This article is the first installment of Mystra’s Musings, a new blog segment devoted to spells, wizards, and the arcane.
Tonight, I was sitting at Union Hall’s Urban Eatery while my wife, Sam, DM’d her ladies’ night D&D game. It’s this new food court in downtown Waco that’s slated to have 14 restaurants. Right now, there’s only a few places, but one of them is Koko Ramen, which was a food truck up until only a month or two ago. I love a good bowl of ramen.
Sam’s group bounces around Waco every Tuesday. Sometimes it’s here at our house, but usually they’re at a restaurant, supporting local businesses and spreading the good word of D&D. I usually accompany the group, sitting at a nearby table to write (we just released Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters), read books, and provide support to Sam and her players. The group has come to nickname me “Grampappy DM.”
Why? Well because Grampappy is old, and he knows all the rules. Sam and her group know that I am saturated with D&D content, be it videos, podcasts, writing, reading – you name it. My relationship with D&D content is best summed up by a contestant on the New Year’s special for the Great British Baking Show. Stephen, who was originally speaking about orange buttercream frosting, said “I’d like to strip naked and lather myself with it like a shower gel.” That’s how I feel about D&D. Is that too much?
So, when Sam or someone in her group reaches an impasse or can’t remember a rule, they look my way and say, “Hey Grampappy DM? When a creature’s prone, do I have advantage?” to which I clear my throat, grab my cane, and reply, “An attack roll against a creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of their target. Otherwise, ya’ got disadvantage.” They say thanks and resume playing.
Today, Sam looked up from her copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh and asked, “Hey Grampappy?”
“Yes?” I replied.
“Who is Nystul? It’s okay if you don’t know. It looks pretty obscure.”
Who Is Nystul?
Nystul is an archmage in the Greyhawk setting. He was born to a noble family in Tenh, and developed spells such as Nystul’s magic aura and Nystul’s undetectable aura. The former made it into 5th Edition D&D with its original name, and the latter could have been absorbed into the nondetection spell.
Nystul’s Magic Aura
You might have seen Nystul’s name somewhere before. If you’re relatively knew to D&D, like I am, you probably first came across Nystul in the 2nd level divination spell, Nystul’s magic aura.
Pretty obscure spell, isn’t it?
I actually really like this spell, but not for it’s usage. A while back on Twitter, there was a thread on alignment in 5th Edition D&D. It’s been a while, but I think someone said you could throw out alignment altogether because there wasn’t anything mechanical about it like older editions. This spell, along with a few other ones like polymorph, are part of the handful of mechanical effects currently in D&D that reference alignment.
Spells like these are interesting ones. I feel like they’re not really there for you to take at 3rd level, unless you’re prepping it for a very specific purpose. They can be used to do cool things, like make a magic item appear nonmagical or hide your magical disguise, but up until about 7th level, those 2nd level slots are a precious resource.
After that, however, you can really start to have fun. Why cast a 1st level chromatic orb when your ray of frost cantrip is more potent? Let’s get creative! What else you got? Going into a dungeon? Cast longstrider. What else you got? Nystul’s magic aura? Sure, why not. Use ’em or lose ’em!
Nystul and the Circle of Eight
There are many spells throughout Dungeons and Dragons history that contain the name of the spell’s creator. Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion, Tenser’s floating disk, Rary’s telepathic bond, Bigby’s hand and Otiluk’s resilient sphere all appear within 5th edition D&D. Coincidentally, all of these individuals were in the Circle of Eight, along with Nystul.
The Circle of Eight was a powerful cabal of wizards in the Greyhawk campaign setting devoted to maintaining the balance between the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. If you’ve read Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, you’re already familiar with Mordenkainen’s perception of the Blood War, the eternal struggle between devils and demons that takes place primarily on Avernus. Mordenkainen is happy to tip the scales when need be if it means the devils and demons will continue to tucker themselves out instead of turning on the rest of the cosmos. It’s super cool and a great example of lawful neutral, in my opinion – or is it lawful good? Someone get Nystul in here!
The Circle of Eight originally consisted of:
- Mordenkainen (founder)
- Bigby (Mordenkainen’s apprentice)
- Leomund (who was later replaced by Tenser)
- Otiluke (a late joiner)
Sadly, most of the Circle of Eight (all except for Mordenkainen) were slain by Halmadar the Cruel, who was in possession of the Hand of Vecna at the time. I thought this was super interesting, because Joe Manganiello’s character, Arkan the Cruel, bears the same title and is currently in possession of the Hand of Vecna!
Nystul the Person
There’s some debate as two whom the Nystul’s magic aura‘s namesake belongs. It appears that the spell (and thus the wizard) was inspired by a stage magician named Brad Nystul who suggested the spell to Gary. You can read the source comment written by Gary back on the Dragon’s Foot Forums here. I’ve screen capped it below because it’s interesting to see some of the other origins as well, such as Tasha.
However, user ripvonwerner on this thread did some interesting detective work that suggests the spell may actually be named after RPG creator Mike Nystul, given a section in Footprints #5 which describes the “Nystul campaign” that may have taken place around 1978 including “Brad, Genny, Mike and Brian [sic] Nystul.” The user goes on to mention that “Mike and Bryan Nystul were brothers and later game designers, so Brad Nystul must have been their father.” It’s hard to remember a game from 30 years ago.
Either way, Nystul’s magic aura is a family spell.
We don’t have a lot of information on Nystul, unfortunately. One could surmise from the spell that he could be a divination wizard if he showed up in 5th Edition D&D. If Nystul is indeed named after Mike, Len Lakofka mentions in the same Footprints #5 article that Mike’s character was aggressive, brash, and impetuous. Not the best qualities in a wizard watching the cosmos, but at least he had eight others to balance him out.
I much prefer the page about Nystul on the Greyhawk Wiki that describes him as flippant with a preference for puns and quips. Mordenkainen doesn’t seem like the sort to ever crack a smile, so it’s amusing to think of another wizard annoying these great watchers of the cosmos. It also mentions he is “intelligent, subtle, and profound, however, with an unerring tactical sense.”
UPDATE: User N. Gray has confirmed that the spell was indeed Brad’s idea, and Nystul was Mike’s character. Thank you!
Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts, or Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.