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I am playing a vivisectionist alchemist that has the goal of improving the human race through genetic manipulation. However, neither the GM nor I have any idea of how my character should go about actually doing the research that will lead to my character being able to make such improvements in a way that's balanced, and the rules don't seem to explore how such research can be accomplished.

For example, I wanted my character to research—spending time and money—creatures the party had encountered during its adventures to see if those creatures' abilities could be useful in improving humanity. Like if the party encounters a fire-spitting lizard, I'd want my character to be able to determine if that lizard's fire-spitting special ability could somehow genetically benefit or improve humans.

Are there rules in Pathfinder for researching effects like this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take the tour. The site's focus on questions and answers means that, as currently phrased, this question is better suited to one of these forums. However, How can I create new effects using research? is a valid, standalone question that the site can address. Please edit the question to omit the call for discussion if that's the kind of answers you'd like. Thank you for participating and have fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 10 '18 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I made a substantial edit to this question. Confirm it's still asking what you want to know. If it's not, please, by all means, edit it further or rollback the question to the previous version. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 10 '18 at 17:09
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There are not, precisely speaking, rules for this kind of thing in Pathfinder, though there are some related ideas that have some rules (or at least guidance) attached. But ultimately, this kind of goes beyond the system itself and gets more into gameplay and campaign running.

Fundamentally, then, you are left with two approaches to handling this:

  1. Homebrew some system for handling it.

  2. Refluff/reskin an existing system—or the system, as a whole, as I’ll get to—to represent it.

The first option seems to be what you are requesting, and I will address that to an extent, but first I want to pitch the second one.

Abstractions: levels, XP, background activity—think eureka!

So Pathfinder uses a level-based system, where rather than gradually gaining new knowledge and abilities, you gain all of it at once at certain points in time. Specifically 19 times, if you get all the way to 20th level, and when each happens is a function of the accumulation of so-called experience points, XP.

What are levels and XP, really? Do you or I, as people in the real world, have either of those things? No, we don’t—XP and levels are a game construct designed to simplify reality into something you can play as a game. This is what is known as an abstraction in game-design terms. Pathfinder (like all games) relies on abstractions to be playable, and this is a big one.

But just because the rules are abstract, doesn’t mean your game has to be. Those abstractions are meant to represent something—learning and practicing and improving, in this case. You can imagine a level-up as the “eureka!” moment, where everything the character has been practicing, working on, thinking about, and so on, suddenly “clicks” and works for the character.

A key part of this that is often overlooked is the concept of background activities. All kinds of background activities relevant to your character—both maintenance things like sharpening weapons, and improvement things like study or practice—are assumed to always be happening, just off-screen. We often get questions asking why characters don’t need to maintain things, or why they shouldn’t get special bonuses for some kind of practicing or training, and the answer is: because those things are already baked into the leveling system. Doing those things is why your character levels up in the first place. The game usually assumes they’re happening off-screen because the game doesn’t want to focus on them, but they still are happening, for the characters.

Which means it’s good to think about what your character is doing to level-up, particularly with respect to what class that level will be in. For taking a level in alchemist, studying alchemy is definitely going to be a big part of it. And why does an alchemist adventure, and why does his alchemy improve while adventuring? Because he’s coming across novel and exotic animals, minerals, and vegetables that he can study to come up with new approaches to his alchemy.

In short, when you ask what your alchemist should get for defeating creatures and studying their corpses, my answer is he should get another level of alchemist! After he’s accumulated the appropriate amount of XP, of course.

This approach doesn’t involve new rules, doesn’t involve making up things or judging their balance, it just involves having a new perspective on the rules you were already using. In my experience, this yields are far more enjoyable game, and avoids a lot of the risk of trying to do things yourself. It is by a massive margin my strong recommendation for what you do here.

Optimizing for character

“Optimization” is frequently used to refer to optimizing some mechanical aspect—optimizing damage, or speed, or hp, or whatever. But fundamentally, “optimization” as an activity can be applied to any endeavor—all it really means is to consider your options through the lens of seeking to optimize some particular value or parameter. That means you can—and should—try to optimize things like “the degree to which my character’s mechanics back up his story and narrative and character.”

Part of that is just roleplay—have your alchemist use his abilities in ways similar to what you describe. And take the time to describe his background activities! Describe him dissecting fallen monsters, keeping samples where possible and notes where it’s not. Have him discuss how his new ant haul extract comes from studying the corpses of those fiendish monstrous ants that you fought last level. Or that he was able to figure out how to create a beast shape IV extract after a long period of study and research, based on the notes and information he’s accumulated from all the druids you’ve beaten over the levels. Whatever.

“Refluffing” or “reskinning” can also be put to good use here. Maybe your extracts aren’t the usual potions. Maybe it’s a syringe, maybe it’s even a syringe fashioned from the stinger of a monstrous scorpion. Maybe your mutagen is likewise not a brew, but possibly the synthesized flesh of some (or several) beasty that has to be scarfed down to get the power. Whatever you feel is appropriate (to the degree it still makes sense for the existing mechanics).

But you can also choose mechanical options that back you up. For some examples:

  • The visionary researcher archetype is compatible with vivisectionist, and allows an alchemist to produce mutagens that can be shared with others. This is a perfect match for your character—ask your GM if you can use it! Even if you are already past 2nd or 3rd level (when visionary researcher changes things), this should be a fairly minor ret-con.

  • As visionary researcher suggests, some discoveries are quite appropriate here—choosing them emphasizes what your particular alchemist is aiming to do with what he has learned in his travels. For example, infuse mutagen allows you to create extra mutagens—perfect for somebody who is going to want to be handing those out to people! Infusion is similar for extracts.

  • Your choice of extract formulae can also say a lot about your character. For example, maybe your alchemist prioritizes learning and using the restoration and heal extracts. Or maybe he’s a little... odd about how he goes about helping others, and focuses on things like beast shape and rubberskin to help humanity, having seen how effective those properties can be for the monsters you’ve vanquished.

  • Ask your GM if you can take Fleshwarping without being evil—after all, this is for science and the greater good! (many thanks to ShadowKras for pointing these rules out; they’re convenient even if I’m not sure I consider them good)

OK, but really—I want to do something new.

New things can still be done with refluffing! Work with your GM: maybe some of the normal options available to alchemists can be things that actually haven’t ever happened before in the game world. Maybe there has never been a visionary researcher before, maybe you are the first alchemist ever to produce mutagens that can be shared. Maybe no alchemist before you has made the infusion and infuse mutagen discoveries before, either!

But to go beyond that will require a lot more GM judgment, and be both more difficult and more risky for him or her. That said, we do have some suggestions:

  • There are some rules for researching and designing new extract formulae, though they are pretty basic and largely leave the final judgment on whether or not something can be researched up to the GM—and don’t do a whole lot to guide the GM one way or the other.

  • The optional Intrigue ruleset has Research rules that your GM could adapt to studying beyond simple extract formulae and into truly novel effects—like permanent, heritable improvements to humanity.

  • Finally, genetics is a field largely unknown in Pathfinder—but it does exist. Genetic manipulation has been done in ages past. This is a realistic dream for your alchemist. Making extracts and mutagens that cause permanent, and better, heritable effects, is entirely plausible at high levels.

    But I would not associate costs with it—it doesn’t affect character power. Just like every alchemist “automatically” gains discoveries, formulae, and the like just for leveling up, I would suggest that your alchemist can also learn this while leveling up—but I would not make it a feat or discovery, or make it cost money, or anything else. And I wouldn’t make it take extra-special activities or time, just have it be part of the abstracted background activities. That’s because it’s a matter of fluff, a long-term benefit that does nothing for your alchemist himself. It’s a way of showing how good he is at alchemy, but doesn’t improve his power and so should not come from character-creation resources.

No, I really want to use time and money!

OK, fine. The aforementioned Fleshwarping feat could be used, but it’s kind of awkward. Here is what I would do (and have done, for different reasons) instead:

  • Allow the alchemist to take an item-creation feat called, say, Craft Genetic Mutation. Make it require, say, the experimental mutagen class feature as well as the infuse mutagen discovery, as well as a lengthy research process, perhaps using the Intrigue rules or the spell research rules.

  • All genetic mutations are designed and costed as if they were continuous, slot-less wondrous items. That would typically be \$L_{spell} \times L_{caster} \times 4\,000\text{ gp}\$ for custom items (where \$L_{spell}\$ is the spell level and \$L_{caster}\$ is the caster level), and double the cost of regular continuous items, but as always, the magic item creation guidelines are guidelines and the GM should judge each proposed magic item on a case-by-case basis.

  • The genetic mutation produces a fundamental change in the creature who takes it, permanently imbuing them with some magic. That magic can be suppressed as if it were a magic item (with the caster level required to make the item as the effective caster level), but otherwise the effect is permanent and cannot be removed from the creature by any means except by taking a second genetic mutation designed to counter the first (which costs, say, 10% what the original item did). Miracle and wish are probably up to the job too, maybe regenerate. In addition to being permanent on that creature, the effect is also passed on to each of that creature’s descendants (or you could model it as a recessive genetic trait1).

  • Note that the wealth-by-level guidelines function on exactly that: wealth. That is, the sum-total value of things you actually have. So if you make a genetic mutation for some NPC who isn’t adventuring with you, and that costs, say, 10,000 gp, the value of that 10,000 gp isn’t part of your wealth any longer. Or, even worse, if you spend money creating a genetic mutation, and then spend more money removing it—then you’re out its cost plus 10% more for the counter. The GM, assuming he is following the WBL guidelines, should see you as being below where the guidelines put you, and seek to rectify the situation over the course of the next several encounters or whatever. See this answer about handling WBL for more details.

  • There really is not any good way to handle playing one of the offspring who got the mutation “for free,” since they have a built-in magic item they did not pay for (and potentially would be very expensive to get). This approach only really works if we assume that the campaign itself will not last long enough for the effects of these genetic traits to actually appear in play—the inheritance component will purely be a matter of story and possibly the epilogue of the campaign, if all goes well.


  1. A simple, single-gene recessive trait must be present on both chromosomes in order to be expressed in an organism. Assuming the mutation effect changes both chromosomes, a treated creature has a 100% chance of passing on the gene. However, if the other parent lacks the mutation entirely—0% chance of passing on that gene—the offspring will have the gene on one chromosome and not the other. The result is that they become a carrier for the gene, without having the effect themselves. The offspring between a carrier and a mutant has a 50% chance of being a mutant, 50% chance of being another carrier. The offspring of a carrier with a non-carrier is 50% chance of carrier, 50% chance of non-carrier. Finally, the offspring of two carriers is 25% mutant, 50% carrier, 25% non-carrier. See Wikipedia on Punnett squares for more details. Anything more complex than this is far too complex for a table-top RPG, in my opinion. Even this much is a lot much for what will ultimately be a background detail.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, what we my character wants to do is definitly novel research. We don't know exactly the costs involved in making such discoveries, but are aiming to something similar to how new magic items are created. \$\endgroup\$ – André Ribeiro Jan 10 '18 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AndréRibeiro Cool, that’s kinda what I’d gathered and what I plan to address when I get back from lunch. But as a short preview, while I’ll discuss that idea, I’ll also recommend against it, and suggest that perhaps you need to take another look at what exactly it means to level-up as an alchemist. Because what you are describing, studying defeated creatures and gaining new knowledge (however you use it), that sounds an awful lot like just gaining XP and taking levels in alchemist. Or at least, sounds like it could be. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 10 '18 at 17:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ The GM had asked the same thing. \$\endgroup\$ – André Ribeiro Jan 10 '18 at 18:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AndréRibeiro I would be curious to hear how your table ends up going with this; feel free to leave a brief update on how it goes as a comment. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 11 '18 at 0:45
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Genetic manipulation is not handled by Pathfinder rules

This means that you will have to homebrew it together with your GM. The only hint I can offer you is to actually turn your research into temporary effects, like potions, extracts and infusions, rather than trying to permanently modify people.

Necrografting is the closest you will find, which involves using dead body parts from another creature (human or not) to improve your body. It works similarly to magic item creation, but you create organs and limbs instead.

Researching information about creatures

This may be even more important to you, but also requires some work on the GM's part. The Library Research rules require you to spend some time in a library to gather information about the desired topic, and every day spent there, you can try to obtain more information about it.

Once you figure out all the information you needed from a creature, you could turn that information into a new extract formula, or a new magic item. But either option will require the GM to sit down, check similar spells or magic items and decide on a price and requirements to get it done.

Alchemists research formulas just like a wizard researches spells

The rules for researching new spell formulas are the following:

The standard rules allow you to perform spell research, either to create a new spell or learn an existing spell from another source. In the downtime system, the steps for spell research each day are as follows.

  1. Pay 100 gp × the spell’s level for research costs and rare ingredients.
  2. Determine the total days of progress required to complete the research, which is 7 × the spell level.
  3. Determine the spell research DC, which is 10 + twice the spell’s level.
  4. Attempt a Spellcraft check and a Knowledge check (arcana for an arcane spell, religion for a divine spell) against the spell research DC. You can’t take 10 on these checks. You may spend Magic to modify a check result, with 1 point of Magic adding 2 to your total (maximum +10). If both checks succeed, you make 1 day’s progress toward completing the spell. When your days of progress equal the total number of days needed, the spell is completed and added to your spellbook or list of spells known.

If either or both spell research checks fail by 4 or less, you make no progress. For each check that fails by 5 or more, your research has led to poor results and you lose a day of progress toward completing the spell.

If you’re an alchemist, you can use this downtime option to research a new extract formula. Instead of a Spellcraft check, attempt a Craft (alchemy) check. For Knowledge (arcana) checks, you may attempt a Knowledge (nature) check instead.

This will require the GM to homebrew the effects and define the final spell level before you even begin your research. A tip I can give you is to always base your spell on existing spells and look for alternative but similar effects. In doubt, increase the spell level by 1.

Genetic manipulation in the setting

Note that what you want to do is not absurd or beyond pathfinder, though. That kind of genetic manipulation is on the very core of Golarion's lore and is canon. It is simply not handled by the rules (yet).

The Aboleth, an old race of aquatic creatures fond of genetic manipulation, is known for engineering the Azlanti, the ancestors of humanity, and several other creatures in the setting, from gillmen to skum. Their ancient technique is known as Fleshwarping, and is practiced nowdays by the drow, though they were gifted this knowledge by a demon, so the actual effects are vastly different and twisted.

There are rules for Fleshwarping in the Horror Adventures, but those changes are drastic and leave traumas behind, such as being unable to speak or even cause penalties on your ability scores. They are handled as magic item creation and require the feat Fleshwarper (Item Creation), but do note that the feat requires you to be of evil alignment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that while an under-leveled spell is worse than an over-leveled spell, an over-leveled spell is still a really big problem. Defaulting to bumping things up 1 is probably the right heuristic (because bumping down is worse), but it should be noted as not being just the thing you always do—it is very much something to avoid if possible. Eliminate the doubt if you can. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 10 '18 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 For the Necrografting and lore/fleshwarping. Not on point, but definitly useful. \$\endgroup\$ – André Ribeiro Jan 10 '18 at 17:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ "The Aboleth are known for engineering the Azlanti, the ancestors of humanity. The aboleth, an even older race of aquatic creatures fond of genetic manipulation, are known for engineering several creatures in the setting, from gillmen to skum." Is there a difference between Aboleth with an uppercase 'A' and aboleth with a lowercase 'a'? Or was one of those meant to be another race? \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Jan 10 '18 at 20:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ None, it was a relic of text formatting. Fixed. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Jan 10 '18 at 20:30

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