This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty Nine on 16th November 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
People always point out that generalizing the behavior of a species based on the most frequently encountered groups or even the majority isn’t fair. Drizzt proved that not all Drow are Lolth-worshiping, murderously conniving slavers, Orc society is much more complex than them just being aggressive raiders that want to kill all the other races and conquer the world, and not all Kobolds are mindless dragon sycophants.
On the other hand, there are some species where trying to find the diamond in the rough is a very long, fruitless dig. Locating a sympathetic vegetarian Mind Flayer is going to be a really difficult scavenger hunt; benevolent liches who are in tune with the common man kind of goes against the premise; and hag bake sales are a trap. Always.
Unfortunately, gnolls fit more into the latter category than the former.
Gnolls first appeared in the first edition Monster Manual. There were a few paragraphs that described their general behavior in their own entry, and then the information on Yeenoghu elsewhere in the reference established the demon lord’s ties to the race.
It could be argued that Gnolls are a staple species for D&D. There has been an entry for them in the first monster reference printed for every edition since first edition (that was usually the Monster Manual, but in 2nd edition it was the Monstrous Compendium). From 2nd edition onward they were eventually available as a player race as well, although in most cases it was a dubious choice; playing as a gnoll imposed a lot of restrictions and negative penalties in attributes that made fitting them in with most groups and classes difficult.
Although there were bits and pieces added later, the lore set down in the first edition has basically dictated the society and behavior of the gnolls straight through. The only deeper dive into their culture was an article written for Dragon Magazine 367 by one Keith Baker. D&D was in 4th edition at that point and the gnoll entry in the monster manual left very little room for a sympathetic gnoll to exist, so Baker’s article expanded and re-introduced some previous lore to make a reasonable gnoll possible.
Physically there’s very little not to like about the gnolls, at least from a “people fighting on your side” perspective. The average gnoll is north of 7 feet tall, or just over 2 meters for you foreign types. They’re built like hyenas because, well, they are; one of the primary ways gnolls are created, and possibly the origin of the species, is when Yeenoghu rampages across the material plane. Any of the corpses he leaves in his wake that are eaten by hyenas turn the hyenas into gnolls shortly afterward. The gnolls are built like them too; they don’t look bulky or built out like giants or ogres, but their leanness is all toned, ripcord muscle.
They organize themselves into packs and the strongest one gets to be in charge. Usually they’re matriarchal, so points in their favor, but every so often a really burly male can end up in the boss role. It’s really difficult to tell the two genders apart, unless there’s a pregnant female (yes, they can make more gnolls without the demon lord). Not that it helps in any way; the females are just as capable of running you down and ripping you apart as the males.
Gnoll society is primitive and simple as compared to most other sapient species. They get restless if they stay in one place too long, so they never really establish cities or permanent settlements. The entire race has a bloodlust built into them that most think stem from their demonic heritage. Depending on the lore source you look at, that bloodlust may be quieted by any hunt and killing, but in most cases it’s assumed the hunting and killing has to be of an intelligent creature or creatures. It is rumored that certain magic rituals or mutations in birth can mute or completely eliminate this bloodlust in some gnolls, but it is an extremely rare phenomenon.
However, even in those cases, two other aspects of gnoll society usually keep them from ever making progress in being accepted. First, they are lazy; in general they abhor physical labor and complex tasks, part of the reason why their clothes and weapons are usually either stolen or of very primitive make. Their answer to that is to enslave anyone that seems useful. Almost all gnoll packs have humanoid slaves, though they never keep more than one or two slaves per ten gnolls for any length of time.
However, they may capture more slaves than that, which brings us to the other reason they aren’t winning popularity contests. Gnolls eat meat, and they really don’t care where the meat comes from. In fact, related to the descriptions of their bloodlust, some believe they prefer meat from thinking beings. Any extra slaves, slaves that aren’t following the rules, or ones that are too old, beaten down, or broken to work, get eaten. Usually in front of the other slaves as a motivational tool.
They don’t always wait until they’ve taken slaves either. One of the hallmarks of gnoll raids where the pack is large, the settlement is small, or both is that there will be few, if any, bodies. That’s because anyone not taken for slaving purposes becomes the after-fight protein bar for them or their pets.
Note that if their main food sources dry up over a period of time they will resort to drastic measures. Cannibalism is an acceptable practice if everyone’s hungry and Giggles the new recruit isn’t paying attention on watch.
The other barrier to getting along with gnolls, as if more were really required, is that they’re like Drow society. While it is true that not all Drow worship Lolth and follow her teachings, it’s really safer to assume any given group of Drow is. It’s the same with Gnolls and Yeenoghu. Yeenoghu is one of the simpler demon lords. While almost all demon lords want destruction of civilization and other beings as part of their grand plan, Yeenoghu’s goals just stop there. He wants everything destroyed, and all non-gnoll beings eaten or enslaved. He literally doesn’t spend time on anything else except getting his followers to summon him to the Material Plane. So he can destroy things and enslave and eat people. The tenets of belief for his cult fit on a post-it note.
The main group that facilitates this are the gnolls. A large number of gnoll groups follow Yeenoghu, which means not only are you likely to encounter the regular kind of gnolls when a warband shows up, there may also be gnolls with demonic gifts from Yeenoghu. In addition to the demon gifted gnolls, there may also be skeletal, undead gnolls called flinds. Those are gnolls that were eaten by the rest of the pack and then raised through a ritual to the demon lord.
Gnoll groups that are following Yeenoghu are capable of replicating his ability to create gnolls on a small scale. After they finish a raid, they can perform a ritual to taint the flesh of their victims. Then any hyenas with them who feed on the flesh will turn into gnolls the same way it happens when Yeenoghu manifests.
The nearly insatiable hunger and the focus on leadership by strength keep the gnolls from forming overly large warbands and packs, which everyone is mostly thankful for. There are some exceptions, unfortunately. Obviously if Yeenoghu himself shows up anywhere, a very large number of gnolls will jump on the bandwagon, so to speak, and follow him to rain destruction on anything and everything.
Yeenoghu does attract some other followers, however, and that’s where he actually shows some of his intelligence. When beings better at organized thinking and planning devote themselves to him, he will sometimes grant them boons and gifts that allow them to present as strong enough to wrest control of several gnoll packs and get them marginally organized.
Usually those fall apart too, for a few reasons. See, most of those emissaries of Yeenoghu tend to be warlocks, and as Lennon can tell you, enduring repeated physical abuse is not one of their strengths.
So in short, the emissary of the demon lord is usually one bad fight away from becoming the main course at the after-battle feast.
However, in most cases the whole purpose of Yeenoghu appointing one of those people anyway is so they can get enough juice going to summon Yeenoghu. Now, Yeenoghu doesn’t usually kill the poor sap when he manifests; that’s not the problem. The problem, from the worshiper’s point of view, is everyone who isn’t a destruction oriented cannibal.
See when there’s a manifestation of Yeenoghu on the Material plane, the response plan is very simple. It reads: Nuke it from orbit.
Any negotiator sent to them will be eaten before saying “hello”. The casualty rate for direct combat is horrific, not to mention morale takes a nosedive when the soldiers see their captain killed and then have to watch as the enemy pauses to pass out pieces for snacking. Any settlement Yeenoghu gets to that isn’t the size of Waterdeep is a lost cause; Gnolls love ambushes. Can you imagine trying to clear out an urban area with windows, doors, alleyways, and staircases where gnolls can hide? I can, and it sounds like a wonderful way to kill any adventuring party I’ve ever met. And yes, the gnolls *are* smart enough to leave a group of orphans in the dead center of town and dare people to come in to try to rescue them.
In short, anyone devoted enough to Yeenoghu to work with him on manifesting isn’t going to run off and hide while the demon hyena and his followers go rampaging. That means when the massively destructive response is used to wipe out the demon lord, the followers usually go with him.
Using gnolls in a campaign is fairly straightforward, much like them; they are another group of creatures where you can have them raid a settlement, caravan, or whatever, and only the most staunch anti-execution sapient rights people are going to have a problem with you eliminating them with extreme prejudice. They are not meant to be unusual manifestations worth studying, they hardly ever know anything that makes interrogating them worth the effort, and holding them as a hostage is beyond pointless; literally no one will want them.
They aren’t even really useful as the harbingers of some complex, campaign-spanning plot in their basic form. If there are gnolls, their goal will be destruction. If there are gnolls trying to perform a ritual, the ritual will either be to make more gnolls or to summon Yeenoghu. You could try to make a campaign based on that, but it will be very repetitive in most cases.
As always, you can make them part of a larger plot by playing them against type and have a group following a different god or demon lord, but that requires a certain amount of heavy lifting on the DM’s part.