I’m a Forgotten Realms player from my 2nd edition AD&D days, which means I got exposed to the setting right around the time that Elminster the Sage was crammed down players’ throats everywhere. He showed up in a great deal of Realms fiction, bothered PCs during official adventure modules, and even pestered the protagonist in the Baldur’s Gate videogames.
In most of his appearances, Elminster either served as an annoyance or suggested with his mere presence that the PCs were wholly unnecessary. After all, if a 29th-level wizard with multiple deities as his allies has his eye on something, mere mortals, no matter how well-intentioned, become redundant.
D&D‘s 4th edition tried to reverse course by stripping Elminster down to become less powerful, but he returned to his mighty stature with the transition to 5th edition. Yet despite his might, Elminster doesn’t have to be a nuisance to the PCs; there are many ways to present a massively powerful wizard without having him overshadow everything else. Here are a few optional takes on Elminster that jive with his official stats in most versions of D&D while giving him a twist to make his presence in a game less domineering.
The Senile Sage
A mind can only last for so long, and Elminster’s brain has been constantly working over a period of more than 1,000 years. Eventually, something’s going to give. In this take, the old sage has started to go soft in the head and is not always in full control of his faculties. He might be the heroic and charismatic wizard presented in the source material on some days, but other days he’ll randomly polymorph himself into a deer and run in a straight line until he smashes into the side of a building.
This is, of course, a delicate area to touch upon. It’s always hard to balance a fictional take on dementia against the fact that the disease itself affects millions of people in horrible ways. Implementing the idea of an addled Elminster requires you to know how well your group will take such a thing, and too many “senile old man” jokes can feel very insensitive.
At the same time, this take has a fair amount of support in official material. The introductory adventure to the 2nd edition Forgotten Realms boxed set, for example, has him inadvertently heal the party while he thinks he’s training a dog. In the Forgotten Realms comics, he winds up missing a fight against the tarrasque because he gets into a bragging competition with another wizard and then plays nursemaid to his friend who is in labor. The novel Elminster in Hell has a devil rip through his mind, and it’s not far-fetched to consider that the trauma might have broken things a bit.
Under this interpretation of the character, Elminster’s scribe Lhaeo becomes the old sage’s caregiver and the protector of his reputation. He will go to great lengths to make sure that nobody else is aware of his master’s condition, going so far as to create false tales or even using memory-modifying magic to cover up the occasional time that Elminster decides to roam through Shadowdale without his robe on.
Used in a campaign, this take on the character could eventually bring the PCs into conflict with Elminster. How far can the mind of a guy who can cast meteor swarm be allowed to degrade before he becomes a threat to the public or even the world?
Elminster the Cynic
Imagine being 1,000 years old, possessing the blessing of a goddess, and having more magical might than most other people can ever conceive of. Theoretically, you should be able to make the world a better place. You should be able to create a veritable paradise, but for whatever reason you just can’t.
This version of Elminster has become jaded by his experiences. He’s lived for centuries and fought on the side of good for most of that time, but he hasn’t seen the world change dramatically during that time. Politicians still bicker, people still die of diseases that should have cures, and evil constantly threatens the Realms. At first willing to be proactive in the fight against evil, Elminster has now grown more jaded and resigned to the fact that no matter what he does nothing will ever really change. He has grown more reclusive over time and will delegate most tasks to adventurers or members of the Harpers, only emerging from his tower if the world is truly in immediate peril.
It’s worth noting that Elminster has been largely absent from official 5th edition D&D, save for his role as Volo’s editor. In that time, the Cult of the Dragon has attempted to return Tiamat to life, demons have invaded the Underdark, and Acererak has attempted to seize the power of death itself, with nary a glimpse of Elminster’s meerschaum pipe. In the current Forgotten Realms, this take is very easy to execute.
This Elminster probably doesn’t show his face to the PCs for most of a campaign. He might make contact with them through notes or magical messengers if they are working toward a task he sees as important. As the campaign reaches high levels, a threat to the world might cause the PCs to seek Elminster out, in which case they would have to break through the sage’s malaise and convince him that change is indeed possible. This would be a series of role-playing encounters, with a successful result not only being Elminster providing direct aid for a change but also regaining some of the joi de vivre that he lost over the centuries.
Elminster the Survivalist
Pretty much the polar opposite of the previous take on the character, this version of Elminster is a guy who legitimately loves life. He’s seen marvels and wonders, loved dozens of different women, and experienced sensations ranging from a good home-cooked meal to the embrace of a goddess. His primary motivation in life is to keep living and to experience as much of the multiverse as possible.
This version of Elminster will occasionally do heroic things, especially if it means protecting the world he has come to love. When he’s not saving the world, he’s probably away somewhere in the multiverse looking for new experiences, be it surfing in the Elemental Plane of Water or transforming into an eagle and sailing past the mysterious structures of Maztica. He only returns to his tower when he’s exhausted and needs a rest, and on those occasions he usually asks Lhaeo to make sure he isn’t disturbed.
Above all else, this Elminster wants to stay alive. He has no problem using his powers to protect people when he knows he’s the toughest mage in town, but he might turn to others for help if there’s a threat that might legitimately be able to kill him. One possibility for using this version of Elminster in a lower-powered game would be to strip him of his magic for a time, breaking his connection with Mystra or putting him under some sort of anti-magic curse. Rendered mortal and vulnerable, he might rely on the PCs for protection and even display some cowardice. Or, if you want him to develop as a character, you could put him in a situation where the PCs show him that some things are worth dying (permanently) for, causing the old sage to put his life on the line without the protection of his contingencies for the first time in centuries.
Puppet of the Gods
Elminster was turned into one of Mystra’s Chosen when he was extremely young and impressionable. She saw fit to transform him into a woman for a period of years, travel by his side in the guise of a mortal, and finally, mere moments after a traumatic life-threatening event, burn his clothes off and have sex with him. That is not a good basis for a healthy relationship.
In this take on Elminster, he’s a guy who has very little free will of his own. He’s spent the centuries of his life obeying the whims of his goddess, with the unspoken threat of losing his immortality if he ever displeases her. He got a very brief taste of life without his patron deity at his side during the Spellplague, and it was absolutely devastating.
When Mystra died during the Time of Troubles and was replaced by Midnight, it may have represented a shift in Elminster’s status quo. Maybe the chaotic good Midnight gives Elminster more freedom than the lawful neutral Mystra did. Or maybe he had come to truly love the original Mystra and secretly sees this new inexperienced goddess as a pretender. Regardless of his personal feelings, though, he has no choice but to obey the whims of his goddess.
This Elminster can be quite a complex character. He might want nothing more than to relax and spend the rest of his days in Shadowdale, but his goddess forces him to continue meddling in other people’s affairs. His wry sense of humor is more of a coping mechanism as he tries to make the best of a bad situation. As the PCs grow in power, he might come to envy them for having a sense of individual agency. He might even grow jealous of them and subconsciously try to sabotage their mission, bitter that they have the combination of freedom and power he never had.
Elminster the Blowhard
Maybe Elminster is more lucky than good. In Elminster: The Making of a Mage, the guy dies at least half a dozen times in the novel, only to be repeatedly resurrected by Mystra. In this take on Elminster, he is still extremely powerful but he’s gained most of his levels through watching other people’s heroism and taking credit for it.
This Elminster will either avoid trouble when he can or completely misuse his power, tossing a fireball and lighting a forest on fire when he could have taken down a foe with a magic missile. Half the time he saves the world, it’s only because he himself put it in peril. But he loves the attention and the adoration, so he keeps at it.
As Realms fans know from reading the various Volo’s Guides, Elminster is apparently well-thought of enough in the Faerûnian publishing industry that he gets to edit a wide array of books before they see print. Maybe Volo is actually the smart, competent mage and Elminster is surreptitiously editing his travelogues to eliminate the details that make him look bad.
The PCs might seek out Elminster only to be disappointed when they find that he really isn’t half as competent as he seems. Or they might even develop a rivalry with him as he repeatedly takes credit for their accomplishments. A stretch of a campaign might be devoted to letting the public see Elminster for the fraud he is. Of course, once that’s happened, the PCs will have made an enemy of a demigod-level being who, while not terribly great at getting results, can still turn them all into slugs if they cross him once too often…
A Mage of Many Possibilities
Not all of these takes work within the canon established by Forgotten Realms adventures and novels, but most of them can be massaged to keep within the facts presented by that canon. The main point here is to show that, even in a continuity-laden setting such as the Forgotten Realms, it’s quite possible to add your own unique take on one of the setting’s most iconic (and often problematic) NPCs.
Images: Wizards of the Coast