Monster Spotlight: Githzerai

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Today we have a race of psychic alien monks, and there is nothing about that sentence that isn’t awesome…

Today we venture deep into the evershifting chaos of Limbo, where amidst all of the chaos and…uh…shifting, I guess…there stands a citadel of harmony, order, peace, and stability. There, the chaos is held at bay by the sheer will and belief of the psychic monks and scholars who dwell within, which requires immense concentration. Even a moment’s distraction might allow chaos to flood in and all manner of monsters to storm the walls. Should…are we really gonna drag one of these guys away from their meditation and into the spotlight?

What could possibly go wrong?

Githzerai are a race of psychic alien kung-fu monks. They are quite possibly one of my favorite alternate PC races of all time, and their days in D&D lore go all the way back to the time before the Return of the Jedi. That’s right, the year is 1981, and Charles Stross, inspired by a name taken from the George R.R. Martin novel Dying of the Light has created a race called the Gith (well the Githyanki, but their name just means followers of Gith) who throw off the shackles of the Illithid (for more info on this see the excellently titled The Illithiad), and in their ensuing revolt not only acquired their name, but a lifelong blood feud with a divergent race–the Githzerai.

Githzeree, Githzerai, Githzeree Githzerah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah

Though they were both offshoots of the same initial thrall race, the two diverged wildly. It all starts with the rebellion of Gith–a piece of D&D Lore that is kind of off to the side from any of the main stuff, and most people’s encounter with it might be nothing more than, “these two races hate each other” but has so much lore packed into it.

Gith was a member of the original thrall species–it was she who led the rebellion of her kin against the mind flayers. And owing to their latent psychic talents/magic resistance, their rebellion was successful. This was also in part due to the aid of Zerthimon, another  of Gith’s species. The two were both leaders and warriors.

A great deal of this story is expanded in Planescape: Torment (aka one of the best CRPGs of all time and you should go play it right now)–that game introduces Dak’kon, who really helped cement how I picture Githzerai. You can learn a lot from him in dialogue–but he also carries an item called the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon–a sort of circular stone puzzle box that, as you unlock it, reveals the wisdom/teachings of Zerthimon.

There is some fantastic lore there, and if you really want to dive deep into Githzerai Lore, you can find the whole thing written up here. But the part of interest to this particular story talks about the aftermath of their victory:

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.

Basically Gith wants to continue killing and conquering, taking death not just to the Illithids in their far flung outposts, but to everything across the planes. Which worried Zerth, because he was starting to think that the reason they were able to defeat the Illithids was because the Illithids did not know themselves, having lost sight of their goals for dominion and conquest. Gith isn’t having any of this, and demands they fall in line:

 “We must be under the same sky in this matter.

Zerthimon responds with

There cannot be two skies.

And then, BOOM Blood War 2: This time it’s even MORE personal (blood wars were a big thing in 2nd Edition–you had the tana’ari and the ba’atezuu as well).

But let’s leave that for now, and jump back to their first edition days, when they both appeared adjacent to each other in the Fiend Folio.

1st edition Githzerai are much more physically distinct than their Githyanki counterparts. They have less of that ‘vaguely undead but not quite’ look, instead having big oval heads with hooked noses (the noses would vanish later). They are described as being weaker, physically, than the Githyanki, but making up for it with magic resistance–a hardy 50% in this edition. They are generally encounered in raiding parties, and, like their counterparts, are also known for having a high number of fighter/mages in their ranks.

2nd edition Githzerai are much the same as before. Their attacks are the same, though there are more details on how to build them with the class and level combinations that suit them (4 in all, fighter, fighter/mage, mage, and thief). They just exist in living color now. At least until Planescape comes along.

Planescape really changed the game for these guys. Here they gain their homeland–they live in the chaos of limbo, in fortress-monasteries where the Githzerai hold the tides of chaos at bay through will alone. Additionally we get a little more detail about daily life for the Githzerai (which would be expanded on in the Illithiad) and it gives them their trademark look as well.

3rd edition Githzerai got a little bit of a rework. Again adopting the vaguely alien look of the Planescape Githzerai, they’re presented as much more monastic. That weird hooded shirt look from 1st edition evolves into awesome looking hooded garb that speak of their finesse and fighting prowess. The standard Githzerai is presented as a monk with certain psionic spell-like abilities, including feather fall and inertial armor, which was basically like Mage Armor, but sounded more psionic.

4th edition Githzerai benefitted greatly from the design philosophy that ruled in those days. There were several variants, which made for more dynamic encounters. Githzerai could deliver devastating blows, or could teleport enemies (or themselves) around–or they could dedicate their willpower to landing stunning strikes or attacks that would auto-crit if they hit.

5th edition Githzerai are a return to form. Blending elements of their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition counterparts–they are psionic adepts, the standard githzerai presented is a monk that can cast a few spell-like abilities as well as dealing psychic damage with every strike. We also get a look at a Zerth–a powerful monk who can cast higher-level spells like phantasmal killer and does even more psychic damage with his fists. In this edition, the Githzerai are masters of will, and monastic–the story as it has been expanded is briefly clarified, but it’s always been one of the more interesting throughlines of the game, so it’s left largely unchanged.

There you have it. A fascinating race of psychic kung-fu aliens. They make perfect allies, rivals, outright foes, or even player characters.

Now that you *know* the Githzerai, perhaps you will *know* yourself…

  • af

    I share the love for Dak’kon, the Githzerai (and Githyanki) races, and especially for Planescape: Torment. But correct me if I’m wrong: isn’t much of the story about Zerthimon and the origin of the Githzerai, as told in the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon, more or less a lie that the evil incarnation of the Nameless One told Dak’kon in order to recruit him for his own purposes? How much of it is actually true, beyond Gith defeating the Illithids, which is confirmed elsewhere in D&D lore?

    • af

      I mean this (taken from the torment wikia):

      [the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon] was given to Dak’kon by the Practical Incarnation after having saved the githzerai at Shra’kt’lor. It is revealed during the short conversation that the Practical Incarnation actually created the disc himself.

  • Vepr

    Good stuff as always.