Dragonmarks: Sphinxes of Eberron

She had the body of a great black cat, with the neck and head of a beautiful elf-maiden – though if that head was on a humanoid body, she’d have to be nine feet tall to match the scale. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes glittering gold. Her long hair was midnight black, dropping down and mingling with the vast raven’s wings folded on her back. The black of her fur and hair was striped with bands of brilliant orange, and these seemed to glow in the dim light; when she shifted these stripes rippled like flames.

“Why are you doing this?” Daine said. “If you know so much about our destinies, why the riddles? Why not just tell us what you know?”

The sphinx smiled. “What answer do you wish to hear, Daine with no family name? That I am bound by divine and arcane laws, and have told you all that I can? That I have told you what you need to know to fulfill your purpose in this world? Or that I have my own plans, and I am shaping your destiny as much as any of the others who watch?”

“Which is true?”

“Which will you believe?”

City of Towers

Sphinxes are enigmatic and inscrutable. For all their cryptic insights and challenges, in some ways the greatest riddle of the sphinx is the sphinx itself. Where do they come from? What is the source of their knowledge, and most of all, what is their motivation? In most tales a sphinx is found guarding some arcane site or artifact, only sharing its treasure or its knowledge to those who can pass its test. Why does it do this?

No sphinx will answer these questions. No power on Eberron can read the mind of a sphinx, and divinations shatter against their inscrutable nature. And so the sages of Eberron are left to ponder the riddle, studying the clues that are available. The first and most popular theory about sphinxes was presented by the loremaster Dorius Alyre ir’Korran. In his Codex of All Mysteries, ir’Korran asserted that sphinxes are living embodiments of the Draconic Prophecy. Their oracular abilities are tied to the fact that they are manifestations of the Prophecy and innately know the paths of the future. They are bound to their duties and found in portentous locations because they are literally instruments of destiny, positioned to guide and challenge the people who will in turn shape history. They slip through time and space because they exist beyond it. Ir’Korran suggested that although they appear to be individuals, sphinxes are in fact all part of a greater entity, fingers on a hand too vast for mortals to see.

For centuries most scholars have supported ir’Korran’s theory. Magister Mara ir’Lain observed that sphinxes often appear to be guarding tombs, temples, or treasures, but there are no reliable accounts of a sphinx being assigned such a task. An androsphinx that identified itself as Silverstorm challenged Harryn Stormblade in the ancient Dhakaani citadel below Cazhaak Draal, but the only Dhakaani account that mentions sphinxes is the story of Jhazaal Dhakaan outwitting a sphinx to obtain its secret knowledge. Ir’Lain believed that this supported the Codex: that as Silverstorm wasn’t posted by the Dhakaani, its stewardship of Cazhaak Draal must be tied to the Prophecy.

However, over the centuries, scholars have learned more about sphinxes. In his paper “The Sphinx in the Library”, Professor Cord Ennis of Morgrave University made the following observations (summarized for the terrestrial reader; Ennis doesn’t mention the Monster Manual):

  • Sphinxes are powerful and varied spellcasters. The androsphinx in the Monster Manual is a divine spellcaster, using Wisdom to cast cleric spells. the gynosphinx is an arcane spellcaster, using Intelligence to cast wizard spells. While it’s possible that this is tied to the species of sphinx, it’s equally plausible that these are learned skills—that an androsphinx could master arcane magic, or a gynosphinx could channel magic through faith.
  • While they often appear to be bound to some sort of duty, sphinxes seem to have personalities and even a desire to learn. The most well-documented sphinx of the modern age, Flamewind, resides at Morgrave University and often spends her time reading; she has been known to attend parties and theatrical events.
  • Sphinxes are monstrosities, not celestials, fiends, or fey. This suggests that they are creatures of flesh and blood, rather than immortal incarnations.

Ennis challenges the Codex on multiple points. If sphinxes are extensions of the Prophecy, are they monstrosities rather than some form of celestial or fiend? Why do we see what appear to be both wizards and clerics among them, rather than a single path reflecting the channeled power of the Prophecy? Why did Flamewind attend the premiere of Five Lives, and even shed a tear in the final act? There are certainly reports of Flamewind assuming the role of the imperious oracle—as she did when first encountered, and as in the account quoted at the start of the article—and yet, she also seems to be capable of more casual interactions.

Cord Ennis believed this proved that sphinxes could have a more mundane origin: that they are mortal creatures, that they can study and learn, that they have more personality than the typical celestial. But as critics were quick to point out, no one has ever discovered any evidence of a civilization of sphinxes. There’s only a single account (discovered in Cul’sir ruins) of multiple sphinxes being encountered at the same time. All of this supports the Codex. There’s no signs of a sphinx civilization because sphinxes are tools of the Prophecy.

A team of researchers in the Arcane Congress presented a new theory, seeking to bridge the two: that sphinxes are creatures of Thelanis. The premise is that sphinxes aren’t instruments of destiny, but rather that they exist to drive the plot. Thelanis is the plane of stories, and its archfey often seem to enjoy seeing echoes of their stories in the world. Under this theory, the reason sphinxes show up at such dramatic times and locations is because the story needs them to—that they are some form of servants to the archfey, helping to guide the world in ways that echo the story of their masters. This ties to the fact that Thelanian creatures often show more personality and quixotic behavior than many other creatures, and that lesser fey aren’t immortal. While a compelling theory, opponents countered with the point that sphinxes don’t share the typical traits of Thelanian entities—which is to say, they are monstrosities rather than fey.

Most recently, Cord Ennis returned with a refinement of his thesis. Ennis suggests that sphinxes are mortal, civilized creatures, but that the reason there’s no evidence of any sphinx civilization is because they aren’t from this time. There are a number of accounts in which people facing sphinxes in their lairs are shifted through time—the apocryphal tale that Breggor Firstking was a beggar who was given a chance to relive his life and used his knowledge to become a king, or the story of the man who sleeps in a sphinx’s lair without permission and awakes a hundred years later. According to Ennis’s theory, the idea that sphinxes can move through time helps to explain both their seemingly oracular abilities and their interest in seeming cryptic actions; that their enigmatic behavior shapes future events in ways we don’t see, but they do. The lack of any signs of sphinx civilization is because it doesn’t exist in the scope of history as we know it. And further, the fact that sphinxes only manipulate time in their lairs suggests the use of some form of eldritch machine as opposed to the innate powers one would expect in a living manifestation of the Prophecy—that they accomplish time travel using a tool, rather than personal power alone. Ennis asserted that this could explain Flamewind’s observed behavior—at times the cryptic oracle, and at other times almost more of a curious tourist.

While intriguing, Ennis admitted that there was one piece of the puzzle that still escaped him. When do these time-traveling sphinxes come from? His first thought was the distant future—that they could even be some sort of mystically evolved descendants of the modern races. Yet if that were the case, is there no risk of their meddling changing their own future? Given this, he ultimately favors the idea that the sphinxes are from the very distant past—that they could potentially be the citizens of the FIRST civilization of Eberron, a society that predates the Age of Demons and whose existence was wiped from history by the dominion of the overlords. With this as a foundation, Ennis suggests that the actions of the sphinxes might not be the absolute demands of destiny one would expect from embodiments of the Prophecy, but rather a grand game. As their time is long past, the sphinxes don’t actually care what about the ultimate outcome; whether the overlords rise again or the daelkyr are unleashed doesn’t actually hurt them. Ennis further suggests that this could reflect the different techniques seen among sphinxes. The “divine” sphinxes—those wielding clerical abilities—could see their actions as being a divine mission, potentially even one mandated by the Progenitors (because what other gods were there at the dawn of time?) while the “arcane” sphinxes could be the scientists of their time. Thus, Flamewind could be in Sharn because she knows it is a nexus of elements she wants to deal with—events or people she wants to observe or influence—but that between those key events she is simply enjoying studying this time and place, so alien to her native time.

While these are all intriguing possibilities, as long as sphinxes remain inscrutable they will remain a mystery. Servants of the Prophecy? Agents of the archfey? Travelers from the dawn of time? All three are possible, and the only way to learn the truth is through adventure. Within their lairs, sphinxes have the ability to manipulate time and travel the planes.

Why Does This Matter?

The mystery of the sphinx is an important part of the creature, and something I want to maintain rather than simply providing an absolute answer. Are sphinxes time travelers? Agents of Prophecy? Shapers of story? All three are possible—but each has a different impact on both the role a sphinx may play in a campaign and on the mechanics of the sphinxes themselves. Most critically, the rules of the sphinx’s lair action state that the sphinx can shift itself and others to “another plane of existence.” It doesn’t specify which plane of existence or that the sphinx has multiple options. This answer—along with the circumstances under which the sphinx would USE its lair actions—likely depends on its origins. Because again, always remember that just because a sphinx CAN do something doesn’t mean it WILL. A Prophecy sphinx my have the POWER to shift people through time, but it may never use it if it isn’t required. So, let’s briefly consider the theories presented above and the ways these would impact a story.

Time Travelers. One of the core elements of sphinxes as time travelers is the idea that they are a mortal civilization. They are advanced beyond any civilization that exists today, but they are individuals using magical tools to accomplish these things—they are arcane scientists and divine spellcasters, capable of observing the tapestry of time and playing a great game they are playing with it. If this is the case, Flamewind in Sharn may indeed have very specific events she wants to observe and people she wishes to drive down specific paths, but at the end of the day she is a mortal wizard. She may play the role of being enigmatic and all-knowing, but there’s a touch of the Wizard of Oz; she DOES have knowledge of the future and of the potential destiny of the characters, but she’s not in fact infallible, she is playing her own game, and she also enjoys being a little bit of a tourist between those critical events. Should you follow this path, there’s a few points I’d consider.

  • The spellcasting abilities of a sphinx reflect whether they are a divine or arcane spellcaster—essentially, a wizard or a cleric. Under this approach, gynosphinxes and androsphinxes are simply male and female sphinxes, and it should be possible to encounter an androsphinx wizard or a gynosphinx priestess. A key question is what divine power sphinxes serve; personally, I like the idea that they might have a different sort of relationship with the Progenitors than people of the present day.
  • In shifting themselves or others to another plane, I would specifically use XORIAT. We’ve established that Xoriat is the key to time travel, and I’d assert that the time travel techniques being used by the sphinxes are based in this. The sphinxes aren’t creatures OF Xoriat and have no love for the daelkyr; they are scientists who are USING Xoriat. But they can also toss you into it for kicks.
  • The lair abilities of a sphinx are tied to a form of eldritch machine. Most likely this is specifically linked to the sphinx and cannot be used or even understood by any other creature… But it’s POSSIBLE that someone who’s figured out the mystery of the sphinx and has access to their lair could find a way to hack their time machine. A second specific question is where Flamewind has her lair. If the lair is a machine, it’s not likely to be something she could build in Morgrave University. In the novel City of Towers, this is why she deals with the protagonists in the abandoned temple in Malleon’s Gate; she hangs out at Morgrave, but her LAIR is in Malleon’s.
  • The final point is that time-traveling sphinxes are manipulating events, but they don’t have the same sort of agenda as heralds of Prophecy or Archfey emissaries. They aren’t invested in the outcome in the same way as, say, the Lords of Dust or the Chamber. Ultimately, this isn’t their time and the outcome won’t actually AFFECT them; it’s more intriguing than vital. However, divine sphinxes are more likely to be driven by a divine mission, while arcane sphinxes are more likely to be scientists and researchers.

Agents of the Archfey. If Sphinxes are tied to Thelanis, they are a form of fey; it’s up to the DM to decide whether to add the fey subtype or simply to say that you don’t HAVE to be fey to be from Thelanis. Sphinxes would effectively be Greater Fey—not truly immortal, but with a loose relationship to time and reality. A few thoughts about Thelanian sphinxes…

  • The plane they can travel to is Thelanis. Their ability to manipulate time is something that they don’t use with great precision and essentially only use when it serves the story; they aren’t truly time travelers, but they can throw Rip Van Winkle ahead a century when it fits the story.
  • A sphinx will be tied to a specific archfey, and its goals and the role it plays—guarding a location, posing a riddle—are tied to the story of that archfey. A Thelanian sphinx will be bound by fey logic: if it eats anyone who fails to answer its riddle, that’s not a CHOICE, it’s what it HAS TO DO. It MUST follow its role in the story.
  • While they draw on wizard or cleric spell lists, sphinxes aren’t actually clerics or wizards; their spellcasting reflects innate fey powers rather than arcane science.

Incarnations of Prophecy. If they are incarnations of the Prophecy, sphinxes stand sideways to the conflicts of the Lords of Dust and the Chamber. They don’t seek to manipulate the Prophecy: they ARE the Prophecy. While they may not be celestials or fiends, neither are they mortal creatures: they appear when and where they are needed, and likely disappear back into the Prophecy once their purpose has been fulfilled. If you want to explain the curious behavior of Flamewind, one possibility is to say that while a Prophetic sphinx has a limited existence, during the time it does exist it is a conscious entity; that Flamewind has spent eons as a disembodied thread of the Prophecy and is enjoying this incarnate period while she waits for the purpose that has caused her to be made manifest comes to a point. Key points about Prophetic sphinxes…

  • A Prophetic sphinx has no tied to any specific plane; as such, the planes it can access are likely tied to its specific Prophetic role.
  • This likewise ties to its ability to time travel. Essentially, a Prophetic sphinx has no free will. It exists for an absolute purpose. It CAN manipulate time or transport people to the planes, but it won’t and can’t use this power unless it is necessary for the purpose it’s manifested to fulfill. If adventurers must travel to Shavarath, it will transport them to Shavarath. If they must go forward ten years, it will take them forward ten years. But it can’t just decide that it would be INTERESTING to take them forward ten years to see what happens, as a time-traveling sphinx might.
  • The spellcasting abilities of a Prophetic sphinx are an innate part of its purpose and not skills it has learned.
  • The sphinx only exists to fulfill a purpose, guiding or guarding a particular node of the Prophecy. It is quite possible that part of its purpose is to prevent the Lords of Dust, Dragons, or other forces from interfering with that Prophetic lynchpin. But it has no wider goals, and it will discorporate once its purpose is fulfilled.

Essentially, time traveling sphinxes are the most free-spirited and are essentially playing a game with their riddles and challenges, while Prophetic sphinxes are the least free-willed and most bound to an absolute agenda, with Thelanian sphinxes falling in between.

Don’t Time Travelers Break The Game?

The fifth edition sphinx has the ability to travel in time, and to take others with it. From a purely abstract perspective, this throws all sorts of wrenches into a campaign. If adventurers fight a sphinx, why doesn’t it just go back in time and kill their grandparents? If the daelkyr rise, why don’t the adventurers get a sphinx to take them back in time and undo everything?

First of all, that last point is an excellent argument for having that power: it IS an ultimate escape hatch. It means that you CAN put failure on the table. You CAN have have Rak Tulkhesh break its chains and drown the Five Nations in blood, and the only hope is for the adventurers to fight their way to Sharn and convince Flamewind to give them a second chance. From a narrative perspective, that option is a great thing to have. The trick is that it shouldn’t be something that trivializes every defeat… “Oh, Flamewind, I lost at cards last night. Can we redo that?” Which brings up a number of points: when they can travel in time, and when they will travel in time.

First of all: time travel is a LAIR ACTION for a sphinx. You may not meet a sphinx in its lair… and a particularly sphinx might not even HAVE a lair. In Sharn, Flamewind definitely can’t call Morgrave University “her lair.” Presumably, her lair was in the Xen’drik ruins where she was first found. I’ve suggested that she might have built a NEW lair in some abandoned part of Sharn, but it’s equally plausible to say that she just doesn’t have a lair in Sharn; if she wants to help you time travel, you’ll all have to make a trip to Xen’drik (and hope nothing else has taken over her lair!). So keep in mind that when you meet a sphinx guarding a tomb, there’s no rule saying that the tomb is actually its LAIR.

Second: Even if a sphinx COULD solve all your problems with time travel, why would it? The Thelanian sphinx is there to nudge the story in a particular direction, not to completely rewrite it; as said earlier, it’s likely doesn’t have full free access to time travel, and can only actually use the power when it fits the narrative (IE: it can toss Rip Van Winkle forward a hundred years, but it can’t take you back in time to murder King Jarot). The Prophecy sphinx is even more limited, bound by unbreakable bonds of fate to only do the things it’s supposed to do, and taking you back in time isn’t an option. The wild card is the time traveling sphinx, but here’s the catch: it doesn’t care about your problems. From the perspective of the time traveler, it sees the full scope of history, filled with uncountable deaths and tragedies. From your perspective, the release of Rak Tulkhesh is a horrible tragedy that could be stopped and hundreds of thousands of people could be saved. From the time traveler’s perspective, the rise of Rak Tulkhesh and those tragic deaths are just one page in the book of all history, one filled with countless tragedies and countless deaths; what the time traveler knows is that HISTORY GOES ON, and that in three thousand years these events will only be a memory. The time traveler’s job isn’t to defeat Bel Shalor for Tira Miron; it’s to challenge Tira Miron to realize that she has the power to do it herself. Or they might even just be here to watch! The release of Rak Tulkhesh in 998 YK is a fascinating moment in history and they’re just here to watch it unfold.

The short answer I’d give is that when dealing with a time traveling sphinx, decide EXACTLY WHY IT’S HERE. If it’s a divine sphinx it may have what it believes to be a divine mission. If it’s an arcane sphinx, it may be a tourist here to observe history or it might be playing a game, seeing if it can engineer a very specific outcome. Whatever the goal, nothing else matters to it. Everyone around it is simultaneously already dead and haven’t yet been born. You may want it to solve your problems, but your problems are no more important to it than the problems of every single other tragic person in history, and if it’s not helping them it won’t help you. It’s not here to beat Rak Tulkhesh for you—it’s here to give you the clue or the challenge, and then see if you do succeed… or take notes on exactly how things play out when you fail and then go home to the dawn of time, where that failure is just an entertaining anecdote.

Of course, there’s a third even zanier option to consider, following the model of The Magicians: How do you know that sphinxes HAVEN’T been resetting the timeline? Is it in fact possible that Flamewind is in Sharn to engineer a very specific outcome—and if it somehow fails, she will take the entire city back in time and replay the entire scenario until you dummies get it right? It could be that the adventurers somehow realize that Flamewind has prevented Rak Tulkhesh from being released thirty times already—but again, she can’t solve the problem, she can only pull everyone back a year and hope that this time you’ll figure it out. Or, on a smaller scale, you could have a Groundhog Adventure where each day ends with a second Mourning and the adventurers starting over again… Once again, Flamewind is reseting Sharn each time they fail, but she can’t actually solve the problem for them, because it’s their history. But again, it’s easy enough to say that this is the single reason she’s in Sharn… and once you to get it right, she’ll return to her own time for good.

Essentially, yes, unlimited time travel would cause all sorts of problems. So limit it. Limit what they can do (no lair, no travel; no violating the laws of the Prophecy; etc) and limit what they are willing to do. Your horrific apocalypse is just one page in a very big history book, and for the time tourist it’s a cool event to observe happen, not something they need to fix.

Looking the time travelers from the past, How do they handle and reconcile the fall of their civilization? They can go back to their home at the dawn of time, but eventually that time runs out on their civilization?

Certainly. It’s something we see in various versions of Atlantis. Imagine that they know that their civilization will end in one year. The overlords are going to rise and that is absolutely, 100% inevitable: Krypton WILL explode. They don’t have the resources to project their entire civilization beyond the Age of Demons; they can only support, say, one hundred time travelers. And it may even be that they can only support them for a certain amount of time, that they will eventually be pulled back to the doomed dawn. So those one hundred time travelers are essentially stretching that final year out for as long as possible by dwelling in other times — seeing as much as they can of a future their people will never know, cataloguing the wonders of eternity and doing what they can to be a part of legend—to create stories that WILL be remembered—before they are gone.

On the other hand, if you want a more activist story, consider this: what if the reason the sphinxes are tweaking history and shaping stories is because they are creating a point in the distant future that they CAN move their civilization to? Essentially, it’s an even longer game than the Lords of Dust. Each shift—each hero tested—is shifting the number of a combination lock. At some point they will create the future they are looking for, five thousand years from now, when Sphinx Atlantis can leap forward in time and be saved. So they could, essentially, be from both the past AND the future.

But What About Zenobaal?

Dragons of Eberron presents the idea of Zenobaal, a rogue dragon who refers to itself as “The Prophecy Incarnate”. One aspect of Zenobaal is that he has an alliance with a gynosphinx named Maris-Kossja, and that they have a brood of half-dragon gynosphinx offspring. How does that fit with this idea?

There’s a few factors: first and foremost, this article is based on the fifth edition interpretation of sphinxes, which positions them as being more rare and unique — as opposed to the default 3.5 approach, by which sphinxes are just part of the world. This article notably doesn’t address hieracosphinxes, for example. The second point is that I didn’t create Maris-Kossja or Zenobaal, and this article is based on how *I* use sphinxes — which is more reflected by Flamewind. With that said, I have no issues with Zenobaal, and I think it can work in this interpretation. The simplest approach is to use the time travel idea, because under that concept sphinxes ARE mortal and could have offspring; Maris-Kossja has come from the past or future, is fascinated with Zenobaal, and has chosen to produce offspring with him… creating that rare time when you could encounter multiple sphinxes. That’s pretty straightforward. The more exotic option is to go with the Prophetic Sphinx and say that this is evidence of Zenobaal’s deep ties to the Prophecy. Zenobaal is so bound to the Prophecy that it has literally manifested a mate for him—and that his half-dragon offspring are flesh-and-blood manifestations of the Prophecy.

In general, however, this article is based on the 5E interpretation of sphinxes and will not necessarily apply to all 3.5 uses of sphinxes. You’ll have to decide how to address other contradictions. If you go with time travel sphinxes, and interesting option is to say that criosphinxes and hieracosphinxes are MODERN sphinxes — that they are either the primitive ancestors of or devolved descendants of the time traveling sphinxes.

A warning: I am working on multiple deadlines at this point in time, and will not be answering as many questions on this topic as I often do. Feel free to post questions and thoughts below and to comment on other peoples’ questions; just keep in mind that I may not have time to answer them.

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and the next one in the queue: Avassh, the Twister of Roots!

Dragonmark 9/26: What Makes A Monster?

There’s lots of good questions in the queue, but this one demands a response, so let’s get to it!

How do you interpret the motivations/background of monsters or aberrations as predisposing them to evil, given that they’re free-willed, and therefore should be good as often as evil, civilized as often as barbarous, given an normal statistical spread?

Before I go farther, if you haven’t read this post on Alignment in Eberron, I suggest you start there. Because it’s good to get on the same page as to what I mean when I say “evil.”

Back? OK. The answer is easy: I don’t interpret the motivations or backgrounds of monsters as predisposing them to evil or savagery. One of the phrases I use to describe Eberron is that it’s a place where “the bad guys aren’t always monsters, and the monsters aren’t always bad guys.” I want my fantasy worlds to feel logical… and as such I believe that for the most part, any creature that possesses free will and human-par intelligence should have the same diversity you find in humans and should be affected by the same factors – culture, history, environment, and so on. I say “for the most part”, because in a magical world a non-human species could have any number of abilities that should have an effect on culture; a telepathic race in which each city has a gestalt personality might have diversity between its city-group-minds, while the individuals within a city are virtually identical.

But taking Eberron, let’s look at a few examples:

Humans. Just as a starting point, I’ll note that humans aren’t innately good or civilized. The majority of the barbarians of the Demon Wastes are human. The people of the Lhazaar Principalities come in a wide variety of flavors; many lack “modern amenities” people are used to in Sharn and Fairhaven; and thrive by preying on others. They are generally civilized because they share common cultural roots – so where you have tribal cultures among the orcs and halflings, all the humans of Khorvaire are descended from Sarlonan cultures advanced enough to seek to establish colonies in distant lands (the Demon Wastes being a special case).

Orcs. The orcs of Khorvaire began as a tribal/primal culture and had no interest in abandoning their traditions for a more industrial culture. The Daelkyr incursion and the arrival of Sarlonan refugees both changed things and created new cultural groups. Looking at the orcs today, you can see…

The Gatekeepers: The first druids of Khorvaire. It was the orcs who awakened the greatpine we now know as Oalian, and orcs who trapped the daelkyr in the depths.

-The Ghaash’kala:The orcs of the Demon Wastes worshipped the Silver Flame long before Tira Miron was ever born. They hold the Labyrinth against the Carrion Tribes; they are unknown to the people of the Five Nations, but they have helped safeguard the lowlands for thousands of years.

– The Marcher Clans and House Tharashk: A blended culture formed from the bond between humans and orcs. House Tharashk is a thriving and ambitious house, with both humans and orcs among its leaders.

The Marcher Tribes maintain a simpler way of life, because they see no need to change it. They are divided among those influenced by the Gatekeepers (more “good”) and the Daelkyr (more “evil”).

-The Jhorash’tar are descended from similar roots as the Marcher Tribes. I don’t consider their conflict with the dwarves as something that makes them “evil”; it’s the same sort of struggle over contested territory humans have had time and again in our world.

Goblins. I don’t have time to go into paragraph overviews, but the spectrum is clear enough. The Dhakaani are a sophisticated civilization that once dominated Khorvaire, and which is more advanced in certain areas than humanity (though weaker in others, in part due to the lack of dragonmarked houses). The Ghaal’dar are a developing nation, on par with many of the Lhazaar Principalities. There are isolated savage tribes – just as with humans. And then you have the city goblins you can find in Sharn, who aren’t that different from humans. Their behavior is partially dictated by poverty, partially dictated by prejudice (which in turn helps create the poverty). Their biology affects certain things: races with darkvision have an easier time living underground. Both the Ghaal’dar and Dhakaani are very militant cultures, which can create a more ruthless environment in which lawful evil individuals have an easier time than, say, chaotic good; but that’s a cultural thing, and a chaotic evil goblin is going to have just as difficult a time in a Dhakaani clan.

Medusas. Read this article. A key quote: “Despite their worship of the Shadow, medusas are no more inherently evil than humans or elves. Some are arrogant and proud, believing that their deadly gaze places them above mundane creatures. Others respond to the fear they encounter every day by despising those who fear them, a path that often leads to evil alignments. But many enjoy the same pleasures that humans do, and seek out song, good company, and the satisfaction of hard work.” Cazhaak Draal is a small kingdom, due to the low fertility of the medusa race, but it is as sophisticated as any nation in the Five Nations; Councilor Kilk of Sharn has petitioned the city council to employ medusa architects and stonemasons.

Droaam Overall. So if monsters aren’t all savages, why was Droaam a savage land before the hags came to power? First, it wasn’t entirely a savage land. Cazhaak Draal has been around for centuries. The gnolls of the Znir Pact have a history stretching back to Dhakaan; they’ve just held to their ancestral lands and traditions. The tielflings of the Venomous Demesne trace their roots to Ohr Kaluun. It’s simply the case that these cultures were small, isolated, and surrounded by savagery. That savagery comes in the form of creatures like ogres and trolls, who are a) carnivorous and b) not as intelligent as humans (or orcs, or goblins). They aren’t genetically disposed towards EVIL as such… but lower intelligence means they are less likely to develop tools of civilization, and when you have incredibly strength you might as well use it. An ogre’s gotta eat, and if he can intimidate a bunch of kobolds into making sure he gets his food, great. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for a carnivorous species to support the large population base of a city – which leads to small tribes and villages. The Daughters solved this problem by introducing grist. Otherwise, you simply couldn’t maintain the troll/worg/etc population you currently see in the Great Crag or Graywall.

So: if monsters aren’t monsters, why are they monsters? If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out The Queen of Stone, which is set in Droaam and features a number of monstrous characters. Sheshka – the queen of stone herself – addresses this very point. Consider: Humans do a great job of fearing and hating humans for relatively minor things – differences in skin color, religion, language, political views, or simply because you’re on the land I want to have. And fundamentally, as two humans, we have a lot in common. Now, let’s expand those difference. You’re a mammal and I’m a reptile. I have living hair which serves both as a sensory organ, a natural weapon, and a form of body language – when I talk to you, it’s really disturbing and alien to me, because your hair just sits there; it’s not expressing emotion or anything. And where you say “Wouldn’t someone with a petrifying gaze be a great ally?” I’ll counter with “If you’re sitting in a room with this creature who has different religious views, a completely different form of body language, unknown customs, and who can kill you by looking at you, are you going to feel completely at ease?” Fear is a major wedge; the difficulty in common cultural ground is another. We have first contact sometime. We don’t speak the same language. You look like a scary thing, someone panics and gets petrified, we all panic and now you’re a monster of legend. Even looking just to humans and goblins: you look alien; you smell alien; you have sharp teeth; you can see in the dark and I can’t. All that is creepy on a gut level even we aren’t divided by class struggle, religion, or geopolitical differences.

So TODAY there are people trying to bridge that gap. The Queen of Stone is about exactly that. And in The Shadow Marches you’ve had humans and orcs living side by side for ages. But why do humans and monsters not get along? The same reasons humans and humans don’t get along, magnified by vast biological differences.

Of course, that’s “monsters.” You also mentioned aberrations. These are a specific and very different case. A good first step here is to look at this Eberron Expanded article. The short form is that with a medusa you can say “What would it be like if I could petrify people and had living hair?” With a troll, you can get the basics – tremendous strength, low intellect, regenerates, carnivorous – and try to put yourself in its big shoes. Aberrations, on the other hand, are entirely alien in both biology and outlook. Mind and body are twisted, either by Khyber or Xoriat. They aren’t incarnate ideas as immortals are, and they DO have free will; Xorchyllic is a mind flayer pursuing his own agenda, while the 3.5 ECS notes “A few (beholders) have abandoned the path of aggression for philosophy and reflection.” Nonetheless, whenever I deal with aberrations – from dolgaunts to gibbering mouthers – I try to emphasize that they don’t think like us. Their logic appears to be madness. It may be a structured, ordered madness that can produce amazing things; mind flayers and beholders are far more intelligent than most humans. But nothing about them is human, physically or mentally. Add to this the fact that a great many aberrations were specifically designed either to be living weapons or as bizarre works of art. Why is a dolgaunt innately aggressive? Because it was genetically engineered to be a soldier. A medusa’s gaze is an amazing thing, but it is ultimately a product of natural evolution in Eberron – a biological means of harnessing the ambient magical energy of the world. While the powers of a mind flayer were engineered by the daelkyr; it was designed to dominate and destroy minds.

That’s my rant. I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. What have you done with monsters in Eberron (or anywhere else)?

ADDENDUM: New questions!
If sharp teeth and dark vision are enough to disturb humans, what about half-elves, elves, gnomes and dwarves? There is hardly any canon prejudice against them and they are treated as full citizens of the nations they are part of… Granted, they have Dragonmarked houses backing them, but still…

If you look through the setting, there are a number of places where humans do discriminate against “demihumans”. Riedrans consider most demihumans to be inferior creatures. The Valenar are widely distrusted and disliked since they betrayed Cyre, while changelings face ongoing prejudice in most nations. Shifters suffered during the Purge because of their race and still have issues with Aundairians and the Church of the Silver Flame. Warforged face many challenges. One of the points of the Shadow Marches is that it’s a place where orcs and half-orcs mingle with humans without prejudice. House Lyrandar is called out as providing the Khoravar with a bastion in world where they are often outsiders.

With that said, let’s compare some elves from the dragonmarked houses to a city goblin and a hobgoblin from Darguun.

• The elves are, for all intents and purposes, humans with pointed ears. Their eyes are slightly larger than ours, their features slightly more angular. But their teeth are the same as ours. Their skin comes in the same tones as ours. They have noses. Overall, they generally behave in a manner similar to humans when it comes to dress and hairstyles.
• By contrast, the goblinoids have skin tones that are never found on humans. They have sharp, protruding teeth, virtually no noses, and entirely different body posture and proportions. Put that goblin next to a halfling or gnome; which of the three could you possibly mistake for a human child? And note that the snouty noses and protruding teeth are also going to mean that their facial expressions will be very different from those of humans. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, and halflings should all have similar expressions and thus be easy for you to subliminally pick up on moods; goblins will be innately alien. And the same will be true in reverse for the goblin.
• Working off 3.5, elves have low-light vision while goblins have darkvision. My point isn’t that you look at a goblin and you’re afraid because he can see in the dark; he’s not wearing a sign that says “I have darkvision.” But his darkvision is going to affect the way in which he interacts with his environment – notably where he lives. A goblin can live in a pitch-black cave; even an elf needs light down there. So the environment of the goblin feels alien. Though over the course of time, it also plays to the bogeyman element and a child’s fears: goblins could come in the night and you’d never see them. Which ties to…
• With the exception of the Valenar’s recent and swift annexing of Cyre, humans have never fought a war with elves. On the other hand, Khorvaire was the land of the goblins until humans drove them into the dark places and enslaved them. It’s been quite some time since goblins were slaves, thanks to Galifar; but their original relationship with humanity was an antagonistic one. Combine this with the fact that most city goblins still live in poverty, and you have fuel for people to fear that goblins hate them or want their things. Now again, layer on top of this their fundamentally inhuman appearance (big teeth!) and their ability to creep around in the dark. In recent years, add in the whole Darguun-seized-from-Cyre thing and you’re sure to get fallout there, even on city goblins whose families have been part of Galifar for centuries.

These same principles hold true for most of the demihuman races; they are closer to humanity than the “monstrous humanoids.” With that said, my point is that humans manage to fear and hate humans for things far more trivial than the differences between human and goblin… and I think this holds true both for demihumans and humans themselves in Eberron. A ritually scarred barbarian from the Demon Wastes, an artificially decomposed Aereni, a masked halfling dinosaur rider, a Valenar warrior… all of these will get a different reception from most citizens of the Five Nations than a member of their race who is dressed in national clothing and whose accents and mannerisms conform to cultural norms. Inhuman physicality simply magnifies these things. A wealthy goblin dressed in Davandi fashions who speaks with an impeccable Brelish accent will have an easier time in Sharn than that D-Waste barbarian.

ONE MORE THOUGHT… one of the comments raises the point that existing monsters are good villains in part because they are “mysterious.” For me, there is certainly a place in the a game for evil that is truly alien and unknowable, and for me this is the point of the daelkyr and their closest allies. Their very presence leads to madness and twists us into strange reflections of ourselves. They aren’t trying to kill us because they hate us. They don’t seem to want or need anything that we have. They are simply here to destroy us because, apparently, it’s their nature – or because there is something we don’t understand.

Likewise, there is a place for creatures that are simply and irredeemably malevolent by nature. Take evil lycanthropes as an example. Their aggression is not something they choose. They are driven by a curse that forces them to prey on the weak and innocent, to become the embodiment of all that we fear about wolves lingering in the woods. It’s not a choice. They don’t have the option of showing mercy. The curse drives them to kill, and there is little room for any sort of quarter in such a conflict… hence the attempted purge of lycanthropy.

But while there is a place in stories for both these forces, in general I prefer villains whose motives AREN’T mysterious. I think it’s more interesting when you can understand what’s driving the villain, especially if it’s a reasonable thing. Down below I talk about the Dhakaani warlord who is infuriated by humans robbing the tombs of his ancestors and by the fact that humanity has driven the goblins from their ancestral homelands. YOU may not have done these things (well, unless you robbed a tomb), but can you blame him for being angry about them? He simply wants justice for his people. That places him in opposition to you, and there may not be any way to find a peaceful resolution to the problem. But he’s not fighting you because he’s “evil”; he’s fighting you because of politics, history, and the needs of both your cultures. For me, that makes a more interesting story than fighting the unreasoning creature-made-for-war.