The enigmatic sphinxes are closely related, yet diverse in appearance, intellect, and personality. All combine a lion’s body, a falcon’s wings, and a head of some other species. The most intelligent and powerful of the species sport humanoid heads—either male or female. The two types of humanoid-headed sphinxes are, in fact, separate races, not merely separate genders. These humanoid-headed races are often called androsphinxs and gynosphinxes, terms many sphinxes consider demeaning. Lesser sphinxes have the heads of beasts and are invariably male; the most commonly encountered are the ram-headed criosphinxes and the savage, falcon-headed criosphinxes. Sphinxes deny any common ancestry with other leonine hybrids such as griffins and manticores, let alone celestial beings like lammasus, and find such lines of conversation distasteful.
Sphinxes prefer warm desert climes and the hills nearby, both for the comforting warmth and the pleasant solitude. The more intelligent sphinxes have contrary social natures, alternately craving conversation and isolation as the mood strikes them. Indeed, a bored or irritated sphinx often takes leave in the midst of discussion, or perhaps slays and devours its petitioners out of sheer annoyance.
While sphinxes as a race are not truly immortal, they are fantastically long-lived, save for the violent hieracosphinxes, who rarely survive their second decade. Unless slain by accident, violence, or misadventure, other sphinxes seem to pass on only when they have at last wearied of living and will themselves to die. The older a sphinx is, the less it needs consume. The oldest of sphinxes dine perhaps once per century, making them ideal guardians for monuments, temples, and tombs.
Sphinxes prefer to converse in their own tongue, but most speak the languages of humans and dragons as well. Addressing a sphinx in its own language with all due politeness and deference goes a long way to ensure peaceful conversation. All sphinxes save hieracosphinxes enjoy stimulating conversation, though for such long-lived creatures their memory for detail is sadly lacking. In some cultures, “a mind like a sphinx” serves as a sarcastic alternative to “scatter-brained.”
Though sphinxes have a reputation for loving riddles, in truth, only gynosphinxes truly enjoy them. Androsphinxes prefer lofty philosophical discussions, while criosphinxes prefer worldly topics or fawning praise. Hieracosphinxes rarely converse at all, and respond only to threats from creatures more powerful than they are.
Neighboring humanoids generally adopt a policy of avoiding local sphinxes, as the creatures grow increasingly irritable each time their solitude is invaded. Even so, once a sphinx’s lair is known, it can expect a steady flow of visitors in search of the fabled wisdom of its race. Some sphinxes move to quieter abodes once the interruptions become too much to bear; others devour a few of the more irritating supplicants until the visits cease.
Sphinxes have peculiar breeding habits, contributing in no small part to their scarcity and the strange diversity of their species. Indeed, matters of mating occupy much of the thoughts of all of the sphinxes save the prudish androsphinxes. The female gynosphinxes have nothing but scorn for animal-headed sphinxes, craving only the attentions of the masculine androsphinxes. For their part, androsphinxes consider petty rutting a waste of time and energy, both of which are better spent on loftier pursuits than the fleeting pleasures of the flesh. Criosphinxes and hieracosphinxes alike lust after gynosphinxes. The former abase themselves and attempt to curry favor with lavish gifts. Hieracosphinxes scorn any such civilized gestures, and mate by force on the rare occasions they have a female at their mercy.
From these rare couplings, two to four sphinxes of any type may be born, regardless of the breed of the parents. Instead, the nature of the coupling itself influences the species of the resulting offspring. From those rare matings engendered by love or respect, androsphinxes and gynosphinxes are born. Those couplings motivated by carnal lust or selfish urges most often produce criosphinxes. Hieracosphinxes come from acts of hate and violence, and their disgusted mothers quickly abandon them to the mercy of the elements, lest the young turn against them. Of all the males, only the criosphinx willingly helps rear its own young, often as part of the bargain for mating in the first place. People of the desert sometimes honor the sphinx’s form by crafting great stone sphinxes, often bearing the faces of their own rulers and nobles. Legend holds the first such monuments were modeled on the eldest and greatest of sphinxes, paragons of knowledge and wisdom far larger in size than any common sphinx. The oldest and largest of these sphinxes settled into the desert sands when at last they tired of immortality, and as they passed into their final sleep, their bodies became as sandstone.
These elder sphinxes may be androsphinxes or gynosphinxes, or very rarely criosphinxes. They have at minimum the advanced template, many additional Hit Dice, and a size of at least Huge (and more often Gargantuan or Colossal). They can use commune, contact other plane, and legend lore as spell-like abilities once each per day (CL equals the sphinx’s CR), and frequently possess other powers and special attacks. Many such sphinxes can enter a state of stony suspended animation that resembles the freeze special ability, though they cannot easily rouse themselves from such slumber. Other sphinxes, even the bestial hieracosphinxes, defer to elder sphinxes in all matters, treating them almost as gods.
The creatures that other races collectively refer to as sphinxes are actually four very different races of magical beasts, all of which are intelligent creatures with the bodies of lions, the wings of birds of prey, and the heads of some other species. Though separate and often resentful of the other types, these strange and single-gendered species exist in a strange form of symbiosis, requiring one another to mate and propagate their line.
The most common and intelligent breeds of sphinxes are the gynosphinxes and the androsphinxes-designations the sphinxes themselves find rude and demeaning, yet which nevertheless remain useful labels for other non-sphinx creatures. Both of these creatures are easily distinguished from their lesser brethren by their heads, which resemble those of female and male humans, respectively.
Androsphinxes are the most powerful of sphinxes, and take this role seriously, seeing themselves as paragons of nobility committed to upholding justice and truth, so that the rest of the world may follow their shining example. Though gruff and curmudgeonly, making no effort to hide their disdain for those of lesser ability or tarnished morality, they prefer to give plenty of warning before attacking those who enter their territories, and may even be convinced to ensure safe passage for travelers in exchange for valuable information. They have a particular fondness for philosophy, ethics, and other high-minded, intellectual topics of debate. Gynosphinxes, though slightly less powerful than their male counterparts-and decidedly less committed to the path of justice and righteousness-are equally impressive creatures, with intellects that dwarf those of most human scholars (and even those of the androsphinxes). Gynosphinxes are beautiful even by human standards, with perfect heads above breasts covered in tawny fur, which quickly give way to slender leonine bodies. While androsphinxes love philosophy, gynosphinxes are more concerned with logic and inference, particularly when it comes to puzzles and riddles. A fiercely territorial gynosphinx may allow travelers to survive a visit to her domain-or even barter her own precious stores of information-in exchange for insight into a particular conundrum or subject of interest. Such obsessions are the cornerstone of gynosphinxes’ personalities, and the fervor with which a gynosphinx pursues a particular puzzle is often completely out of proportion to its utility or significance.
The ram-headed criosphinx is no more evil than the temperamental gynosphinx, yet its lesser intelligence-still equal to a bright humanoid’s-makes it an object of general scorn or paternalistic condescension to its human-headed counterparts. Always male, criosphinxes are similarly lessened in their fellows’ eyes by their excessive lust, both for gynosphinxes (when available) and for material wealth. Rather than hoarding knowledge or solving intellectual problems, a criosphinx obsessively accumulates wealth, relinquishing its treasure only when doing so might bring it some new puzzle capable of overcoming a gynosphinx’s disdain long enough to allow mating. When engaged in conversation, criosphinxes prefer to talk of worldly matters, or simply accept copious amounts of fawning praise.
Finally, the hieracosphinx is a falcon-headed terror, universally despised by its kindred. Brutish and wrathful, the exclusively male hieracosphinxes have all the territorial urges of their fellows with none of the mitigating qualities, and actively go out of their way to avenge the persecution they face from other types of sphinxes by savaging anyone who crosses their paths, rarely bothering to speak. All sphinxes are powerful fighters, and except for the hieracosphinx, generally forgo aerial combat in favor of fighting on the ground. The good and neutral breeds generally prefer to avoid fighting entirely, and if they can frighten off intruders through intimidation, so much the better. A sphinx who has a duty to fulfill, however, will frequently fight to the death to discharge it.
Sphinxes of all breeds are known in stories and legends as guardians of great treasures, secrets, and sacred places, and there’s much truth to these claims, though each of the races guards such things for its own reasons-whether altruism, greed, entertainment, or fear of a more powerful master. As a result, many places hiding treasures or secrets that don’t have an actual sphinx guarding them use sphinxes in their decorations. Keeping a sphinx on guard duty is often expensive, either in treasure or in inventiveness-a gynosphinx without something mentally challenging to work on rapidly becomes bored, and bored sphinxes are dangerous. Despite sphinxes’ relative rarity, especially outside of their chosen deserts and arid hills, stories of their exploits are common enough that most folk who encounter one know at least the basics of how to act around them: polite, pleasant, and perceptive.
Sphinxes originated in desert climes and prefer dry environments; they are generally found living in warm deserts, plains, and hills. Though carnivores, nonevil sphinxes never kill sentient creatures solely for food (like most people of the desert, however, they see little reason for waste; sphinxes may thus snack on a foe killed for legitimate and unrelated reasons). They tend to hunt large game animals, which they then fly back to their lairs so as not to have to share with scavengers. Sphinxes love raw meat and the thrill of the kill, even though it is sometimes at odds with their basically civilized instincts and natures.
Sphinxes are much larger than the lions they resemble, and with their wings look bigger still. They live for a very long time, and in fact it’s believed by some that unless a sphinx is slain through accident, violence, or other means, the only way for a sphinx to die is for it to grow bored with life and actively will its own death. Even more interesting is the fact that the longer a sphinx lives, the less it needs to consume, with the oldest sphinxes eating perhaps no more than once per century-another trait that makes them uniquely well suited as guardians of hidden places.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of sphinx life is their mating habits. Deadly serious in their insistence that the various types are separate races rather than merely aspects of the same creature, sphinxes nevertheless require each other to mate-or rather, the three male variants all require gynosphinxes in order to procreate. Gynosphinxes, for their part, seek solely the companionship of androsphinxes, who despite their own desires often try to hold themselves above such worldly concerns as procreation. Those criosphinxes who manage to mate with a gynosphinx inevitably do so by offering some knowledge or puzzle the gynosphinx desires, or by agreeing to help raise the offspring (a duty even the high-minded androsphinx ignores). A hieracosphinx mates only on those rare occasions when he can capture and disable a gynosphinx long enough to force himself upon her.
From these unions, a gynosphinx gives birth to two to four sphinxes, whose types depend on the circumstances of their conception. Matings of love and respect produce androsphinxes and gynosphinxes, while lust or selfish urges produce criosphinxes. Hieracosphinxes come from acts of hate and violence, and gynosphinxes who carry these abominations quickly abandon them, lest the wrathful progeny attack their own mothers.
While many other creatures, from lammasus and shedus to griffons and manticores, have forms similar to those of sphinxes, the mere mention of such similarities-let alone the insinuation that sphinxes might be related to other beasts-is viewed by the sphinxes as insulting in the highest degree.
In the wild, sphinxes lair in warm, dry caves or intact rooms in ruins. Unless there is something worth guarding, sphinxes prefer to stay close to the outside, especially along cliffs and near other wide open spaces that allow them room to fly. The older a sphinx gets, the more sedentary it becomes, until the oldest sphinxes barely move at all except when necessary. Many legends have arisen around this fact, and hint that some of the oldest statues of sphinxes may in fact be truly ancient specimens who calcified through magical means.
Sphinxes’ lairs tend to be cluttered affairs. Often a gynosphinx or androsphinx lair will be full of books, papers, and the detritus of various academic pursuits, while a criosphinx’s will be a hoard of anything even mildly valuable, and a hieracosphinx lair will be full of bones and grisly trophies.
Most sphinxes have a mixed relationship with visitors, including those of their own kind. While their fierce territoriality makes them solitary by nature, their need to fuel their obsessions-for wealth, information, and entertainment-makes them far less likely to pounce and kill out of hand, and instead visitors often find themselves milked for any useful knowledge or trinkets they may bring with them. Should a petitioner lack anything of interest, a disappointed sphinx may forget itself long enough to slaughter and devour him. If the visitor brings gifts or can share something interesting, however, the basic fairness of the sphinx often overcomes its territoriality, making the visitor relatively safe. Like the cats they resemble, all breeds of sphinxes can be quick to lose interest or take umbrage, and those who bore or rile a sphinx may have little warning before they reap the unfortunate consequences.
Sphinxes rarely coexist with other monsters and tribes of monstrous humanoids, the exceptions being those occasions when either the group is so interesting as to overcome the sphinx’s natural inclinations, or the group is an inextricable part of whatever location or treasure the sphinx seeks to study or guard. Even in these cases, however, the other creatures quickly learn to give the sphinx its space, staying out of its territory unless absolutely necessary.
Except for the barbaric hieracosphinxes, when two sphinxes cross paths, the exchange is generally polite but tense, with both sides attempting to gain new and useful information while simultaneously engaging in games of intellectual one-upmanship. Brief alliances and collegial relationships may arise, especially when mating is involved, but the sphinxes’ solitary natures inevitably lead them to drift apart before long. More commonly, if two sphinxes seek to work together, it’s via magical correspondence, or messages carried between them by lesser creatures in exchange for scraps of the sphinxes’ vast wealth of knowledge. Though the common portrayal of sphinxes as lovers of riddles and puzzles of all types applies primarily to gynosphinxes, all civilized sphinxes tend to be polymaths, versed in a variety of subjects but masters of none. This is a direct result of sphinxes’ intense but fickle focus, which can lead them to dwell obsessively on a single problem or issue for days or centuries before promptly shifting their attention and ignoring the previous interest almost completely. It’s this scholastic leapfrogging that makes sphinxes repositories of rare and valuable bits of trivia and lore, even given that their various fields of expertise are rarely related or organized in any sensible fashion.
Sphinxes excel as NPCs who dispense advice or information to the party. A sphinx might give the party necessary information in exchange for other knowledge, either because the party’s goals align with its own, or in exchange for a stated task or favor. Sphinxes rarely give something for nothing, however, and earning the key information PCs need to continue their campaign might well send them on a whole new adventure. Alternatively, a sphinx might be the patron of a low-level party, whose early adventures might have to do with fetching the sphinx useful items and intelligence. An adversarial encounter with a sphinx on the road or guarding the entrance to a dungeon is also a timeless classic, and can require the members of a party to solve a puzzle or prove themselves so as to avoid being devoured. (Admittedly, an androsphinx might deeply regret the necessity of such violence, but might well regard it as the honorable thing to do depending on the oaths it has sworn and its understanding of the greater good.)
Sphinxes as enemies present an interesting moral conundrum, as most sphinxes themselves aren’t evil, yet may be guarding something the PCs need (and may find even the most convincing humanitarian pleas less compelling than their own research). PCs who need to get past a sphinx and are unable to persuade it or sneak past it may face the unappealing prospect of laying low a magnificent, intelligent creature that’s only doing its job. The thing the sphinx is guarding could be anything from a secret never meant to be discovered to the lair or weakness of a major villain, and the sphinx may be either a guard of convenience or deeply ideologically committed to its charge. Furthermore, whatever the PCs need may not just be the thing the sphinx is guarding, but the object of its obsession, making the possibility of the sphinx voluntarily relinquishing it totally unthinkable. Either way, negotiations with a sphinx are high-stakes affairs because of the irrevocability of insults (intentional or otherwise) with the prickly creatures.
Finally, it’s possible that the sphinx itself could be the villain of a campaign. Perhaps the sphinx, rather than slipping fully into evil, has instead simply decided that nothing should stand in the way of her research-not even the lives of kidnapped test subjects, or the residents of the town she’s slowly destroying through magical experimentation. Even an evil sphinx-with the exception of the bestial hieracosphinx-is likely to be driven primarily by a desire for knowledge and intellectual challenge. Sphinxes are naturally talkative and charismatic, so conversationally gifted characters might find sphinxes particularly susceptible to being drawn out and tricked into revealing more than they intended.
In Greek mythology, the sphinx was a unique monster who stood at a mountain pass or at the gates of Thebes and asked each passerby her riddle. The riddle was not specified originally, but later became the standard riddle. If the travelers didn’t get her riddle right, the sphinx would devour them. Oedipus answered correctly, and the defeated sphinx killed herself.
The Egyptians had sphinxes as well, but these were generally seen as male and were guardian figures. It was the Egyptians who sculpted sphinxes around their tombs, pyramids, and holy sites, including criosphinxes with the heads of rams and hieracosphinxes with the heads of falcons. In Egypt, the animal heads often symbolized the god who shared that head. It was the Egyptian view of the sphinx that spread through Europe in later times, but with the Greek riddle trait attached. Sphinxlike creatures also existed in many forms in various southeast Asian mythologies-though these have no known connection to the Greek and Egyptian sphinxes. They were later revived in European art during the fifteenth century, and even made their way into Masonic architecture.
Human-headed sphinxes’ treasure hoards predominantly consist of magic items and rare books of lore, along with other items related to knowledge. A gynosphinx or androsphinx lair usually has at least one bookshelf, and chests, shelves, and furniture are piled with folios, scrolls and manuscripts. Such lairs may also contain a fair amount of coinage, gems, and art objects as well, but these sphinxes tend to trade these things for new intellectual or magical curios as soon as they can. Criosphinxes, on the other hand, hoard anything that might possibly be of value, which makes their lairs a combination of treasure trove and refuse heap-there may be priceless gems and sacks of coins within a criosphinx’s hoard, but adventurers may find themselves sifting through pounds of cheap silver cutlery and mountains of copper coins in order to find them.
A sphinx’s library usually contains works on an eclectic mix of subjects, and it is a rare sphinx who has fewer than 10 subjects represented. The sphinx’s current project is likely to dominate, with relevant texts and diagrams splayed across walls, floors, and furnishings. Because of their long lifespans, most sphinxes acquire a fair bit of wealth over the years, and their obsessions make them eager to buy anything related to their current pursuits at vastly inflated prices-a habit that may prove useful to adventuring PCs. It should be noted, however, that despite most sphinxes’ relative disregard for gold, any sphinx who comes to believe he or she has been cheated is likely to come looking for vengeance.
The tradition of riddle-loving sphinxes stems from ancient Greece, where the original riddle asked of Oedipus by the sphinx was, “Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?” The answer, which Oedipus correctly guesses, is “Man-who goes on all fours as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and uses a cane as an old man.”
Another, less common riddle attributed to this same sphinx is, “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first.” In this case, the sphinx is alluding to day and night (both of which are feminine words in Greek).
While both of these riddles are already well known, listed below are a few more classic riddles sphinxes might employ in your game.
“Here there is no north, nor west nor east, and weather unfit for man or beast.” (The North Pole.)
“Each morning I lie at your feet, all day I follow no matter how fast you run, yet I nearly perish in the midday sun.” (Your shadow.)
“There are four brothers. The first runs and never wearies. The second eats and is never full. The third drinks and is always thirsty. The fourth sings a song that is never good.” (Water, fire, earth, and wind.)