The Ghesh-utuil - the Whales of Athas

HI everyone,

I’ve been slowly gestating an idea for the whales of Athas and how aquatic creatures might work in a sea of silt. Below is the in-game background to the whales. I hope to provide some 3.X stat blocks for actual types of whales over the next couple of weeks; they’ll be posted on this thread.

Feedback and constructive criticism welcomed.

The Whales of Athas

Eerie, low sounds echoed across the sea. A pearl grey fin sliced through the dust, streaking toward the white horror. Four more fins rose and converged on the predator. Explosions of silt obscured all bar apparitions of rounded maws, and razor sharp teeth. Within seconds the largest of silt horrors was ripped apart and the attackers disappeared beneath the surface of the silt sea, the wordless songs fading as time passed.

In the Sea of Silt, all manner of terrors try the sanity of those brave or foolish enough to venture far from shore. Many sailors who survive deep silt voyages have nightmares of giant attacks, avian assaults and tentacled horrors. Less common stories talk of eerie, wordless songs that echo across the dusty expanses.

The rarest of old seadog tales not only talk of low songs, but of being saved from silt horror attacks by packs of finned creatures, hidden beneath the dust. Not that they are seen as saviours, for these unknown predators will splinter decks and shatter spars as they ram the silt skimmers they so recently saved.

A lament of what was

Life on Athas is ancient. Millennia mark the transitions through the ages, from the Brown Age, back through the Red Age of the Cleansing Wars, the Green Age of Magic and Psionics, to the Blue Age of the world ocean and the life-shaped civilisation of the rhulisti. The Sorceror Monarchs, the Pyreen and other ancient beings are unanimous in their view that the halflings are the oldest civilised race, the one which all others sprung from.

Of course, they’re wrong.

Before the rhulisti built their civilisation, dark shapes swam with sentient purpose beneath the waters of the Athas-That-Was. Great epic cycles of song echoed through the oceans, a planet spanning melody voiced by beings who simply called themselves the People; the whales of Athas.

In the days of the World Ocean, the whales built a great civilisation, encoding the wisdom of ages in their songs. They were friends with the dolphins of Athas, from the first ages of the world. After the halflings rose to prominence, the People allied with the rhulisti, who called them ‘Ghesh-utuil’ – the Wise Makers. Guided by the greatest of their number, the ageless Speaker of the Seas, the People prospered greatly. The alliance between the People and the rhulisti brought great fertility to the oceans. As the halflings built great cities floating on the oceans, so the People built great structures beneath the waves.

If asked, the dolphins of Marnita might suggest it was the whales who developed life-shaping, later teaching it to the halflings, although the truth is unclear. What is clear is that the Wise Makers had their own life shapers and they accomplished incredible feats of their art, both alone and in collaboration with their increasingly prideful allies.

Eventually the arrogance of the rhulisti life-shapers grew beyond bound. The war with the nature benders and the inadvertent creation of the Brown Tide threatened to obliterate the People. In panic, and without consulting their allies, the rhulisti triggered the Green Age, destroying the world-spanning ocean and restricting the People to the seas that remained.

From the first days of the Green Age, the People turned their backs on the races created during the Rebirth, bitterly regretting ever communicating with the halflings. And so during the millennia of the Green Age the People shunned contact with all save the dolphins. All through their association with the dolphins, the People had experimented with psionics, but never truly embracing the Way. Forced to defend themselves against being hunted by the Rebirth races for food or sport or territory, the People developed psionic defences and skills to better protect themselves.

However, their numbers were never enough to outmatch the rhulisti’s mutated progeny and gradually the whales retreated further and further away from shore, abandoning any settlements and hunting grounds close to the land. Ultimately, this was what saved the People from extinction. When the seas began to turn to dust, the greatest life-shapers and scholars of the People gathered to try and reverse the process. They swiftly realised the dessication was beyond their ability to reverse. If they couldn’t change the world to suit them, they would have to change themselves to suit the new world. The world might turn to dust, but the People would survive.

In desperation, the Speaker and his most adept shapers wrought great and terrible changes upon their People. All bar a few recusants were altered. Now the people could innately float through the dust as well as they could water. Too they were able to extract oxygen from the tides of silt, without having to surface for air. The warrior caste grew hardened scales of armour and their teeth were sharpened to deadly weapons, the better to defend the few remaining bastions of cetacean life. The tenders and makers adapted to the arid conditions of the world and created new grafts, tissues and life shaped animals to sustain their civilisation.

The energies involved in changing an entire civilisation were immense. Without a structure like the Pristine Tower to moderate and focus those energies, the consequences were dire. The Speaker and his adepts were themselves changed, their life force siphoned into their People and shaping engines and became undead vestiges of their former greatness.

Today, the Withered King and his Darkened Masters (the Baen-Usaer to the common People) reign over a subsurface realm of faded glory, aged beauty and fallen dreams. The King and the Dragon have contended in the past and fought each other to a standstill. Now both are content to ignore the other as long as their plots don’t interfere with one another. No one else on Athas, bar a few of the surviving Champions and some pyreen even know the whales exist. Andropinis does, for his silt fleets have sometimes roused the ire of the People and paid the bloody price. Daskinor too remembers the whales, another hideous nightmare for his psychosis and paranoia to fear.

With the fall of Kalak, a new wind of freedom and change has blown across the land of Athas. The wind also blows across the sea of silt and for the first time in a thousand years, the Parched Kingdom has taken notice of events beyond its borders, for change has never been kind to the People and they will no longer be passive observers to their fate…


What keeps them from flying above the silt?

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This is quite good. I am intrigued.

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Aside from trying to avoid cartoon images of flying whales? :wink: Essentially a lifeshaped adaptation similar to the 3.X psionic power body equilibrium

Cheers Phil. I need to finish up some of the stat blocks before I can post actual rules. The line about the whales coming up with life-shaping rather than the rhulisti is meant to be a bit of fun rather than invalidating canon…those mischievous dolphins of Marnita!

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Do the ghesh still look like earth whales or do they have a different appearance beyond just being undead?

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Your average Ghesh looks like an Earth whale. Some look like Orca, others like larger whales. There are some biological differences (as you’d expect) but generally an Athasian whale would cosmetically pass for an Earth, or Oerth or Faerunian whale.

The only undead Ghesh are the Withered King and his lifeshaper/naturebender council, and they’re all at least 2,000 years old. No living Ghesh have become undead since the Changing. Although the Baen-Usaer might appear to be analogues of the Dragon’s Dead Lord kaisharga, its not a dispose and replace system. The Baen are more of a college of ancients who generally work together with their King to keep the People alive.

Cool stuff.

How about the undead ghesh? Are they rotting or closer to what they were in life? Found some impressive undead whale art which has some great imagery but likely not what you had in mind.


Those are pretty cool (and disturbing!) images Bryan, cheers for the inspiration.

I see the undead Ghesh as having an almost boiling appearance, if that makes sense? The premise being that they were supremely powerful nature masters who were turned undead by the backlash of an epic lifeshaping ritual, they’re constantly having their dessicated flesh regenerated and then immediately destroyed and flaking off. Undead empowered by an act of creation and in constant agony as a result, despite retaining their sentience and knowledge. Only the most resilient of them have been able to endure this for 2000 years so there aren’t as many as there were back then. The King is another matter again, and I’ve not quite worked out his unique undead status

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So they can lifeshape. Is it the same as the rhulisti’s technique or something different? I’m guessing it would be more of an innate ability due to them lacking hands. What do ghesh use lifeshaping for outside of adapting to an oceanless Athas?

Okay, so if there were once Athasian Dolphins in the Sunrise Sea (now Sea of Silt) as well, would there also be undead ones that hung out with the Ghesh-utuil?

It’s essentially the same technique (rules wise) as the Rhulisti but they don’t have the ritualised formality of the Rhul-Thaun. As they lack hands/opposable thumbs, I think of them as using sound to manipulate the raw materials in the right way to create items. They primarily create grafts (mainly for warrior Ghesh), structures (huge amphitheatres and cyclopean shelters especially) and life-shaped animals that provide foods and resources for the population (when they’re not hunting silt horrors or drakes).

There’s one undead Dolphin which is part of the Baen-Usaer Council, but beyond that the Ghesh and dolphins had separate societies back in the day. I see the dolphins as having been horrified by the Gheshs’ plans and wanted nothing to do with it, dying in preference to having themselves warped. The last communication the Marnita dolphins had with their Baen-Usaer compatriot was agony and torment as the ritual killed it and that was when the mental connection was severed. Any undead dolphins outside of the council wouldn’t owe their creation to the Ghesh (kaisharga dolphin psions anyone?).

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I like this adaption. Fits in with the theme of having to turn to psionics to adapt to the new environments.

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Sorry for the delay in updating. Below is the first draft of the society of the Ghesh. As you’ll see, the Tidestones are an integral part of Ghesh society and I’ll be explaining a bit more about them, their function and their history in the next update.

Society & hierarchy

The whales of Athas share many of the social structures found in whales across the many worlds of the Prime Material Plane.

The basic social group is the Family, a matrilineal group headed by the eldest female. Around her are her sons and daughters and the offspring of her daughters. It is rare for a family to consist of more than 3 generations before splitting into separate maternal lines. Each family’s matriarch is skilled in either the Way or in life shaping (but seldom both). The first born son of a Matriarch is almost always the Protector of the family, modified by the Sodality to be a warrior and defender of his mother and siblings.

Above the Family is the Pod, which consists of up to half a dozen Families, usually tracing their lineage back to a single great grandmother. A dozen or so Pods will belong to a Sodality, which shares a more distant matrilineal descent, as well as a number of unrelated males and females.

The Sodalities are the keystone of Ghesh society. Whereas Families and Pods will by necessity roam large tracts of silt to hunt, the unrelated People of each Sodality are sedentary, based at a single Tidestone deep under the silt sea. The sedentary People of the Stones comprise the best and brightest of all Ghesh, and teach life shaping and psionics to the People within their Sodality. They are responsible for shaping Family members for specific roles (such as the Protector warrior caste) and creating most of the grafts used by the Sodality.

The Sodality selects the Ghesh within it that have the greatest talents and aptitudes and educate them in the higher arts of the Way and life shaping. Some of those students will remain within the Sodality they were born members of, while others will be assigned to distant Tidestones, to share their knowledge and family lines and thereby bind the disparate strands of the People together.

The most accomplished Ghesh-utuil of a Sodality will be appointed to the Court of the Withered King, based at the Prime Tidestone, the capital of the Parched Realm. There they take up roles suited to their talents. Great warriors become Royal Protectors, defending the King and Council. The greatest life shapers apprentice to some of the Darkened Masters, working great life shaping rituals in the service of their race. The most accomplished Masters of the Way split into Conclaves based on psionic discipline, each dedicated to delving into the mysteries of the Will.

Although many Ghesh based at the capital will return to their original Sodalities every few years, to visit their family members and share news, it is rare for a member of the Baen-Usaer to leave the Prime Tidestone, and rarer still for the Withered King, the immortal Speaker of the Seas, to do so.

Holidays & occasions

Each Family and Pod will celebrate the birth of new calves during the year, mourn the passing of those who die, and mark the transition when a Matriarch is replaced by her daughter or granddaughter. The social changes these represent are honoured and shared during Renewal, allowing the members of each Sodality to share in the news

Every year, at High Sun, each Family will return to their Sodality’s Tidestone for a week-long festival, known as Renewal. News will be shared, old acquaintances renewed, and new relationships established. It is the time of year that most courting takes place and the next generation of calves conceived.

Proximity to the Tidestones boosts the fertility and health of the People, subtly reworking their genetic structure to optimise the chances of a successful coupling and pregnancy. This uplifting reinforces the effects of the Great Remaking and undoes any mutation wrought upon the People by the unforgiving Athasian environment in the preceding year.

It is at Renewal that the instructors of a Sodality choose, alter and educate the next generation of Ghesh. For example, the eldest son of a family that has come of age since the last Renewal, will be life shaped to fulfil his duties as Protector, and taught how to defend his Family. Aspiring psions or life shapers will begin their education, carrying on their lessons via long distance telepathy and song.

Every 11 years, when Ral and Guthay meet in the heavens and mark the end of the Endlean Cycle, festivals of Great Renewal take place. This is the most frequent occasion when Ghesh based at the capital will return to see their families, mourn those who have passed, and work the rituals that maintain the Tidestones. Great Renewals are also when visiting Masters choose the next iteration of Masters to join them in the capital.

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Bumping this thread since it is also a great idea for expanding on Athas, now that some activity seem to be potentially coming up and it is relevant to the ongoing discussions. @Kalindren, thanks again for the interesting ideas!

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Cheers Nijineko. You’ve reminded me to put the second part of my write up on my website and also to start working on part 3, which will have some game mechanics.


Can we get permission to use these from the original artist?

Do we know who was the original artist?

I believe this art is by Keith Thompson.

He’s a professional fantasy artist, so not sure if he’d be onboard with it being used for products.

It seldom hurts to ask.

Agreed. Just tempering expectations.

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Although ignoring likely outcomes is what enabled me to track down and contact the now former authorized IP holder of the Origin Systems game Autoduel inside of EA, and put them and Steve Jackson Games together, which eventually resulted in the copyright being restored to SJG.

Sometimes it is worth going out on a crazy quest.