All the World's a Stage: So you want to be an Alchemist

David Bowers
D. Bowers|02.23.09

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All the World's a Stage: So you want to be an Alchemist

This installment of All the World's a Stage is the twenty-sixth in a series of roleplaying guides in which we find out all the background information you need to roleplay a particular race or class (or profession!) well, without embarrassing yourself.

Too many people roleplay alchemy as a glorified fast food restaurant, with typical phrases such as, "Would you like some healing potions to go with your strength elixir?" or "If you give me just one more herb I could throw in a mana potion too..." Of course, the game mechanics often put us in the salesman position. Limited supply and demand force us to compete with other alchemists for herbs and customers, so to some extent we may have to deal with the capitalist food chain to matter what we do.

But there's so much more to an alchemist than just magical boosts and bonuses! An alchemist has the potential to be the other mad scientist! Why should they let engineers have all the fun? Just because engineers can craft their own vehicles and whatnot doesn't mean that alchemists don't have something (or someone) of their own to experiment on.

Today we shall take a closer look at the depths of madness which alchemists are capable of reaching, if only they dig a bit into the unlimited supply and demand of the imagination.

Earth's alchemy

The English word "alchemy" is actually borrowed from the Arabic, "al-kimia" (or "art of transformation"). Earth's alchemy not only sought to create substances with "unusual properties," but ultimately culminated in the quest for ultimate wisdom and immortality. Alchemists were best known for three main goals:
  • The transmutation of common metals into gold;
  • The creation of a panacea, or "elixir of life" which could cure any illness, including old-age (essentially bestowing physical immortality);
  • And finally a "universal solvent," which could dissolve any other material it touched.
Some people worried about that last one, most sensibly, since a universal solvent would dissolve its way right through any sort of container we could fashion for it, right on through to the center of the earth, I suppose. For it to be of any use to any one, it would have to be something other than a truly "universal" solvent.

Herein lies a clue to the madness that is alchemy: alchemists consistently aim way way higher than they could possibly reach and go to extreme lengths to get there, all without realizing that achieving that ultimate goal would largely defeat the purpose they held so dear at the outset. The ability to transmute old pots and pop cans into gold would devalue the precious metal into utter uselessness -- shiny dirt, as it were. The elixir of life, too, could make everyone live so long that the human race had to either stop having children or get so crowded together that their extremely long lives would become a curse instead of a blessing -- death itself would become a highly sought-after commodity. And, of course, a true universal solvent would dissolve its way right through the test tubes and laboratories it was created in -- So what's the point, you ask?

Azeroth's alchemy

The point is that there is no point! For a passionate alchemist, there is only the dream of a special knowledge or items which -- all by itself -- could transform our lives from the mundane into the miraculous. That dream itself is his or her personal "philosopher's stone," the magical key to everything he or she wants in life, the ultimate source of happiness.

"But wait!" you cry, "in World of Warcraft, alchemy can actually do something! It's not just a vague dream!" Yes, of course you are right. There's a long list of all the different potions and elixirs and such which alchemists can alchemize. Some of these creations even have names (like "Philosopher's Stone") which hearken back to the original intent that Earth's alchemists held so dear, without providing anything near the actual potency of their idealized Earthling counterparts.

If you wanted to, you could argue that this actual functionality behind this profession meant that Azerothian alchemy never floated up into the clouds of unattainable daydreams. But... Why would you want to argue that? Is there any fun in an alchemy that works like modern dietary supplements? Isn't it much more exciting to imagine exciting mysteries, unlimited discoveries, and unstoppable progress toward the idealistic-yet-misguided dream of your choice?

This is MADNESS!

Where could you go with this wacky science? Of course you could take engineering as your model and just try to be a bit different, if you wanted. Where engineers blow things up with grenades, your alchemist could try to achieve the same effect with "alchemist's fire" (which doesn't exist in WoW, but does exist in the World of Warcraft tabletop RPG). You could perform experiments in order to achieve a wide variety of effects, from enlarging something to shrinking it, or turning someone all shades of colors. Your character might be seeking one of any kind of special changes that aren't actually available in the game, from a potion that can turn people into sheep (like Mages can), to an elixir that makes you immune to death.

Actual potions (or other items which could be said to have their effect from some potion or another) could provide either intended or unindented side effects of an alchemist's mad experiments. A few potions with actual cool special effects, like the Elixir of Dream Vision, could be crafted to actually succeed at doing the cool stuff your character normally only dreams of.

If your character is undead, he or she could be part of the Royal Apothecary Society, which is trying to use alchemy to create a new plague of undeath which could wipe out the Scourge as well as the other living races of the world. Some say that this new plague is actually only intended for use on the mindless undead of the Lich King, or merely as a self-defense against mortals -- but whether this is true or not is up for debate.

Any other character with positive intentions might also try to use alchemy to cure the Forsaken of the curse of undeath. Undoubtedly there are many among the Argent Crusade who are working day and night on this goal. Some might question whether the Forsaken really want to be "cured," while others might wonder if the best cure wouldn't be just to kill them again, for good this time. Your alchemist could fall on either side of this argument, or possibly make up his own side -- for example you might say, "I'm trying to develop a cure for the Forsaken which can turn them from vengeful, unsympathetic sociopaths into productive members of society, such as clerks, lawyers, and tax accountants!"

Is there anything the idealized alchemy of the imagination couldn't do?

Madness? This... is... SHOPPING!

But not all characters are cut out for the rigors and challenges which such a mad scientist must face. Some would be perfectly content with the more mundane aspects of alchemy, happy to simply produce various beverages other people can use to get a bit stronger, smarter, better at hitting things, or whatever.

These characters are the bread and butter of the alchemy industry. Nonetheless, as much as we may admit that not every character must strive to be on the cutting edge of alchemical knowledge, that doesn't mean that alchemy is nothing more than a pleasant hobby or supplemental activity for these characters. Could not an alchemist take great pride in his or her alchemy store, actually inviting customers into a special shop in Dalaran or something where he or she can show off his or her wares, reach behind counters for "special" ingredients, and proclaim the virtues of his or her own brand of healing potion over that of the competition? Perhaps another character could walk around with a sack full of potions all the time, like one of those people who have a medicine for every illness known to man in their hand bags at all times. Yet another character could be serious about capitalist alchemy, trying to get rich quick through his scheme to market either his own alchemical products, or those of some other mad scientist.

Whatever attitude you want your character to have towards alchemy, it stands to reason that alchemy should be an important influence in your character's life if you're going to put out all the energy and effort it takes to level up the skill. No matter what sort of approach you choose, this profession has the potential to make your character more than just another combination of race and class stereotypes. It represents an additional focal point of your character's identity, potentially even greater than his or her interest in their own class -- the third layer of roleplaying depth (and fun!) inspired by the lore and mechanics of the game itself.

All the World's a Stage continues this series on roleplaying within the lore, somewhat unexpectedly, with this look at what it means to be an Alchemist. I originally didn't start this series thinking that I would end up talking about all the professions in addition to all the classes and races, but now that I'm here, it seems just the perfect thing to be writing about.
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