When we started playing AD&D back in high school, we didn't know who Tasha or Tenser were -- they were just names attache spells, clearly of mythic and historic proportion. With named spells and magic items, there's a lot of culture out there that players of D&D readily recognize whether or not they purchased the Greyhawk boxed set -- and wouldn't it be great to take Mordenkainen, Bigby, Bucknard, and all those other folks and create a place for them in my world? Even better, since I just had a name to go on, I could make those characters literally anything I want - I wasn't beholden to making Mordenkainen a member of the Circle of Eight, and my imagination could fly on why the heck Quaal made so many weird magic tokens. I wouldn't be changing what happened in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, it would be more like adapting familiar comic book characters to the Ultimate Marvel Universe.
Vecna? I turned her into a half-fey gypsy princess done wrong. Mordenkainen? I made him the headmaster of a magic academy. Taern? Made him a dwarven noble. I peppered names through the history of my world, so they sounded familiar to my gaming group, and added mystery to my world that the players might want to explore.
Below are a few entries from my campaign gazeteer, showing how I reskinned famous names to suit my worldbuilding efforts.
Bucknard Tallender: A noble lord of the Verdraaken Empire famed for his wealth and generosity. He was well loved by his people, but unfortunately perished during the Summoners’ War.
Cuthbert: A Malacisti priest of Arishem who fought alongside the Verdraaken Empire during the Summoner’s War. Cuthbert’s friendship with the semi-divine son of Karkath named Draxius is famous and well-told. There is a Song of Cuthbert that tells a heroic tale of his sacrifice of all he held dear when the Shebeleth invaded, and the story tells of his dying words convincing Draxius to offer himself up as a sacrifice so the Runebound could summon the Gith.In Malacist, for his deeds he is often referred to as St. Cuthbert.
Mordenkainen Hoenott: The Acadamae is the most prestigious school of magic in the Western Marches, and as its Headmagus, Mordenkainen Hoenott is one of the region’s most respected and powerful wizards.
Quaal the Artificer: A Galiveshi vizier who was well-known for his skills in magic, specifically in the creation of magical tokens to entertain the noble court of the Khazark. Unfortunately, when the old Khazark died and his son Diragashan the Merciless took the throne, he displeased the new ruler with an ill-timed creation of a large magical tree, and was thus impaled upon stakes carved from the branches, and then burned upon the firewood from the trunk. Sadly, most of Quaal’s secrets of creation died with him.
Vecna: A Vadani witch purported to dwell within the Vallenwood and cause harm to those who trespass near her lair.The histories of the Verdraaken Empire that survive state she was once a beautiful and charming Vadani noblewoman whose mother was a nymph, who was taken as a bride by a Verdraaken Prince, and bore him a son. However, one of her sisters grew jealous of her mortal husband, disguised herself as Vecna, and played a cruel and malicious trick which accidentally slew him. Consumed with grief and rage, Vecna used forbidden Vadani magic to call upon The Raven Witch and proceeded to slay her sister. The good fey in turn cursed her, and her beauteous form was transformed into a twisted crone.
The Empire heard of the death of the Prince, believing Vecna to have betrayed and murdered her husband. In response, they cast out all Vadani from the Empire and forbid them from dwelling within their city walls or own land. When the Empire fell, the banishment of the Vadani ended, but prejudice continues to this day.
Vecna dwelt in the forest as a witch with her son, Kas for many years, wreaking havoc and suffering on all that she could reach, until the good and noble Cuthbert quested forth from the Empire and slew her. Yet death could not end her rage and suffering and she rose again as a lich with Maglaura’s divine blessing. During the aftermath of the Summoners’ War, with no Empire remaining, she forged her own realm that reached from the Vallenwood, across the Theld and south to the Marchlands. Dark beasts roamed openly, fey were hunted and slain by undead legions, and those close to her became creatures of utter evil, her son Kas becoming a nosferati vampire. However, evil turned on itself and Kas betrayed her, attempting to wrest control of her kingdom from her, and in a epic battle, cut off her hand and removed her eye before being slain by Vecna. Twisted with rage and sorrow, she fled into the darkness, leaving everything behind.
Vecna’s empire crumbled shortly thereafter, and the land returned to nature’s stewardship. Vecna is said to dwell within the Vallenwood, the forest itself becoming cursed and dark by her very presence. She has hidden there since. It is said that her hand and eye are artifacts of evil that cannot be destroyed, and they are found by the evil or unlucky.