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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Githzerai

The githzerai are a classic D&D "monster", the enemies of the githyanki. I usually describe them to my players as "kung fu alien monks". Generally, the githyanki are used a lot more than the githzerai in D&D adventures. Githyanki ride red dragons, they are ruled by a lich-queen, and they are always waging war - they make great villains.

Their rivals, the githzerai, don't grab you in the same way. They are thoughtful monks, masters of psionics. It's harder to come up with cool things to do with them. But once I played Planescape: Torment, I had a whole new appreciation for them through the githzerai character, Dak'kon. I would say that Dak'kon is one of the best NPCs I have ever come across in a computer game. Through him, you get an appreciation of the depth of the githzerai lore.

I am going to run down what we know about the githzerai from published D&D products. Then at the end of this article, I am going to write a bit about what Planescape: Torment revealed about the githzerai, which in my opinion shows you how to use the githzerai in a compelling manner.

This is the Story of Gith and Zerthimon

All editions tell the same origin story, each with slight differences. The githyanki and githzerai were once a single race (the gith forerunners, detailed in the classic supplement "The Illithiad"). They were slaves to mind flayers. A slave named Gith started a rebellion, and she lead the slaves in defeating their mindflayer masters.

Once her people were free, Gith wanted to lead her people on to further war. Another of her kind, named Zerthimon, did not. In some editions, this dispute led to Gith slaying Zerthimon. In the 4th edition account of this event, Zerthimon defeated Gith in a duel and spared her life.

Whatever the outcome, there was a split. Zerthimon took his people, the githzerai, to the chaotic plane of Limbo. Gith led her people to the Astral Plane. Since that time, both races have waged war against each other as well as the mind flayers.

That's the basic story. The githyanki are warlike, the githzerai are more contemplative. Both despise the mind flayers.

My Goal: The point of this article is to give DMs a nice foundation of knowledge to work from. If you want to use githzerai in your game, this hopefully will give you a basic idea of what you should know to give your players the "full" and "official" experience. Now, let's go through each edition and see what we can learn about the githzerai.

I am sure there are more D&D products out there with githzerai in them. If I find them, I may come back and update this.

Here's a handy Githzerai Name Generator.

AD&D 1st Edition

The githzerai had their major league debut in the Fiend Folio. The art depicted them with noses. It took me aback when I saw that the githzerai are listed in this book as Chaotic Neutral, as the modern interpretation is that the Chaotic Neutral alignment is for "crazy" people. You'd think they would be Lawful Neutral, which is more befitting of a monk-type.

  • The githzerai live in limbo, co-existing with the frog-like slaadi.
  • They roam the prime material plane and are at war with the githyanki.
  • Githzerai and githyanki are offshoots of the same race that was once enslaved by mind-flayers.
  • They fight with silver swords like the githyanki (!), but they have not developed the "special silver swords".
  • They are ruled by an undying wizard-king who is a 16th level fighter and a 23rd level magic user.
  • They are monastic. Their fortresses on the prime material have adamantite walls and they house about 500 githzerai.
  • They have highly-developed psionic powers.
AD&D 2nd Edition

They are still chaotic neutral and there's a quote that sort of shocks me: "Their skin tone is that of human caucasian flesh".
  • Their silver swords are two-handed swords +3 and are of religious value.
  • They can plane shift to many planes.
  • We are told that when Gith freed them from the mind flayers, the githzerai fell sway to the teachings of a powerful wizard who proclaimed himself king - and later, god - of the people.
  • Githyanki cities in Limbo hold 100,000 githzerai or more.
  • The city of Shra'kt'lor holds 2,000,000 (!). It is where military types plot against the githyanki and the mind flayers.
  • The legend of Zerthimon is explained (see above).
  • The githzerai sometimes form rrakma bands: 30 to 60 githzerai head out into the planes for three months, hunting mind flayers.
Some githzerai are semi-priests of Zerthimon, known as Zerths. Zerthimon is not a god, but rather a historical figure whose teachings the zerths follow. It actually says here that the wizard-king would like to stamp out the legend of Zerthimon. I've never really heard much about this wizard-king.

The Planewalker's Handbook

This book allows 2e players to make a githzerai character. The githzerai have eyes of gray or yellow, and they tend to be somber.

Three Truths: To the githzerai, there are only three truths:
  1. The githyanki and illithids will never be anything but mortal enemies.
  2. They will allow nothing to hinder the survival of their race.
  3. No one will ever enslave them again.
Magic Resistance Backfires: Get a load of this. Because of their always-active magic resistance (5% per level - meaning that if a spell is cast on them, there's a 5% per level chance the spell has no effect) magic items sometimes don't work for githzerai! So when a githzerai character picks up a magic item, there's a 5% chance per level that the item is useless in their hands forever after.

Role-playing Notes: "Everyone you know is a slave - but you won't let the shackles of easy conformity and control wrap their seductive chains around you."

Planes of Chaos

Chaos-Shapers: This boxed set has a section on Limbo, where the githzerai live. It is a place of chaos, but those with a high intelligence score can can create an orderly environment. Someone with an intelligence of 19 can create a stable area 1 mile across!

Those who specialize in this activity are known as anarchs or chaos-shapers. Powerful anarchs can maintain entire cities, even when not fully concentrating.

The Wizard-King: The leader of the githzerai is Zaerith Menar-Ag-Gith - the Great Githzerai. A common githzerai saying: "Better the heartfelt devotion of a free soul than the grudging obedience of a slave."

D&D 3rd Edition

In this edition, the githzerai have a more alien appearance, with slits for noses. They have psionic powers like feather fall, daze and shatter. They can also create inertial armor that gives them a bonus to their armor class. Their alignment is now "Any Neutral".

We get this quote: "The githzerai's history of imprisonment was the foundation of the monastic lifestyle in which all githzerai learn from childhood how to eradicate potential oppressors and enemies (anyone not a githzerai)."

D&D 4th Edition

Hold on tight, there's a ton of githzerai stuff in 4e. This is partly due to the fact that the Elemental Chaos got a lot of attention, and the githzerai live there. Limbo does not exist in the 4e cosmology, so the githzerai moved into a new home. There's a few new types/classes of githzerai...

Githzerai Cenobite: They have a stunning unarmed strike, and they can focus for a round so that they gain a +5 to hit and an auto-crit on their next attack.

Githzerai Mindmage: They fire off mindstrikes, which do psychic damage and daze their targets. They can also unleash concussion orbs once per encounter, that knock people prone.

The githzerai are officially Unaligned! I know some people hated that, but I always liked the Unaligned option as it ended alignment debates at my game table. 

The city of Zerthadlun (new spelling) is described as an austere walled settlement, an oasis of calm where githzerai contemplate order, destiny, entropy and destruction.

Players Handbook 3
This book makes the githzerai a playable race. They speak Deep Speech rather than Gith (4e streamlined the languages).  Male githzerai keep their heads shaved or tonsured and braided. Females wear their long hair close to the head in braids or tight buns.

We also learn that their commitment to asceticism means that they generally disdain displays of wealth and that githzerai live about as long as humans.

Dragon Magazine #378 - Playing Githzerai

This is a giant article by Chris Sims. It covers all the basics, and we learn a few new things.
  • Githyanki means "Children of Gith"
  • Githzerai means "Those who spurn Gith"
Githzerai can meditate and commune with the primal spirits of the world. It is said that Zerthimon meditates forever from within the realm of the spirits, sending his people visions. Some say he might return one day in the form of a mighty spirit.

There's also a paragon path:

Storvakal: A storvakal is a githzerai who meditates in the hopes of leaving the ego behind in exchange for blissful silence. They refer to this as "knowing oneself". They have the power to teleport enemies around, and they can redirect ranged attacks and teleport around.

Manual of the Planes
Life in Limb...err..the Elemental Chaos
Zerthadlun is further detailed in this book. It is a walled city guarded by cenobites, who have taken a vow to obey the community's rules and defend it. They make up 75% of the population and live in communal housing and work in fields.

There are 19 cenobites in Zerthadlun known as The Sustainers. Their job is to meditate and keep the Elemental Chaos at bay. Their retreat is at the exact center of the city.

The Plane Below

This book has quite a bit of information on the githzerai. It mentions a place called the Arsanith monastery, a center of perfect order that is "cloaked from all who are not worthy". Anyone who has found enlightenment is welcome there (even githyanki!).

There is a great sidebar that discusses Zerthimon's fate. It is known that he trained his monks and led the people and then disappeared. Theories:
  • He achieved enlightenment and became an immortal being of pure energy no longer troubled by thoughts of violence against his enemies.
  • Others say he simply died and had a grand funeral.
  • Others say he became a lich and went into hiding, afraid that if this became known, his people would turn away from his teachings. This theory is offensive to githzerai, especially considering that the githyanki are ruled by a lich-queen.
Sanzerathad: A large town in the elemental chaos built on an earthmote at the exact confluence of multiple chaos currents. The effort taken to keep the place from being destroyed is immense. It is said that somewhere on the mote is a room with no doors with something very special inside.

Sanzerathad is ruled by the leaders of two factions:
  • The Blades of Discipline: The protect the physical grounds, patrolling the streets and slaying slaads.
  • The Hands of Order: They spend their time meditating, mentally keeping Sanzerathad from physically crumbling apart.
Liricosa: The only githzerai to acheive true enlightenment. He is a mysterious fellow who wanders the planes with 20 disciples, unfazed by anything. Some think he's actually a creature from the Far Realm in disguise. Each night when he goes to sleep, he tears a page from a book, wets it, and places it on his face.

Dungeon Magazine 160
This issue has an adventure called "Den of the Destroyer", part of the Scales of War adventure path. It's about gnolls living in an old githzerai monastery called Fortress Graystone. Decades ago, the githzerai vanished without a trace.

The fortress has a githzerai mind trap that teleports you around to different chambers, a training room with a waterfall and aqueducts, a meditation hall protected by githzerai psionic echoes. It is a pretty great location for you to base a githzerai outpost on.

The adventure is pretty good, but it didn't have much to do with the Scales of War path, which was annoying.

Dungeon Magazine 164

The Siege at Akma'ad
Another Scales of War adventure features githzerai. It is Haven of the Bitter Glass, probably one of the best 4e adventures ever written.

It's a complicated story, but basically the githyanki are working with Tiamat to kill Bahamut. The githzerai oppose them.

There's some NPCs in this who were pretty popular with my group, including Tokk'it (also known as "Hot Tokk'it"). This adventure kicks off with the heroes having a huge airship fight against the githyanki, and then they go on to help defend a githzerai fortress called Akma'ad against a githyanki siege.

They meet a blind githzerai monk named Odos who drinks a lot of fekk - a githzerai hard liquor. He is dour, pessimistic and suspicious. Check out this flavor:

This is an awesome adventure.

D&D 5th Edition

The githzerai are back in Limbo. "Under the teachings of Zerthimon, who called on his people to abandon the warlike ambitions of Gith, the githzerai focused their mental energy on creating physical and psychic barriers to protect them from attack, psychic or otherwise."

On Zerthimon: "Although Gith won her people's freedom, Zerthimon saw her as unfit to lead. He believed that her warmongering would soon make her a tyrant no better than the mind flayers."

They are lawful neutral. At last!

Planescape: Torment

In the game Planescape: Torment, you meet a githzerai named Dak'kon. Through lengthy conversations with him, you can learn a lot of githzerai lore. There are three main things that I think you should use for your game:
  • Githzerai sayings.
  • The Karach (the githzerai's answer to the githyanki silver sword)
  • The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon: The bible of Zerthimon, basically. Yes, the game writes the whole thing out.
Githzerai Sayings:

Things your githzerai should say:
  • Githzerai always talk about knowing, truly *knowing* things and places: "The city exists, but it does not know itself. In not knowing itself, its existence is flawed."
  • Farewell: "Endure - In enduring, grow strong."
  • Somber declaration: "In Zerthimon's name."
  • There can be no compromise on this: "There cannot be two skies" (this is a reference to what Zerthimon told Gith after the rebellion).
  • If someone hits on you: "Is it your will that our two paths become one?"
  • None of your beeswax: "Our history does not need to be made known to you. We would bleed to death on time's blade before I recited a fraction of the histories of our people."
  • What the githzerai do in Limbo: "There, we mold the matter of Limbo with our minds. We forge cities with our thoughts. In its chaos we dwell, with only our *knowing* to preserve us. We are the githzerai."

 The Karach:

This is the githzerai's answer to the infamous silver swords of the githyanki. These weapons are wielded by zerths. The karach is a two-pronged blade, made of some metal whose surface swirls like a film of oil on a pond. The blade shifts with the wielder's temperament.

So, if someone says something your githzerai doesn't like: The weapon suddenly turns a flat black, mirroring the githzerai's icy glare.

Talking to Dak’kon in the game reveals that his karach is shaped and sharpened by his mind. Dak’kon’s blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The Karach is a status symbol, a window to the soul and a companion. As said in the game:

"It is a mirror that reflects the will of the wielder on its surface and in its edge. When one knows themselves, the blade is strong - harder and stronger than steel. When one does not know themselves, the blade is as water - formless and weak."

In the game, the karach has three forms:
  1. Low: "Kinstealer"
  2. Middle: "Chained"
  3. High: "Streaming"
The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon

This is a round stone made up of a series of interlocking circles that fold out from one another. As you open the stone like a puzzle, text is revealed - the teachings of Zerthimon. From what I can tell, their are eight "circles" to master.

The game actually writes out all eight circles! The entire teaching of Zerthimon. I have re-typed one circle here as I think it gives you a ton of insight into how to make a githzerai work. This story is about Zerthimon's time as a slave of the mindflayers, farming on a field full of githzerai corpses (the mindflayers had sucked the brains out of their skulls).

The Second Circle of Zerthimon:

"Know that flesh cannot mark steel. Know that steel may mark flesh. In knowing this, Zerthimon becomes free.

Know that the tentacled ones were of flesh. They relied on the flesh and used it as tools for their will. One of the places where flesh served their will was the Fields of Husks on the False Worlds of the Illithids.

The fields were where the bodies of the people were cast after the Illithids had consumed their brains. When the brain had been devoured, the husks came to be fertilizer to grow the poison-stemmed grasses of the Illithids. Zerthimon worked the fields with no knowing of himself or what he had become. He was a tool of flesh, and the flesh was content.

It was upon these fields that Zerthimon came to know the scripture of steel. During one of the turnings, as Zerthimon tilled the fields with his hands, he came across a husk whose brain remained within it. It had not been used as food. Yet it was dead.

The thought that the husk had died a death without serving as food for the illithids was a thought Zerthimon had difficulty understanding. From that thought came a desire to know what had happened to the husk.

Embedded in the skull of the husk was a steel blade. It had pierced the bone. Zerthimon realized that was what had killed the husk. The steel had marked the flesh, but the flesh had not marked the steel.

Zerthimon took the blade and studied its surface. In it, he saw his reflection. It was in the reflection of the steel that Zerthimon first knew himself. Its edge was sharp, its will the wearer's. It was the blade that would come to be raised against Gith when Zerthimon made the Prounouncement of Two Skies.

It was then that Zerthimon came to know that flesh yielded to steel. In knowing that, he came to know that steel was stronger than the illithids.

Steel became the scripture of the people. Know that steel is the scripture by which the people came to know freedom."

In case you're curious, here's a quick synopsis of the other circles (the first circle is just the basic origin of the githzerai).

Third Circle: An illithid called Arlathii Twice-Deceased suspected Zerthimon of being a rebel. Zerthimon endured punishment - he was placed on the pillars of silence and was tortured.

Fourth Circle: A githzerai called Vilquar saw no freedom in rebellion. He became a spy for the illithids, answering to a mind flayer called Zhijitaris. Zerthimon tricked Vilquar into thinking the rebellion was over. Vilquar's "reward" from Zhijitaris was that his brain was eaten, as his usefulness had come to an end.

Fifth Cycle: Zerthimon joined with Gith in the rebellion.

Sixth Cycle: Gith's rebellion was successful. Once they were free, Gith wanted to keep killing illithids, and then bring war to other races:

"In Gith's heart, fires raged. She lived in war, and in war, she knew herself. All that her eyes saw, she wanted to conquer."

Gith said that Zerthimon must obey her. She said, "We must be under the same sky in this matter."

"From Zerthimon came the Pronouncement of Two Skies. In the wake of his words came war."

You know what the pronouncement was, right? Zerthimon told her: "There cannot be two skies."

Seventh Circle: Time is an ally, not an enemy. Patience can sharpen even the smallest of weapons.

Eighth Circle: There is nothing that can stand against unity. A divided mind is one that does not know itself.

What I got from all of this is that the githzerai are philosophers - they seek to understand why their lives have been so hard.

Dak'kons Story: (spoilers)

It is revealed in the game that after much contemplation, Dak'kon thinks that Zerthimon is a fraud. He believes that, in the third circle story, when Zerthimon was tortured, he broke under the torturing. He did not endure. Zerthimon became a spy for the mind flayers but got lucky - Gith's rebellion succeeded.

Dak'kon suspects that his "god" and his entire religion might be a lie. And so, his karach wavers. He was one of the people in charge of psychically holding back the chaos in a city in Limbo, and because he was weakened due to not *knowing* Zerthimon, the chaos collapsed in on the city and consumed it during a githyanki assault.

How epic is that?

This completes a trilogy of guides for me. Here are the other two:

A Guide to the Githyanki
A Guide to Mindflayers


faoladh said...

The guides have been very pleasing. Thank you.

Is there anywhere that one could find the full text of all eight Circles?

faoladh said...

Why, never mind that request. I just found them, here, here, and here.

Sean said...

faoladh: Awesome, thanks for digging that up!

Patrick Henry Downs said...

I love these guides! Thanks for writing and sharing them.

Sean said...

Patrick Henry Downs: Thanks! The githzerai seem like they could be used more than they are. I would LOVE to see an adventure path all about the conflict between githzerai, githyanki and the mind flayers.