Magic, Mad Science, and the Milk of the Earth
Empire of Venom and Silk is a low-fantasy storyworld. Magic exists, but it’s found only in the shadowy corners of the setting, and while it can be powerful, it isn’t reliable enough to have a major cultural impact. (Think of the magic in Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar books and you’ll get the idea.)
The main form of magic in the setting is alchemy, and alchemists (as noted previously) are lone, mad scientist types. It’s not entirely their fault that they’re mad. It’s the chemicals, you see. They cause certain changes in the minds and bodies of those who spend time with them. The main culprit is a substance known as Milk of the Earth.
Milk of the Earth is a slimy, naturally-occurring substance secreted by strange (some might say alien) fungus found deep underground. If enough of it accumulates in one place, living creatures in that area tend to become mutated in unpredictable ways. While some mutants turn into unnatural monsters, most are simply deformed and die.
Different types of Milk are found in different locations. The deeper the source, the more powerful the Milk is believed to be. Alchemists jealously guard their Milk sources; people kill and die to discover and protect the secrets of a Milk site.
Alchemists work with the Milk to create potent, magical elixirs. Some work from ancient recipes and formulas that have been passed down, lost, found, and stolen for centuries. Others focus on creating their own elixirs from scratch. In any case, the end results are potions that can heal, strengthen, or modify their targets—or weaken them to the point of destruction.
As a storyworld element, Milk of the Earth is a catch-all McGuffin. Like the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who, or kryptonite from the old Smallville TV show, Milk (and its resultant elixirs) can do whatever it needs to do in order to tell the story you’re trying to tell. Does it make super-soldiers? High-class narcotic addicts? Enchanted swords? Yes, yes, and yes. The key is that because alchemists are solitary and secretive, there’s little risk of any story-destroying magic potion getting loose and, well, destroying the story.
And of course, as the product of a hideous alien fungus, Milk of the Earth brings a nice touch of creepy old-school horror to the land of Shunadar.