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Basic Information

Apothecary refers to a profession, (common from the 14th Century to 19th Century) which has many similarities to the modern pharmacist or dispensing chemist. The apothecaries supplied medicine, folk remedies, and other materia medica to barbers, chiurgeons, and their patients. Beyond being the medieval equivalent of the modern-day pharmacist, they were also the person from whom you could purchase poison and other vile substances - as memorably and famously demonstrated in Romeo and Juliet.

This role may - or may not - be coterminous with that of the herbalist.

For those seeking flavorful accuracy, here's a few touches:

  • Apothecaries have their own system of weights and measurements called the apothecaries' system
  • Until around 1900, all medical recipes were written in Latin
  • Apothecaries were often answerable to, or bonded by, a Trade Guild or Livery Company, and had a professional reputation similar to doctors today
  • Apothecary shops sold more than just herbs, medicines, and poisons. Tobacco, patent medicine, any type of drug or chemical might be found there. If alchemy is legal in the setting, they'll carry those supplies as well.
  • They also didn't just sell drugs. They'd compound them, extract them, brew them, grind them, etc. You're buying from the manufacturer.
  • In a pinch, an apothecary might be expected to perform services that today would go to a surgeon, and sometimes they'd also serve as a midwife. Medical science was a little loosely defined in those days.

In an urban setting, the apothecary may well fulfill the same functions that a cunning man would in the countryside, and in a wainscot fantasy campaign, this is a good cover for a wizard. Some apothecaries also developed a bad reputation for obfuscation - using obscure technical jargon and flim-flam to baffle and mystify their customers and sell patent medicines of doubtful efficacy. Speaking of which, many patent medicines were, at best, completely ineffective, often relying either on the placebo effect or, in some cases, a significant recreational drug content1.



Game and Story Use

  • Finding a doctor in the Middle Ages is always fun. What passes for a medical practitioner varies heavily from place to place. If your game lacks magical healing (or magic is just unavailable at the moment), the PCs may be set up for all sorts of quackery and malpractice.
  • Hope you've got clearly defined rules for poison in your game, at least if it's taking place in the standard fantasy setting. Buying a bottle of arsenic (or something far worse) is just "a quick pop down to the chemist", and pretty-much unregulated. Just claim it's to kill the rats in your walls, or the moles in your garden, and no one will give you any trouble.
    • Of course, if your rival is dead the next morning, the apothecary may have an inkling of who it did and how.
    • Here's a dirty little plotline for those who like to mess with their players a bit. Early in the campaign, you introduce an apothecary as a minor NPC, apparently just for color. Remind the PCs about Romeo & Juliet, etc. A few sessions later, you infest the PC's castle or HQ with some sort of vermin or vermin-like monster. Pretend you expect them to fight the monsters in a series of "bug hunts" and melee skirmishes. Chances are, one of the players will remember the "improvised" apothecary from three or four sessions ago, and go buy some rat poison. They score some XP and save themselves some trouble… or so they think. The next day, someone important in town is found dead of poisoning. The apothecary tells the sheriff that he just had an unusually large order for poison from the PCs. Enough to kill a man before he knew what hit him. The PCs will of course counter-accuse the apothecary of setting them up, but that might not matter if, say, the local apothecary did double-duty as midwife when the sheriff's children were born. It will take some clever thinking on the PCs part to resolve this - they won't want to skip town, especially not after having spent so much gold cleaning out the were-rat infestation at their headquarters. They can't just kill the apothecary, either, because that would "confirm" the sheriff's suspicions about them.
      • Mind you, if it's actually were-rats they have been poisoning there might well be dead, poisoned, people showing up all over the place. Good luck persuading the lynch mob that they were all lycanthropes and totally deserved it.
  • If potions are cheap and easy to make in your setting, then all the apothecaries will have them on the shelves. If they're a bit more trouble and effort, this is still probably the place to go (though a witch or alchemist might fill that role instead, then), it'll just cost more and they'll have to brew it up to order (so expect delays).
  • For a historically accurate restraint on the purchase of poisons (other than an anachronistic prohibition) you may consider the idea of "signing the poisons book", whereby an apothecary sells some substances only to people that he knows and has them sign a register for each purchase, so creating a written record. Thus, characters wishing to purchase substances like this will need some species of social status, reputation or professional licence advantage to allow them to buy legitimately.
  • As noted above about the possibility of an apothecary getting involved in occult matters, the cRPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance includes a sidequest in which an apothecary (and a rural wise woman) both get involved in a rather complicated attempt at an exorcism.

Building This Character

Character Level

  • This can vary quite a bit depending on the prevalence of magic in your game system. If spells are cheap and plentiful, then the apothecary needs to be high level to stay competitive.



Special Abilities

  • Again this will vary quite a bit depending on system and how magical the setting is. Some apothecaries will need to dabble in magic, others don't have any particular needs for special abilities beyond the the ability to brew herbal remedies.
  • Take a close look at the rules for poison in your game system. Is there a Resist Poison skill or special power? If so, you'll need it. Poisons tend to be pretty nasty, and you'll want any Feats or Edges that will improve your odds of surviving. Options that boost your saving throws are good ones. In some games poison does ability damage or something else other than eating away at your hit points, so make sure you've got the right stats to survive it.

Combat Role


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