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The description of the Gith, particularly the Githyanki portrays them as deadly, implacable enemies of Mind Flayers, so much so that they took down the unbelievably vast and powerful ancient Illithid empire, and all but exterminated the brain-eaters.

Yet looking at their game stats in the Monster Manual reveals no major advantage the Githyanki possess. The average Githyanki is a CR 3, while their elite knights are CR 8. The average Mind Flayer is a CR 7, but has some pretty effective psionic powers compared to the Gith, who don't seem to have any particular resistance vs them. If you add in the variations and powers revealed in Volo's Guide, the Mind Flayers are even more formidable as a group.

Is there a description of the tactics the Gith employ against Mind Flayers that would allow them to all but exterminate them? They don't seem that mismatched, but the impression one gets from the text is that the Gith are the scourge of the Illithid.

I'm looking for either a game or game fiction source that describes how one race can so dominate the other despite only a tiny variance in stats. I would accept answers based on actual play experience, particularly if they point out some major factor I am missing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are we counting the video game Planescape: Torment as a canonical source for this? IIRC there’s a githzerai party member who discusses the githzerai legends of Zerthimon’s revolution with you. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Dec 21, 2019 at 19:30

6 Answers 6

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The Githyanki had the help of Tiamat and the Red Dragons

On MM p. 159, it is mentioned that the githyanki are Red Dragon Riders -- that, in the uprising wherein they overthrew their Illithid masters, their leader Gith's advisor, Vlaakith (their now lich-queen ruler), sought the help of Tiamat. As a result of these dealings, Tiamat's partner Ephelomon accompanied Gith back into the Astral Plane, declaring that all of his allies would be allies of the githyanki as well, forever.

Not all Red Dragons honor this alliance, but at least most of them don't consider githyanki as enemies. And it is strongly implied that even to this day, githyanki are still Red Dragon Riders:

The githyanki plunder countless worlds from the decks of their astral vessels and the backs of red dragons.

Note that the bolded word is in present tense. They are still plundering countless worlds from the backs of red dragons.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I had read the red dragon bit, but missed that quoted sentence. Without it, the passage read as if the alliance were a thing of the past, though still honored through non-aggression. It still doesn't explain how they can use their draconic allies in the Underdark, but it's a good fact to consider. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 6, 2017 at 13:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis Weren't the githzeri at least partly involved in the initial uprising? That might explain a bit of the psychic/magical support to the githyanki. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 6, 2017 at 16:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ From what I understand, it was after the uprising that the split occurred. The ones who would become the Githyanki wanted to continue the conquest they had started and spread it to other races, while those who would become the Githzerai wanted only to finish off the Illithid and then retreat from the world in general. Both races want to kill Illithid, but in 5e at least, the Githzerai are not significantly different from their cousins. They have psionic-based armor, and both have psionic-based spell casting. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 6, 2017 at 19:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis perhaps the Illithid still exist in the underdark in part because the gith's draconic allies weren't as effective there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ruse
    Dec 20, 2019 at 10:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually for the first uprising, the gith did not have direct help from Tiamat and the red dragons; the deal with Tiamat was made after the gith defeated their masters; according to the D&D Beyond video by Mike Mearls. youtube.com/watch?v=DD4jJ8a7AXg \$\endgroup\$
    – ZwiQ
    Dec 21, 2019 at 12:21
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Military Culture, Training & Determination, Dragons & Magic

You have asked "Is there a description of the tactics the Gith employ against Mind Flayers that would allow them to all but exterminate them?"

The 2e game accessory The Illithiad is a book entirely on illithids, their origins, anatomy, culture, future and past history. Regarding the gith uprising, it does not explain specifically how it became successful, though the sheer number of "thralls" who rose up against the illithids was probably an important effect. (The book has an example illithid settlement of 200 illithids and 500 thralls.) It is worth noting that "we" still (5e) do not know how exactly the uprising really turned out to be successful, according to Mike Mearls, who discussed the gith in a D&D Beyond video on December 14, 2017.

According to the book, both the githyanki and githzerai form hunting parties to seek and kill illithids.

  • Being part of such a hunting party is part of githyanki culture, every githyanki warrior is expected to serve time. Typical party consists of a githyanki knight armed with a silver sword, a githyanki spellcaster, and nine warriors. About one of three such parties is accompanied by one or two red dragons.
  • The githzerai hunting parties (called rrakkma) are not described in detail in Illithiad, but we read about a special psionic power called "mind rip". This power allows githzerai to permanently rip one psionic ability from an opponent. [The 5e Monster Manual (MM) does not mention such a power (as psionics are no longer a separate thing in 5e), but the hunting parties are discussed on page 159.]

So it looks like determination (according to Mearls, the entire githyanki culture is built on fighting the illithids), higher numbers, training and good organization are the keys to the success of the gith, aided by magic (specialized weapons and powers) and red dragons.


The Deal with Tiamat - Comparison of the 5e vs. the older lore

It is quite clear that the aid from red dragons is an important and ancient one. So for the current state of affairs, it would be fair to say that the githyanki are effective against the illithids partially thanks to that alliance.

Regarding the exact starting point of this alliance, there is some conflict in the lore. Towards the end (around 8:07) of the D&D Beyond video, Mike Mearls states that the gith led by Gith did not have help from Tiamat and the red dragons as they initially rose up against the illithids. Tiamat was imprisoned in hell at the time and the deal with her was made after the gith defeated their masters.

What Mearls states in the video is in line with the pre-5e lore. There is a 3e adventure by Chris Perkins, named The Lich-Queen's Beloved, in issue #100 of the Dungeon magazine (July 2003). On page 97, we read:

Years after the githyanki claimed the Astral Plane as their home, Vlaakith I began advising Gith, the githyanki liberator and ruler, in matters of state. In the pursuit of powerful allies, Vlaakith advised Gith to descend into the Nine Hells and meet with the legendary Tiamat, queen of evil dragons.

By the way, this adventure also describes duthka'giths, who are brutal githyanki that carry red dragon blood; they could also be considered as effective opponents against the mind flayers.

Yet, this past lore seems to have been retconned in 5e. First, we have the following sentence from 5e MM (page 159):

In the uprising against the illithids, Gith sought allies. Her adviser Vlaakith appealed to Tiamat, the goddess of evil dragonkind, and Gith ventured into the Nine Hells to meet with her.

And more recently, we read in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (page 86):

During the war with the illithids, Vlaakith urged Gith to seek out allies from among the planes and in particular advised her to seek counsel with Tiamat. Gith agreed to venture into the Nine Hells to forge an alliance with the Queen of Dragons. She didn't return.

After the gith overthrew the mind flayers and Zerthimon's followers began to emerge as a threat to Gith's preeminence, Vlaakith played a critical role in ensuring that the githyanki under her rule were protected from an immediate, direct assault by their kin. Using her mastery of arcane magic, she helped the githyanki establish a permanent stronghold on the Astral Plane.

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The Gith used metal tools. The Illithids did not.

According to a githzerai religious text found in the video game Planescape: Torment, the primary advantage that the proto-gith slaves had in their revolt was the development of metal tools and weapons.

*Know* that flesh cannot mark steel. *Know* that steel may mark flesh. In *knowing* this, Zerthimon became free.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that the text in question was not created by a githzerai, it was created by a prior incarnation of the game's protagonist. Given the incarnation in question was defined by practicality (read: The ends justify the means, with all the immoral/unethical behavior that allows), the contents of that text should be treated as suspect from start to finish; the text exists to manipulate Dak'kon for the Practical Incarnation's benefit, not to provide true history or even accurate religious dogma. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2021 at 2:26
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It's also canon that the Githyanki are happy to use magic and magic items, whereas most Illithids regard magic as taboo. Magic tends to have a longer range than psionics so Githyanki cavalry (dragonback) attacks make even more sense.

"Meteor swarm the whole planet from orbit. It's the only way to be sure"

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE Matthew. Please take the tour and visit the help center to see how the SE Q&A format works best. (you'll get some more badges). This format calls for supported answers; please edit / revise your answer to include support for the points that you are making (be it from previous edition lore, 5e lore, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes ... what have you). Thanks for participating and have fun. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2018 at 17:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ How did their willingness to use magic items make them especially effective against mind flayers, compared to any other enemy of the mind flayers? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 1, 2018 at 1:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast probably monopoly on all these neat silver swords. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 20, 2019 at 9:56
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Officially, No-one Knows

The 5th edition canon is in Volo's Guide to Monsters:

The mind flayers relied on a slave race, the gith, to provide physical labor and sustenance when other sources of food grew thin. Eventually, the gith revolted. Whether the mind flayers grew decadent or the gith discovered a weakness, none can say. What is known is that after centuries of domination, the mind flayer empire collapsed in less than a year.

The book is mostly written from a 3rd-person omniscient perspective, so it is not just Volo who doesn't know the answer.

Psychic Resistance

Lore for earlier editions stated the gith had developed resistance to illithid mental powers, but I haven't seen much evidence of that in 5e. If any creatures of the gith subtype possess psychic immunities, they have not made it into their various stat blocks in the Monster Manual, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes or Boo's Astral Menagerie.

Mordenkainen's Tome describes the Greater Silver Sword, which protects against charm and psychic damage, and implies this is the weapon all githyanki knights carry. It is hard to believe a CR8 creature known to exist in large numbers would be equipped with a legendary item as standard kit, and the knight's Monster Manual description doesn't mention these protective benefits, so I conclude they wield Not-Greater-But-Still-Pretty-Great Silver Swords.

Insider Access

Psychic immunity or not, the gith were intimately familiar with illithid colonies. They knew where all the elder brains lived and how they were defended, they understood mind flayer tactics and the abilities of the other thrall races. And they were already present in every colony. The swiftness of the rebellion described above implies they also achieved the element of surprise.

Everything I have mentioned above applies equally to the githyanki, githzerai and their gith forebears, who were all deadly opponents of the illithids.

Did they Even Win?

Finally another section in Volo's Guide To Monsters puts things into a different perspective:

A few skeptics suggest that the entire narrative of the gith victory rings false. how could a slave race overpower the mind flayers? Where are the signs of this great struggle? Perhaps the gith didn't actually win. Perhaps, instead, the mind flayers removed themselves and their works into the future to avoid being overrun. That theory would explain the mind flayers' disappearance and the absence of any ruins from their empire.

If you ask me, forcing the enemy to flee thousands of years into the future still counts as a victory.

Trying Harder

Edit: all of the above applies specifically to the rebellion and war between the gith and the original mind flayer empire. For recent anti-illithid operations the answer is probably even simpler: they try harder.

Most humanoids don't even know what a mind flayer is. When they do learn of a monster in the vicinity, they are usually smart enough to flee. To their rulers, some obscure brain-eating creature lurking underground is just one more unpleasant fact of life, which probably falls near the bottom of their agenda. Should a group of warriors or adventurers sets off to attack the creature, they know little about what they are dealing with or how to fight it.

Githyanki and githzerai, however, have cultures built around destroying mind flayers. They hunt for illithids across the multiverse, assemble dedicated teams and attack in numbers, using tactics tested for millennia. And unlike some other races - drow, for instance - they never consider allying with mind flayers or buying them off.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ They explicitly carry the biggest and most powerful silver swords. The secret of making them is a major part of githyanki culture and they go to war to retrieve even a single lost blade. It was vaguely implied in earlier sourcebooks/adventures that whatever method they use to make them is pretty Evil. The swords are a huge part of how they fight illithids, specifically by controlling the astral plane so they can astrally project and illithids can't. This is the 'having cruise missiles' level advantage of the githyanki. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Jul 23, 2023 at 21:48
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They had far superior numbers, even if one of them is not a match for a mind flayer, but with enough working together they overwhelmed them.

source mind flayers

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    \$\begingroup\$ Rather than merely sourcing a YouTube video that claims to be about D&D lore, this answer would be improved by referencing official sources that support the claim. Regardless, you need to elaborate on your point, and perhaps explain how their superior numbers made them especially effective against mind flayers compared to any other enemy of the mind flayers. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 1, 2018 at 1:01

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