The D&D5e Alchemical Con Men

His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Cabalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies …He also has a whole library of magic books.  He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so he may in future serve a different master …

– Propositions to the Archdukes in VIenna (1606)

True it is,” the Court Alchemist says to the King, “without falsehood, certain, and most true.  That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing…”

“When will your laboratory provide me gold?” the King asks.

“Soon, my Great King,” says the Alchemist. “We are close to understanding the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Simply a few more weeks of research and a few thousand more gold.  It is delicate.  One cannot rush enlightenment…”

The Great Alchemical Scams

Now since the principal part of our work consists in knowledge of our hermaphrodite, that is to say Mercury, guard well that you take it not for the leprous, common and vulgar mercury, in no wise proper to this subject.  But where will you then – you ask – that I seek and find it?  I answer that he is imprisoned and bound by many chains, and that there be none but the Philosopher can deliver him and set him free.

– Concerning the Material of the Stone, Anonymous

Alchemists claim Alchemy is the oldest science in the world with a theoretical history stretching into the mists of forgotten time. They say, by manipulating the elements, alchemy advocates inner awakening, enlightens the soul and grants greater insight into the universal magickal workings.  These pseudo-scientists weave a tapestry of Hermetic Magic, mystical languages, astrology, numerology and chemistry to build an emotionally charged narrative opposing the traditional schools of magic with equally powerful effects.  Why pay for a wizard when an alchemist does the same – and so much more!  All their alternative magic needs is some seed money, a place to work, and a patron.  

The Alchemists are running a con.  The con uses three core scams separately or in combination:  

  • The Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone: The core quest for any Alchemist is the manufacture of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Holy Grail fusion of art and alchemical science, this physical substance could turn lead into gold or silver, prolong life indefinitely, act as a universal panacea, and be the very key to the riddles of the universe.  The Philosopher’s Stone promised infinite riches and ultimate knowledge.  Alchemists believed (or claimed) the search for the Philosopher’s Stone was an internal and external journey. Only the most pure find the Philosopher’s Stone.  Its manifestation is the outward sign of complete hermetic enlightenment. 

Outside of the Alchemist’s lab, actual wizards of the school of transmutation keep quiet about the Philosopher’s Stone.  Sure, they know how to turn things into other things with magic but an ultra-powerful substance?  What is this crazy talk.  And no, they don’t know a thing about the overly successful but murdered Alchemist found dead in the street with no witnesses or the Alchemists turned to stone.  Not a thing.  

  • The Elixir of Life: An immortality potion, the Elixir of Life is sometimes equated with a specific manifestation of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Universally sought, stories tell of great Alchemists who drank “the white drops” (liquid gold) and achieved immortality without resorting to necromancy or eternal undeath. One only needs the slightest taste on the tongue of the Elixir of Life to extend mortal existence for hundreds to thousands of years. 

Some Alchemists claim to have tasted the Elixir of Life and are already hundreds of years old – outliving the oldest of the Elves themselves.  But there’s no proof.

  • The Sovereign Remedy: The ultimate cure-all – not just for disease (easily supplied by Clerics) but for all ills and difficulties.  The sovereign remedy is the solution to thorny political problems, the inability to see into the future, for old age, for infirmity, for mental illness and disease.  It slices, it dices, it’s a salve, when applied, that will bring the dead back to life.  The Sovereign Remedy is an infinitely refilling healing potion for no cost – curing all possible maladies, created in the laboratory with alchemical equipment, and made without Clerics or Gods.  The Clerics warn these are scams but that doesn’t stop Kings and Emperors for buying fantasy cure alls with mountains of gold.

And so far, while the Alchemists write libraries full of Hermetic tracts and books on astrology, they have produced no real tangible results – that anyone acknowledges.

Why Do The Patrons Hire Alchemists?

Why would Emperors, Lords and Kings turn to Alchemists in a world full of wizards who cast actual fireballs and clerics who commune with real Gods out on the Planes?  Why would these guys with advisors, education, money and power turn to alternative magi in their search for enlightenment?

  • Wizards are expensive.  Wizarding guilds set high and inflexible prices for their services.  Sure a wizard potion will always do precisely what it says on the tin – wizards are proud of their workmanship and offer a high quality of product – but that potion costs 300gp. The Alchemist claims she can brew the same potion for only 100gp!  Or cheaper! In a more attractive bottle!

  • Wizards with any good reputation will not turn over their secrets to some Grand Duke for money.  Some things are worth more than a bit of scratch; and while wizards love cash they won’t say, “Oh, the Philosopher’s Stone?  I have it here in my pocket.  Here, my Lord, take a bit!  Gratis!”  If a Lord wants to turn lead into gold and achieve immortality he’ll need to ask around.

Worse, some wizards are quite excited to part with their secrets for a steep price.  The Necromancer happily offers his Lord the secrets of the universe and turn the Great and Magnificent Emperor into the Great and Magnificent Lich King Lord. Why, yes, he can Grant Eternal Life… wait, why is the King running away?

  • The Lord cannot turn to scab wizards. Once a Lord hires a non-guild wizard, the wizarding guild blackballs the Lord for life.  The Guilds have standards and they don’t need the Higher Classes. The first wizard guild rule is: customers only hire guild member wizards.  Need to go to war? Need a phalanx of fireball throwers?  Too bad you hired Bob the Scab on your quest for immortality. We cast him out for stealing our secrets and selling them on the street. Guess you’ll need to lose that war. 

Wizards are petty like that.

  • Wizards are loyal to other wizards.  Their loyalty lies with their Order/University/Guild/Family.  Even the sleaziest wizard’s absolute loyalty cannot be bought or bargained.  Why would someone who can teleport and throw a fireball grant loyalty to a Lord whose best move is to call the Guard? 

  • A Lord can turn to the Church for magic and enlightenment… if the Lord wants entanglement in Church politics.  Any Cleric will peer at the towers full of alembics and furnaces, the racks of dubious books, the magic circles drawn on the floor and the Neoplatonic sigils on the wall and ask probing questions. Questions like: what the hell are you doing? And, have you properly contributed to the Church this week?  Clerics are serious hermetic buzz kill.

  • Alchemists dazzle.  They toil in huge laboratories of bubbling tubes and flaming furnaces with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of assistants.  They speak and write in glorious, compelling code that tantalizes with a hint of higher truths.  They make their Lords feel important. And Alchemists have impeccable fashion sense.

  • Alchemists hook their Lord on the con.  Their King is an enlightened Monarch who, with Alchemical Truths, leads his people into a great and golden future!  Unlike the haughty closed-door wizards or the judgmental clerics, the Alchemist invites his great Patron along on a journey into philosophy, history, arcane knowledge, astrology, pseudo-mystical religion, and inner spiritual growth. It’s art!  It’s magic!  It’s the theater of the world!

It is, amortized over time, more expensive than paying a wizard.

Who Are the Alchemists (in a Fantasy Setting)?

The bulk of alchemists are straight up grifters and con-men – high charisma Rogues and a handful of Arcane Tricksters.  To manage the con, they require fast talk, a glib mastery of alchemical terms, knowledge in handling alchemical tools to make small but impressive results (magnesium flash-bombs and the like), slight-of-hand and an excellent sense of fashion.  They also need an underground contact to float them a supply of small gold nuggets to show “progress” in their “search for the Philosopher’s Stone.” These rogue alchemists are actual chemists – they can work a bench – but their expertise lies in true transmutation: turning words into gold.  

These rogues have a standard modus operandi.  They lay hands on a letter of invitation or hook themselves up with another Alchemist of solid reputation as an assistant and ingratiate themselves into a Court with high promises and theatrics.  Then they ditch their Alchemist buddy, run a savage burn on their patron, publish a few pamphlets full of garbage, and make a big show of building a laboratory with tiny incremental results. They soak the Court for cash until their Patron gets exasperated.  Then, just as the heat picks up, the Alchemist packs up his bags and wheels across town to run the same savage burn on the next Lord.  With their freshly written pamphlets in hand and a growing reputation as an Internationally Renowned Alchemist, they can keep the con going for years.   (See: history’s great charlatan, Edward Kelley.)

The second group of Alchemists are the real deal: the charismatic Sorcerers and Warlocks.  Unable to become normal socially accepted wizards in the cities through standard means, hunted to near-extinction by the wizarding guilds as competition and scabs, these truly magickal Alchemists use the endless parade of con-men as their cover.  Con-men to the Courts throw metaphysical flak into faces of would-be witch hunters while the Warlock and Sorcerer Alchemists use their (real) magic to keep their positions with the courts solid.  Dressing well, impeccable manners and producing for their Lords, they hide behind the courtiers and their Kings.

These are the Alchemists of solid academic reputation: the real “magic” scientists. Unable to communicate in the carefully articulated language of wizard arcana but possessing high charisma and real magic, these Alchemists use the coded and hermetic language of alchemy to cover, and explain, their actual abilities. Like the con-man rogue, the Warlock and Sorcerer Alchemists are truly chemists and doctors – they perfect skills at the bench and in a laboratory in the service of their patron while writing books on their findings to further “the sciences.”  The difference between them and the con-men: they get dangerously good results.  They walk a fine line between con and discovery.

While the payoff is high, the Lord takes risk for keeping the Sorcerer and Warlock Alchemist on staff.  The wild-magic Sorcerer may, randomly, explode the tower dedicated for alchemical research.  And the Alchemist Warlock might slowly infect the heads of the entire Court with Cthulhu. But, who says the search for greater hermetic enlightenment is without a little peril?  (See: Ramon Llull, Arnold of Villanova

The final group of Alchemists are those who use alchemy to a different end: the Spy Bards.  Espionage and Occultism: the perfect pairing. These alchemists can rattle off the language of alchemy with the best of the con-men.  They have contributed to the greater body of alchemical knowledge as a carefully cultivated cover over many years.  And they often come paired with one of the con-men grifter alchemists to help get ingratiated into a foreign Court – the bard as the front and the grifter as the “assistant.”  While they can make flash-paper and palm a gold nugget or two, the spy bard’s expertise is in encryption, ciphers, codes, mis-direction and information gathering – useful in both espionage and alchemy. 

Welcomed with open arms into the Courts all over the world for their celebrated knowledge, these bards talk their way into the closed boudoirs of the rich and famous.  They use a little bit of alchemical fast-talk to make friends and cultivate moles. Then they are off sending back encrypted messages to their home Courts.  Once the Lords are on to them – or bored with them when they don’t get results – the bard takes her leave and exits stage left, to head to the next Court down the road and do it all over again. (See: Dr. John Dee)

To Wrap This Up

Even in a world of insane market controls the free market will find a way.  It’s cunning like that.  Building high inaccessible walls around access to standard wizardly-magic creates a perfect opening for all sorts of con-men, grifters, proto-scientists, thinkers, and spies to waltz their way into the parlors of the rich and not-so-magicked.  They take advantage of inaccessibility to magic – there, but never cheap – to give themselves an opening.  If the money cannot flow into the pockets of the wizards it will flow elsewhere.  Where the gate keepers build gates, the con-men build scams around the side and to the left and offer it all for cheap.

In fantasy, Alchemists make great backgrounds for player characters, NPCs in court, an entrance to stories about the Planes (what if all of this crazy talk is right?), a tension between wizards and non-wizards, spy stories, and ridiculous scene-chewing villains.  Imagine for a moment the con-man grifter who now has two hundred assistants, a tower full of bombs, and is running all sorts of heinous murder plots from his protected position.  Who needs an Arch Lich when one is dealing with a high level, high charisma gnomish Rogue and her legions of fanatical minions who hides in a tower full of glass and fire?  Evil bomb-throwing alchemists!  Fun times!

Note: none of these Alchemists presented here actually want to do science. That’s a variant – the actual scientist Alchemist.  Or the hybrid based on Paracelsus: an effective surgeon and chemist who carried the Elixir of Life in the pommel of his broadsword.  But there’s no science here.  Just a series of rogues, their cons, and taking advantage of some well-meaning Great Emperors of Empire.

Writer’s Note: When I was writing this, I kept thinking the Bard-Rogue duo as the Mullet Espionage Team: business in the front, party in the back. 

This is pretty short – I could write forever on Alchemical con men and rogues.