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Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium
Design & Development
Matthew Sernett

I  f you look at the credits on Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, you’ll see a lot of names. It turns out that making a book so chock full of new items and rules takes a lot of work by a lot of folks. In addition to writing the artifacts section and doing some tinkering with story items, the bulk of my contribution came late in the process. We had all the pieces in hand, the editors had organized them and the developers had developed them, but we still didn’t have a book.

For the opening presentations of the newly organized chapters, we could easily have gone with the typical explanation of what each chapter contained, but it seemed as though doing that would make for a dry read. That’s when someone hit upon the idea of having Mordenkainen introduce the sections of the book. Then his voice could also be used in later parts of the books, where the layout of the pages left opportunities for him to tell stories about many of the items Mordenkainen has seen in action over the years.

I’m not sure now how I got roped into being the one to bring Mordenkainen to life. It might have been one of those situations when I came up with the idea and de facto volunteered to do it. It could be that someone cleverer than me hatched the plan, and I was volunteered by virtue of being the one whose schedule was least crazy at the moment.

In any event, I had to figure out what Mordenkainen’s voice was like. He talks a bit in some of Ed Greenwood’s old The Wizards Three articles, but aside from that there exist precious few examples of Mordenkainen speaking, and little that really gets his personality across. So it fell to me to invent something for the wizard. I wanted to do something different from Elminster—something distinct from his characteristic dry wit—but how?

That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a tall bald man in blue robes standing imperiously behind me.

Just kidding. I needed to do something different from Elminster.

After doing a little research, it struck me that there’s a common theme in Gary Gygax’s stories of Mordenkainen. Mordenkainen has a sense of humor somewhat like Elminster’s, but the archmage of the Flanaess lacks Elminster’s avuncular appeal. In a word: He’s ruthless.

Mordenkainen has long been depicted as neutral in alignment, and some effort has been made to describe him as a force for maintaining “the balance” in the world of Greyhawk. But that seems like a fig leaf to cover the naked truth that Mordenkainen—as played by Gary—was quixotic, greedy, power-hungry, manipulative, and vengeful. Mordenkainen wasn’t evil, but he wasn’t exactly a nice guy.

Mordenkainen’s personality stems directly from the style of game that Gary Gygax, Rob Kuntz, and company used to play. They were more competitive and adversarial than most people who play D&D today, and at the same time, they didn’t take the game too seriously. Take for example, the names of some of Mordenkainen’s original allies in the Circle of Eight: Bigby, Rigby, Zigby, Vram and Vin.

Mordenkainen began to take shape in my mind. He’s the kind of fellow who listens more than he talks. He doesn’t smile very often, and when he does, it’s the kind of smile that lets you know he has you right where he wants you. Mordenkainen makes his apprentices nervous and his enemies paranoid. The few real friends he has put their trust in him, but only up to a point; there’s always a little doubt, and they accept that he’s probably manipulating them. Mordenkainen can’t help but manipulate others. It’s his nature to control everything he sees. But Mordenkainen is also brilliant. He layers deceit and manipulation so that you’re not sure what action plays into his hands, and by the time you’re worrying about it, you’re too ensnared by his web to see a way out.

Then again, Mordenkainen can always shock you. You might be prepared to counter his subtle machinations, but that’s exactly when he storms in, spells blazing, and simply blows you up.

With all this in mind, I started writing the chapter openers. The framework for Mordenkainen’s voice is the idea that he wrote a book called the Magnificent Emporium, which catalogued magic items and their secrets. He then destroyed the copies of the work for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to one of his apprentices, Qort, who secreted away a copy of his own and presents snippets of the text for us at the start of each chapter. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Qort is in over his head in his dealings with the wily wizard—way over his head.

I had a great time breathing life into Mordenkainen and Qort for the chapter openers, but some of the small bits of text scattered throughout the book ended up being the most revealing, such as this bit of the wizard’s wisdom concerning a magic suit of armor that gives its wearer great powers of escape but that can’t be removed unless by will of the wearer.

“I encountered a certain thief wearing armor of escape. He proved quite troublesome when placed in both conventional and magical restraints. Once I determined that the armor was enchanted, I attempted to remove it. Of course, I failed—at least initially. Oddly, I found the application of sovereign glue to be the key to separating the thief from his protection. I simply adhered the suit to a boulder and pushed him down a well. I suppose he could thank the properties of the armor for his swift egress from the suit and return to the surface. That’s a lesson about magic all would do well to mark: Beware overconfidence in an enchantment’s intent, and be ready to use it in ways not intended.”

Much more of Mordenkainen’s peculiar sense of humor awaits you in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium. I hope you have at least as much fun reading it as I had helping to write it.

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