Monday, May 1, 2023

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

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(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?

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