Gith is the name of the legendary "founder" of the various races that inherited her name, all originating as far back as 1st edition AD&D. Since that time, they have proven to be one of the most remarkably well-developed races and story arcs for D&D, with almost every edition either providing additional background for the race, or progressing their story in some way. The only place they do not really appear much (if at all) is in BECMI D&D, which mostly also means they do not appear in the Mystara campaign setting.
None of this is to be confused with the Giff, who might sound almost the same, but who are entirely unrelated.
The actual creation of the githyanki owes, apparently, to no less than George R. R. Martin himself, in his very first novel, "Dying of the Light". (It should come as no shocker that the book is pretty fucking grimdark: it's set in the final days of a dying world where almost every single character dies. Yes, it seems GRRM never met any characters he didn't like killing off before the end of his books...) Anyway, a guy named Charles "Charlie" Stross, a British author who was into space opera and Lovecraftian horror (considerably later, better-known for his excellent Laundry Files series), borrowed the name of the race from GRRM's book, and no shit, he retooled it for his own homebrew AD&D campaign. He submitted it to the ancient White Dwarf magazine as part of their "Fiend Factory" articles for new monsters, and it was selected among other monsters for inclusion in the brand new Fiend Folio. In fact, the githyanki was even selected to be the monster depicted on the cover.
These origins give seem to give some perspective to why gith-folk are consistently one of the better-loved "quirk" races in D&D, both among neckbeards (who love the weird blend of literature, homebrew, and back-porting that made them an official part of the game) and even the newbies (who seem to like having something that breaks a lot of generic fantasy molds, like elves and orcs, which may get overused). Even when fans of D&D hate psionics, it's really not hard at all to simply switch out magic with psionics and keep the rest mostly intact.
The first mention of Gith in the Fiend Folio tells the basic story of her race. According to the story there, the illithids - known at that time only as mind flayers - conquered a population of evil humans "millennia ago" (subjective to whatever the start date of a given game setting is), using them both as slaves and as food. The humans were unable to free themselves for centuries, until they developed their unique powers and strength. At a certain point, a supreme leader named Gith led the rebellion against their captors and freed their people.
The entries in Fiend Folio note that the githyanki and githzerai races split, but doesn't say why or exactly when. Both had mostly full access to the early, very nascent psionics rules (githyanki only lacked Defense Mode J), which is pretty interesting: mind flayers, as listed in the 1st edition Monster Manual, actually had less psionic ability than the gith-folk eventually developed.
- They largely live and fight from strongholds in the Astral Plane, with scouting and raiding into other planes, including the Material Plane, to look for their hated enemies (illithids and githzerai) and take supplies they need. Though they have Material Plane lairs, these are more like outposts than real settlements.
- They have a lich-queen of higher level who destroys any githyanki that levels up to a certain point. In theory, this is to prevent any of them from becoming too powerful to overthrow the lich-queen.
- They use "baroque" armaments of very unusual and alien manufacture. Their signature gear is the silver swords they use in astral combat to sever someone's silver cord (ideally killing someone instantly). There usually two grades of these swords, and they are usually two-handed swords.
- They have a pact with red dragons, which allows them to work together, both for protection and raiding.
- They can have class levels as fighters, magic-users, or "anti-paladins" (basically evil cavaliers). The only multi-class option they can have are as fighter/magic-users called "gish" (which became the origin of the term for fighter/wizard hybrids in future online discussions of such builds).
The githzerai, a splinter faction, isn't given a reason from their split from the githyanki, and are also given a basic background:
- They live in Limbo, in fortress-monasteries they build of various pieces of chaos matter from the plane. They have a metropolis called the Floating City, or the Citadel of Gith. Their Prime Material strongholds are apparently fucking adamantine-walled towers, so... yeah.
- They are ruled by an immortal wizard-king, Zaerith Menyar-Ag-Gith (the Great Githzerai) who also prevents his people from getting too high of a level.
- They use the lesser silver swords, but all their stuff is manufactured pretty plain in construction.
- They have no pact with red dragons, but make up for it with better inherent psionic abilities.
- They also favor fighters and magic-users, but also have a few monks. Their multi-class fighter/magic-users are called "zerths" at this point.
There's not much else from this edition, though Tales from the Outer Planes offers an adventure and a couple of lairs involving the githyanki and githzerai.
Basic "Core" Stuff
They appear first in the Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix (these extras were printed with hole-punched pages so you could add them to a fuckhuge binder with all your Monstrous Compendium stuff in one place), and they get a bit of a concise facelift that reprints a very slightly expands on the previous material. Everything was reprinted in the later Monster Manual (since TSR realized that loose-leaf sheets could get run through a copying machine, and gamers never needed the internet to pirate intellectual property).
The term "githyanki" is noted in 2nd edition to specifically mean "sons of Gith", and it is noted here that while the githyanki gladly fuck with other races and beings, they do not quarrel among themselves. It also lists a number of special groups or castes among them who perform specific tasks: g'lathk (farmers who tend artificial chambers used to grow fungi, plants that don't need sunlight, and aquatic plants in water-gardens); mlar (the mages who use their magic for construction instead of combat); hr'a'cknir (craftsmen who harness astral psychic energy to perform unspecified jobs). Because the cavalier didn't really make the cut to 2nd edition, githyanki "knights" were paladins that used evil-version abilities (detect good, command undead, etc.).
The githzerai got similar details. Their capital city was called Shra'kt'lor here, and the entry provides us with the Legend of Zerthimon. After Gith defeated the mind flayers, Zerthimon opposed her on the grounds that she was a mean, evil bitch. That went about as well as you could expect, leading to actual fighting between those who remained loyal to Gith, and those who felt she was an evil bitch. Zerthimon died, but his faction got away. The githzerai believe that Zerthimon is a divine figure now, and when he comes back like Jesus he's going to gather up the "zerths" (their term for fighter/mages) and lead his people to paradise. Apparently, the wizard-king is not happy with this legend or the religious fervor it creates, since it challenges his authority, but he hasn't been able to get rid of it.
Another tidbit in this early material for githzerai is that while the githyanki are generally militaristic and aggressive, the githzerai prefer to keep to themselves. They do, however, get a nice party together called a "rrakkma", which spends 3 months scouring the planes for illithids to kill; githzerai consider it an honor to participate in these little excursions.
They are noted for having Prime Material strongholds, but no mention of adamantine walls (and seriously, who wouldn't massacre these guys for that much delicious building material), though it does mention that the stronghold's presence destroys the landscape for miles around, possibly due to the extra-planar nature of the building material, or just mages fucking shit up to keep out trespassers. They aren't trying to deliberate mess shit up, though; the strongholds are, apparently, simply to give them a place to stage raids on any githyanki they find on the Prime Material.
Oh, and 2nd edition also notes here that neither gith-folk give a shit about the Blood War; they got illithids and each other to fuck up, no time for messing about with an eternal war involving a bunch of bloodthirsty, lying-ass fiends.
Athasian Gith (Dark Sun)
Later on in the Dark Sun setting, they added a strangely-familiar race called the gith, who were mostly savages with more psionics than magic, and no artificial limit on their levels (i.e. nothing killing them for getting a certain level). The adventure Black Spine gives us the gory details. The githyanki were on Athas thousands of years ago to create a fortress, Yathazor, which would act as a base of operations for their usual raiding and such. They had an advantage, because their plane shift ability was pretty scot-free transport in and out of a generally impregnable area; they even set up a magic barrier that took planar-style keys to get in an out of, making their little stronghold pretty impregnable.
Until, apparently, a githzerai force infiltrated the area, and set off a "psionic devastator" which mind-fucked the githyanki into barbaric idiocy... who became the ancestors of the Athasian gith. (The adventure even offers speculation that this event could have been a trigger for the development of psionics on Athas overall.)
Pirates of Gith (Spelljammer)
The Spelljammer setting gives us one final offshoot of the Gith-folk, the Pirates of Gith. Nothing too fancy here: they're just githyanki that headed for arcane space instead of the Astral Plane. Unfortunately for other space-sailors in the setting, the Pirates of Gith are pretty brutal: they actually have clerics, and all of them can get to level 11 without worrying about some undead bitch destroying them. The way they're described is that they seem a bit more brutal and/or savage than their githyanki cousins, but they know how to fly ships with helms, and their innate magic abilities allow them to do some weird stuff: they can shift elven-crafted spelljamming ships into the Astral Plane. Yes, the whole ship, passengers, and cargo, all at once. They can't fly their ships through the phlogiston with their abilities, though, and they can only plane-hop an elven ship of 50 tons or less. Oh, also, these fuckers are carnivores, and even cannibals as needed, so they're like the Reavers from Firefly only intelligent (have fun introducing your players to that little tidbit).
A Guide To The Astral Plane (Planescape)
Planescape came along and really got down to the brass tacks with a concise history of the Gith-folk. A book in the setting called "A Glimpse Through the Mists" tells that in really ancient times (as in before most Prime Material Plane worlds had been created), the illithids had an empire that covered many Prime worlds (and, given what was mentioned in Spelljammer, most of the crystalline spheres of arcane space) and even had spread into the planes themselves; the illithids were such a threat that it is even the devils and demons of the Blood War stopped a moment to take a hard look at the tentacled assholes. The humans they had enslaved were twisted after an uncounted time into different beings, who had begun to develop psionic powers and martial strength. That's when Gith, the paragon of her kind, rose up a rebellion double-quick and after the fighting was done, there was no more illithid empire to threaten anything on the planes or the Prime Material.
Unfortunately, Gith decided that this meant it was her and her people's time to forge an empire built on conquest. Zerthimon, who had his own following that felt otherwise, challenged her plans and leadership, calling Gith out for being as evil as the bastards that had enslaved them. The civil war killed Zerthimon, saw the githzerai flee to Limbo, and managed to shatter Gith's plans for conquest due to her losses. She withdrew the githyanki ("the children of Gith") to the Astral Plane and set up shop. Eventually, one of her advisers, named Vlaakith, said that they needed allies. They tried and failed to get the slaadi to turn on the githzerai, and then Vlaakith suggested meeting with Tiamat. Supposedly, the only people who know what happened or was said at the meeting are Gith, Tiamat, and one of Tiamat's consorts, the red wyrm Ephelomon. What is known is that Gith never came back: Ephelomon went to the Astral, informed Vlaakith that she was now Gith's successor, and told the githyanki that they had red dragons ready to help them fuck shit up.
This sourcebook gives a huge amount of additional detail after the creation legend. There are notes that allude to a very slight reptilian physiology (tying back to the Athasian gith); additional catch-words in their language; more details on their professions; and stats and background for Vlaakith CLVII, the Lich-Queen herself. This book basically established much of the lore that got reused in 3rd Edition, and if you want a good look at the githyanki as a society and whatnot, this is the place to do it.
4e instead asserts it was more that Gith turned out to be a lousy peace-time leader, running the now-free gith like a great military army and ultimately keeping them as little freer than they had been under the illithids. Whatever the reason, the races split and went their separate ways, with Gith leading her githyanki followers to the Astral Plane (or Astral Sea). There, they founded a loosely-knit empire of raiders, centered on their capital city of Tu'narath.
4th edition also provided the most concrete answer to Gith's fate so far. In "Secrets of the Astral Sea", it's stated that Gith bartered away her soul, and the souls of Vlaakith and all future githyanki leaders, in exchange for the Red Dragon Pact. It also notes that nobody is sure what Tiamat has actually gained from the pact; the three most common theories are that she mistakenly believed the githyanki would ultimately become her personal dedicated race of humanoid worshippers (only to be backstabbed by their psycho-atheist beliefs), that she has manipulated the contract so she can call in one fucking huge debt when the githyanki finally end their Crusade by killing off the illithids, or that the souls of the githyanki leaders hold sufficient magical power that she can ultimately use to force the githyanki to serve her.
Further details would be provided in Dragon Magazine #377; initially, Gith had reluctantly sought alliances with other deities, but was rejected either due to being too evil, too warlike, too weak, or simply because she refused to let the githyanki worship a god. The closest thing she had to a success was in Baator, with Dispater, and even then they couldn't close the deal because Gith wisely refused to sell the souls of all githyanki in perpetuity to the archdevil. Instead, Dispater ended up arranging for the meeting between Gith, Vlaakith and Ephelomon, with himself as mediator and observer, of course. It was Dispater who suggested that he be allowed to "host" Gith's soul in his own "care" for the duration of the pact. Curiously, he did not speak up against Gith making one of the terms of the contract that the githyanki would be free to pursue their own destinies and never be required to be subservient to Tiamat - a part of the bargain that Ephelomon agreed to and which probably put him in Tiamat's bad books for centuries.
In the 4e adventure path, Scales of War, because Tiamat breaks the pact between herself and the githyanki, Gith's soul is ultimately freed from Baator. Returning to Tu'narath, she possesses a githyanki woman and claims to be Vlaakith reborn, ultimately aiding the party in defeating Emperor Zetch'r'r before taking rulership over the githyanki once again. Her ultimate plans are left to the DM from there.
In 5e, the Gith retain their historic traits, such as the githyanki being raiders and conquerors and the githzerai being monks who hang around in Limbo, and them both hating each other and hating the illithids more. However, there is a new organization called the Sha'sal Khou who are working in secret to try and reunite the two races.
|The Gith of Dungeons & Dragons|
|Races:||Duthka'gith - Gith - Githyanki - Githzerai|
|Undead:||Kr'y'izoth - Tl'a'ikith|
|Individuals:||Vlaakith CLVII - Zaerith Menyar-Ag-Gith - Zerthimon|
|Places:||Shra'kt'lor - Tu'narath|
|Miscellaneous:||Crown of Corruption - Gish - Scepter of Ephelomon|
|Adventures:||Incursion - Scales of War|