IFAQ: Sphinxlantis

Every month, I answer questions posed by my Patreon supporters. I christened these articles as “IFAQs” with the idea that they are INfrequently asked questions—a chance to ask things you won’t find answered in any sourcebook. And this one is definitely that…

If you had to place Sphinx-lantis anywhere in Your Eberron, where do you think it would be and why? How do you see their civilization as being?

I imagine most of you are saying “Sphinx-what now?” This question is tied to the previous article I wrote on Sphinxes in Eberron. In Fifth Edition, sphinxes have power over time and I suggested a few explanations for that. Here’s the one that’s relevant.

Most recently, (Morgrave scholar) 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.

In that article someone asks “How do they reconcile the fall of their civilization? Do they know their time will run out?” Here’s my answer to that.

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.

And just to have all the information about time-traveling sphinxes in one place, here’s what else I said.

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 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.

So, let’s look back to the original question… If you had to place Sphinx-lantis anywhere in Your Eberron, where do you think it would be and why? The answer is simple: It was in a place that no longer exists. This comes back to the idea that it simply isn’t possible for the sphinxes to somehow save it. The overlords ripped their way out of Khyber and they can shape reality with their power. It’s not just a matter so splitting previous continents, though I think that definitely happed. Consider the overlord Ran Iishiv, the Unmaker. It seeks to tear down reality itself, and in the Age of Demons it was free to express that desire; in my opinion, large chunks of whatever existed before were completely destroyed by Ran Iishiv, and that’s just ONE of the overlords. This comes back to the observation in the original article that there are no traces of a sphinx civilization… in my opinion, it’s just one of the pieces of the world that Ran Iishiv unmade while earning that title. There may be TRACES of Sphinxlantis that have somehow survived, but I think they would be more likely to be artifacts than structures.

A second key point is that in my opinion, Sphinxlantis was just one of the civilizations that existed in the past. So what other creatures were around? For starters, dragons and titans. Dragons are said to have emerged from the blood of Siberys falling upon Eberron; they were there at the start. You could use this to play with some of the “First World” ideas, if you want. However, in my opinion “modern” dragon civilization has absolutely nothing in common with the Sphinxlantis-era dragons—whatever civilization existed at the dawn of time were completely annihilated by the Age of Demons. Rak Tulkhesh and Tol Kharash set existing civilizations against one another in brutal wars, while Eldrantulku and Bel Shalor tore them apart from within. The Wild Heart and the Heart of Winter devastated civilizations with the horrifying potential of nature, while Ran Iishiv simply annihilated them. And dragons themselves would be subsumed by the Daughter of Khyber. Again, these are just a few of the overlords and they dominated the world for millions of years… it’s no surprise that little remains. With that said… who else could have existed? Frankly, anyone. Dragons and titans are sure things. But given the role of the Ghaash’kala, it’s quite possible that orcs existed at the dawn of time and survived through the Age of Demons. I’ve joked about the people of the Five Nations attributing Dhakaani ruins to some lost human civilization… but if it suits the story you want to tell, you could say that there was a human civilization in Sphinxlantis, something far more advanced than the present day. A truly odd idea is that the sphinxes were products of a primordial human civilization. Rather than saying that in the past you had sphinx families sitting around a table together at Sphinxsgiving, it could be that the sphinxes were created by the people of Sphinxlantis AS time travelers—that the reason their eldritch machines can’t be used by others is because the sphinxes themselves essentially ARE eldritch machines. You can explore this idea whether or not you use humans as their creators.

Another thing I’d consider: If the myths are accurate, Sphinxlantis predates both the Sovereign Host and the Silver Flame. Earlier I suggest that the divine spellcasting sphinxes may engage more directly with the Progenitors. This ties to something I suggested in my Siberspace campaign—that LILENDS are children of Siberys. There’s some broad similarities between lilends and sphinxes, both blending humanoid and animal features. It could be that the shape of the sphinx is a reflection of a connection to Siberys (though they ARE mortal, not celestial)… or it could be that the people of Sphinxlantis created the sphinxes in partial emulation of lilends and other celestials. In any case, because Sphinxlantis predates the Silver Flame, they would have had more interaction with individual native celestials—couatls, lilends, and more.

Why Does This Matter?

A key question in deciding why this matters depends on the motivation of the Sphinxes, and I presented some options in this article. Do the sphinxes have a mission? Are they paving the way for a new Sphinxlantis to be born in the distant future? Are they playing a cosmic chonological game with one another? Is there actually a secret war being waged between the divine spellcasting sphinxes and the arcane spellcasting sphinxes? Or are they ultimately just tourists, stretching out the final days of their civilization by living out their lives in other times and watching the world that takes their place?

Aside from the sphinxes themselves, one reason this matters is because it is an excellent source of artifacts. Part of the whole point of time traveling sphinxes is that they are more advanced than any modern civilization, including Argonnessen. The certainly had a closer relationship with the native celestials, and may have had a closer relationship with the Progenitors themselves. And any object that has survived from the dawn of time would HAVE to be powerful and virtually indestructible. So this is an excellent origin point for artifacts that are incredibly powerful but have no connection to any known civilization—artifacts that could do ANYTHING.

Typing this, another thought occurs to me. I’ve said that the sphinxes could have had a different relationship with the Progenitors. That could include Khyber. If I wanted to explore a story that deals with the Progenitors as actual, concrete entities I might consider the idea that Sphinx civilization is older than the world itself—that rather than being created BY the Progenitors, the sphinxes could have come to this reality WITH the Progenitors. In this concept, they aren’t celestials because they’re older than the celestials. Though again, this is as a civilization—any individual sphinx is mortal, so it’s not like Flamewind is older that Eberron, but her people were. This could be one reason that they aren’t fighting the destruction of Sphinxlantis… because some among them honor Khyber and believe that Khyber deserved an opportunity to express their vision on reality, at least for a time.

Again, it’s important to me to say that we don’t know if the Progenitors were real or if the creation myth is just a metaphor. But part of the point is that if it is a metaphor, it may be a metaphor in which the reality we know was created not by cosmic dragons but by three immensely powerful mortal individuals—potentially, members of the same civilization as the Sphinxes. I say this in the same way I suggest multiple possible causes for the Mourning: because the answer depends on the story you want to tell. If sphinxes are survivors of the first civilization, THEY may know the true nature of the Progenitors… and may have been their servants, creations, or peers.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading and thanks to my patrons for making these articles possible. Also, every month I run an Eberron game and any of my patrons at the $6 Threshold level can apply to play in it… and I’m just setting the time for the December game now. So if that sounds interesting, check out my Patreon!

15 thoughts on “IFAQ: Sphinxlantis

  1. With what you were saying about Ran Iishiv, could they be a source for the Sphere of Annihilation magical item?

    • Certainly. A sphere of annihilation could be a portal to Ran Iishiv’s Heart Demiplane…

  2. Thanks, Keith.

    I know we have gotten scant information on sphinxes in Eberron beyond Flamewind, like the loquasphinx mentioned in Tome of Magic, but if they are a small contingency of a hundred or so, that makes a lot of sense.

    I have used a few recurring sphinxes in my games, Tale-of-Woe was an androsphinx with a manticore tail and Uqo the Southern Oracle was based off the concept of the similar sphinx oracles in Neverending Story.

  3. Do you think that the Sphinxes could have some connection to the Time Dragons introduced in the latest Planescape book?

  4. Thanks for the great article on sphinxes, Keith! I love sphinxes, and now there are two whole articles on them.

    I’m not sure yet if I would go this route, but another possible explanation for the disappearance of sphinxes is that the pre-Age of Demons dragons decided to wipe them out. Maybe they were jealous of Sphinxlantis’ magic. But that would have been the first time dragons set about conquering someone, and it could have led to the Daughter of Khyber and the other Overlords being released for the first time.

  5. The Sphinxes, essentially, could be the Ancients of Stargate lore, while (current) Argonnessen is the Goa’uld or Asgard; both have incredibly powerful technology and access to resources far beyond human(oid)kind… but the Sphinxes’ tech is something you’d find in an Argonnessen dragon’s lair and they’re trying to figure it out much as the party’s artificer is wondering where the power supply for the anti-scry shield covering this lair is.

    • Sphinxlantis stuck in a time loop al a Window of Opportunity to avoid a calamity but the city is unaware of it. Just made me think of the gatebuilders.

  6. Interesting as always, thank you for continue to write these fascinating insights into Eberron for us.

    • Now I can’t stop thinking of the sphinxes as a civilization like the Great Race of Yith from Lovecraft. Thanks for the inspiring ideas and thoughts. Now I want to start a campaign with the time travel theme. 🙂

      Cheers, Marcus

  7. The power of the Unmaker and the potential for it to completely erase whole civilizations is a great source of ‘vanished’ technology/magic that seems totally out of place to the ‘modern’ world’s understanding of such things – i.e., artifacts.

    Such an interpretation reminds me of the “Three Spheres Cataclysm” from the Exalted game. One of the Primordial creators of the world, known as “She Who Lives in Her Name”, the Principle of Hierarchy, was composed of 100’000 crystal spheres. When she was defeated by the gods, she hurled three of her spheres into the world – annihilating 90% of Creation down to a CONCEPTUAL level. So the world from the first age would have things that are incomprehensible to the people of the current age who dwell only in a ruined remnant – not that they realise it.

    The point is that “The Age of Dragons” that predates “the Age of Demons” could have been seriously *weird*, with the world still ‘settling’ after the time of creation. Potentially the ‘blood of Siberys’, the major source of arcane magic, might not have stabilised in the way it has in the Modern Age: strange magic or technologies could be based on its principles. The laws of ‘physics’ themselves could have been fluid, allowing enduring constructions and devices like the works of the Dwemer in the Elder Scrolls/Skyrim made by manipulating the ‘Earth Bones’ – the divine underpinnings of reality.

    The Sphinxes abilities might thus be tied to unique features of this vanished time.

    • The power of the Unmaker and the potential for it to completely erase whole civilizations is a great source of ‘vanished’ technology/magic that seems totally out of place to the ‘modern’ world’s understanding of such things – i.e., artifacts.

      Absolutely. For many people this may be deep lore that’s too obscure to be useful. But for me, it’s fun to consider just how dramatic the Age of Demons was and what was lost in it. Again, you don’t get the be called “The Unmaker” without unmaking things.

      If you accept the idea that the Sovereign myths are based on the actual deeds of ancient heroes, an interesting possibility is that the “ascension of the Sovereigns” is actually a flawed description of something else. What if those first champions had to transition to another form of existence to repair flaws in the cosmological architecture of reality damaged during the Age of Demons? If Ran Iishiv and the other overlords unraveled part of reality and the Sovereigns had to patch it with their sacrifice? Which could make an interesting epic endgame for a group of adventurers, if they have to become the new Sovereigns…

  8. Well, *that’s* moved D&D sphinxes from “boring as dirt” to “I need to run this campaign.” I’d love to play one somehow!

  9. Given the time traveling nature of the sphinxes, Sphinxlantis could very much be a future from the end of time where the world has the bad ending.

    • In the original article I suggest that it could be both; that Sphinxlantis began at the beginning of time, but that the are manipulating events to set up New Sphinxlantis in the distant future.

Comments are closed.