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Mythological Figures: Merlin Ambrosius (5E)

Today we’re going after one of the most requested Mythological Figures so far in the column’s short history, the world’s most popular mage and easily the best known seer of any crown: the iconic Arthurian wizard, Merlin!

Merlin’s historical origins are a wee bit difficult to pin down. What I’m confident putting here is that he’s the amalgamation of more than one man—whether that’s the druidic fellow Tolstoy talks about and a very early advisor, or a third or fourth alternate, I’ll leave to scholars more invested into the sprawling story than myself. I’ve read through a few pages and watched a couple documentaries, and at this point have gotten more confused than anything else. There does seem to be general agreement that his father was a fiend however, and that's included below. Most of my concerns lay in what Merlin’s statistics ought to be, and for that I fell back on to the OSR builds.

Design Notes: You can go look it up but other D&D designers decided to give Merlin a druid/wizard build and I'm continuing in that tradition. There aren’t RAW rules for above 20th characters however, and though I am wont to do so I’ve done gone and jumped the fence so he can get that full-blown wild shape and knowledge of 9th level spells (non-ritual spells anyway) instead of just spell slot access. The Ageless feature is also not RAW, but everything else (ability scores, proficiency bonus, many, many features) is straight out of the core (using the monster progression for proficiency, obviously). For the numbers-oriented among you that crunch out his CR it should be one lower but I reckoned that all those spell slots merited an extra little bump.

Merlin Ambrosius
Medium humanoid (tiefling), neutral good wizard (illusionist) 17/druid (herdmaster) 8

Armor Class
18 (mage armor, ring of protection, staff of power)
Hit Points 120 (17d6+8d8+25)
Speed 30 ft.

10 (+0)​
14 (+2)​
12 (+1)​
20 (+5)​
18 (+4)​
10 (+0)​

Saving Throws
Str +3, Dex +5, Con +4, Int +16, Wis +15, Cha +3
Skills Arcana +13, History +13, Insight +12, Investigation +13
Damage Resistances fire
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Investigation 28, passive Perception 19
Languages Common, Druidic, Infernal, Sylvan
Challenge 20 (25,000 XP)

Background: Scholar. Acumen or fate gently nudges Douban toward the answers to his questions. When he fails to recollect or discover more about a subject of lore, he knows where or whom can give him that information (usually from an athenaeum, library, institute of higher learning, another scholar, or mystical creature). The lengths to which he must go to acquire this information and the feasibility of doing so is entirely at the GM’s discretion.

Ageless. Merlin does not age, cannot suffer from frailty of old age, die from old age, or be aged magically.

Arcane Recovery (1/day). When Merlin finishes a short rest, he can choose to recover expended spell slots of a combined level that is equal to or less than 9th-level (although no single recovered spell may be higher than 6th-level).

Augmented Summoning. When Merlin conjures a fey or beast, the creature gains 2 hit points per Hit Die, and damage from its natural weapons is considered magical for the purpose of overcoming immunity and resistance to nonmagical attacks and damage.

Feat: Brilliant. Merlin always knows how long it will be before the next sunset or sunrise, the northerly direction, and can perfectly remember anything he’s experienced within the last 31 days.

Feat: Perceptive. Merlin is able to read lips.

Feat: War Magic. Merlin has advantage when he is concentrating on a spell and has to make a Constitution saving throw from taking damage, he can wield weapons or a shield in both hands and still make somatic components for spellcasting, and can use his reaction to cast a spell (maximum casting time: 1 action) at a creature that provokes an opportunity attack from him.

Improved Figments. Merlin is able to simultaneously create a sound and image when he casts minor illusion.

Infernal Legacy. Merlin can cast hellish rebuke as a 2nd-level spell (DC 16), and he can cast darkness. These spells use Charisma for his spellcasting ability and once Merlin has cast one of them, he cannot cast it again until he finishes a long rest.

Instant Mirroring (1/short rest). Merlin can use his reaction when he is attacked by a creature to create an illusory duplicate of himself. The creature attacks this illusion, causing it to dissipate, and the attack misses Merlin.
Malleable Figments. Merlin can use an action to to alter his own illusion spells so long as the spell has a duration of at least 1 minute.

Owl Spirit (1/short rest). Merlin can use a bonus action to conjure an incorporeal owl at a point he can see within 60 feet. He can also use a bonus action to move the owl up to 60 feet to a point he can see. The owl remains for 1 minute or until Merlin is incapacitated. You and your companions have advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks while within 30 feet of the owl, and when a creature within 30 feet of the owl makes an attack roll Merlin can use his reaction to grant advantage to the creature’s attack roll.

Spellcasting. Merlin is a 20th-level spellcaster that uses either Intelligence^ or Wisdom* as his spellcasting ability (spell save DC 21^ or DC 20*; +15^ or +14* to hit with spell attacks). Merlin has the following spells prepared from the wizard^ and druid* spell lists, although it is rumored that he’s gathered the formula for all arcane magic in his countless tomes:

  • Cantrips: acid splash^, fire bolt^, mage hand^, minor illusion^, prestidigitation^, ray of frost^; druidcraft*, guidance*, mending*; thaumaturgy
  • 1st-level (4 slots): detect magic^, mage armor^, magic missile^, shield^; cure wounds*, thunderwave*
  • 2nd-level (3 slots): arcane lock^, locate object^; animal messenger*, enhance ability*, pass without trace*, spike growth*
  • 3rd-level (3 slots): counterspell^, dispel magic^, fireball^, lightning bolt^, major image^, protection from energy^; conjure animals*, meld into stone*, speak with plants*
  • 4th-level (3 slots): confusion^, dimension door^, stoneskin^; freedom of movement*, hallucinatory terrain*, wall of fire*
  • 5th-level (3 slots): hold monster^, scrying^, telekinesis^
  • 6th-level (3 slots): true seeing^
  • 7th-level (3 slots): teleport^
  • 8th-level (3 slot): power word stun^
  • 9th-level (2 slot): foresight^

Wild Shape (2/short rest). Merlin can use his action to magically assume the shape of a beast that he has seen before that has a maximum CR of 1. He can stay in a beast shape for 4 hours. Merlin then reverts to his normal form unless he expends another use of this feature. He can revert to his normal form earlier by using a bonus action on his turn. Merlin automatically reverts if he falls unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or dies. While Merlin is transformed, the following rules apply:

  • Merlin’s game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, but he retains his alignment, personality, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. Merlin also retains all of his skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. If the creature has the same proficiency as Merlin and the bonus in its stat block is higher than his, use the creature’s bonus instead of his. If the creature has any legendary or lair actions, Merlin can’t use them.
  • When Merlin transforms, he assumes the beast’s hit points and Hit Dice. When he reverts to his normal form, Merlin returns to the number of hit points he had before he transformed. However, if he reverts as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to his normal form.
  • Merlin can’t cast spells, and his ability to speak or take any action that requires hands is limited to the capabilities of his beast form. Transforming doesn’t break Merlin’s concentration on a spell he’s already cast, however, or prevent him from taking actions that are part of a spell, such as call lightning, that he’s already cast.
  • Merlin retains the benefit of any features from his class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, he can’t use any of his special senses, such as darkvision, unless the new form also has that sense.
  • Merlin chooses whether his equipment falls to the ground in his space, merges into his new form, or is worn by it. Worn equipment functions as normal, but the GM decides whether it is practical for the new form to wear a piece of equipment, based on the creature’s shape and size. Merlin’s equipment doesn’t change size or shape to match the new form, and any equipment that the new form can’t wear must either fall to the ground or merge with it. Equipment that merges with the form has no effect until he leaves the form.

Woodstongue. Merlin can be understood by beasts, and he is able to understand their grunts and pantomime.


Staff of Power (20 charges). Melee Weapon Attack: +10 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d8+2) magical bludgeoning damage. On a hit, Merlin can expend 1 charge to deal an extra 1d6 force damage to the target. Merlin can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it (spell save DC 19, +13 to hit with spell attacks): cone of cold (5 charges), fireball (5th-level version, 5 charges), globe of invulnerability (6 charges), hold monster (5 charges), levitate (2 charges), lightning bolt (5th-level version, 5 charges), magic missile (1 charge), ray of enfeeblement (1 charge), or wall of force (5 charges).

Retributive Strike. Merlin can use an action to break the staff of power, releasing its remaining magic in an explosion that fills a 30-foot-radius sphere centered on it. There’s a 50% chance Merlin instantly travels to a random plane (avoiding the explosion) otherwise he takes force damage equal to 16 × the number of charges in the staff.
Every other creature in the area must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, a creature takes an amount of force damage based on how far away it is from the point of origin (8 x charges if within 10 ft., 6 x charges if within 10 ft.-20 ft., 4 x charges if within 20 ft.-30 ft.). On a successful save, a creature takes half as much damage.
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Mike Myler


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First Post
Just a minor typographical error: In Merlin's description, it says "Background: Scholar. Acumen or fate gently nudges Douban toward the answers to his questions." Is that left over from the previous mythological figure, and should it be removed, or should it simply read "Merlin" in place of "Douban"?

Mike Myler

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters KS soon
Just a minor typographical error: In Merlin's description, it says "Background: Scholar. Acumen or fate gently nudges Douban toward the answers to his questions." Is that left over from the previous mythological figure, and should it be removed, or should it simply read "Merlin" in place of "Douban"?
Typographical error. Fixed!

Kevin Smith

First Post
Diolch Yaarel, da iawn. Roedd hynny'n ddiddoral iawn!

Merlin is a bard.

In previous editions, D&D authors had limited options when struggling to represent figures from outside of the peculiar conceits of D&D. But in 5e, the bard is more mythologically accurate − and is now a full caster class! What the previous attempts were groping toward with the druid/wizard multiclass, is now realizable as a bard wielding spell-level 9 slots.

Who and what is Merlin?

As is known, the full name in Latin is

• ‘Merlinus Ambrosius’ [mer.lin.us am.bro.si.us].

This Latin name represents his North Welsh Brittonic Celtic name,

Myrddin Emrys [mɨr.ðɪn em.rɨs].

Myrddin is a semi-historical persona who conflates several historical persons. But mainly he comprises the two persons who form his name.

• 1. Myrddin Wyllt [wɨɬt], also known as Myrddin Emrys

He is also known as ‘Merlinus’ of Caledonia − of Scotland! Inferrably, this Myrddin was born in Scotland and grew up in Wales, which his why his friends nicknamed him ‘the Scot’ (= Caledonensis). He lived during the 500s. The bard’s alternate name Emrys got confused with historical accounts mentioning an other person named Emrys.

• 2. Emrys Wledig [u.le.dɪg], aka Ambrosius Aurelianus, whence Aurelius Ambrosius.

This Emrys is a reasonably significant Romano-British ... warlord? ... who lived a century earlier during the 400s.

This time period, the 400s and the 500s, is the setting for the semi-historical reports about King Arthur, who lives before and after year 500.

This conflation of separate person into one holistic person, is how the bard Myrddin Emrys becomes ‘Merlinus Ambrosius’, who lives during the same time as King Aurthur.

Weirdly, this composite Myrddin lives both before and after King Arthur, both as an old man who mentors the young Aurthur and as a young man who outlives the elder Arthur. Myrddin seemingly enjoys extreme longevity, spanning at least two centuries. And ages backwards! − as if born an elder and growing younger. The curiosity invites magical explanations. In addition to longevity, the magic of shapechange explains much.

The magic of this composite Merlin comes from the fact that he is a bard. As born in Scotland and growing up in Wales, to understand the magic of Merlin, we need to look at concepts about magic that involve Wales and Scotland, during 400s and 500s. We also need to look at what a bard is − properly called a ‘fili’ − who is one of the three institutions of the social and governmental fabric of Celtic Scotland and Celtic Wales. The Celtic rulers comprise aristocratic warriors, priestly druids, and technocratic bards.

Taliesin is a Welsh bard who lives during the 500s, who exemplifies the kinds of powerful magic that the Celtic bards are famous for. There are even stories about Taliesin being a companion of King Arthur. When we look at Taliesin, we glimpse what the magic of the mythologically accurate Merlin entails.

He gains his magic powers working as an apprentice of Cerridwen, a powerful mage, who instructs him to maintain a complex year-long ‘potion of inspiration’, so she can imbue her son with magical power. Finally, at the completion of this potion, he stirred it for luck, and he catalyzed it. Three drops splashed up on his thumb. Immediately he stuck his thumb in mouth to assuage the burn. Thus he accidentally stole all of the magical powers. Now prophetically knowing what Cerridwen would do to him, he panicked and shapechanged into a seed of grain. Without realizing it, she ate him, and later gave birth to him as the baby Taliesin, who will grow up to be a great bard and a master of bardic magics.

Celtic mythology is so trippy! The symbolism comes to life in a dreamlike experience.

The three drops are sometimes explained as three aspects of bardic magic.
• prophecy, the ability to foresee and alter fates − praises bless, satires curse
• shapechanging and other wonders
• potions and other sciences

The D&D 5e bard makes an excellent mythologically accurate Welsh bard.
• Foresight. Blessing and cursing via clever and humorous poetry.
• Unlike the D&D druid who wildshapes everyday, the bard only shapeshifts if needing to.
• Lore, lore, and more lore. Stealing spells from other classes.

The magic of Merlin/Myrddin is bardic magic, including shapechanging, prophecy, lore, and so on. By contrast, Fireball never happens in the stories about Merlin. One can appreciate how earlier multiclassing of druid and wizard groped toward a semblance of Merlin. But we have the 5e bard and are good-to-go.

In the aspect of Ambrosius, Merlin is a warlord. He knows how to mentor Arthur to win. Merlin is competent at combat, and a master of tactics and strategy. The D&D 5e bard is good at combat too. Some players build their bard to cover aspects of the 4e warlord.

Merlin is appropriately a member of the royal court of King Arthur, because that is what a bard is. The bard is a royal advisor, as well as an advocate to ensure the success of a king.

Previous editions lacked our awesome 5e bard. But we have it.

The bard is the go-to class for a mythologically accurate Merlin.

Regarding ancestry. The legends identify Melin as a ‘cambion’, a half-human whose father is an ‘incubus’. Taking the Christian perspective, an incubus is a kind of ‘demon’. However, taking the Celtic perspective, the incubus is something else. For example, in Renaissance Scotland, the incubus is an ‘elf’, also called a sith, who is a kind of fairy. These elf visits can be simultaneously terrifying and erotic. The dreamer of this kind of phantasmagoric vision often awakens with magical skills. Note, Merlin was born in Scotland. So his father is probably more ‘Fey’ than ‘Fiend’, and probably is something like a sith, the Scottish version of the Celtic sidhe. In this case, it is probably a matter of taste. At this time, the Celts are both Christian and cognizant of their indigenous heritage, so either half-fey or half-fiend seems fine for a mythologically accuracy Merlin. Being half-fey explains his longevity.