OSR: Alchemical Reagents and Rare Herbs

Alchemists have a reputation for exploding. Wizards don't. At least, that's not the first verb that comes to mind. For many centuries, there were relatively few wizards, but anyone who wanted gold (and think of a nasty retort) could turn their hand to alchemy. Alchemists get appointed, patronized, and executed. Wizards get aimed at things, and, in their spare time, meddle.

Alchemists protect their secrets with allegory. While your average Wizard is content with explosive runes, circle of protection, and patent lawyers, Alchemists prefer to encode their recipes and principles in layers of symbolism. This tends to hamper the spread of new ideas.  Some of the more modern Alchemists eschew that sort of thing and print their recipes plainly, along with helpful warnings of What Not To Do Lest.

Joseph Wright

Brains and Wands

Loading spells into a well-prepared brain is a dangerous practice. It takes years of magical training to get a wizard's brain sufficiently porous. The process is not well understood. Methods of making wizards faster have been tried, and usually result in signs reading "Apprentices Wanted: Will Pay: Not Fussy" growing dusty in the window. Complex visualization exercises, eyewatering runes, and exposure to strong magic may or may not help, but at least they keep students occupied. A wizard's brain is a gun-cage. Like most weapons, it can misfire.

This is why Illusionists tend to be at the forefront of really dangerous magical experimentation. If an illusion spell misfires inside your brain, it'll cause a headache at worst. Most peoples heads are filled with illusions anyway. But if a fireball goes off, it's likely to take everything above your ankles with it. 

Direct and simple spells, like scything disc of nog, don't require careful instructions, and can be fired from a wand with ease. Illusion, on the other hand, takes an echo of the brain with it, and prudent wizards prefer to cast them from the mind. Extremely powerful spells like wish are a tradeoff. On the one hand, casting from a wand could be imprecise. On the other hand, few wizards are comfortable with a spell that can do literally anything fizzing inside their brain, especially when an ill-timed wish for a ham sandwich could trigger it. "I wish I hadn't done that" is a perilous thought that has (probably) plucked more than one wizard from the fabric of reality.

Side Note: Industrial wizards in Endon are aware of wish-type spells. Some lust after them. Others believe that magic isn't about wishing for things, it's about making things happen, ideally to other people or their wallets. If a singing cricket offers you advice, the thought runs, catch it in a jar and put it in a music hall. If you see a falling star, dust off the broomsticks, grab the sextant and the atlas, and head for the hills. 

Alchemists think mashing your brain into a spell-accommodating shape just to do magic is madness, especially if you can achieve the same magical results with a few bits of complicated glassware, some boiling mercury, rare herbs, and an unventilated room. Wizardry isn't magic, it's collusion.

Most spells work on the 1 thaum (zap) to 1 kilothaum (bolt) range. Anything above 1 kilothaum requires substantial preparation and will probably leave a crater. Anything below 1 thaum, Wizards reason, is barely worth investigating. Alchemists see things differently. Their transformations and transmutations try to use as little thaumic energy as possible. Rather than rocketing through the air, they seek a sensible and gradual staircase. If, occasionally, they fall down those stairs, it's all in the pursuit of the bouncing rubber orb of knowledge.

The Principia Arcana did little to banish the fog through which the Alchemists wander. What is matter? Can you turn matter into raw magic and back again? What are spells made from? People think alchemy is about turning lead into gold, but it's more about turning anything into anything. Or, in some cases, finding out why some things don't turn into other things. It's about studying all the things Wizards don't bother examining. Yeast, for instance. Limestone. Wax. Skin diseases. Alchemists had the secret of the alembic still and the ceramic crucible while Wizards were still styling themselves "wyzardes and magii".

In short, Alchemists study the Subtle Arts and wear gloves to avoid some of the more exciting poisons. Wizards study the Unsubtle Arts and wear pointy hats to warn people.


"Potion" is a category of the same order as "fish". Potions can be:

  • spells trapped in liquid. Analogous to a bound enchantment.
  • echoes of spells remembered by a carefully attuned liquid.
  • magical reagents combined to create a spell-like effect, but without any direct spellcasting.
  • mundane. Is tea a potion? Is milk?

Pure water does not readily absorb magic. Luckily, most water in Endon is closer to a broth.

Some potions are carefully crafted, tested, and mass-produced. Some follow ancient and dubious recipes. Some don't seem to work at all. Attempting to write rules for potions seems counterproductive.

1d100 Alchemical Ingredients

Stuff to include in an alchemist's workshop, aside from the 8 metals, 8 gems, and obligatory dried crocodile.

1d100 Alchemical Ingredients
1 Chalk. White mineral. Cheap and ethical substitute for bone dust.
2 Salt. Translucent white powder. Universal applications. Distresses ghosts.
3 Sulphur. Yellow mineral, burns blue, distinctive odour.
4 Blood. Usually by target. Human blood is difficult to justify. Acceptable animal substitute charts are common.
5 Gelatin. Translucent flakes. Thickener. Made from boiled bones. 
6 Coffee. Ground brown beans soaked in hot water. Mild stimulant.
7 Natron. White mineral. Soap, aniseptic, desiccant, and purification agent. Fizzes on contact with acid.
8 Syrup of Snails. The slime, concentrated. 
9 Mold of Bread. Blue-white mold, dried or freshly grown on stale bread.
10 Pseudohemlock. A mildly toxic stimulant. Makes the limbs nimble, the mind philosophical, and the youth dutiful. 
11 Ambergris. Fragrant grey wax. Washes up from the sea.
12 Mustard. Yellow seeds, powder, or paste. Mild spice, clears tubes.
13 Iodic Crystals. Purple, astringent. Made from seaweed and acid.
14 Soot. Fine black powder produced during combustion. Easier than using charcoal lumps.
15 Oil of Hemp. Induces lethargy, giggling, and a strong desire for snacks.
16 Spirit of Hartshorn. Ammonia. Made from urine or antlers.
17 Alum. White powder. Useful for drying.
18 Olibanum. Fragrant resin.
19 Molasses. Thick sweet syrup. Useful as an edible glue.
20 Chert. Grey stone. Can be converted into living ooze with the right reagents. 
21 Mandrake. Knobbly root. Sedative, hallucinogen. Enhances human-targeting potions.
22 Asafoetida. Grey-brown gum. Distinct odour. Mild stimulant. May cause earwax to melt.
23 Borash. White powder. Used in metalurgical tests, preservatives, soaps, and glazes. 
24 Strychnine. Poison derived from beans. In small doses, assists with muscle contractions.
25 Purple Pepper Oil. Very strong spice, delayed by up to 3 hours. Induces panic, paranoia, desire to fling self into the sea, weeping, and gastric collapse.
26 Snakeskin. Tidier than using the whole snake. Some lizards work just as well, but snakes shed regularly, provide good ambiance, and keep down the rats.
27 Amiante. White fibrous mineral cloth. Will not burn. Said to be made of salamander fur.
28 Castor Oil. Yellow oil pressed from a bean. Lubricant, laxative, and preservative.
29 Burning Air. Produced when some acids touch iron. Explodes or catches fire. Lighter than normal air. Highly agitated by powerful thaumic fields.
30 Honey. Syrup made by bees. Adhesive, sweetener.
31 Calomel. Orange crystals of mercury. Potent purgative, sedative, and pain reliever.
32 Vital Air. Accelerates fires. The part of the air that keeps living creatures alive.
33 Malt. Partially germinated dried grains. Used to thicken potions and conceal tastes.
34 Tongue. The more intelligent the creature, the more potent the tongue. Human tongues are not easily located, but tongue scrapings sometimes work. Failing that, dogs and parrots.
35 Opium. Derived from poppies. Sedative, pain relief. Purified into Morphia.
36 Vital Water. Made from vital air passed through water in a strong thaumic field. Disinfectant and bleach. Sometimes explodes, especially if concentrated.
37 Aqua Vitae. Strong liquor. Solvent, can both impair and assist alchemy.
38 Spirit of Urine. White powder. Valuable source of ammonia. 
39 Mistletoe. Green leaves, white berries. Mild toxin. 
40 Eggshell. Eggs from specific creatures (snail, snake, etc.) are traditionally recommended for different applications.
41 Fool's Gold. Iron with vindictive tendencies. Can form a strong acid in water.
42 Tea. Leaves soaked in hot water. Mild stimulant.
43 Morel. Pitted ivory mushroom. May cause unwanted insight.
44 Glass of Antimony. Red-orange gem-like crystals. Induces vomiting.
45 Nutmeg. Small fruit. Green if fresh, brown if dried. Spice, hallucinogen in sufficient quantities.
46 Bitumen. Viscous black goop. Can be distilled. 
47 Dried Frogs. Induces hallucinations. 
48 Splinter Gold. Actually a type of tin. Allegedly cures seizures. 
49 Finest Sand. Pure glass ground to the smallest possible size. 
50 Khandi's Powder. Purple dust. Enhances some potions while destabilizing others. Treats skin diseases. Explodes into brown smoke under some conditions.
51 Orpiment. Yellow mineral. Potent poison and dye. 
52 Tutty. Yellow-brown lumps. By-product of smelting. Cures ulcers and toothache.
53 Fool's Lead. Dense coal-like black-grey crumbly stone. Used in pencils. Sometimes turns into diamonds during ambitious alchemical processes.
54 Cobalt. Blue powdered mineral. Toxic dye and pigment.
55 Pitchblende. Mysterious black ore. Generates a very dense thaumic field. Resists purification by most known methods. Worries some theoretical alchemists.
56 Agar. Translucent powder. Thickener. Made from seaweed.
57 Eye of Newt. Biological stabilizer. Can use egg white and mustard for some potions, but newt eyes are best. Large manufactories invest in breeding tanks and Newt Centrifuges.
58 Phosphorus. Glows in the dark. Burns with a brilliant white light.
59 Oak Gall. A boil of wood rich in mysterious substances. 
60 Powder of Alangrath. Dense purple powder. Travels through time slightly slower than the rest of the world. Prone to evaporating suddenly in bright sunlight.
61 Sour Air. Produced when some acids react with other acids. Yellow-green, unpleasant. Disinfects and purifies, but sometimes fatally.
62 Henbane. Plant extract. Soporific toxin. Enhances dreams.
63 Fungi of Leng. Very expensive. Enhances potency. May induce madness.
64 Oil of Scallatine. Astoundingly pungent. Smells like the devil's cabbages, hot metal, and bile. Fades within 24 hours, but the memories linger forever.
65 Liquorice. Brown bits of root. Strong flavour.
66 Gum Foreigna. Powdered tree sap. Useful fragrant fixative.
67 Turpentine. Clear solvent distilled from tree resin. Preservative, cure for chest colds.
68 Valerian. Dried plant. Soporific, warming properties.
69 Pig Grease. Bacon drippings. Unconfirmed powers if rubbed behind the ears.
70 Bognell Stones. Pebble-like mineral. Glows for hours if exposed to light.
71 Prismatic Lead. Half-formed silver. Repelled by lodestones. 
72 Coral. Comes out of the sea. Like chalk, but fancier.
73 White Air. The byproducts of combustion. Smothers life. Can be frozen into False Ice.
74 Ginger. Increases vitality, reduces nausea. General-purpose accelerant.
75 Black Pepper. Round black grains. Mild spice. Induces sneezing.
76 Pearls. Round oyster nuggets. If dissolved in wine, increases doctor's bills and provides patient with a nice sense of security.
77 Oil of Whale. Burns cleanly. Nicer than tallow.
78 Red Pepper. Flakes. Strong spice. Induces coughing, tears, gastric distress.
79 Milk of Lettuce. Sticky white fluid. Soporific.
80 Bole of Nuxburg. Imported red clay. Full of assorted minerals.
81 Mashed Stoats. Biological base from the days when stoats were more plentiful.
82 Belladonna. Liquid extract of leaves and berries. Potent poison.
83 Saffron. Red threads. Extremely expensive spice.
84 Hair of Ergot. Fungus scraped from rotting rye. Induces hallucination, tingling limbs.
85 Cinnamon. Strips of brown bark. Mild spice.
86 Marsh Gas. Flammable vapour. Smells of sulphur.
87 Aloe. Plant stems full of gel. Soothes rashes.
88 Tiger Beetles. Strong stimulant, may induce left-handedness.
89 Gentian. Root of a mountain flower. General purpose digestive aid.
90 Snow Lotus. Thick dried root mass. 
91 Rhubarb. Red plant stalks. Powerful purgative.
92 White Arsenic. White powder. Dissolves readily. Common and notorious poison.
93 Dried Spiders. Always useful. The more venemous the better.
94 Willow Bark. Dried strips of grey bark and sap. Pain relief.
95 Cobwebs. Spider silk, free of dust. 
96 Amber. Ancient solidified tree sap. Linked to lightning.
97 Feverfew. Cures fevers, drops temperature, slows thought.
98 Ezov. Spice. Purifies liquids, has a sweet odour.
99 Castor Sacs. From the back end of a beaver. Fragrant mix of chemicals.
100 Calamus. Stalks of a wetland plant. Mild toxin, may cure digestive illnesses, may induce vomiting for days.
This post is not medical or chemical advice. Not all ingredients exist. See also 1, 2, 3.

1d8 Impure Acids
1 Red Vitriol. Made from cobalt and strong acid. Absorbs lightning.
2 Green Vitriol. Made from iron and strong acid. 
3 Blue Vitriol. Made from copper and strong acid. Forms lovely crystals.
4 White Vitriol. Made from zinc and strong acid. Zinc keeps the world running.
5 Sweet Oil of Vitriol. Made from aqua vitae and strong acid. Very flammable solvent, readily evaporates, induces light-headedness and lethargy.
6 Aqua Regia. Mixture of acids. Fumes vigorously. Dissolves gold.
7 Aqua Sinistris. Made from bone ash and strong acid. Only dissolves living matter.
8 Alkahest. Made from silver, tourmaline, and strong acid. Dissolves elements into their component parts. Cannot damage pure metals, but will vigorously consume glass, wood, air, apprentices, etc.

1d8 Jars and Containers Twist
1 Glass jar with a broad cork. Unlabelled.
2 Ceramic jar with a lid. Dangerously decayed.
3 Metal tin with a tight-fitting cap. Mislabelled.
4 Crude clay pot with a cloth cover. Under some papers.
5 Glass bottle with a stopper. Not enough left.
6 Wooden bucket. Contaminated.
7 Leather pouch or sack. Limited local supply.
8 Dried gourd. Precariously balanced.
Canned Frogs! Forget raise dead, try raise giant frog.
Side Note: "A Future In Frogs" is a book title like "To Serve Man".

Lead Into Gold

Sure, we can turn lead into gold. It's just that the gold is...

1. Unstable. It'll revert back with a sudden thump. And that's the best-case scenario.

2. Green and Runny. It's definitely a gold-like metal. Well, a green-like metal. More of a slurry than a metal.

3. Exploding. Fulminating gold is an interesting novelty, but hyperfulminating gold is a compound most Alchemists try to avoid. All that unbalanced thaumic charge has to go somewhere, and once you get into the range where metal transmutation happens spontaneously, it's very hard to precisely meter out magic. It's also very hard to contain the explosion, as the lead-gold mixture tends to phase through solid objects for the first few milliseconds. Yes, people have tried to weaponize this. No, it's probably not worth it.

4. Somewhere Else. Put enough thaumic charge into a limited area and you might punch a hole in reality. Sometimes, you can see the distant glimmer of your gold falling away from you before the hole seals up (and you should count yourself lucky if it does seal up). Some alchemists think that falling stars are the remnants of celestial alchemists creating iron. It makes as much sense as any other theory.

5. Delusionary. Not illusionary. Illusions are real(ish), in that you have to work to disbelieve in them. Delusionary gold is not real and you have to work hard to believe in it. It's like a very shiny migraine. It's contagious wishful thinking. The cloud of evaporating lead might help.

6. Dlog. A highly unstable metal with all the inverse properties of gold. Light, non-conductive, dull, brittle, and mostly worthless. It's like the sickly child of obsidian and pot metal. Turning lead into something even less valuable is not generally considered an achievement, but sometimes lumps of gold are mixed in with the dlog.


The Big Kaboom

Alchemists are good at recognizing explosions. The 12 Magical Explosions (see this post, or MIR pg. 74) are classic categories, but for day-to-day purposes, Alchemists describe explosions by sound.

  • Fwoosh. The sound of vapour above a flammable liquid igniting. It's got a slow roll of inevitability to it, but, unlike some of the other explosions, you might have time to dodge. Singing, eyebrow loss, and a stern lecture from the fire brigade are common side effects.
  • Whomph. The sound of a room coughing. A sudden expulsion of air, but air is still dangerous. A flour-air bomb, a gas leak, or an inadequately designed cesspit.
  • Bang. You typically get bangs from implosions. Air clapping together. Like thunder, but sped up.
  • Zit. The bad kind of explosion. A lot of pent-up energy released at once. It doesn't have syllables. It has punctuation. You, and nearby objects, are likely to be punctuated. Alchemists believe that some substances detonate faster than the speed of sound in air, which piles up air in front of moving debris and "angers it mightily".
  • Veeeee. Occasionally, an explosion seems to affect only some types of matter. The blast wave passes through stone and air without incident but disintegrates metal, bone, or wood, or, in some rare instances, gives everyone in the area a mysterious whole-body fatal illness.
Explosions seem to follow a cube-root law. To double the destructive results of an explosion at a given distance, the original mass must be increased by a factor of eight (as the cube root of eight is two). Decreasing the destructive effects never seems to feature in such calculations. Optimism is a dangerous habit.

Side Note: Endon hasn't quite figured out warning symbols yet. Most industrialists in Endon believe that safety devices, like railings or guards, merely encourage carelessness. Wizards are aware that a vivid symbol helps the less-than-literary crowd avoid danger, but they tend to make a new label for each device, if they include one at all. A Prismatic Centrifuge, for example, might feature a small triangular brass plate with a person being spectrumated, with the associated facial expression.

1d8 Alchemical Devices

1. Distillation Tower

A magic still. Getting temperatures and pressures exactly right is part of the Alchemist's art. High-energy ingredients tend to build up a thaumic charge, so coronal discharge rings (which vent the charge into the atmosphere), coronal imploders (which send the charge back down the stack to enhance the ingredients), or a thick pair of leather gloves are recommend for large-scale operations.

2. Newt Centrifuge

If you're going to use newt eyes in your bulk potion process, it's far easier to throw all the newts in a bucket, centrifuge the bucket, and remove the eye layer. Some Alchemists consider this frivolous, when an apprentice with a sharpened spoon can do the job just as well, and gain valuable life experience at the same time. "When the newt hit the centrifuge" is a bowdlerized version of a different phrase.

3. Void Pump

A box with rubber hoses. Used to reduce air pressure or remove air from some devices. Fancy models use a bound sphere of annihilation. Cheaper, and much more common, models use Nesbit's sieve and minor motion, but tend to fail or explode if they encounter moisture.

4. CBG

The CBG, or Complicated Bubbly Glassware, sits at the heart of most Alchemcial research. Ideally, it should look like an anatomical diagram of a barnacle made by a balloon artist with the shakes. The more complicated the better. Very few Alchemists actually use a CBG, but it impresses visitors.

5. Lightning Jar

A new and slightly untrusted innovation, Lighting Jars turn acid and metals into lightning. The amount is rarely dangerous, but the principles involved are not well understood. Zapping substances or solutions with lightning has lead to promising results, but more than a few catastrophic explosions. Some jars also produce flammable or highly toxic gas.

6. Periscope

Named after the late Ferdow Peri (who also discovered a method for generating an invisible, odourless, and tragically flammable gas from beeswax), Periscopes allow Alchemists to monitor a reaction from behind a blast shield, around a corner, or, with the right mirrors, from a neighboring building. Periscope Hall in Loxdon College uses two very large angled mirrors to give the audience a safe (or at least safer) view of some high-energy demonstrations.

7. Thaumic Field Interference Screen

The smoke from dribbly candles provides more than ambiance. In the right light, thaumic fields can twist and shift the smoke, giving Alchemists and Wizards a chance to spot an experiment going awry and make the necessary adjustments (such as adjusting their location from nearby to as far away as possible). By trapping smoke between two occultum-coated plates and shining re-prismafied light through them, Alchemist can see the thaumic fields surrounding their equipment. Setting up the device and interpreting the results is usually more trouble than it's worth.

8. Stirring Fish

Originally designed as ornaments, these metal fish can be dumped into a vessel or flask to stir its contents without risking an apprentice. Ideally, the fish should be made from materials that will not react with the reagents.


  1. I think we're missing 2 Alchemical Devices! What is my rich Endonite dilettante dabbling in alchemy going to do with all of his extra trust-fund cash?

  2. Having recently placed a "fireball alley" into my version of Endon (only place it's legal to practice alchemy within city limits), this is very well timed.

    1. Fireball Alley! The street of cunning artificers and a few sensible ones. Fireball Alley! The only place in Endon where you can buy 500lbs of ammonium salts at 4 in the morning without an appointment. Fireball Alley! Where some young wag keeps aiming the "One Way" sign straight up. Fireball Alley! Where the Coppers lay out a fresh bucket chain every morning, just in case. Fireball Alley! Where the record for the 107 Yard Dash (door to horsetrough) was set when Denisan Spleet Jr. discovered "compresséd firedamp".* Fireball Alley! Taking the piss and boiling it since 1207.

      *Arguments about performance enhancing chemicals rarely include hypergolic propellants.