's mechanics: the basics of how it works, some simple practices of alchemy, and the main things you can do with it.
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The Game Mechanics of Alchemy

This section explores the basic mechanics of alchemy.

Alchemy is derived from two things: your character's Alchemy Rank, and their Alchemy skill.

  • Alchemy Rank is a talent starting at 1 and going to 4. With each rank, you become more powerful and more accomplished as an alchemist, able to do more with less. Alchemy Rank lets you use more ingredients in tinctures, and give more and better upgrades to homunculi and glamim.
  • Alchemy skill is one of the skills of the game, tied to Brains. It measures your theoretical and practical knowledge of alchemy. It is divided into three focuses: External (changing the physical world), Internal (changing the body) and Intangible (changing the unseen).

Brains is the key Score for alchemy- despite the spiritual elements, alchemy is based on certain sets of rules and techniques.

Essentially all Alchemic actions come down to an interplay of Alchemy Rank and the Alchemy skill: Rank says what you can do, and the skill shows how well you do it.

Characters can start as Alchemists, or become Alchemists in the course of the game- with one exception. Prodigies and Homunculi can never become Alchemists- their personal powers interfere with the practice.

Most alchemic outcomes are one of three things: External, Internal or Intangible.

  • External changes the physical world in some way. If a tincture gives you the ability to breathe fire or control metal from a distance, that's an external effect. Giving a Homunculus or Golem the ability to breathe fire is also an external effect. Note that 'the physical world' usually includes other people.
  • Internal changes modify the body in a controlled and hopefully desirable way. If a tincture hardens your skin to be as hard as iron, that's an internal effect. Giving a Homunculus or Golem the ability to regenerate damage is also an internal effect.
  • Intangible changes mental, spiritual or truly metaphysical elements in some way. If a tincture lets you manipulate time, give or take away 'bad luck' or alter someone's emotions, then it's intangible. Giving a Homunculus or Golem an aura that attracts or inspires others is an intangible effect.

And finally, most alchemic actions take place in one of six areas: purification, transmutation, tinctures, imbuement, homunculi and glamim.

  • Purification is the act of taking a physical substance and drawing out its pure, spiritual meaning, creating a rarefied, arcane form of the substance.
  • Transmutation is the act of turning one physical substance into another.
  • Tinctures are liquid mixtures that, when drunk, imbue the drinker with unnatural power. Tincture-making is a huge part of what an Alchemist does, and requires access to liberal amounts of both hooch and other ingredients.
  • Imbuement is the act of taking a mundane item, such as a weapon, clothing or the like, and imbuing it with special power by dissolving a purified ingredient into it.
  • Homunculi- singular Homunculus- are living creations made by an Alchemist, where the ingredients are made of living matter such as flesh or wood. Homunculi are often used as agents, servants and consorts by alchemists.
  • Glamim- singular Golem- are living creations made by an Alchemist, but unlike a Homunculi are made of unliving matter, such as stone, iron or diamond. Considered more reliable than Homunculi, Glamim are also robotically predictable.

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Purification and Transmutation

The acts of purification and transmutation are based on the same principles, although the execution is subtly different.

Purification is the act of taking a mundane substance and drawing out the symbolic, spiritual essence of the item, leaving the physical residue behind as useless slag. The resultant substance is simply called 'Purified whatever', such as 'Purified Iron' or 'Purified Gold'.

The bad news is that purification is a lengthy process. It can take at least a week to purify a substance, with the time fluctuating for reasons that elude most alchemists. The good news is that the weight of the material doesn't matter, nor does the type of substance- purifying a gram of iron and purifying a kilogram of gold take the same amount of time. Furthermore, the process is largely automated.

Purification works by the alchemist creating a Hermetic Diagram (a circle, filled with other shapes and symbols, including the symbols of the ingredient in question and a symbol unique to the creator), then placing the ingredient within the circle, then activating it by tapping a hand on the circle. So long as the ingredient doesn't leave the circle, within a week it will turn into two substances: a mass of 'purified' substance (which is often somewhat ethereal to hold and witness), and a mass of profane slag, which is entirely useless. Purification is simple and the first thing any real alchemist learns. However, there's a limit to how many concurrent circles an Alchemist can have at any given time- the energy for purification is drawn from the alchemist, and this is something that grows over time with practice.

Transmutation goes on in almost the exact same way, with the Alchemist drawing up a Hermetic Diagram. This DIagram should have the symbol of what one wishes it to become. Unlike purification, however, transmutation requires the ingredient to be placed within the bowl of hooch, which helps stabilise the transmutation. Give it a week and et voila, transmutation will turn the first substance into the second. The conversion ratio is usually not 1:1, however, and depends on the grade of the base ingredient and the desired substance. It is hard to make money off transmutation like this, especially since it requires hooch.

The Mechanics of Purification
In the game system, purification is simple. Every Long Downtime, you select an ingredient. You can then purify as much as you want of it. For each ingredient you purify, you get an amount of purified substance equal to the amount you used multiplied by your Alchemy Rank. You can multiply a number of substances equal to your Alchemy Rank times the number of total Aptitude and Wild Card Actions you do during that Long Downtime. Although it takes time in-universe, mechanically during Long Downtimes you're counted as getting the substance immediately and can use it immediately for making tinctures, homunculi and glamim.
For Example: Federico wants to convert a unit of iron and a bottle of whiskey into purified iron and hooch, respectively. He has Alchemy Rank 1, and this Long Downtime only has the standard 1 Aptitude Action and 1 Wild Card Action. So he can purify two substances. He selects the iron and the whiskey, and they disappear; in its place he gets 1 unit of purified iron, and 1 unit of hooch.

The Mechanics of Transmutation
Transmutation is a little more involved. During Long Downtimes, you select an ingredient, which cannot be a Purified substance. You then select the ingredient you wish it to become. Spend a unit of Hooch, and transmutation occurs. However, the ratio of old ingredient to new depends on their Alchemic Grade, which you can see in the Tinctures section:

  • Same Grade to Same Grade: 2 to 1 (You need 2 units of base stuff per 1 unit of product)
  • One Grade Higher: 4 to 1 (you need 4 units of base stuff to get 1 unit of product)
  • Two Grades Higher: 6 to 1 (You need 6 units of base stuff to get 1 unit of product)
  • Three Grades Higher: 8 to 1 (you need 8 units of base stuff to get 1 unit of product)
  • Any Grade Lower: 1 to 1

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Making Tinctures

Tinctures are essential to an alchemist's repertoire, and without a healthy set of tinctures, an alchemist often feels naked.

Tinctures are made by mixing purified ingredients into a bowl of hooch, along with certain other practices or rituals, to create a liquid. Once drunk, this liquid imbues the drinker with special power.

Tinctures have their own section here which goes into detail: Tinctures.
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Imbuing Equipment

Alchemists can imbue items with special power, giving them unnatural qualities and abilities, by using alchemy.

Imbuing equipment has its own section here which goes into detail: Imbuing Equipment
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Making Homunculi

Homunculi are artificial servants of an Alchemist. Homunculi are categorically made from living substances, such as purified flesh or wood. They are useful, resourceful and relatively autonomous, but the creator must be cautious of a homunculus going rogue.

Homunculi have their own section here which goes into detail: Homunculi.
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Making Glamim

Glamim are, like homunculi, artificial servants of an Alchemist. Unlike homunculi, glamim are made from non-living substances, like rock, iron or sand. They are durable, extremely reliable and unfailingly loyal, but approach their tasks with a robotic, literal approach that makes them risky to use autonomously.

Glamim have their own section here which goes into detail: Glamim.
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