Considering these beings are one race, I decided to discuss them together. A shared history, physiology but sporting very adverse philosophies make this strange race a cornucopia of storytelling, as well as roleplaying gold. What makes them even more intriguing is the fact that they, along with their former masters, the mindflayers, are original to D&D and owe nothing, for the most part, to any outside mythologies. The only influence that really comes to mind are the works of H.P.Lovecraft and it’s not just the Cthulhu looking Flayers. Their story is splattered across the myriad nightmares of every race, civilization and religion of all generations of all places and peoples.
These two are not different races, but a distinct subset of one race: THE FORERUNNERS. Their origins are unknown but highly speculated about. Whether they were human before the MindFlayers got to them or if they were a different species altogether is unknown. Their known history begins when they escaped their mind meddling masters under the leadership of GITH where they get their current names. Because of this, their story is wrapped up in psionic powers and the navigation of the Astral Plane.
This alone makes them interesting to play or use as NPCs. They would excel in a planescape type setting or in a Spelljammer campaign (Are we getting that in 5E any day soon, Wizards?). But they can just as easily be dropped into any setting as stranded astral travelers or invaders. DMs can weave a myriad of storylines that interlace with the bad history of the Giths.
In short, the story of the Gith races began when they rebelled against their Illithid overlords and gained their freedom. From there, we see a schism appear between the still angry, vengeful Githyanki who plunder what they want and the controlled, ‘let’s get on with life’ Githzerai who take a more contemplative way. Therefore, any DM can insert a Mindflayer villain in a campaign along with a marauding band of Githyanki who may have to be dealt with or ‘parlayed’ with like the interdimensional pirates they are. OR, instead of their hateful, hard to deal with cousins, the DM could instead insert a group of Githzerai who are more than willing to help and are a lot nicer about it.
BUT this is an article about WHY play either of them, right? Well, let me count the ways!
First of all, as laid out above, they have a cool as hell backstory! This race comes with a lot of glorious baggage just ripe for the picking. Even, generations later, these beings live with massive mental and psychological scars that just screams a broken, damaged individual. But, on the inverse, each of these races have dealt with these past nightmares in their own ways. The Githyanki bury themselves in the hunt and the quest for revenge. The Githzerai have a more Buddhistic meditative focus. They are calm and focused. The point is that each in their own way have become strong willed characters with a deep well of inner fortitude that will make either of them exciting to play.
Secondly, if the DM is struggling to develop a big bad, they come with the baddest of bad villains: the MINDFLAYERS. It would make sense if they know there’s big bad tentacly evil ahead that a trained hunter of such tentacle faced baddies would come in handy. Githyanki train to hunt their former jailers and Githzerai have honed their minds to both resist the mental onslaught and fight back. But, if there’s no plans for a Illithid this campaign, each race will gladly fight against ANY oppressive force.
Thirdly, there are strong philosophical differences that heavily define them. You have an option to play an angry, violent martial type who may have strong ethical problems that make him hard to get along with in normal society. Or you bring to life a calm, trained living weapon who has come to peace with the insanity of his people’s story. This also leaves you a lot of room for flavor. Maybe your Githyanki is struggling with his marauding ways and is trying a road to redemption. Or possibly your Githzerai is struggling with inner peace as his soul wars with the madness that was genetically subjected onto your people. Like I said, lots of room for great role-playing.
Next, we have a part of the Gith races that Wizards struggles with. PSIONIC POWERS!
I mean, this is one of those options that are both cool as hell and, at the same time, difficult to develop in a RPG without derailing the whole thing. Some have suggested another class and, as I have stated several times, I just don’t think that’s an option. The problem is, as they’re given in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (pp. 85-97, 205-208), they come up a bit flat in this area. They do get 3 additional cool spells as psi abilities on top of whatever class they choose. But it kind of makes the whole idea of Psionics fall flat.
Now, there are some interesting options that I will give you links to below in the Unearthed Arcana playtest material that may help. Possibly you could get with your DM and hash out something that appeals to you. The other option is to simply throw mind power flavor onto one of the core classes; which is what I would suggest (NOTE: Also found in the UA). Like so may other things we run into, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel here and create a million spells like we got in 3E, 3.5 and 4E. Just simplify things by making a wizard with a Psionic Arcane Tradition or a Sorcerous Origin that plays upon the vile experiments that your people’s former masters inflicted upon them. Maybe you create a Githyanki warlock whose patron is the great Lich Queen herself. Or a Githzerai assassin rogue that has taken it upon themselves to take out oppressors everywhere. If I were going to play one, I would probably choose a ranger with a monster hunters’ archtype and talk my DM into a cool animal companion. Did somebody say Gith Dog? (See sideboard)
And, last but not least, who doesn’t want a cool weapon? The Gith races have the coolest swords in the Greater Silver Swords. Now, seeing that they are +3 weapons, you may have to work your way to them or work with your DM to build a sword with the ability to level. Just check out the pic below and tell me that’s not cool.
Well, as always, I’ve given you a lot to think about. Feel free to add anything I’ve missed about playing these amazing races in the comments below!