Alchemy has always been a fascinating topic to me. Among the various indistinct forms of esoteric traditions, alchemy is one of them with more familiar trappings. As a precursor to chemistry, it's been used to heal, to kill, or even for the strangest and most arcane purposes. Fittingly, I've designed a 5e background fitting each purpose.
Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, Nature
Tool Proficiencies: Alchemical Supplies (Artisan’s Kit), Herbalism Kit
Starting equipment: a set of alchemical supplies, a leather apron, three empty vials, a slip of paper with a partial but incomplete alchemical formula, and a leather belt strung with two pouches (one of which holds 10 gold pieces), and a set of common clothing
You are skilled in alchemy and familiar with various occultist traditions. Unlike an apothecary, you do not use your alchemical knowledge for healing. Unlike a poisoner, you do not use your knowledge to kill. Instead, you apply your esoteric knowledge to tasks of an obscure and arcane nature. You approach alchemy from a mystical but rational bent; attuning your mind to the world in the proper way may be just as important as finding the proper alchemical compounds. You seek to unlock the power of things through unlocking their essences and mastering the elements. Note that alchemy is not necessarily strictly the same thing as magic, the art of invoking otherworldly power through spells and the like. This background doesn’t give you the ability to cast spells or use similar magic abilities in and of itself. (However,, this difference won't necessarily keep people from confusing you with a witch and making you burn for it.)
Feature: Alchemical Notation
You are skilled in the common forms of alchemical notation and cryptography and can decipher them without too much trouble. You can also create your own codes that you can use to pass on messages to other knowledgeable people. However, deciphering, decoding, or creating deliberately obtuse or rare forms of alchemical notation may require skill rolls or more involved procedures.
Alchemical Purpose (1d6)
The discipline of alchemy is not monolithic. Various traditions have sought various goals, and even the famous philosopher’s stone has been pursued for various reasons. Roll or choose one or more from below
11. Longevity You seek to learn how to extend mortal life
22. Immortality You seek the ability to live forever.
33. Material transmutation You seek to learn how to transmute minerals and metals from one form to another, particularly lead into gold
44. Purification You seek to purify your mind, body, and soul. It is said that enlightenment, even moral sainthood can be reached by reaching the proper alchemical states.
55. Destruction Where there is creation, there also must be destruction. For your own reasons, you seek knowledge alchemical knowledge of a destructive capacity.
66. Creation of life Going beyond the transmutation life, you seek knowledge of creating entirely new life forms.
As a precursor to chemistry, alchemy benefits from a rational mind and an eye for observation. Yet also as a mystical discipline, an appreciation for the unusual and unexpected is all but required. Despite supposedly benefiting from rational minds, alchemists are also often quite driven (even obsessive) in their goals, whatever they may be.
Personality Traits (1d8)
11. I always document my work with the most simplicity I can.
22. My speech is filled with convoluted allegory and metaphysical concepts.
33. I begin every conversation with a question.
44. My mind often wanders even in conversation.
55. I carefully consider everything before making a decision.
66. My experiences have given me a taste for the bizarre.
77. I try to “talk shop” even with uninformed commoners.
88. I am prone to yelling exclamations like “EUREKA!” when I’ve solved a problem or made a discovery, no matter how minor.
11. Reliability (Lawful) I always go through all the steps to make sure to go through all the proper steps in the work that I do and to make sure my discoveries can be replicated.
22. Redemption (Good) I seek to make up for follies in my past, and I try to give that opportunity to others.
33. Enlightenment (Any) I seek a higher state of consciousness.
44. Convenience (Neutral) Better living through alchemy!
55. Anarchy (Chaotic) All of society’s arbitrary restrictions stifle the creative process!
66. Self-Divinity (Evil) I will become a god above all.
11. The academic world will be dazzled by my findings!
22. I have heard rumors of a miraculous compound I must investigate.
33. My old mentor scarred me in an experiment. I will avenge myself.
44. My homeland needs a miracle to save its agriculture.
55. I lost somebody special, but with the right knowledge I could…
66. Every person has a hidden full potential they can unlock. It’s a joy to see people find theirs.
11. I don’t take setbacks very well.
22. I focus on one task at a time above all others.
33. I horde knowledge like misers horde money.
44. I build up my hopes too high.
55. My greed often overrides my sense of reason.
66. I seem cold and unemotional to other people
Skill Proficiencies: Medicine, Nature
Tool Proficiencies: Alchemist’s supplies (Artisan’s Tools), Herbalism Kit
Starting Gear: a herbalism kit, a small cutting knife, a glass vial, one outfit of common clothing, two belt pouches (one of which contains 10 gp)
In your youth, you were an apprentice of someone skilled in the medicinal arts. More specifically, you were trained in the use of alchemy and herbalism to alleviate others’ wounds and illnesses. As an apothecary, you are also skilled in other basic healing techniques such as surgery and midwifery. Your take on these arts may be mystical, and others may assign you various titles such as “white witch”, or “cunning person”, even “blasphemer” if they are ill disposed towards your more esoteric skills. You can make healing potions and other alchemical concoctions. However, unless you are a spellcaster capable of magical healing, your healing skills do not reach the potency level of spells.
Feature: Medicinal Miracle
You have made a medicinal discovery that could potentially save many lives. Work with your GM to come up with an affliction fairly common to the setting that is either resistant to or afflicts a population underserved by divine magic and its wielders. Examples might include particular forms of mutation, lycanthropy, or vampirism. Alternatively, your medicinal miracle could be some form of preventative medicine that provides a (temporary) resistance or even (if your GM allows) immunity to the affliction in question. Your treatment is costly and in the early stages of development; it will require refinement (and thus further adventure) to reach a stage where it could be widely distributed. Regardless of the nature of your medicinal discovery, it shouldn’t be anything that is so common as to eliminate the need for divine magic or other more costly means of healing. (Developing a “cure for death” probably isn’t valid unless your DM wants to put substantial ramifications into it that would make such a “cure” more trouble than it is likely worth.)
A skilled apothecary needs a good eye for observation, especially in a world without a marketplace regulated to weed out the snake oil. Wisdom and common sense are highly desired characteristics for apothecaries, as is the ability to listen to a patient and observe any maladies that person may have. In a world where divine magic can eliminate many maladies hard or impossible to deal with the in real world, apothecaries may specialize in dealing with rare or obscure afflictions that regular divine magic can solve. Therefore, the need for various lore skills can be even more useful for an apothecary in a fantastic world.
Personality Traits (1d8)
11. I listen intently when those around talk about their woes. If they hold back, I encourage them to speak.
22. I get all emotional in reaction to unexpected developments.
33. I do things scientifically. Hypothesize, observe and test, draw conclusions.
44. I hand out solutions to problems just as I would prescriptions to treat illnesses.
55. How do these fools keep getting themselves into trouble like this?!?
66. I see other healers as potential rivals.
77. A person’s pain affects me vicariously.
88. I always phrase my impression of the current situation in the most favorably sounding way I can.
11. Compassion (Good) There is so much suffering in the world. Let’s see if what we can do to alleviate some of it.
22. Eradication (Neutral) This isn’t about healing the patient. It’s about wiping out the illness. Disease is an enemy that must be wiped out.
33. Knowledge (Any) Every affliction is a puzzle. It’s both my job and my pleasure to figure out the cure.
44. Opportunism (Evil) The sick and the needy are easy to milk for a gold piece or two.
55. Independence (Chaotic) I’ll do things my own way on my own!
66. Standard Practice (Lawful) It’s best to do things by the book; precedence exists for a reason.
11. I work for the memory of my lost loved one. I have vowed, never again.
22. My healing is a work of faith.
33. I work for the honor of those who trained me.
44. My goal is to extend the knowledgebase of treating illness.
55. The good I do is for the benefit of all people.
66. Everybody said I couldn’t do it, but I’ll prove them wrong!
11. Society has called me a blasphemer for the good I’ve done. I won’t forget this.
22. I become impatient with those who can’t spit out what they need to tell me.
33. I feel a NEED to help people. It’s who I am; it’s in my blood. If there’s no illness around…
44. A great guilt for all those whom I couldn’t save weighs me down.
55. I’ve seen so much illness and suffering. It’s tired me.
66. I can only feel scorn for those who bring misfortune upon themselves. I won’t suffer fools lightly.
Skill Proficiencies: Deception, Sleight of Hand
Tool Proficiencies: Herbalism Kit, Poisoner’s Kit
Equipment: Poisoner’s kit, two empty vials, a small knife, a set of commoner’s clothing, pouch with 10 g.p.
Whereas others learn the esoteric arts to heal, you use them to harm. You have received training in the fine art of assassination via poison. Not only are you trained in creating poisons, you are also trained in delivering them to unsuspecting victims. A few lies and a little poison tucked away in a sandwich or in a wine goblet, and the victim can be none the wiser until it’s too late.
Feature: Poison Use
Whenever you apply a poison, you never risk accidentally exposing yourself to it. Furthermore, you know where to procure any poison or poison ingredients you may need.
Above all, poisoners have to be skilled deceivers. They strike from positions of trust or stealth. Knowing the processes of making poison and how to administer it is also of vital importance, as you rarely get to make up for a botched attempt at poisoning someone.
11. I instinctively examine any food or drink I might consume for poison.
22 .I maintain a cheery demeanor even as my victims die in agony before me.
33. I wring my hands when nobody’s looking.
44. I’m a neat freak. No spot can go uncleansed.
55. I’m an idealist at heart. Just one willing to use extreme measures to achieve the ideal.
66. My heart is cold. I have no strong feelings towards anyone.
77. I weave elaborate plots so byzantine that those on the outside can’t understand them.
88. I enjoy engaging in superficial small talk and gossip about other’s affairs, but always tactfully redirect questions regarding my business.
11. Vengeance (Evil) My foes have wronged me, and they must be punished.
22. Profit (Evil) I’m a professional; I’m in only in this for the bottom line.
33. Mercy (Good) I only kill as a last resort, and only to spare lives that would otherwise be lost in needless bloodbath.
44. Protocol (Lawful) I always do things by the book.
55. Subtlety (Any) I take great care in making what I do look natural, or at least make it hard to pin it back on me. You might say it’s an art form.
66. Cowardice (Chaotic) Ain’t no way I’m gonna make this a fair fight.
11. I was wronged long ago. I haven’t forgotten, and I’ll hunt down all who were involved.
22. I kill for my ideology.
33. At least my code of honor keeps me from becoming a total monster.
44. I have many secrets I can’t afford others to know.
55. I help the oppressed from the shadows.
66. The vengeance I carry out is not my own. I swore an oath, and I must see it fulfilled.
11. I always gloat to my victims. I enjoy humiliating them just as much as killing them.
22. Sometimes when I get too excited, my work becomes a little sloppy.
33. I trust no one. Friends will just get you killed.
44. I leave a calling card at the scene of my murders.
55. I try not to, but sometimes I can’t stop myself from hurting those I love.
66. My past kills somehow come back to haunt me.