Thursday, May 18, 2023

Let's Dig Into: The Sultanate of Zeif

Greyhawk was not the first campaign setting ever, but it was one of the first ever devised for Dungeons & Dragons. It was Gygax's own brainchild, originally created as just a dungeon under the titular castle to amuse his friends and family with. But as the early 1970s dungeon crawls played out, Gary expanded upon the world overhead until it became a sprawling, publishable setting in its own right.

He also decided that the alternate Earth it's set on, Oerth, should be pronounced Oith, like someone doing a very bad (or maybe extremely good?) Brooklyn accent.

That's the first of several sins I hold against the man, as you may see.

Instead of doing a tour of the entire combination racist-theme-park-and-right-libertarian-wet-dream that is Greyhawk, I want to zoom in on one part of the world that I find interesting: The Baklunish Sultanate of Zeif. It didn't feature very prominently in early Greyhawk except as the backdrop for part of a novel or two, but by the time 3rd edition rolled around it was major enough to be afforded a slice of the planet during the Living Greyhawk live campaign.

The way Living Greyhawk worked was each participating region on Earth had a corresponding section of Oerth in which all adventures would take place. Sometimes these regions included a few US states or a single Canadian province, sometimes they covered one or more countries. For instance, Italy got the Sea Barons, while Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee shared Yeomanry, and Ohio got Veluna all to itself.

Zeif was given to the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon Territory. Materials for Zeif were made available online for live play, both in English and French. Unfortunately these materials were not pirated or preserved the same way so many other D&D peripherals have been, and the websites they were originally hosted on have long since decayed. For a long time before I started this post, I thought that glimpse into early 2000s live D&D was lost forever.

Turns out, I just needed to find a super cool Albertan who happens to know one of the original writers. 

Thanks, elfman!

Anyway, back to the post.

The Sultanate of Zeif

The heraldic shield of Zeif,
as done by Anna B. Meyer

Every region in Greyhawk is either an explicit pastiche of a historical civilization and its peoples (Erypt, Nippon, etc), or an ambiguous hodgepodge of European fantasy names and ideas (The Kingdom of Keoland, The Yeomanry, etc). 

Zeif is in the former camp, being a gloss of the Ottoman Empire without all the gunpowder and tulips. Specifically, it is a Western fantasia of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle-East after the start of its slow territorial decline, when the loss of most of its holdings in Eastern Europe and the Balkans rendered it a foreign and exotic land of the Orient in the minds of many Europeans, rather than the immediate and cosmopolitan neighbor it had been for centuries prior.

The Sultanate occupies the western half of the Baklunish Basin, which used to be unified under a single empire, back in the days before some Suloise mages blew everything up- as they are wont to do. The Basin is located in the far northwest of the subcontinent of the Flanaess, which is where 90% of the action happens in Greyhawk. Compare it to the Forgotten Realms' Sword Coast. The basin is separated from most of the world by tall mountain ranges and the weirdly polar, ice-choked Dramidj Sea- I find it interesting that if not for some warm, supernatural water regulating temperatures close to the coast, Zeif would be a subarctic land more similar to someplace like the Khanate of Sibir than the historical Ottoman Empire.

I know I keep harping on about this, but Zeif is very Ottoman. The sultan (currently Murad the Proud) is head of state and is advised by a cabinet-style diwan, as well as a sultana who wields a lot of soft power from within a politically-active and well-educated harem (points for making it more than a licentious bathhouse full of pale, naked concubines like older Western depictions of hareems, I guess); the sultan ostensibly wields absolute temporal power, but in reality authority is decentralized somewhat across the empire's many different types of timar provinces, each with their own governors and major families; cavalry officers are called spahis; there is an elite slave-soldier bodyguard similar to the historical Janissaries (more on that later); the cities all have coffeehouses that act as the heart of news, politics, and culture; the locals literally just speak a mix of modern Turkish and Arabic (a handy appendix includes phrases like "hoş geldiniz!"); and the rugged interior is home to rustic nomads who do their best to resist the boot of empire.

The Basin straddles Central Oerik with its khanates and faux-Chinese Celestial Imperium. But that part of the world got next to zero development back when Greyhawk and Chainmail were actively being released, so we don't know much about it or how it interacted with Zeif. For what it's worth, Zeif stands upon Central Oerik's borders as the so-called "Rock of the West".

The Baklunish People

Zeif and its neighbors are inhabited by the Baklunish people, who act as Greyhawk's analogues to various West Asian, North African, and occasionally Central Asian peoples. In Zeif they are treated like the mix of Anatolian Turkic and Levantine peoples that made up the eastern Ottoman Empire, while in Zeif's next-door rival, the Caliphate of Ekbir they are closer to Arabs (both city-dwelling and Bedouin). The Tiger and Wolf Nomads of the north, despite being vaguely Mongol, are also of Baklunish extraction. Other Baklunish nations or city-states include Ket, Ull, and Tusmit.

Baklunish people worship a pantheon of gods that act as a curious mix of fantasy Islam and Chinese folk religion, of all things. On one hand they venerate the awkwardly named hero-god Al'Akbar who once went on a famous Hajj, and his worshipers are divided into two camps that seem to be modeled on the Sunni-Shi'a split within the Ummah. But on the other hand they also have deities of harmony and martial arts with names like Xan Yae and Zuoken. Maybe they came to them via cultural diffusion from the Celestial Imperium?

Perhaps even more central to the Baklunish way of life than their gods is their code of ethics. All of the Baklunish peoples adhere to a philosophy called the Four Feet of the Dragon, which consist of four principles that they are to strive for at all times and in all facets of life. The Four Feet are Honor, Generosity, Family, and Piety. These feet aren't very strictly defined, which leads to a wide range of interpretations as people navigate the messy and complicated realities of life.

At first glance the name of the philosophy makes it look like it will be modeled on the Five Pillars of Islam in some way, but fortunately the writers didn't try to make the parallels that explicit there. Instead, the Four Feet are broadly drawn and broadly applicable enough to offer a good deal of roleplaying opportunity without being hyper-local. The Four Feet also function as one of the few strong cultural connections between the sedentary Baklunish and their nomadic relatives.

Speaking of nomads!

The Nomad Tribes

You all knew this was coming.

The southern steppes and deserts of the Baklunish Basin are home to nomadic pastoralists known as the Paynims, which in real life is a corruption of the word "pagan" that was used in medieval and early modern Europe to describe non-Christians, but especially Muslims; in that respect it was a gloss similar to Moor. But here in Greyhawk it specifically refers to the Baklunish nomads of the basin.

The Paynims of Greyhawk are most heavily based on the Bedouin ethnic groups of Arabia and beyond, perhaps with a bit of Amazigh mixed in as well. Curiously, they seem to prefer the Turkic title of khan to Arabic terms like sheikh or emir. They are a proud people with strong equestrian and martial traditions, and they often figure as raiders and enemies in the histories of their settled neighbors. They are also waiting for the arrival of the Mahdi, an Islamic messianic figure that was often central to millennialist movements and revolutions in Muslim-majority states throughout history.

(I can't fault Gygax or his TSR and WotC successors in particular for including this element, because fiction writers in general seem to love the aesthetic of desert people waiting for a warrior-messiah to drive out the abusive foreigners. See also; the Fremen Mahdi from Frank Herbert's Dune, the Nerevarine from TES III: Morrowind, and the Keleshite Namzaruum from Pathfinder, more recently.)

Most sources don't actually go into great detail about it, but each Paynim tribe is fairly culturally distinct from its neighbors, making their plains a diverse tapestry of tribes and decentralized nations that the generic blanket exonyms used by sedentary folk can't do justice to. That might be the most verisimilitudinal bit in this whole book.

Paynim tribes tend to be more "pacified" now than in the past when they were a united threat to much of the Basin. They still resist the rule of the sultans, but the sultans have over the centuries used them to create a sort of buffer state for Zeif. Now, the tribes mostly keep to themselves while hashing out the occasional territorial dispute- both with other tribes, and with the orcs.

Speaking of orcs.

Zeifan Orcs

You all knew this was coming.

I neglected to mention until now that roughly 1/10th of the Zeifan population is orcish or at least half-orcish. Besides a smattering of halflings, dwarves, and elves, orcs represent the largest minority group in Zeif. They are descendants of the orc tribes who fought as mercenaries on behalf of the old Baklunish Empire against the Suel Imperium, those mages I mentioned who have a habit of blowing everything up.

The orcs were given a place to live in the Basin as payment, and ever since then they have had an ambivalent relationship with the Baklunish peoples. Sometimes the two lived together in relative peace, sometimes a sultan used the orcs as naked tyrannical muscle against his own people, and sometimes the orcs tried to strike out on their own again.

Gradually the orcs were "watered down" as the Player's Guide to Zeif put it. They lost their warlike nature due to the influence of human civilization, and most of them stopped worshiping their old gods and totems. In essence, they were culturally assimilated by a dominant non-orc power that instilled nonevil ideas in them, rather than the orcs having an opportunity to affect positive change in themselves.

(It was not the first instance of D&D orcs being made nonevil by means of paternalistic outside interference, and I plan to write a post griping about all of them at some point.)

Currently, orcs exist as an impoverished underclass in Zeif. Their life is itinerant rather than truly nomadic, with their means of livelihood being confined to working as miners, laborers and scavengers when they aren't moving around the dry plains of south-central Antal, jostling for resources with the Paynims. The name of the Antal region makes me wonder if the Zeifan orcs aren't some kind of very obfuscated reference to the semi-nomadic Yörük people of the Anatolian interior, but that might be too specific a reference for me to expect of anyone.

Orcs make up a large proportion of the population in southern cities like the eponymous Antalotol, but they benefit little from the trade wealth of that city. Additionally, they have virtually no representation in local government. The only consistent avenue for upward social mobility available to even a minority of orcs is the military: specifically, the Uruzary Corps.

The Corps

A few hundred years before present, Jehef Sultan brought an end to one of the last periods of orc rebellion by founding the Uruzary Corps, an elite infantry division comprised of orcish shock-troops. The first generation of Uruzaries were already battle-hardened warriors, but every generation after that was hand-selected during childhood to begin their training and indoctrination. Every Uruzary was made to be personally dependent upon and loyal to the sultan himself, so that he could have a private bodyguard and task force that was above corruption.

The Uruzary Corps is Zeif's answer to the elite slave-soldier trope, like the Ottoman Janissaries or the Mamluks of the, well, Mamluk Sultanate. All were drawn as children from a particular ethnic background to serve the sovereign, and in exchange they were granted considerable positions of power within the military. Unlike the Mamluks, the Uruzaries have never usurped their sultan to become a ruling dynasty. Unlike the Janissaries, they haven't yet devolved into a corrupt band of reactionary brigands shaking coffeeshop owners down for money using decorative axes.

Instead, the Uruzary Corps is austere, highly professional, and undyingly loyal to the will of the sultan. So much so, that they practice a philosophy called giribim, which is essentially the process of grokking the sultan's mindset so thoroughly that they can predict exactly what he would order them to do in any given situation, even in his absence. It's like a W.W.J.D. bracelet, except for battle tactics and covert political raids.

The Corps does have more mundane functions, too. Because of their proximity to the sultan, they are actually treated as members of his ojak, or household. Their officers hold the ranks of cook, waiter, gardener, and janitor, and sometimes they'll even perform those duties- amusingly, the janitors also serve as executioners. And they do all of this with solemn pride, because the cult of the Baklunish god of poverty and self-effacement, Daoud the Mendicant, is strong in the Corps.

New Uruzaries are selected by lieutenants who travel to meet all of the orc tribes every 4-to-6 years in an event known as the Fierce Harvest- which is just the most badass name it could possibly have. I know the subject matter is something straight out of a young adult dystopian fiction novel, but can you think of a name more metal than that?

Details on the workings of the Fierce Harvest are slim, but it is known that of all the children offered up for selection, less than half are ever found worthy. The tribes are paid for every child selected before they are shipped off for a 20-year term of service to the sultan. Considering how impoverished many of the orc tribes are, I can easily picture a system in which each tribe trains and prepares its children from a very young age, pushing them to excel in martial pursuits to ensure that as many pass muster as possible, so that the tribe can earn a bigger payout from Harvests while also having a few less mouths to feed.

In the Loyalty to the Sultan character option from Living Greyhawk, we're shown that orc clans will show off their "warriors" in the capital city of Zeir-i-Zeif during the festival of Sadakat, well in advance of the approaching Fierce Harvest in the hopes of drumming up the sultan's interest. They spar in public matches using exotic blades, and all the equipment they would be expected to master in the Uruzary Corps. No word on whether those blades are blunted or not.

Keep in mind that because of the rate at which orcs physically mature, these kids can't be older than 9 or 10.

The unspoken tragedy behind this gets me every time I think about it. What must it do to a kid's psyche to be in pretraining for military servitude from the time they can walk? How does a parent endure, knowing that the tribe might not make it another year if their child isn't taken away from them? How much of a brain drain on a community is it to have your best and brightest taken away for half their lives to serve a state that barely represents you? What does it say about a society when a young person's greatest aspiration and highest achievement is to be bought like a commodity?

Unsurprisingly, Greyhawk doesn't really raise or even touch on any of these questions.

It just sends the new Uruzaries off to work, and if they live to retirement age they get sent to the fortress of Dar-Zaribad atop the ruined city of Mukhazin in the Antal. Mukhazin was once the seat of an orc malik in the distant past, but he was overthrown and the city was torched. He was a rather nasty tyrant who fought on the side of an old pretender to the throne, but it's still pretty grim that the final destination for the greatest orcs in the sultanate is the devastated testament to a time when their people had real power- and they were crushed for it. There in Dar-Zaribad, the retirees abide in monastic exile from the world, burying their dead and quietly tolerating the army of restless orc ghosts that may or may not haunt the city.

Sultan Murad the Proud

The man currently in charge of the Uruzary Corps, as well as the entirety of Zeif, is Murad the Proud. He is the 25th sultan of Zeif, and a man of big ambitions. After centuries of territorial losses and political decline, Murad wants to return Zeif to its former glory and height of influence. As a result, the past few decades in Zeif have been tumultuous.

Murad's predecessor, Selim the Scoundrel, was a hedonist commonly blamed for most of the institutions in Zeif falling into decay while he pursued black market excesses within his palace. He acquired a reputation as a poor ruler who did not follow the Four Feet, which soured the public against him, which drove him deeper into hedonism in a self-fulfilling prophesy death-spiral that eventually killed him. The people of Zeif had even begun to doubt the ability of the institution of the sultan to lead them, when Murad ascended to the throne.

Murad's answer to this has been to try to restore public trust while aggressively cutting out the rot. Starting with the Ministry of the Treasury, Murad purged huge swaths of the central government and the administrations of cities like Ceshra. In each case he set up public trials in which any official suspected of corruption was investigated and the testimony of any and all aggrieved parties was taken, even from commoners.

Murad personally presided over these trials. When the defendant was found guilty, the punishment was swift and severe. Either they were executed, their family was sold into slavery to pay for damages, or both. This restored some faith in the general public, but has also caused the people to begin fearing Murad and wondering where he might direct his next purge.

He is not afraid to use a combination of spy networks, Uruzary wetwork squads, and even general military occupation of cities by the Spahis to reaffirm the central government's grip on its timars.

Kinda weird how there's no mention of him trying to implement institutional reforms to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place, whether or not the big guy in Peh'reen Palace is snorting lines of yuan-ti white resin off a half-ogre pirate's washboard abs.

Did I mention Murad's alignment is given as Lawful Good?

My gripes aside, this does leave Zeif in an interesting time that is ideal for adventuring.

Do you help the sultanate reestablish its hegemony? Build a new trade network to reconnect with the wider world? Find your fortune on the frontier, or in one of the sultanate's secessionist city-states? Plunder desert tombs leftover from the time of ancient Suel? Strike out across the plains and convince the Paynims and the Antal orcs that they have more in common with one another than with their overlords in Zeir-i-Zeif?

You decide.

3E OdditE: Hexer (Masters of the Wild, February 2002)

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Quick; what's your favorite NPC class?

Mine is the Adept.

For one, it's the only NPC class that gains any meaningful class features, besides maybe the Expert's ability to pick any 10 skills as class skills (and that's only as good as one's ability to enact broken skill shenanigans). Besides that, there's the flavor of it: adepts represent the many petty conjurers, witches, village healers, and other modestly magical people of the world who don't have the training or the suicidally adventurous urge that would allow them to take levels in "real" classes.

Even so, the Adept is a surprisingly serviceable class on its own. It has a small but reliable spell list that it can cast as a Cleric does up to 5th level, it gains a familiar at 2nd level, it has good Will saves, and while the class isn't proficient in any armor, it can wear armor without any penalties besides ACP. They are modestly good at what they're intended to do, and they aren't completely useless outside of that one role.

This makes them a Tier 4 class, which is actually on par with many PHB classes like Rogue, Barbarian, and Ranger. You could run an Adept in a low-power party and they'd fit right in as a sort of Great Value brand Cleric/Wizard. They might even outshine the Fighter or Monk if they're a little optimized. And if you use the Eberron version of the Adept that gives them 1 free Cleric domain, it's even better.

I love that quirk of the system. It makes the Adept feel like a bit of an underdog possessed of unexpected grit. Back in the day before we had multiple 3rd-party products devoted to playing peasants and commoners in way over their depth, the 3E Adept class gave me that same general feeling.

Which is why I was so surprised to find that they got their very own (at one point) bespoke prestige class in the form of the Hexer.

The Hexer

(digital copy of the class writeup courtesy of D&Dtools this time)

The Hexer PrC is from Masters of the Wild, a 3.0 book that mostly concerns itself with Barbarians, Druids, and Rangers. Most of the content of the book was updated to 3.5E, but a few items like the Hexer were never republished, leaving them in that position of still technically being playable despite having clear hallmarks of the older edition, like the Wilderness Lore skill instead of Survival.

The Hexer is portrayed as a spooky, often villainous user of the Evil Eye in its introductory fluff. They are stereotypical witches who use the power of their gaze to curse or enthrall their victims, and they are almost exclusively found among the "uncivilized" species of the world; orcs, gnolls, etc. I don't think I've ever seen another class with a snippet of in-universe gossip quoted in their writeup like the Hexer has:

“Do not meet the gaze of the shaman with the evil eye,” warn townsfolk who have crossed paths with a hexer.

The Hexer is a 10-level PrC that requires you to be any non-good alignment, be a member of one of the aforementioned monstrous species like primitive humanoids or giants, have Arcana 10, Spellcraft 8, and Wilderness Lore Survival 10, and to be able to cast lightning bolt as a divine spell.

The class requirements would be easy for almost any divine caster to meet by 7th level, except for the fact that lightning bolt was not on any divine spell list in the entire game at the time of publication- except for the Adept's. Thus, despite mentioning the Adept nowhere in the writeup, all Hexers needed to be Adepts... before certain other options presented themselves later on in 3E's lifecycle. More on that later.

Hexer offers d6 HD, B/B/G saves, no new proficiencies, Int+2 skill points for Concentration, Craft, Handle Animal, Heal, Knowledge, Profession, Spellcraft, and Survival, +1 to existing class's caster level every level, and a weirdly out-of-place but no less welcome full BAB progression. It doesn't make you much for melee combined with the lack of HP and proficiencies, but it can help you get deadly accurate with ranged touch spells like scorching ray.

But the real bread-and-butter of the class is its Hex (Sp) ability.

Hex is a Standard Action that allows the Hexer to use 1 automatic gaze attack per round for 1 round/level. It automatically affects a target within 30' without an attack roll, though the target does get a Will save, and they can avert their eyes or completely turn away to get a 50% or 100% miss chance (in return for granting the Hexer 20% or 50% concealment from their actions). The Hexer can use Hex once per day, topping out at 6/day at 10th level.

Hex's effects depend on which option you pick, and more options unlock at higher levels:

  • The basic Hex is identical to the 2nd option offered by a bestow curse spell; a permanent -4 penalty to a heap of different d20 rolls.
  • Sicken Hex (3rd level) requires a Fort save instead of Will, and results in 1/2 movement speed, loss of Dex to AC, and a -2 to attack rolls.
  • Fear Hex (5th level) functions as per the fear spell.
  • Sleep Hex (7th level) functions as per the sleep spell, except its duration is 10 minutes/level.
  • Charm Hex (9th level) functions as per the charm monster spell, except its duration is 1 day/level.

As you can see, there's a big disparity in usefulness between the different hexes. I can't see how Sleep Hex would ever be useful at the level a Hexer gets it, because there's no mention of the base spell's extremely low hit dice cap being modified or removed; the most you can do is nap one 4HD creature per turn, and that's not very good at 14th level unless your DM is still throwing waves of minions at you.

Fear has some crowd control use, though. And you could conceivably stack basic Hex and Sicken Hex to debuff the BBEG and their bodyguards- especially since they're permanent unless removed with a spell, meaning they'll still be cursed during a rematch. Charm is quite interesting, especially for its duration, but it's most useful in an out-of-combat situation. Of course, higher levels are when you start to see default immunity to enchantments and mind-affecting effects, so mileage might vary extremely.

The saving grace for Hex is that it only requires a standard action to activate the ability. For the rest of the duration, it costs no action economy to keep up. If you don't have more pressing things to start combat with, it's a nice thing to turn on and then just have running in the background for the rest of the encounter.

Bonus Spell is Hexer's other noteworthy ability, though it's more of a passive. Every 2nd level, you may add 1 spell from the Sorcerer/Wizard spell list to your own. That's 5 spells from what is widely regarded as the best list in the game, and a nice addition to your small but solid repertoire. Grab some encounter-negating utility spells, and maybe engage in some limited planar binding shenanigans.

All told, the Hexer is a niche option for an already niche class, but it's my kind of niche that could lead to a very entertaining and competent character grown from humble origins.

Of course, there are other means of qualifying for Hexer, as I alluded to. Ones that don't require you to spend 7+ levels in an NPC class.

MotW released in 2002, before 3.5E was even a thing, and the following years saw many other options for mixing arcane and divine spellcasting. These include straightforward examples like Shugenja, or Favored Soul that have lightning bolt in their lists, or more specific options like splatbook feats. I'll leave a link to a helpful handbook on GitP here if you want to browse those.

But the big one is Archivist from Heroes of Horror (October 2005). This Int-based divine caster prepares a prayerbook the same way a Wizard does a spellbook, and they can copy spells into it from any divine scroll they come across- including a lightning bolt scroll prepared by an Adept or any of the other classes mentioned above. Archivists make the Hexer even stronger, because they already have full 9th-level casting on top of other class abilities. The bonus arcane-to-divine spells just add to the sheer size and versatility of the spell list. The titular hex really just becomes a glob of coagulated gravy on top of this more cerebral variety of CoDZilla.

I also like the idea of thoroughly subverting the barbaric, primitive assumptions baked into the Hexer by turning their Evil Eye into the (arguably even more powerful) withering gaze of a librarian.

Monday, May 1, 2023

3E OdditE: Githyanki Prestige Classes (Dungeon #100, July 2003)

Click here to return to the OdditE archive.

(Okay, so I kind of lied when I said I'd be back at the end of the week almost 3 weeks ago. But the Kickstarter went surprisingly well, so I don't feel as bad. Also it's my show.

Anyway, back to the content!)

The Githyanki are a species that I unexpectedly like. The concept of astral space pirates hunting mind flayers from the backs of red dragons while swinging around magic swords made of quicksilver feels like they were invented for one of those deliberately over-the-top awesome mishmashes from an early 2000s demotivational poster- just add some robot laser bear cavalry in the background and you're set. But beyond that, they have a pretty fleshed-out culture that interacts with the fiddly, gamified weirdness of planar mechanics in a believable way.

Unexpectedly (again, to me at least), a lot of this flavor is delivered upon in several githyanki-exclusive prestige classes published in Dungeon magazine during its second and final period under the control of WotC. Or, more accurately, it was delivered in the Polyhedron sub-magazine that was merged with Dungeon after Paizo Publishing acquired the rights to both the year before.

The classes are part of Dungeon's side of a series of githyanki "Incursion" adventures that was started in Dragon #309, revolving around the machinations of Lich-Queen Vlaakith the 157th and her agents. In fact, the section with the PrCs is a so-called "mini-game" where the players can take the role of the githyanki invaders as a sort of villainous prologue to the more heroic part where the party presumably tries to thwart them.

The githyanki have an odd culture. Millennia of enslavement and experimentation by the illithid left a deep impact on their ancestors the gith, but the 'yanki and their cousins the githzerai diverged sharply shortly after their successful revolution ages past because of a disagreement between their respective leaders, Gith and Zerthimon.

Whereas the githzerai became introspective and relatively nonviolent in their attempt to heal the wounds of subjugation, the githyanki became highly xenophobic and militaristic. As they tell their history, they are the only ones who are loyal to the teachings of their great liberator-queen Gith, who wanted to usurp the mind flayers as conquerors of the universe. Their generations in bondage has made them extremely protective of their own freedoms, but they don't think twice about raiding and enslaving (and then usually blood-sacrificing) anyone militarily weaker than them.

As a result, githyanki communities are a bizarre philosophical mishmash. They have no written code of law and take the individual liberties of their 'yanki citizens extremely seriously, so long as they continue to serve their queens Vlaakith and the forever-war that they are waging against the rest of the cosmos. 

Vlaakith CLVII is an interesting character. She died with no heir, but raised herself from the dead to continue ruling her people, and she's been at that for centuries now. Millennia, maybe? Time in the astral city of Tu'narath is fuzzy. She was born into the same adoration as all her predecessors, but over her long existence she has molded the githyanki into religiously devoted subjects. Any 'yanki who reaches 17th level is escorted to Vlaakith's palace where she drains the life from them to add to her own essence. It's suggested she's doing this to someday attain godhood. The githyanki have been raised to look forward to this for generations, and they see it as a rapturous experience far greater than any afterlife has to offer.

That, to me, is the core tragedy of the githyanki. With all of the freedom they fought, killed, bleed, and died to earn, plus the suspended aging of the Astral Sea in which they live, most githyanki do... very little that is truly free. Plenty of them exercise their right to violate the rights of others, but that's a pretty pathetic idea of freedom.

Most do little other than indulge in decadent distractions or half-commit to hobbies and shallow pursuits out of sheer boredom, all while making regular forays into the Prime Material to raid others. It's fascism and hedonism masquerading as some kind of radical anarchism, and the apparent meritocracy it's built upon is just a tool to line potential snacks up for the lich-queen. Unfortunately, it has most of the 'yanki duped.

And just like in real fascism, anyone who ceases to be a simpering bootlick for the powers that be—or even the ones who stay loyal but become too big a potential threat—gets quietly disappeared. Only in the githyanki case it involves fewer wetworks squads and more magical soul-sucking by an ancient lich dead-set on achieving godhood.

But in between the immortal ennui of Tu'narath, savage warfare against their neighbors, and the withered caress of ol' Vlakky, there are a few interesting paths for the githyanki to walk.

I will get it out of the way now that no, there is no red dragon rider PrC. Huge wasted opportunity, I know. But there's still some interesting and plain odd stuff to pick through.

I want to note that since I'll be going through so many PrCs in one post, I won't be as exhaustive in my analysis of every class feature like I normally do (or will normally do, when there's more than 1 other post in this series up).

Blackweave Warlock

All githyanki mages are called warlocks, regardless of specific class. That isn't as confusing as it sounds like it might be, because pretty much all githyanki mages are blasty battle mages anyway; the only difference is the exact spell list they do it with.

The Blackweave flavor of warlock is an arcanist, usually a sorcerer, specialized in negative energy so that they can deliver the necromancy school's save-or-die and save-or-suck touch spells more effectively. They operate as part of the army, often serving in small-scale missions that involve assassination or terror attacks.

They also dress like someone tried getting an outfit together for the bondage club but only had access to Hot Topic goth gear and Spirit Halloween merch.

"It's not a phase, varth! I was hatched this way!"

To qualify for the class, one has to be a githyanki, evil, trained in Arcana and Spellcraft up to rank 9, have Spell Focus (Necromancy),  know ray of exhaustion and vampiric touch, and have once tortured a living sacrifice to death using only magic, presumably to feed their energy to Vlaakith. The mechanical requirements aren't hard to meet at all, easily gained by 6th level, but the other bits make it extremely niche.

As does the way in which the class actually works, as you'll soon see.

The class is 10 levels long with 2+Int skills, Bad/Bad/Good saves, and no additional proficiencies. The skill list is a fairly standard Bluff, Concentration, Intimidate, Arcana, Planes, and Spellcraft. Half of the PrC's features are pretty standard. Boring, even.

In no particular order they get a choice of Weapon Focus (Touch or Ray), Death Ward, Energy Drain, and up to 3/day Death Touch attacks where the warlock rolls 2d6 per class level and if the sum is equal to or greater than the target's hit points, they die. The reliance on touch attacks is unfortunate, given that most applicants to the class come from the extremely squishy realm of d4 hit points and 1/2 BAB. The Blackweave Warlock offsets this ever so slightly by offering d6 and 3/4ths.

More curious is the other half of their features.

Starting at 1st level you get Necromancer, which adds Blackweave Warlock (BwW from here on out) levels to your previous arcane spellcasting class for the purposes of Necromancy spells. At higher levels this becomes BwW+1 and +2. But nowhere does it say you add your BwW levels to any other facet of your previous class. Your overall CL does not go up, nor do you even progress in spellcasting access. For that, you have to turn to...

New Spell Level, gained every 3rd level. This does exactly what it sounds like, granting you the next highest level of spellcasting that you can access. But if you're a sorcerer like most BwWs are, keep in mind you don't actually get new spell picks or spellcasts per day. For that you need to keep track of the Bonus Spells Per Day and Additional Spells Known columns.

In essence, BwW takes the generic "+1 level of existing arcane class" class feature that we've had since version 3.0 and divides it up into four different abilities. And I can't figure out why they did this. I initially thought that maybe they wanted to speed up advancement in some ways, but the math doesn't shake out that way either.

Their example character is Khosuvh, who flipflops between sorcerer and wizard depending on the example. Khosuvh is always 1 spell level behind generic sorcerers, and anywhere from 1 to 10 CLs behind them except when casting Necromancy spells, in which case he has a slight edge. If he's a wizard, he starts off 1 spell level behind and then the gap widens to 2 toward the end of the PrC, in addition to the CL falloff.

Sorcerer!Khosuvh gets 23 bonus spells per day and 17 additional spells known if he sticks with BwW for all 10 levels, which sounds nice at first. But that's actually 7 fewer spells per day and 3 fewer spells known than regular sorcerer progression from levels 7 to 16.

Wizard!Khosuvh doesn't even benefit from the additional spells known feature, because that's specifically for former sorcerers/bards. He does benefit from the bonus spells per day which amount to slightly more than wizard progression, but keep in mind that all of this spellcasting is done at frozen CLs unless it's from the Necromancy school, which isn't the biggest school by any means.

Those +2 CL and constant Death Ward are trying to pull way too much slack here, and the melee-range touch effects are more of a liability on an arcane caster than anything. The BwW doesn't deliver too much on its flavor either, though it could have done more. It might have been cool to tie them in some way to the undead that Vlaakith utilizes, or lean into the spec ops terror unit angle, but no such luck.

I find myself thinking it would be better just to use a base class for the same thematic purpose, and that's a damn shame.


Certain natural processes cannot occur on the Astral Plane. This includes natural healing, and aging. How exactly the body can do anything at all while its cells are arrested like that, I don't know. But that's how it works. This lack of natural healing is a particular problem for the Astral-dwelling githyanki, who are often in harm's way and never have clerics of their own, owing to their complete rejection of all deities except for the queen, and treating her like a goddess doesn't actually make her capable of granting spells- yet.

To get around this, the githyanki have a type of magical specialist separate from the warlock or gish, whose job it is to harness astral energy and transform it into healing magic that is neither arcane nor divine in nature. This is the ghustil, one of the hr'a'cknir* caste of noncombatant experts which originally debuted in the 2E Planescape splatbook A Guide to the Astral Plane. I think it's one of the raddest concepts in this whole magazine. It could fundamentally shift the magical paradigm of a whole campaign setting if given focus.

Unfortunately, the ghustil runs into some of the same issues as other partial casting PrCs.

The ghustil must be a githyanki (not necessarily an evil one) with Heal 4, Arcana 8, Planes 8, Skill Focus: Heal, and the ability to cast 2nd-level arcane spells for... some reason? The class fluff pretty explicitly states that their magic is neither divine nor arcane, so I don't understand why they even need arcane expertise to begin with.

Ghustil is 10 levels long with d6 HD, 3/4 BAB, Good/Good/Good Saves, and no new proficiencies. Its skill list is a mix of casting and social skills like the Blackweave Warlock, plus Heal, naturally- as well as Survival, more unexpectedly.

The ghustil has exactly one class feature, which is Spells Per Day/Spells Known. Instead of keying the ghustil's casting ability off of whatever class they entered the PrC with, they instead get an entirely new casting class and spell list that does not stack with whatever they used previously. There are several PrCs out there that do that, and they all kind of feel wasteful. Instead of having the character build upon their previous knowledge and experiences, their new abilities feel disjointed from the whole while the old ones quickly atrophy into uselessness.

Ghustil casting functions similarly to bardic casting, and caps out at 6th level with a rather modest list. They get some useful things like restoration, various condition removals, and raise dead, but for the most part it's a whole lot of Cure X Wounds. When the class fluff says they pale in comparison to clerics, it's not really lying.

Some more features emphasizing the astral nature of this class would have been a really nice touch, but as it is the ghustil feels unfinished. It isn't unfinished, because it accomplishes its stated goal of giving githyanki war parties access to basic healing spells, but it still feels unfinished. Maybe it would have worked better as a variant bard?

Gish Mindslayer

Perhaps even more quintessential than a githyanki dragonrider is a githyanki gish, the original fighter-mage of D&D if you ignore BECMI elves (and I always do). It's even better if that gish is so singularly devoted to their hatred of illithids that it has become their purpose and calling.

Enter the Mindslayer, an arcane remake of the psionic Illithid Slayer PrC from the Expanded Psionics Handbook.

To become a Gish Mindslayer (GMS), one must first be a githyanki, naturally. Then you need to kill an illithid. Fortunately you don't have to do it solo- you can kill one as part of a party of up to 6 people, which is coincidentally the upper end of average party size. You also need the Track feat, BAB +3, a few skill ranks, and 2nd level spells. Killing a mind flayer aside, the requirements are very easy.

Miraculously, this caster class is well put-together, at least in terms of structure and coherence. Most of that is probably because, as stated, it's a hack of a previously existing PrC from another book, but it's still a welcome change.

The GMS is another 10 level PrC with Full BAB, B/B/G saves, a somewhat light d8 HD, and 4+Int skill points per level, though the skill list is rather modest: Bluff, Concentration, Knowledge (Underdark), Listen, Sense Motive, Spellcraft, Spot, and Survival. There's a variety of class features, there are no dead levels, and we finally see our old friend, the "+1 to existing class" spellcasting column. Unfortunately we don't see them every single level, so a 10th-level GMS will miss out on 4 CLs, not including however many they sacrificed to qualify for the PrC.

It sets out to do one thing, and one thing only: track down and murder illithids. To accomplish this they get a host of abilities to hunt them as favored enemies, sense their presence within 60', resist and retaliate against mental attacks, debuff spell resistance, and even make their brains so unappetizing to mind flayers that they refuse to eat them.

I imagine a lifetime of hateful thinking is a bit like heavy brining or pickling, or the psionic equivalent of whatever they do to make hákarl.

The class features basically amount to a pile of +2 or +4 bonuses and the ability to force will saves on illithids (or whomever else tried to hit them with a compulsion, mind-affecting effect, psionic attack, etc.) Of course will saves are a mind flayer's best save, so how effective the GMS actually is against their sworn enemy depends on how well they can leverage their other gish abilities.

It's not the most powerful hybrid casting PrC out there, but that's perfectly fine. It's still a solid class that offers more variety than Eldritch Knight or something similar. I also want to focus on how well it delivers on the flavor that it set out to offer. And it does really well at being the most 'yanki class a githyanki ever could yank. Thumbs up, no notes.

Holocaust Warrior

I really do not understand what made the writer and editor(s) think this was an appropriate name for a class. I know that the word holokaustos has origins in ancient Greek religion and refers to burnt offerings, and that the word's usage was historically varied, even throughout the early 20th century. But using it as the name for a pyromaniac warrior in 2003 just feels tactless. At the very least, it's bad optics on WotC's part.

Shocking, I know.

Anyway, the HW is another mess of a partial casting PrC.

To qualify you must be 'yanki, evil, BAB +5, Fort +4, Will +4, have Concentration 6, Combat Casting, Martial Weapon Proficiency, Spell Focus (Evocation), and the fireball spell. You also must be reduced to 0 HP by fire damage and then revived, either as part of a ritual or just because it kinda happened on the battlefield. Nice of them to let you turn that near-wipe into something more positive(?) I guess.

HW is 10 levels like all the rest, with d8 HD, 3/4ths BAB, G/B/G saves, and 2+Int skills in a pretty standard caster/fighter skill list.

The bonus spells per day and additional spells known columns make their return alongside the ability Incinerator, which lets them add their character level to their HW CL for all [Fire] spells. It's even more limiting in scope than the necromancy spells of the Blackweave Warlock, but at least they let you add your entire character level to it? It's not like these firebugs are going to be using their spell slots for much other than more explosions.

They also gain the ability to give their weapons the flaming property, but only up to 3 times per day, becoming flaming burst at later levels. Each instance lasts for 1 round per character level (again, bringing in synergy from those non-caster levels), and it can apply to melee or ranged weapons. Fire resistance 10 at 4th level grows into fire immunity at 7th, though I feel like that could have come sooner or with more in-between steps.

HW does get a few less fire-obsessed features in the form of Improved Combat Casting (Ex) and Armored Casting (Ex), respectively. The former lets you switch to provoking an Attack of Opportunity at +4 AC if your concentration check to cast defensively fails, giving you a second shot at avoiding fizzling. The latter shaves 10% arcane spell failure off any armor you wear, letting you really rock that mithral chain shirt without having to shell out for a twilight enchantment or something similar. Small but nice features for a gish that I'd like to have seen in more classes.

The capstone is Burn (Su), which turns every weapon they hold into a flaming weapon (though they can still use that other ability to make it burst), and also causes struck foes or melee strikers to catch on fire. Unfortunately this is the Catching on Fire rule from the DMG, so the worst it deals is 1d6 damage a round for 1d4 rounds, or one move action to self-extinguish. It feels... underwhelming? Like a big AoE burst or firestorm might have felt more satisfying after a minimum 18 levels invested in this PrC and its prerequisites.

... Speaking of which, there should be no max-level HWs at all, anywhere, because Vlaakith would've already pounded their soul down like a flaming martini at happy hour once they pass 16. And good luck trying to go renegade and lie low when your entire existence up to this point has been about lighting things on fire. You are the loudest, flashiest berk this side of Xaositects.

I may be treating the class a little unfairly. They aren't all mad pyros. The githyanki see fire as the symbol of their ultimate triumph over the universe, and the HW gish is respected for that. But if any class could be axed to make room for a githyanki dragonrider, it's this one.


I can't actually find this class printed anywhere outside of the magazine in which it's mentioned, but fortunately there is not a whole lot to it that I need to reproduce here.

The mlar is not a PrC, but an NPC class representing the vast artisan caste of the githyanki cities. They are the skilled builders and crafters of 'yanki society who keep the corsair fleets shipshape, the weapons sharp, and the works of art at least passable. It is also the only base class in the entire game, to my knowledge, that caps out at 16th level. I realize this was probably done from a narrative point of view so that commoners aren't among those who are mighty enough to be worthy of draining by Vlaakith, but I like to think they're the only 'yanki who have the common sense to stop where they are and say "nah, I'm good" when faced with the prospect of soul draining.

The mlar is quite similar to the Magewright NPC class in the Eberron Campaign Setting published a year later. Both are noncombatant crafters with access to very limited arcane magic, consisting mostly of utility spells. The main difference is that mlars are more durable and skilled (d6 HD, 3/4ths BAB, 4+Int skills), while Magewrights have access to far more spells. The mlar spell list is literally just one spell per level, from magic weapon up to major creation.

Sword Stalker

Here's a suggestion: if a set of objects is so prized to your culture that you will go on a universe-spanning manhunt to track down and kill anyone who dares steal even one of them, maybe don't put them someplace where they're in pretty good danger of getting stolen to begin with?

Because that's the situation with githyanki silver swords, which they've been preciously guarding ever since 1st edition. And with good reason; silver swords are pretty cool. They're +3 great- or longswords whose blades shift and shimmer like quicksilver, constantly rebalancing themselves for their wielder's attacks. They can also cut the silver cords of astral travelers, which is pretty much instant death for most visitors on githyanki home turf, the Astral Plane. Particularly strong ones are +5 and have vorpal.

But they seem to get handed out like candy to any githyanki knight or warrior above a certain level, and they get stolen or looted off of dead off-plane githwarriors regularly enough that the Sword Stalkers exist as an institution in the first place. It's a case of messed-up priorities, but one which it is admittedly 100% in-character for the githyanki to suffer from.

The githyanki Sword Stalker has among the higher requirements of all the PrCs in this post. They need BAB +6, Knowledge (The Planes) 8 ranks, Survival 7 ranks, the Alertness and Track feats, and access to 3rd level arcane casting. They must be githyanki, and also evil, because they're the kind of unhinged repo agent who will break your fence or tow your car away with you still in it.

They must also retrieve a silver sword. It doesn't say that this is done as part of an initiation, or as the conclusion to an apprenticeship, or anything. Before you can be a sword stalker, you need to retrieve a sword. Which means you can only join them once they've demonstrated that they're not doing their jobs, because otherwise a newbie with none of their sword-locating abilities wouldn't have found one in the first place.

Again, screwy priorities with this class.

For once we've got a PrC that isn't afraid to use a d10 HD, plus Full BAB, all Good saves, and 6+Int skills points in a very ranger-esque class skill list, minus the handle animal or nature bits. It's a good chassis to base a planar hunter on.

Less good is starting class features off with something that is hardly worth half a feat. Improved Alertness (Ex) at 1st level grants +2 to Spot and Listen, stacking with regular Alertness. But after that false start we get to the bread and butter of the PrC.

Mirroring the Mindslayer in sheer singlemindedness, the Sword Stalker's abilities all revolve around finding missing silver swords. At 1st level they gain Locate Object (Sp) at will at class level +2, but only for silver swords. At 5th level they can Scry Sword (Sp) at will which can also scry on the carrier of a stolen sword if they fail their save. Finally at 10th level they get Discern Location (Sp) 3/day as a 16th level sorcerer, but again only for stolen silver swords. And to make sure they can actually do something once they track down a thief, they can Smite Swordthief (Su) starting at 2nd level, up to 5/day. It works just like any other smite attack, but with a flat +4 in place of any ability score modifier to hit.

More generally useful, and far more interesting in my opinion, is their Astral Tracking (Su) ability, which allows them to track normally even on the trackless expanse of the Astral Sea for a base 25 DC Survival check. How many classes let you track in the void of space? Against DC 30 they can discern the destination point of a teleportation spell cast nearby, and then dimension door after the caster like one of the religious fanatics from that Jumper book that got turned into a Hayden Christensen movie. And considering again how much you can juice skill bonuses in 3E, this feature seems pretty dang reliable.

Observant readers might've noticed that this PrC calls for knowledge of 3rd level spells, but doesn't actually give you anything for it. Even the Ghustil had a flimsy excuse of needing "magical expertise" to do their astral thing, but the Sword Stalker? Nothing. Everything they get is a spell-like ability, and that's a huge waste of at minimum 5 levels in wizard. Like the Ghustil, I think Sword Stalker would've benefitted from just being a class variant; a sort of quasi spell-less ranger, in this case. Or heck, just a regular ranger with their spells made arcane, and this stuff piled on top. 3E rangers kinda needed the help.

Closing Thoughts

I might sound peeved or disappointed throughout much of this post, but I'm not, not really. More than anything I'm surprised that such a long list of githyanki-exclusive content made it into print like this. And while some of it stumbles (and stumbles hard), some of it is conceptually very neat. A little bit of modding with later balance sensibilities in mind could produce some really solid, flavorful character options.

Still needs a bespoke dragon rider class, though.

* As someone who is prone to using and perhaps overusing apostrophes in his fantasy names, I'm relieved that I'm at least not as bad as whoever came up with the Gith language. From g'hel'zor to tl'a'ikith to g"lathk (yes that's a fricking quotation mark in there), Gith has no shortage of weird punctuation. I've always justified myself by saying I only use them for glottal stops or for agglutinating languages, but those schemes don't seem to fit any of this. I really want to hear someone pronounce some Gith words. Do they show up anywhere in that there Baldur's Gate III game by chance?