Pricing Potions

On the OD&D '74 forums, there was a very thoughtful post by user magremore asking/following up on how I'd priced potions in my OED house rules: I add potions of healing at cost 200, and potions of mithridate (neutralize poison) at 1000, to the standard equipment list. Recall that there are no clerics in my campaign, so without these available, PCs in my game have no access to healing or neutralizing poison while on an adventure.

Here's a recreation of my thought process on that; the data I was trying to triangulate included the following:
  • OD&D Vol-1 says "costs", not entirely clear whether that's production or retail cost. Let's say it's production.

  • OD&D Vol-1 lists the potion of healing as 250 gp for a magic-user (and 1 week).

  • OD&D Vol-3, under Specialists, says an alchemist can "make a similar potion at a cost of one-half the potion's value" (p. 22).

  • The AD&D DMG is more explicit, giving a distinction between manufacture costs (equal to XP value; p. 116) and sales value. Manufacture times are generally reduced there; for potions, it's one day per hundred XP value. E.g., a potion of healing is 200 gp to manufacture, takes 2 days, and has a sale value of 400 gp.

  • In AD&D, a magic-user requires alchemist assistance to make potions at levels 7-10; at level 11+ it's not required, but (again) reduces price and time by half (p. 116).

  • Also, I'm trying to game-balance the thing in terms of my campaign.

So my thinking was that (assuming they're generally for sale at all) potions of healing are the most common potion or magic item available. If you're going to make them, you'll make them in batches and as close to mass-produced as you can get. They're pretty widely available as a formula known to alchemists (per the OD&D requirement). So you'll probably have an alchemist working on them to make it efficient.

In OD&D, arguably, that brings manufacture cost down to 125 gp; say double-markup to around 200 gp or so (note in OD&D: no magic-user required!). In AD&D, a high-level magic-user with an alchemist manufactures one for 100 gp; I assume the market price is likewise halved to 200 gp. For game-balance purposes, this puts it just tantalizingly out of reach of any starting PC (with 30-180 gp). If a whole party pools their resources, maybe they can get one. After the first adventure it's an obvious sink/investment for treasure (don't need to save up thousands to get one).

I do think that the OD&D times suggested are too high (e.g., a week for a single 1st-level spell seems generally not a good use of time for an MU), and that the AD&D reductions are well-considered. I have that reduction jotted in the margin of my Vol-1 book. So while I haven't included upkeep costs in the value (nor do they seem reflected in the AD&D market sales prices), that modification would certainly reduce the high opportunity cost a bunch.

For the potion of mithridate (neutralize poison), I was likewise eyeballing the elixir of health in the AD&D Unearthed Arcana, given sale value 2000 gp, and cutting that in half for presumed alchemist help. My players have these fairly useful; they usually carry a few potions each, and a single potion of mithridate for the party.

If you can access it, user magremore helpfully shared a 6-page essay with an alternative pricing theory, one that includes the value of the creator's term, in terms of standard upkeep costs. This comes out to much higher valuations, e.g., on the order of 1,500 or 5,000+ for the two potion types made by full-blown wizards. He also considers allowing them to be made by lower-level magic-users, which puts them on the order of about double my valuations. Thanks to him for the consideration of that!


  1. Personally, my interpretation of the Volume 3 statement about alchemists is that Gygax had already started assigning the magic item values that would later appear in the DMG. So the alchemist making potions for half their value would be half of the 400 gold sale value. Then presumably an independent alchemist would mark it up to 400 gold for sale, while an alchemist hireling produces them for you at cost since you're paying her a salary of 1000 gold per month. I think asking "how much is a wizard's time worth?" is entirely the wrong question, and that it's a deliberate design choice that magic-users cannot turn a profit by sitting around producing potions. In my eyes, the 250 gold + 1 week for a magic-users to make a potion is only useful for when you have no other available source of healing potions, or possibly as a 'trap option' to catch players who are stingy but don't think ahead enough to realize the hidden cost of monthly lifestyle expenses if they spend weeks and weeks on item creation.

    If going strictly by the book, my preference would be that healing potions normally cost 400 gold commercially, but at low levels put the PCs in a situation where they have a patron (such as the lord of the Keep on the Borderlands) with an alchemist on staff who can provide that at cost without the markup. Then at 3rd level or so when the PCs 'outgrow' their patron, they'll have the resources to afford paying 400 gold instead of 200 per potion, but it will still be a stiff reminder that the additional freedom they gained by striking out on their own means having to give up some privileges that their patron had been affording them.

    1. Those are good thoughts, I'd have no problem with any of that.

  2. Thank you and magremore for that research!

    A few notes:
    1) About formulas:
    "Given a formula, the Alchemist can duplicate it" - Vol III
    So far, my interpretation of "formula" has been a original potion to be duplicated. And not a "pretty widely available" recipe.

    2)About lab and upkeep costs:
    Note that the potion costs in OD&D are a little higher than AD&D. I believe that costs for alchemical equipments are counted for in OD&D.

    1. Yeah, that's all good. However you interpret "formula" (whether a written recipe or an actual potion), presumably you'd be just a couple steps from copying the first one, and then distributing it to other alchemists to sit on the shelf as their "source" for future copies.

  3. Delta, Thanks for the shout out. The replies by you and Dan Boggs gave me a lot to think about. What’s great is that there are workable models for whatever kind of world a DM wants to build, just like OD&D should be.

    1. Totally agreed, well put! Thanks for making us all think about that. :-)

  4. This was an excellent read all the way around, Dan: good essay, good thoughts, good comments, lots of food for thought. Thanks!

  5. I did something similar, specifically for the price of potion ingredients (useful if PCs are into the buying and selling of potion ingredients): https://dnd.sinister.net/alchemy/

    1. Nice, very thoughtful! Clever modification of the miscibility table to pivot for creation failures.

      I've always kind of wanted a 1-in-20 chance that any magic creation gets turns into a cursed version of the same form factor, but there really hasn't been enough magic crafting in my games for that to be an issue.

    2. (Thinking out loud... and have player roll that chance the first time they use it in anger.)