What’s Special about Alchemy

Last updated: 170513…201006

Potions may be made by any magic-user of 7th level or above, if he or she enlists the aid of an alchemist (q.v.). At levels above the 11th, such assistance is no longer mandatory, although it will reduce the amount of money and time the player character must spend making the potion by 50% of the compounding/infusing time normally required [above 11th level], as the alchemist will be so employed instead.

As PCs reach 7th level magic use, they approach the ability to create potions.  For my campaigns, most of the questions of item construction typically resolve by the party never having quite enough time to get anything done but leveling, but I still should understand how that works!

Until 12th level, PCs need to hire an alchemist to create potions. In the DMG, hiring an alchemist as an Expert Hireling requires hiring them for at least a year, and building a lab for them (200 gp to 1,000 gp + 10%/month maintenance). But what if the PCs just want to hire an alchemist short-term to work with their magic-user?

The Alchemist

The alchemist’s base rate of 300 gp/month is a good place to start for the costs of an independent contractor alchemist. A modern baseline for hiring a professional is at an hourly rate that is twice their normal salaried rate (where expenses are included in that rate). Our alchemist costs 300 gp/month salaried, which would be 600 gp/month as a contractor. Assuming a four-week month, and not counting potion materials, the alchemist will cost 150 gp / week or about 25 gp /day (and our average alchemist works on a weekly rate for any measurement in weeks, and a daily rate for work calculated in days).

If the alchemist is running his own lab, then the cost of the overhead on that lab needs to be reviewed when evaluating the cost of hiring him. “In order to begin manufacture of a potion (… made only one at a time), the magic-user must have a proper laboratory … [which] would cost between 200 and 1,000 gp … upkeep of the laboratory requires a further monthly outlay of 10% of the total cost of the place.” An alchemist’s lab, per Player’s Option: Spells and Magic (S&M), costs 65 gp/month rental for the floor space.  The 10% maintenance (to stock basic fuel and supplies, replace broken equipment, and so on) averages to another 60 gp/month. Average operating costs for an alchemist are 65 gp (rental) + 60 gp (maintenance), or 125 gp /month, 21% of his hourly rate, close enough to the operating expenses of an independent contractor to help validate the math.

The Formula

The DMG (p. 116) states that the cost and days for determining the formula for a potion is based on the experience point award of the potion, where each hundred xp (or fraction thereof) indicates 100 gp  and one full day of time to manufacture the liquid, i.e., 250 xp = 250 gp basic costs and 3 full days of time. The cost and number of days required to brew the potion once in possession of a formula uses the same figures. Contextually the suggestion is the cost for a PC. But what about hiring an alchemist, who needs to make a profit?

To hire an alchemist, a potion formula costs the XP value of the potion in gp (materials) + 150 gp/week (salary). The xp range of potions varies from 200 xp-1000 xp. Weighting the potion experience point values and costs by frequency, the average potion in the DMG is 367 xp or an average cost of 4 days: 400 gp (materials) + 100 gp (salary). But creation of the formula shouldn’t be guaranteed. Using S&M the chance of success is 6, with a -3 penalty, or 15%. Failure requires an additional full week (400 gp + 150 gp). It will on average take four tries to create a formula (.85×.85×.85×.85), making the average formula “value” of the average potion 2,150 gp (500 + 550 × 3). After the formula has been developed, it would not have to be researched again.

The Potion

The cost of creating potions is partially defined in the DMG:

“Both the cost in gold pieces and the days of compounding and infusing are determined by use of the xp award amounts. The xp for a given potion is the amount of gold pieces the magic-user must pay in order to concoct the [initial] basic formula (default to 200 gp). Each hundred or fraction thereof indicates one full day of compounding time to manufacture the liquid, i.e., 250 xp = 250 gp basic costs and 3 full days of time. Most important to the manufacture of a potion is the substance of its power, the special ingredient.”

While defining the basic cost of creating a potion, the DMG does not define the cost of the most important component—the special ingredient. While the obvious solution is that the adventurers gather the special ingredient(s) themselves, there’s the obvious correlation of the gold piece value of a potion and the special ingredient(s) required to construct it. There’s no ready way to figure that out with the data so far—let’s put a pin in that cost for the moment.

The DMG suggests a failure rate of 5%-20% can be assigned to all potion manufacture (resulting in a potion of delusion), but how to know exactly what chance a failure to assign?   S&M defines the chance of success with a formula as 70% + 2% / character level, -1% for each 100 gp of the cost. The character in question creating the potion is a minimum of 7th level, so an average 80% change of success is reasonable, which corresponds with the DMG’s 20% chance of failure plus an additional 2% chance of success for each PC level over 7th, -1% for each 100 gp of the potion cost as listed in the DMG.

What happens when upon failure to create a potion? The DMG suggests that these failures could be the source of the potion of delusion, but that’s uninteresting. The Potion Miscibility Table provides some guidance, and can be readily adapted if the wording is changed a bit (See also White Box: Men & Magic):


Dice Score Result

01 EXPLOSION! Those in a 10’ radius take 4-24 hit points, no save.
02-03 A poison gas cloud of 10’ diameter; all within it must save versus poison or die.
04-08 Mild poison which causes nausea and loss of 1 point each of strength and dexterity for 5-20 rounds, no saving throw possible.
09-15 Potion totally destroyed.
16-25 Potion ruined (potion of delusion).
26-35 Potion at 50% normal efficacy.
36-90 Ruined.
91-99 Potion has 150% normal efficacy (You must determine if both effect and duration are permissible, or if only the duration should be extended.)
100 DISCOVERY! The potion’s special formula will cause its effects will be permanent upon the imbiber with harmful side effects.

Weighting the potion xp values and costs by frequency, the average potion in the DMG is 367 xp, with an average gp value/sale price of 924 gp. Producing that average potion will cost 367 gp (materials) + 100 gp (alchemist, 4 days), for a net average profit of 457 gp, or 49%!  However, a few costs are as yet unaccounted for: we haven’t paid for the special ingredient; there’s a ~20% failure rate when creating potions; we haven’t included anything to represent the initial cost of creating the formula in the first place.

In summary so far:

Average cost to research potion formula: 367 xp for 4 weeks @ 100 gp / week (materials) + 150 gp/week (alchemist), with a 15% success rate, average 2150 gp and 5 weeks (technically 3 weeks and 4 days).

Cost to create potion:  For each 100 xp, 1 day and 100 gp (materials) + 25 gp/day (alchemist), average 467 gp.

Chance of failure: 20%, modified by 2% for each level over 7th, -1% for each 100 xp.

To figure out the value of the formula of the potion, I’m going to amortize the initial expense against the cost of creating the formula over a year. For our average potion, each attempt would take 4 days. Our alchemist can’t take time off in the middle of creating a potion, so if working 6 days a week in a 52-week year, our intrepid creator can only produce 1/week for 52 weeks. Taking into account the ~20% failure rate, 42 successful potions would be created in a year. If we amortize the cost of the formula creation over a year’s production (the life of adventurers and alchemists is short), the expense of 2,150 gp to create the formula amortized over the profits of those 42 potions available for sale is 51 gp/potion.

Assuming a 5% return on the investment, the cost formula becomes (assuming the 20% failure rate):

(Sales Price * 4) – ((Formula Cost + Material Cost + Alchemist Cost + Special Ingredient Cost) * 5) = 5% (Formula Cost + Material Cost + Alchemist Cost + Special Ingredient Cost)


(924*4) – (51 + 367 + 100 + Special Ingredient)*5 = .5% * (51 + 367 + 100 + Special Ingredient)
3696 – (518+Special Ingredient)*5 = .05* (518 + Special Ingredient)

20*3692 – 100(518 + Special) = 518 + Special

73840 – 100(518 + Special) = 518 + Special

73322 – 100*(518 + Special) = Special

73322 – 51800 – ( 100 × Special )  = Special

21522 – (100 × Special )= Special

22522  = 101 Special

Special Ingredient = 223 gp

223 gp is 24% of the potion’s average sale price of 924 gp, providing an average value of the special ingredient (or ingredients) purchased in any potion created: 24% of the sale price (average 231 gp).

The ingredient cost can be used to determine the street value of potion components were the party to get into the business of selling potion components. Assuming a 50% markup before being purchased by a wholesaler selling alchemical components, an average potion’s raw special component(s) is worth roughly 152 gp.

Final results for creating a potion, with the help of an alchemist in his lab:

Average Cost to research formula: 4 weeks @ 100 gp / week (materials) + 150 gp/week (alchemist), average 2,150 gp.

Cost to create potion, assuming a 5% profit margin for the alchemist who created the potion: xp value in gold + 24% of the sale price of the potion (special ingredient) + 25 gp/day (alchemist). Takes 1 day / each 100 xp of potion, average cost 688 gp.

Chance of failure for each potion: 20%, + 2% for each level over 7th level, -1% for each 100 xp.

Other math, such as how much are the costs if the PCs create the formula, or provide their own ingredients, should be readily calculable using the above assumptions.

Extending that data to components required for other magic items, a baseline of ~24% of the cost of magic item creation is the materials.


It’s also worth noting that Dragon #130 has an extended article on the Alchemist class, which divides the potions into “levels” for a different method of determining the cost of the potion formula. The article includes other suggestions, such as: an expanded list of special ingredients for particular potions; a different Failure Table; a much higher rate of potion creation (one level of potion/day per alchemist level); and limiting the level of potion creation by the level of alchemist.

Previous versions of the Alchemist class are included in Dragon issues #2, 45, and 49. Dragon #2 (1976, D&D) also ranks the potions by level and a methodology to determining time and cost to produce. Dragon #45 suggests a detailed methodology for potion identification. Dragon #49 lists various ways failed potions could adversely affect the user, and also suggests that substituting special components with an increased rate of failure.

Dragon #2, 1976 (D&D)
Lists potions by level of difficulty to create.
Potions require 200 gp + 1 week/level of potion to produce.
Research costs are the same as that for a MU researching spells.
40% more likely to create a potion formula with an example.
Lists potions by level, and several new potions.

Dragon #45, January 1981
Specialist alchemists.
Monthly salary of 30-120 gp + 10,000 gp for the lab.
Potion identification costs 100-150 gp/day, identifying potions at xp/100 hours) with ~95% accuracy.

Dragon #49, May 1981
Lists potions by difficulty to create.
Alchemists as a spell-casting class.
Substituting ingredients increases chance of failure.

Dragon #130, Feb., 1988. “Better Living Through Alchemy. Poison and Potions: The alchemist NPC class”
Lists potion special ingredients

Player’s Option:  Skills & Powers, 1995.

Player’s Option: Spells & Magic, 1996.


Author: Rick

A DM for *mumble* years, I've been playing AD&D since junior high. I've currently got two separate campaigns running, both in Mystara. I've been told when they handed out hobbies, I stood in the short lines. I actively cycle tour, kayak, play board games, read, develop home automation software, play Stars!, volunteer with the International and National American Red Cross, and work on a never-ending stream of home repairs. In my wake I've left paintball, medieval full-contact combat (SCA), computer gaming, Heroclix, and kite construction.

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