In D&D, spells have names. This is based on some fiction and some legendary sources so it didn’t start with D&D. The notion of names having power is actually pretty old. The concept appears in ancient Egypt and Greece by various terms. By naming the spell, they describe its power.
Most of the spell names in D&D are relatively innocuous if descriptive of their effect. A Fireball spell creates a big ball of fire. Simple and easy. Then there are some spells that have little more story to them. They not only describe the effect, but carry the name of the wizard who created it.
This has been a part of D&D since the earliest days. It is evocative tells you something of the world. If you know that there is a Tenser’s Floating disk, then you know that Tenser is an important figure in the world your playing in. He made a spell that is important enough that you learned it without meeting him. You might have questions about this Tenser person? or Bigby? or Melf?
So, what do you do if your world has no Melf? No Bigby? Do you just leave them the same or do you change the names to reflect your world? This will depend on your world.
Planescape is an inter-dimensional nexus. All the named spells could be named the same and just assume the figures were known throughout the multiverse. Mordenkainen is in fact known on various planes, and his ego is large enough that he is just the sort to make it known he made that spell. Other planes make less sense.
Eberron is noted for being cut off from the rest of multiverse. Ravnica is the newest oficial D&D setting and while it is frequented by Planeswalkers, there is nothing to show any of the classic D&D mages made it that way. Your homebrew world may be cut off all together. For those you may want change the names of spells to reflect those worlds.
Before we go much further, let’s look at the list of those “named spells.”
Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting
Drawmij’s Instant Summons
Evard’s Black Tentacles
Arms of Hadar
Hunger of Hadar
Leomund’s Secret Chest
Leomund’s Tiny Hut
Maximilian’s Earthen Grasp
Melf’s Acid Arrow
Melf’s Minute Meteors
Shadow of Moil
Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound
Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum
Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion
Nystul’s Magic Aura
Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere
Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere
Otto’s Irresistible Dance
Rary’s Telepathic Bond
Snilloc’s Snowball Storm
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter
Tenser’s Floating Disk
It is a sizable list, and the spless listed sometimes tell you something about the mage in question. Otiluke appears to like spheres. Mordenkainen names a lot of spells and has an ego. Leomund is dealing with spatial objects. These little cues can reflect the world your playing in.
The Dramatis Personæ
Let’s look at brief descriptions of the people whose names appear in these spells. Most of them come from Greyhawk, D&D’s first official campaign world. A few come from Forgotten Realms, one is an elder horror star from the far realms, and at least one is a complete mystery.
Origin: Unknown but presumedly Greyhawk
Evil elementalist and possibly necromancer, depending on what source I find.
Origin: Forgotten Realms
The information is sparse but he was one of the writers of the Tome of the Covenant. There are four founders of the Covenant. He is presumably dead, but his spell book can be found.
Bigby was created by Rob Kuntz and is one of the most iconic characters in D&D. He was an archmage and lost a battle to Mordenkainen who used a charm spell to make Bigby serve him. He later became a member of the Circle of Eight, the most powerful of mages in Greyhawk.
Drawmij is a member of the Circle of Eight. Named after a real world person, Jim Ward, one of the players in Gygax’s game. He had an undersea citadel and was supposed to be disturbing to meet in person.
Evard was a powerful sage and archmage in Greyhawk. He is an enemy of Mordenkainen. He was more of an information broker.
Origin: Nebulous, 4th edition Far Realms
Hadar is an evil star, an elder being from the Far Reaches, usually only appears in relation to Warlocks as a patron, unknowable and alien. Not so much a personality as a malignant presence shining in the dark. You know, for fun.
Leomund is an archmage from Greyhawk. He was another former member of the Circle of Eight. He was an ancient traveler from the east by the time he joined.
There is no known origin of the name or why there is a spell named after him. Mike Mearls doesn’t know. It may remain a mystery for the ages.
Melf was a former member of the Circle of Eight and servant of Mordenkainen. He was played by Luke Gygax and was a big part of the early D&D campaigns.
Origin: Greyhawk…sort of, actually Rainis
Rainis was a world that was occupied by death god worshipers. Orcus was one of them and Moil was his. When they turned from him, he ripped the city from the world, pulling it into a demiplane tied to the Negative Energy plane. Later Orcus died, and Acererak later claimed the demiplane and made Moil his. It is filled with damned souls of the people who were in the city when Orcus pulled it out of its home plane.
Mordenkainen is Gary Gygax’s character. He is a founding member of the Circle of Eight, Archmage extraordinaire, multidimensional traveler, champion of balance, and general annoying meddler of the planes. He is named on more spells and items than anyone. He had a few books. He is a big deal and he is perfectly willing to explain why….all the time.
Nystul is a member of the Circle of Eight. They created a large number of spells and authored some mystical tomes, but most have not appeared in 5th edition yet.
Otiluke was an Archmage and, again, a one time member of the Circle of Eight. He was known for being very smart and not that wise. He died during the Greyhawk Wars.
Look..there are a lot of people who were in the Circle of Eight, they came and went, some died. Still a cool club.
A former priest of Boccob, he went on to become a wizard and a member of the Cicle of Eight. He specialized in music related magic items and spells.
Rary was the ruler of the Bright Lands. He was a member of the Circle of Eight and famously betrayed them at the end of the Greyhawk Wars. Most of his spells were closer to psionics and mind magic.
Origin: Forgotten Realms
Snilloc was a wizard in the realms who, judging by his writing, an over confident and kind of an ass. His spells were stolen and published by Volo. The character was named after Dave Collins, who created the spells while playing in Jeff Grubbs game.
Tasha of the Hideous Laughter did not actually exist in any game, but was the name of a little girl who wrote Gary Gygax and he named the spell after her. It was later retconned that Tasha was an alias of Iggwilv when she was an apprentice. She is one of the great villains of Greyhawk.
Tenser is an archmage and member of the Circle of Eight. He was always striving to rid his world of evil. The name is an anagram of the players name, Ernest Gygax. He was one of the first characters ever played in the game. The character was murdered by Rary and Robilar during the Greyhawk wars. He did have several clones, however. One was eventually restored to life….on the moon….. He created a bunch of spells.
What is in a name?
There are varying levels of detail out there about those mages. It is a rabbit hole you can dive deep into if you want. Writing this blog post took a while because I read a bunch of stories there.
You might be wondering what is useful here if you are trying to adapt them another world? Well, knowing a bit more about the wizards in question will help you find a good match. In the world you are working on.
To replace Mordenkainen you will want an egotistical mage, for example. Hadar is something alien and horrible. Does your world have something like that? You could name it Azathoth and get a similar feel. The point is the replacement should have a backstory that sort feeds into the theme of the spell.
An example from Ravnica
Ravnica has a wide cast of characters, named mages to draw upon. It is a magic rich setting with its own set of dimensional travelers to spice things up. There are horrors and heroes galore. The guilds also have distinctive flavors and magics they use.
Niv-Mizzet is the head of the Izzet League, a group of reckless scientist mages in Ravnica. They are known for doing explosive spell research, but also pushing the bounds of what can be done with arcane mastery. Niv-Mizzet is a Dragon himself, and it remarkably egotistical. It make perfect sense to replace Mordenkainen with him.
The Cult of Rakdos is a dark body operating in Ravnica. They revere and traffic with demons, Rakdos in particular, which is bound in a lava pit in the Rix Maadi, the guilds headquarters. The Abi-Dalzim and Evard spells could be brought under his name.
Emrakul is an Eldrazi, a blind titanic entity what is much like an elder god from the far realms. They destroy planes as they pass through consuming them. They are nearly impossible to conceive of, much less defeat. While Emrakul is bound in the plane of Innastrad, they deliberately allowed that and are so vast in power they might decide to leave on day. They would make a great warlock patron. The Hunger and Arms of Hadar can easily be drawn from Emrakul instead.
Aurelia is the Parun of the Boros Legion. She is an angel incarnate answerable to herself. She has vast physical and mystical might at her disposal. She is also close to her guild members. She doesn’t just direct them, she leads them in battle when the need arises. She is fierce and respects strength. I could see her being the creator and source of Earthen Grasp and Transformation, instead of Maximilian or Tenser, respectively.
Those are a few examples, but you get the idea. You can find how spells fit in with the stories of those characters. This can be done with different worlds, and they don
But don’t stop there…
So, the named spells are super evocative of stories and characters. Why can’t you have more of them? There is no reason you can’t have other spells be invented or associated with a particular caster. Is there are reason we can’t have
Why not have Magic Missiles be Elminster’s Magic Missiles? Why not have the Arcane Lock be Dwalimor Omen’s Arcane Lock? The more you name the spells, the more you associate them with a particular figure, the more you put story hooks in the casting the magic using characters use. It is particularly interesting if you are doing a homebrew world where these figures are even less known by the players. It encourages them to explore your world more, and not just drift through it.
This is about flavor. This about making your world seem more interesting, with more spice. D&D worlds can become a little bland at times. Anytime you provide a reason for the players to ask questions about the world also helps invest them in that world. Experiment with it and create your own names. Let them be plot hooks and story touchstones.