This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Thirty-five on 23rd September 2020.
Lennon: What? I put your knives back this time, I didn’t even leave any of them sticking in the fireplace.
Ryu: Right, thanks for that, but I thought Ostron wanted you to work on the notes about Mordenkainen?
Lennon: I did! They’re right here.
Ryu: That’s five sheets of paper and a post-it.
Lennon: Oh that’s where that went. Yeah, the post-it was just a reminder that I need to get more coffee. We’re out of coffee by the way.
Ryu: You just went to the market.
Lennon: But recall, I lost the post-it.
Ryu: Ugh. Oh, Ostron, there you are. Did you check Lennon’s work on Mordenkainen?
Ostron: Yeah, why?
Ryu: Doesn’t it seem a little…light?
Ostron: Oh, no that’s what it would look like.
Mordenkainen is one of the most famous characters in D&D lore, particularly if you’re a fan of Greyhawk or if you’ve been following Dungeons and Dragons since the very early days. There aren’t official requirements for iconic characters in D&D, but if there were, Mordenkainen would check them all. In short, he is still a figure in D&D lore today, he was created for Gygax’s original D&D campaign, and perhaps most significantly, he was created and played by Gygax himself.
The ironic thing about that is he was used so often and in so many different contexts in early D&D that there isn’t a lot of definitive history on him in-lore; he became such an iconic character that whatever company had control of D&D as a franchise rarely did anything with him, usually just sticking him in as a reference point or a “figure behind the curtain” in a lot of other adventures where other people were busy actually, you know, doing stuff.
Gygax created Mordenkainen as one of his own player characters. Some claim Mordenkainen was the first character Gygax both created and played in D&D once it was an official game, but that’s hard to verify; Gygax never confirmed it, and back then D&D was still very much rooted in wargaming so people didn’t usually make and play just a single character; they often controlled several at a time. Regardless, Gygax did say Mordenkainen was one of his favorite characters to play, and over the course of playing him from 1973 to 1985, Gygax developed a lot of character traits and history for the wizard, and also leveled him up to “level 20-something”.
1985 was when Gygax lost association with Tactical Studies Rules, the company publishing D&D at the time, and he also lost control of the Mordenkainen character at an official level. Gygax never revealed what Mordenkainen’s character sheet or statistics looked like. There was a stat block published for Mordenkainen in a volume in 1980, but Gygax claimed he never conferred with the author, and that the stats were just made up.
With Gygax no longer owning the character’s direction, Mordenkainen was assigned a definitive role in D&D lore as the most powerful wizard on Oerth and a frequent planar traveler, associating with wizards from other realms as well as his own.
The non-conflicting, more or less canon parts of his biography are as follows. As with most early D&D characters, he hails from Oerth, or the world of the Greyhawk campaign setting, and is rumored to have a bloodline that ties him to several prominent and royal bloodlines in that world.
As an adult, Mordenkainen appeared as a fit, middle-aged human male with vaguely Middle-Eastern features, a head shaved completely bald, and a black pointed goatee, usually wearing robes of some kind. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, it’s basically that but without the collar, and favoring black, blue, or gray instead of red.
His house is a citadel, which would sound pretentious but it’s a castle that was built for him in a mountain by stone giants, guarded by warriors riding gryphons and a bunch of dwarves, gnomes, giants, and magic like anti-teleportation and anti-planar traveling wards.
Since he was around from the start, Mordenkainen is one of those who could name-drop like a celebrity Instagram star. His first apprentice? Bigby. Yes, that Bigby, the one with the hand. His first famous adventuring group, called the Citadel of Eight also included another magic user named Tenser. Again, yes, that one.
The Citadel of Eight operated for a time in Oerth as a sort of magical peacekeeping force, but as a group they did not participate in the Battle of Emridy Meadows, the conflict that served as the prologue to the Temple of Elemental evil being a fixture in Greyhawk. The group’s absence, and the fact that one of their members, Serten, participated in the battle independently and was killed, resulted in the group disbanding.
Mordenkainen then re-focused his efforts, believing that a group dedicated to achieving his goals needed to be made up of spellcasters who could take a more comprehensive view of existence. In his words, they needed to be “men of intellect and sorcerous skill, whose primary interests were more than material.”
Again to start the name dropping, some of the members of the original circle of eight included Bigby, Otiluke, Rary, Leomund, and Tenser. Also, the circle had eight members with Mordenkainen as the sort of ringleader, so he was a permanent 9th member. The circle’s focus was on maintaining balance under the direction of Mordenkainen. Anyone who’s read the footnotes in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes might have picked up on his stance; he doesn’t want evil to triumph and is usually fighting it, but it’s equally possible he’d allow efforts by objectively good sides to fail, or at the very least move forward without his support, all in the name of maintaining balance.
The circle held together for 10 years until a figure named Halmadar the Cruel, working for Vecna who was trying to achieve godhood, managed to kill every member of the circle except for Mordenkainen. Fortunately Mordenkainen knew how to produce clones and found genetic material from all the dead members. The circle was out of commission for most of the Greyhawk Wars, (Oerth’s version of a world war) and some say they might have been able to prevent them if they hadn’t been dead.
Once the clones were finished, they started working to end the wars and got a peace accord set up, but then Rary was discovered planning to kill all the diplomats. The circle started battling each other and Otiluke and Tenser ended up dead, with no spare clones (though it was later revealed Tenser had hidden a clone on one of Oerth’s moons).
Apart from his work with the Circle, Mordenkainen also traveled to other planes and met with other major spellcasters on a regular basis. In-lore, he regularly conferred with Ellminster of Faerun and Dalamar of Krynn, apparently meeting at Ed Greenwood’s house on Earth. Ellminster apparently served as a confidant when Mordenkainen was distraught over the death of the circle of eight.
Slight spoiler alert here, so if you still haven’t played Curse of Strahd despite repeated offers and suggestions that are being ignored on a regular basis…I think Gath got into my notes. Anyway, skip ahead ten seconds to avoid Strahd spoilers.
At some point after the mess with the Greyhawk Wars, Mordenkainen traveled to Borovia to try to undo Strahd’s whole setup, but underestimated the vampire and ended up losing his spellbook and staff, along with a good portion of his sanity. Following that ordeal he spent some time in Waterdeep, where Ellminster and Storm Silverhand were helping him recover. After that, Mordenkainen began working out of a magical construct called the Tower of Urm, which could travel between planes and allowed Mordenkainen to keep tabs on the goings-on of other locations.
Mordenkainen hasn’t yet shown up in any other publications, mostly because while he does travel between planes his original setting is Greyhawk, and in recent years most of Wizards’ focus for D&D has been squarely in the Forgotten Realms. That said, more Greyhawk adventures are starting to make their way into published, official modules, so that may translate to more Mordenkainen in the future as well.
Ryu: Wow, yeah, so he does kind of sit around letting everyone else do the work, doesn’t he? Sounds familiar…
Ostron: Why are you looking at me like that.
Ryu (sarcastically): Oh, no reason. I mean, it couldn’t be because of the three research assignments you gave me.
Ostron: Why are you getting mad? I thought I used a charm spell?
Ryu: … what do you mean, “used a charm spell”?
Ostron: Doesn’t matter. Look, I could get it all done faster but you’re the one that keeps complaining about me using ROSTRO…
Ryu: Lennon did return all my knives you know…
Lennon: Okay, okay, let’s all take a breath. Why don’t we all go to the Scrying Pool, there are some nice, non-confrontational listener comments there, I’m sure.