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Riddle of the Sphinx
By James Wyatt

W ay back at the beginning of the year, I talked about sphinxes, trying to get past the high-school drama of the great love triangle and find some mythic resonance there. My efforts got me only so far, and your response was lukewarm. So we finally got around to discussing sphinxes as a group, and I think we reached a concept that really suits their mythic origins and gives them a pretty cool place in the game. We'll see if you agree.

Here's the nutshell summary: Sphinxes are guardians, placed by the gods, that test the worth of those who seek access to whatever they protect.

Thanks to Matt Sernett for providing this fleshed-out description.

Divine Monstrosities

Sphinxes are dutiful beings brought into existence by divine power. A sphinx might be a transformed high priest or monarch given the task of eternal guardianship as a blessing or penance, but more often sphinxes are embodied spirits of divine origin brought into the world by devout prayer or direct intervention by a deity. A sphinx is a gatekeeper, protecting some special knowledge or great power from all who would have it until someone truly worthy (in the deity's eyes) comes.

A sphinx does not need to sleep, eat, or breathe. They do not age, breed, or produce offspring. They have no society or culture separate from their duty.

Sphinxes aren't infallible. Some grow tired of a seemingly interminable duty. Others become exhausted with the slaughter of those who fail to meet their expectations and come to feel sympathy for those who come to them. (At least one retelling of the Oedipus story suggests that the sphinx gave him the answer to her riddle so that she could die and stop slaughtering all the poor people who couldn't answer it.) Still others covet the offerings of those who try to bargain their way past, or they're tempted to use some of the power that they guard to rule over nearby creatures or make themselves beings of worship. In this way a sphinx's alignment and loyalties might drift, but the sphinx still cannot leave its charge or give away that which it guards. That would require divine intercession or something equally powerful.

Tests of Merit

Sphinxes exist to separate the worthy from the unworthy. That which a sphinx guards—be it a secret, some mighty spell, an artifact, or a magical gateway—can be claimed only by someone who meets the qualifications laid out by the deity that created the sphinx.

Different kinds of sphinxes test different kinds of merit, and they have different magical abilities emblematic of that test. Occasionally, facing the sphinx's magical power (such as an androsphinx's roar) might be the test itself. More often, though, the test is unique to the particular sphinx and situation.

  • Androsphinxes test valor. Symbolizing this test, they have a terrifying roar that becomes more frightful each time they utter it until by the third roar, mountains quake.
  • Gynosphinxes test wit. Their glance can place a person in an extraplanar maze from which only the brightest emerge quickly.
  • Hieracosphinxes test devotion. Their command can dominate and make people do things against their faith and ethos.
  • Criosphinxes test physical prowess. A touch of their horns can numb limbs and weaken the body.

Most sphinxes confront mortals physically in a normal space such as a chamber in a tomb, at the center of a crossroads, or at a bridge across a ravine. But some sphinxes can admit supplicants into an extraplanar place—a sort of pocket dimension where the actual test takes place. What begins as a conversation with a sphinx perched on a pedestal in a dungeon room might become a challenge of wits played out on a life-size game board or a physical challenge to climb a daunting cliff in a howling storm. The nature of such extraplanar places depends upon the deity the sphinx serves and what merit the sphinx tests.

For example, an androsphinx might transport a character or a party into the midst of a raging battle where each one must defend a castle against invaders. The battle is hopeless, and the adventurers certainly have the option of fleeing. To pass the sphinx's test, though, they must fight to the death, proving their valor even in the face of overwhelming odds. As each character dies, though, he or she awakens on the ground at the sphinx's feet, with the guardian's benevolent face showing its approval.

Some sphinxes have even stranger abilities, and any supplicant must come to their lair and beseech the empty air with the right mental attitude. For example, any who are pure of heart, true in faith, or honest with themselves can then have an out-of-body experience, meeting the sphinx in an astral domain of dreams where the sphinx controls the experience and tests them in many ways.

In most cases, the punishment for failing the sphinx's test is to be clawed to death and devoured by the sphinx. More benign deities might grant the sphinx the power to teleport a supplicant away or move the sphinx to an extraplanar place. In these latter cases, the sphinx will not appear for that person for some time, if ever. Regardless, simply attacking and defeating a sphinx is no way to win past it (and it's a sure way to anger the deity). The sphinx is a being set down in the universe by divine edict, and when it denies passage, the way to what they protect vanishes and that which they hide moves beyond mortal ken. Typically only magic with power that might equal the gods can wrest a way through.

What Do You Think?

In past editions, sphinxes (especially hieracosphinxes) often appeared as glorified hippogriffs, serving as pets, mounts, or wandering monsters. The riddling sphinx in White Plume Mountain is one of the only exceptions, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that it is there to test the worth of anyone who would seek to wield one of the three powerful weapons hidden within the mountain. (From that perspective, Keraptis—the ancient wizard who ostensibly stole the weapons and secreted them away in the mountain—might have been a divine agent as well. But I think that the sphinx herself placed the seal of Keraptis on the riddling letter announcing the theft of the weapons as yet another test of wit.)

All of which is to say that I think this approach to the sphinx does a pretty good job of matching both classical legend and D&D lore. But it doesn't matter what I think. What do you think?

Previous Poll Results

What do you think of when we talk about exploration as one of the game’s three pillars?
Exploration is what gets me from one encounter to the next—and by encounter I mean combat. I have better things to do than shift rusty levers around all day. 22 2%
Exploration is tracking dungeon movement square by square, searching every flagstone to make sure it doesn’t trigger a trap. It’s mind-numbing and awful. 24 2%
Exploration is necessary for a sense of realism—even adventurers don’t just teleport from one place to another. They travel, they spend time in the world, and they have random encounters along the way. 422 36%
Exploration is an exciting part of adventuring, and they allow me to face the challenges and puzzles that really make me (as a player) think. 668 56%
Something else entirely. 48 4%
Total 1184 100%

When you are the DM, do you think of tricks as an essential part of your dungeon design toolbox? Are you proud of your collection of tricks?
I have no use for tricks. 83 7%
I’ve never thought about it in those terms before, but yes, I put clever tricky elements in my dungeon. 841 71%
I am a master trickster! I wield an impressive array of tricks! 256 22%
Total 1180 100%

What do you think about tricks designed to foil player mapping?
How about we stick our fingers in the blender instead? I think that would be more fun. 162 14%
I can see the appeal, in certain very particular circumstances. 704 59%
They’re important. If you can’t get lost in a dungeon, what’s the point? 266 22%
I live for things like that. 49 4%
Total 1181 100%

What’s your favorite kind of trick to use in your adventures? (See the definitions above.)
Obstacles 204 17%
Dungeon dressing 211 18%
Mysteries 581 49%
Hidden things 120 10%
Things to confound the map 18 2%
Traps you must find or die 20 2%
Hidden dungeon entrances 21 2%
Total 1175 100%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
I'm cool with adding a bit of new flavor, but just give me the monsters as I recognize them from 1e/2e/BXCMI. That's what I want more than anything. I don't need any "re-imaging" like Bayformers or whatever. I want my DnD lore to be continuitous with the material I started with. Different settings can add a different spin, but give that old time rock and roll to serve as the basis.
Posted By: Azzy1974 (11/8/2013 12:30:00 PM)


I like monsters you just can't simply overpower to win. I hope we see more of this!
Posted By: Pyrate_Jib (11/8/2013 11:08:03 AM)


My favorite (Other) use, was as a force that existed outside the rules that governed other beings. If you need help against fate, only a dragon or a sphinx could help you, each requiring its own payment for considering such a request.
Posted By: Kitasi (11/7/2013 4:18:27 PM)


I think this description, in contrary to many others provided here lately, manages to inspire good adventure writing.
It captures the sense of mystery and wonder that weren't present in DND for some time now.
Posted By: Ashtoret (11/7/2013 6:25:33 AM)


I have used a sphynx as a test for adventurers to pass before they could complete a quest (solve riddle to gain access to a map).

Very good interpretation of a sphynx. I would suggest that some, who have carried out their duty (over a very long time, even for an immortal) and had a worthy obtain the prize, are released to live an independent life. Such creatures might be found in the employ of powerful creature (wizards, dragons, etc.), if the creature's cause is just and/or wise.
Posted By: Rlyehable (11/6/2013 8:54:57 PM)


Definitely support the idea of Sphinxes being able to be released and become semi-independent actors, albeit very rarely. I wonder though, what keeps them from just giving their prize away to whomever then? It would work if they were doing penance for something but what if they were just servitors of gods? Perhaps they are bound to the prize they guard and if they give it away to someone undeserving, they will be cursed. That works regardless of background
Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/7/2013 2:54:24 PM)


Wow. Way to take a monster I had no intention of ever using and make it interesting as hell.

I already know how I'm going to slip these into my ongoing 5e game. Good show, Mr. Wyatt. Good show.
Posted By: wetsail (11/6/2013 6:38:53 PM)


Exactly what I was thinking.
Posted By: GloriousDemon (11/9/2013 11:34:54 AM)


Oooh! I like this article, is a very good point to start!
This resemble much more the mythical sphinxes: creatures send by gods to complete divine task.
But I have one criticism: like you have write, the sadness of passing their immortality in solitude, only to watch access in the same place and slaugthering people who can't solve their tests, can drive even the most benevolent sphinx into madness and cruelty, and may they plan to betray the gods.
Even if this may be the pleasure of a crazy evil god, the others cannot want this, and offer something to the sphinxes in exchange of their loyalty.
Often freedom and mortality. But even power, titles and servants or the resurrection of a beloved one, for examples.
For suggestion, the players can pass the sphinx defeating or deceiving it, but who kill or deceive a sphinx occour in a terrible curse that cannot be removed except by a high priest of his deity.
I like the general idea to give uniqueness, p... (see all)
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (11/6/2013 5:11:48 PM)


Excellent incentives for maintaining guard, but also allowing for them to be semi-independent actors in the world.
Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/7/2013 2:55:50 PM)


A more flexible backstory: In the dawn of time, when gods walked the lands, sphinxes were spun from sand to guard important locations. But then the gods receded, many artifacts were lost to the sands of time, or were stolen by thieves, or were retrieved by those worthy, leaving many sphinxes without purpose and forgotten. Now some sphinxes still guard the original secret or object for which they were born, their power intact. Other sphinxes have waned over the centuries in power and purpose, and suffer an identity crisis. Some maintain their purpose by discovering new items or locations or secrets to guard (wizards and viziers seek out such sphinxes to bargain with). Others stay where they are, guard nothing, and go mad. Others forsake their guarding heritage, wander off and seek intelligent prey to ambush, eating victims that fail the sphinx's tests.
Posted By: urLordy (11/6/2013 2:44:40 PM)


I just used a Sphinx in my game on Sunday. I would have loved to use any one of these Sphinxes over the one I used. It was guarding a teleportation circle to the elemental plane of water where a Storm Titan was chained up by the gods that the party needed to destroy.

Also did anyone read this and think a Sphinx now has the same origin as a Drider? A divine power that transforms the humanoid in a humanoid/animal hybrid.
Posted By: mykesfree (11/6/2013 2:24:00 PM)



So... what's a guardian naga? A very thin sphinx?
Posted By: mudlock (11/6/2013 2:17:32 PM)


I don't want to only be able to use sphinxes when a deity is directly involved. I want to be able to use them like in WPM, just generally as guardians for stuff.

Like the last paragraph says, you COULD retcon WPM to make the new lore work (Keraptis was a Skrull the whole time!), but why would you want to?
Posted By: G_X (11/6/2013 1:49:04 PM)


I like much of this article, but some parts are a bit too much "a god did it" for my liking. As others have mentioned, making satisfying the sphinx's challenge the only way of successfully bypassing it is very limiting, and having it come with an infallible "thou shall not pass" contingency is very powerful. I don't want to only ever use sphinxes when there's a god directly involved.

I'd prefer to think of them more as divine beings on a par with lower-ranking angels, whose duties on the celestial planes are to test the qualities of a deity's servants and ensure they're up to scratch - sort of like celestial drill sergeants.

Their normal duties don't bring them to the material world, but they can be summoned and either contracted or bound to become guardians for a set period of time, which may well be centuries in length. As guardians, they use their powers to secure a particular treasure, and test the worthiness of those who come to them.
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Posted By: MarkB (11/6/2013 1:31:36 PM)


I really like these sphinxes. I like how it really focuses this monster on a specific (but flexible and open) experience. I do think one of the sphinxes should really be more of a riddler than any (perhaps the Gynosphinx is meant to do that, but over a series of riddles in a maze?).
Posted By: Alphastream1 (11/6/2013 11:08:25 AM)


Sphinxes seem to suffer from that same doctrine TSR always took to monsters: "Stat up ALL THE THINGS!" If there were two different names for a mythical critter--or even just two different spellings--you could be sure that some Monster Manual or Creature Compendium would describe them as distinct creatures. And naturally, the same went for creatures that were portrayed with varied physical appearances.

My own preference would be to allow variation--in appearance and in abilities--within given monster types. The playtest bestiaries do some of this already, and it's awesome. The sphinx seems like a pretty good candidate for such an approach.
Posted By: Matt_Sheridan (11/6/2013 10:59:37 AM)


So, no real problems with the Sphinx description here, seems pretty cut and dry. I just have one question.

Why do we need more than One Sphinx?

If they all fill the same role, just combine them into Sphinx and be done with it. You can give the DM a variety of powers to choose from if they need to get a certain flavor to fit a Deity or story, but there isn't really a need for four different breeds of Sphinx. And I don't see the different 'Tests' listed as reason enough to have them.
Posted By: LupusRegalis (11/6/2013 10:10:44 AM)


Likewise, I'm unsure the Monster Manual needs to be puffed out with different varieties of sphinx. It seems like a variety of physical appearances and different Tests of Merit could all be accommodated under one entry.
Posted By: BadMike (11/6/2013 11:00:58 AM)


As written, it doesn't seem like we need more than one sphinx. It also doesn't seem like we need even one sphinx. As described they're divine proxies with any powers you feel like giving them, which set up any adventure that uses them for the same basic track: 1) find the sphinx's location, 2) complete the sphinxes challenge, which from the description is anything the DM feels like throwing at you, but will probably never be direct combat with the sphinx, and 3) either pass the challenge and receive the rewards (and don't fight the sphinx) or fail the challenge face/rending/exile/teleportation (in which case fighting the sphinx is a possibility, though I don't see how you then get the divine reward).

It's not a monster, it's a plot device. So why even stat it?
Posted By: longwinded (11/6/2013 12:11:31 PM)


Hi WotC, ther'es an error on the last question - it says "choose all that apply", but the quesiton completes after the first selection. Please redo.

Otherwise, these are interesting ideas. I don't have a problem with sphinxes being mortal, if rare, creatures, as they have been previously. I'm thinking of particular areas like the FR Stonelands where "sphinxes are said to lair". Personally I will use them as guardians and plot-enablers, but not to the extent that if you don't answer the riddle, "the way to the that which it protects vanishes". I don't like dead end, pass/fail solutions. Personally, my suggestion would be to pull back on that extremem of a concept.
Posted By: Rils (11/6/2013 9:23:16 AM)


Splendid job encompassing not only the Greek, Persian, and Egyptian sphinxes but the various Southeast Asian sphinxes as well!

This may be surprising for those who only know the Theban sphinx, and especially for those who hadn't heard the version wherein she was sent by the Greek gods to punish Thebes. She wasn't the only sphinx to ask riddles, either.

Mainly Sphinxes do have a divine duty guarding gates, entrances, and stairs to tombs and temples, but they are also known to roam sacred ground and protect children of import (Thailand and Burma, respectively), so sphinxes have more variety than one might expect, and I have this article to thank for looking these things up.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (11/6/2013 9:04:32 AM)


LOVE this! I personally feel that anytime real world mythology can combine with fantasy perspective, the mystery and flavor serve to create an experience that should rise above the ability of most adventuring mortals to simply hack their way through. This description excites my sense of nostalgia for the game and makes me eager to dive in.
Posted By: Timmee (11/6/2013 8:32:30 AM)


I don't like the connection to divinity; I feel like that could be true for a particular sphinx or breed, but it is too big of an umbrella. You know what, I really like the look of M:tG's sphinxes, with their weird headpieces. Might as well throw that out there.
Posted By: mordicai (11/6/2013 7:25:57 AM)


I actually like this background for sphinxes, but would also like room for a wider variety of sphinxes to exist - I'd like some that aren't simply "gatekeepers" for the deity that created them. It would seem that sphinxes, for all intents, are ageless. So one idea might be that they can outlive the purpose for their creation (or even the deity that shaped them!) and are then freed to do as they will.

Owing to their clever minds and long lives, some could become benevolent patrons or masterful manipulators as discussed in the survey. Likewise, some could find a secluded place to test passersby, since that life is all they have known and all they could imagine. The weight of time might even drive some mad, and these sphinxes could become little better than a simple wandering monster.
Posted By: BadMike (11/6/2013 2:18:45 AM)


This. I think this sphinx background is one of my favorite posts in this column so far, but it would be nice to have options for non-divine-guardian sphinxes. BadMike's suggestions are a great start.
Posted By: goldengod (11/6/2013 4:13:51 AM)


+1. That sounds like a great NPC backstory. Plus, even if you end up using one as a wandering monster, the standard backstory implies a deep tragic past to even the crazed homicidal monster.
Posted By: powerroleplayer (11/6/2013 8:52:23 AM)


+2. Maybe a sphinx guarding something gets the Legendary template to better guard, and free roaming sphinxes don't have that template. I would also use the idea (which I stole from the old Gargoyles cartoon) that sphinxes like to guard things, so a free roaming sphinx might set him/her self up as the guardian of a city or a library, regardless of what the inhabitants/regular patrons think about that. That would have a lot of potential for adventures where there might be multiple paths to success. Likewise having the sphinx be a bodyguard to some nice old lady (who is not actually in any more danger than anyone else in her village) might complicate the adventurers' going through the village on their way to the dungeon.
Posted By: Mechagamera (11/6/2013 10:29:50 AM)


"...when it denies passage, the way to what they protect vanishes and that which they hide moves beyond mortal ken."

So... if the PCs can't solve the riddle, Blackrazor disappears forever and the adventure cannot be completed ever by anyone in the future? Not a fan.
Posted By: G_X (11/6/2013 12:47:34 AM)


I agree on this. It does make for an unhappy situation.
Posted By: Guldensupp (11/6/2013 8:57:48 AM)


Usually for any such pivotal feature in a campaign, a failure just makes things much more "interesting". It can also turn out that one macguffin isn't the only road to success. (It has to have consequence, but it needn't stop the show.) DMing 101: Failing Forward; a lesson that I wouldn't mind appearing in a DMG.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (11/6/2013 9:09:53 AM)


Consequences need to be there, and actually applied. Otherwise what's the point of playing?!
Posted By: LupusRegalis (11/6/2013 10:05:57 AM)


The last panel says "choose all that apply" but it only allowed me to choose one.
Posted By: Fallen_Star_02 (11/6/2013 12:10:34 AM)


Yeah, the question completes after the first choice is selected. The first choice in line to be selected is the one that agrees with the article; I've never seen a more jaded and pre-selective approach to getting the desired answer on a survey question.
Posted By: lawrencehoy (11/6/2013 1:17:32 AM)


Yes, after I chose the first one (who was the first choice available), it did not allow for me to check the other options ¬¬.
Posted By: Vinicius_Zoio (11/6/2013 2:17:37 AM)