Purveyors of dangerous knowledge and unusual experimentation, alchemists are just as prized for their discoveries as they are feared for them. Capable of astonishing feats, and terrifying mutations, they often find a warm (or at least enthusiastic) welcome among those who can put their talents to use.
It's all too easy to fall into stereotypes with this class, though. Because while there is nothing wrong with the learned chemist, the mad doctor, or the pseudo-magical scientist, alchemists are no more bound by these constraints than they are the limits of pedestrian chemistry.
The following advice is meant for use in the Pathfinder RPG, but as always, may be useful for similar games with similar classes. For those who enjoy this article, you should also check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Core Classes (The Master List). You'll also find more articles, insight, and advice on my gaming blog Improved Initiative.
Tip #1: What is your area of expertise?
Alchemists are extremely varied in their abilities, but it's in your best interest to pick a specialty. This will help define a lot of who your character is, and it should give you some insight as to how they got where they are now.
For example, if you rely on poisons, you might fancy yourself a scholar of the natural world. If you harvest your poisons personally, then your learning curve might be why you've grown resistant (and eventually immune) to the venoms of your favorite creatures. If you're more of a bomber, then you should know what sparked your interest in these kinds of explosive reactions. Did you get into that field on purpose, or was it an accidental discovery? If you focus on mutagens, cognatogens, or both, then what is it about changing physical forms that fascinates you? Are you a philosopher attempting to achieve higher planes of thought through chemistry? Or do you believe that there is a hidden potential in yourself that can be unlocked? Either way, are you more of a nutritionist who refines the body, or more of a guru who believes that certain reagents in the right amounts release your inner self?
Whatever your specialty is (and that can get varied when it comes to all the discoveries and archetypes you have access to), ask why your character focused on that, and what it says about them.
Tip #2: How do you use your skills?
Alchemists can do some amazing things, and as a result they tend to be in fairly high demand. The question then becomes how have you been putting your skills to use, and what job title, if any, did that grant you?
An easy example is someone who was in Her Royal Majesty's 322nd grenadiers. You simply take all the skills and abilities of an alchemist, and filter them through the lens of an elite soldier. Alternatively, your alchemist might be an apprentice to a tribal wise woman, whose herb lore and poison skill is far more potent than one might think at first. You might even be a tinker who travels from town to town selling their own, handmade solutions to everyday problems. Potions to cure disease, tonics to whiten your teeth, and even a paste that is guaranteed to get a stain out of anything.
From burglars and spies, to archaeologists and doctors, alchemists have a huge variety of jobs they could be doing. So ask what your character has been doing with their skills.
Tip #3: How do you view your alchemy?
Alchemists are often thought of as the precursors to modern-day chemists and scientists. They examined the basic building blocks of the world, and discovered many bedrock facts that still persist to this day. What people tend to forget, though, is that alchemists were also philosophers, magicians, and in the eyes of many traditions, a kind of priest. Hence why the ultimate goal was to purify the self, and in so doing find the formula to turn any base metal into gold.
So take a moment and ask how your alchemist thinks of their particular branch of alchemy. Is it the sort of science that we would be at home with in a modern laboratory? Is it more of an art, like cooking, where exact measurements are less necessary than personal experience and expression? Or is it more spiritual, where invocations and prayers over the bubbling liquids are just as important as making sure you keep a steady temperature?
You've got a lot of options beyond making a fantasy version of chemistry 101.
Tip #4: Are you a member of any organizations?
One alchemist can solve a great deal of problems. A party of them can make a real difference. An entire organization bent on properly using the secrets of the art, though, is a force to be reckoned with.
As such, you should take a moment to ask if your alchemist is (or ever has been) part of an organization dedicated to their craft. Whether it's as a student of a particular academy, a member in a guild, or even a brother or sister in a secret society, there is a lot of potential for your character here. Especially if you were looking for who taught them the basics of alchemy in the first place, as such an organization is a perfect fit for a surrogate family and teacher all rolled into one!
Tip #5: What secrets are you seeking?
There are plenty of alchemists for whom their art is just a means to an end...the question is what is the end that drives you? Were you born puny or weak, and so your extracts and mutagens act as muscle in a bottle? If so, are you seeking a way to eventually make yourself permanently stronger...risking becoming someone else in the process? Alternatively, are you fascinated by the explosive capabilities some formulas present, and you want to unlock the secret of true destruction? Do you want to defeat old age, or resurrect someone close to you who died?
Ask what, if any, goals drive you that are closely tied to your alchemy. Whether it's being the first to discover previously-unknown formulas, or expanding your mind to reach beyond the realms of mortal comprehension, that can say a lot about who you are, and what rewards you would consider worthy.
Would you like to see more?
As I said before, I've covered the Pathfinder Core Classes already... but would you like to see more of these lists? Additionally, consider checking out my Vocal archive, since I'm always adding new content!