Mordenkainen: Enforced Neutrality on a Cosmic Scale
There’s an old saying that goes, “we’re all heroes of our own stories.” But a select few can become heroes in the stories of the masses, too.
Even fewer still can do so while being, quote, “a bit of an asshole”. Source: Chris Perkins.
What's not there to trust about this face? Is it the goatee? It's the goatee, isn't it?
Source: Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk
Welcome back to Lore-Win, the D&D lore deep dive series exclusive to the Wizard’s Tower. I, as always, am your humble Loremaster, Sokar.
And today, I have a story for you from the beginnings of Dungeons and Dragons.
As regular readers will know, I like to find links between my subjects and the real world. Sometimes, these links are self-explanatory and flow well. Other times, those links hide themselves well and can be a stretch at best.
But today? Well today I barely have to try. Join me in the world of Oerth, realm of the Greyhawk setting. This time, I’m looking at the player character of a central figure in D&D’s development.
Life as a Player Character
Mordenkainen’s first appearance is closely knit with the Greyhawk campaign setting itself. In fact, the two were formally introduced within a year of each other. Gary Gygax first unveiled Greyhawk in the late fall of 1972 as the setting for a playtest of the D&D rules. The setting proved to be captivating, and by January 1973, player Rob Kuntz had started his own campaign in the world with Gygax as a player.
Gygax’s first player character was not a wizard of great fame and fortune though, but instead a fighter named Yrag. Yes, really.
Mordenkainen came shortly after, and Gygax played both characters. The two adventurers started their careers at first level, like many a new player.
But if you’re familiar with old school DnD, or have gamed with old school players like I did, you may wonder, “how did they survive from first level?” True, older campaigns - especially of the Gygaxian era - have a reputation for being unforgiving. So unforgiving that players have termed one strategy for surviving the “runaway” tactic.
But according to Gygax himself, this wasn’t how Mordenkainen and Yrag survived to adventure another day. No, instead they did something far simpler. They hired mercenaries.
Before his appearance in the proper lore of the Greyhawk setting, Mordenkainen encountered the famed mage Bigby. The two first met as foes in the campaign, but in an act of dubious morality - as was the style at the time - Mordenkainen won Bigby over through the use of charm magic. Over time, however, Mordenkainen won Bigby’s loyalty for real and managed to shift his alignment from neutral evil to just plain neutral.
Mordenkainen in his adventuring days. Back when he had hair.
Source: Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure
With his newfound apprentice/henchman at his side, Mordenkainen went on many adventures before the official release of Dungeons and Dragons. He apparently made quite the impression too, since other Dungeon Masters asked to include him in their adventures.
Around level 12, Gygax decided that Mordenkainen’s ambitions shifted from survival to something grander. Namely, political power and a domain to house himself and his followers.
The Citadel of Eight
Of course, if Mordenkainen had stayed as a Player Character we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about him. No, Mordenkainen quickly became entrenched in the lore of Greyhawk. Canonically, he adventured beneath Castle Greyhawk alongside his then-apprentice Bigby, Lord Robilar, and Riggby the Cleric. At least a dozen others had joined them, but they were the only four to survive the adventure.
After this adventure, Mordenkainen and Bigby decided that the opposing extremes of the world needed to be balanced. Mordenkainen himself was notoriously a proponent of enforced neutrality. He would insert himself into cosmic events and make sure neither good nor evil became too powerful. This was a philosophy that has led some to call him all sorts of unflattering terms. Like “villain”, or “jerk”, or to quote Chris Perkins, “a dick”.
Regardless of name-calling, the two established an adventuring company known as the Citadel of Eight to keep the forces of good and evil, law and chaos in check. Mordenkainen modeled the company after the Company of Seven founded and led by mayor of Greyhawk, Zagig Yrageme.
And if he sounds familiar, you may recall him from my article on Tasha.
The Citadel of Eight counted some of the most famous adventurers among its number. Mordenkainen and Bigby were founding members, as were Lord Robilar and Riggby. Mordenkainen also recruited the fighter, Yrag, the famed wizard, Tenser, Serten the priest, and a ranger named Otis.
As for the name... Mordenkainen named their merry band after his own Obsidian Citadel, and the fact it had eight members.
One of the Citadel's more notable deeds was subtly manipulating the downfall of the famed Temple of Elemental Evil. The temple, which has appeared in no shortage of adventures named after it, served as a place from which bandits and evil humanoids operated from.
Name’s a bit on the nose, there.
Turns out evil's not big on subtlty.
Source: Temple of Elemental Evil
The only direct involvement that the Citadel had in the Temple’s downfall was during the Battle of Emridy Meadows, where the forces of good rallied to fight against the forces of evil. While most of the Citadel didn’t engage in battle, Serten did.
Before this, tensions had already existed within the Citadel of Eight, notably Robilar never bought into Mordenkainen’s philosophy. Otis had been the first to abandon the party, decrying them as treasure seekers “blind to the real problems of the world”. As for Serten, well…
The others had never really viewed Serten with respect. He was useful, certainly. However the other members viewed him as somewhat dim-witted.
However, the Battle of Emridy Meadows was the event credited with straining the fractures to a breaking point. Namely, that Serten died in the line of duty. Alone. Separated from the rest of his comrades.
Tenser blamed Mordenkainen for his death, as the Citadel had refused direct involvement in the battle. Tenser ultimately left as a result, and the company fell apart. Each of the famed adventurers went their separate ways, even Bigby, Mordenkainen’s ever-present apprentice.
In his following adventures, Mordenkainen rediscovered Dalt, the god of locks and doors, and traveled to other planes. He even managed to discover the hidden 7th plane of the Abyss, also known as The Phantom Plane.
Once back on Oerth, Mordenkainen would spend 13 years exploring Castle Greyhawk. These years resulted in the discovery of Zagig’s Godtrap, which contained Tasha’s son Iuz alongside eight other imprisoned demigods. Zagig had used them to ascend to godhood as Zagyg, and Mordenkainen feared what would happen if any others found the device.
So he contacted Robilar and tasked his old cohort with opening the device and assassinating Iuz. To aid in their efforts, the mage gave Robilar the Blade of Black Ice. However, Mordenkainen declined to personally accompany them on their task. This was partially to avoid further scorn from those like Tenser, who looked down on assassination, and partially to avoid repercussions from Iuz should the plot fail.
And fail it did!
While Robilar ventured into Castle Greyhawk to commit the deed alongside Riggby and his orc henchman Quji, there were forces working against them. And shockingly, they were the forces of Lawful Good. Tenser had learned of the plot and stood opposed to his former comrades alongside Bigby and some fighter named Neb Retnar.
Tenser and his companions interrupted the assassins at the worst moment. As the barriers trapping Iuz fell, they struck. As a result, the dungeon collapsed, the demigods escaped, and the adventurers barely fled with their lives.
Don't let the old man vibe fool you. You don't get the name "Iuz the Evil" by being a kindly geriatric.
Source: Iuz the Evil
Perhaps feeling responsible for the release of Iuz, perhaps missing the life of an adventurer, Mordenkainen turned his mind back towards an order that would balance the celestial forces in the world. He deduced that the Citadel of Eight had failed because it accepted all ideologies. It had been a mistake to believe that opposed alignments could work together without sabotaging each other.
Men like Robilar and Riggby could not be trusted to put aside their differences. Professions such as fighters or clerics or rangers were too driven by emotions and ambition. What Mordenkainen needed were individuals of intellect. Individuals who would see the benefits of balancing the cosmic powers in the world. Individuals who studied the arcane.
The Circle of Eight
Mordenkainen brought together a cadre of wizards to form his new Circle of Eight. Among this new company were famous names like Nystul and Bigby, along with the mages Rary, Otto, Leomund, Drawmij, and Bucknard. Mordenkainen sought to use this new circle of adventurers as a tool to shape events to his liking, and used it as such.
The Circle often opposed the efforts of Iuz and his mother, the witch Iggwilv - also known as Tasha. Sometimes they would sponsor adventurers to foil plots such as in the adventure modules The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and Isle of the Ape. At other points, the group would intervene directly.
In their own time, the Circle members went on personal adventures and slowly built up their political power until they had a wide range of agents and allies. On one occasion, Mordenkainen himself rescued a group of cloud giants from dragons. The giants joined the armies of beings he had likewise rescued.
As members of the Circle left, were killed, or disappeared others were recruited. One of these was Tenser, who joined despite having been opposed to Mordenkainen’s previous plots.
But for the entirety of the Circle’s existence, Mordenkainen had distanced himself from the direct operations. And when the then-lich Vecna rose controlling a long-dead tyrant, he remained behind. By all accounts, this wasn't due to cowardice. No. Mordenkainen feared the Circle's destruction should they all take to the field.
His fears proved to be well warranted.
If Resident Evil has taught me anything, it's that you only grow an eye in your hand if you're "final boss" powerful.
Source: Vecna Lives!
Vecna was too much for the Circle and slew all save for Mordenkainen. In what seemed like a hopeless battle, the leader of the Circle rallied his allies and took the fight to Vecna. But despite overwhelming odds, Mordenkainen’s forces succeeded and banished Vecna. Even Iuz may have aided Mordenkainen in this battle, as the demigod opposed Vecna.
Turns out a crazy, evil lich getting what they want is bad for everyone. Who knew?
The two would not remain on the same side however, as the Circle would once again battle Iuz and Tasha on Luna during the events of Return of the Eight.
But before those events, Mordenkainen turned to a different way of reforming the Circle of Eight. Namely, he cloned his companions using the little that remained of them after the battle. While the clones were growing however, the Greyhawk Wars began. Without his Circle, Mordenkainen was unable to shape events. By the time the clones were fully grown, it was too late. The wars had spiraled out of control, and the Circle was forced into a reactionary role.
The Circle never fully brought to bear at any single point in the Greyhawk Wars. Instead, their members intervened in specific hotspots. In particular, Mordenkainen, alongside the cloned Bigby and Otto faced off against Iuz’s army at the Battle of Critwall Bridge. A battle that resulted in victory for Mordenkainen’s side.
When the Greyhawk Wars finally came to a close, Mordenkainen and the Circle were on hand to ensure the most favourable peace treaties as possible. Leveraging his power and agents, Mordenkainen learned of all the ambassadors and negotiators who would be attending the peace accords. But he did not foresee one of his own betraying them.
The mage Rary turned on the Circle and killed Tenser and Otiluke, two mages who had joined since the forming of the party. In retribution, Mordenkainen banished Rary from the Free City of Greyhawk and has since turned his attention to leading the Circle of Eight. To this end, he sought out three replacements for the deceased Tenser and Otiluke, and the banished Rary.
While gathering his new members, Mordenkainen and the Circle become embroiled in the plots of Tasha and Iuz. Adventurers aligned to him traveled to Tasha’s Lunar fortress and foiled her plot to bring a fiendish army to Oerth in the name of Iuz.
Mordenkainen has also traveled the planes in recent days. He is friends with Elminster of Faerun, and the two have often had chats in Ed Greenwood’s kitchen alongside Dalamar of Dragonlance fame, as seen in Greenwood’s The Wizards Three series of articles featured in Dragon magazine.
See? I wasn’t kidding when I said I barely have to try in order to link him to real world. Mordenkainen’s been to Canada. He drank soda out of Greenwood’s fridge. It’s canon.
Ed Greenwood's in the armour. I'm serious.
Source: Dragon #185
He is also known to be “frenemies” - Jeremy Crawford’s words, not mine - with Tasha. True, the two have opposed each other's plots over the centuries. However, they have also sat down for the occasional game of wizard's chess.
More recently, Mordenkainen traveled to Barovia, Avernus, Cania, and Faerun. During his time in Barovia he became trapped and lost his memory until he was aided by a band of adventurers from Faerun, as seen in Curse of Strahd.
In fact, Mordenkainen even showed up in the novel Death Masks alongside Elminster, showing that the two mages remain friends.
So really, the real magic was the friends we made along the way.
If you want to use Mordenkainen's knowledge for your own campaign, be sure to grab Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes at the Wizard's Tower! And if you have a topic you'd like to see me cover, be sure to leave a comment below or tweet me @LoremasterSokar!
Until next time,