Friday, March 6, 2009

Monstrous Discussions: The Gnoll

These guys are just plain nasty, filthy animals, and I am comfortable with this.

Paizo will be launching their new adventure path, Legacy of Fire, later this month, which will have gnolls as their featured villain. With villain names such as “The Carrion King,” I will be looking forward to see how it all fits together. With that in mind, I thought I would step back and review the gnoll and give my thoughts on its development and why I like them.

In the beginning (c1974), gnolls began life as a cross between gnomes and trolls, which is where the name came from. Huh..what? Wait. Gnomes and trolls? Are we talking about small elvish fey and big green monsters mixed together? To be honest, I am struggling with this combination. It’s not quite the classic peanut butter and jelly combination. Are we talking about small green guys with pointed ears, or are we talking about giant green fey, or are we talking about the green goblin? To be honest, I am not sure what this looks like. While it is probably better than the flumph, it still feels a bit like (green?) mashed potatoes to me. By 1st ed, the gnoll had turned into the familiar hyena humanoid, and this version has stayed with us to the present day. So to summarize, in the span of just a few years, we have gone from a green goblin thing to a nasty, filthy humanoid monster, which I will mark down as progress.

One of the issues with the humanoid monster is how do you differentiate it from each other. We have the orc, half-orc, goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, troglodytes, ogres and the gnoll all occupying the same space. If we expand this category a little more to include just humaniods, one could add humans, drow, and dwarves. If we include animal humanoids, we could throw in lycanthropes, lizard men, beastmen, ratmen, and a host of other critters. From a mechanics point of view, they are all very similar, and I would argue that one can stat them up to look almost identical to each other. So back to the question of how do we make them look and feel different? This is a tough one.

I think in order to really answer the question, one has to understand what exactly is a gnoll. I am going to stick with the newer version of the gnoll, as I like this one better, and I think this is what most folks think of when they think of the gnoll, which is a nasty, filthy animal.

In the gnoll’s most basic form, it is a smelly, stinking, beast like humanoid. What’s not to like? In retrospect, having the gnoll based on a hyena, was brilliant. There are a number of wolf or dog creatures already in the game and in literature, so the hyena-humaniod is similar but different. On a side note, I was reading a fan created dungeon that I think was sponsored by the fine folks over at Enworld, and they had created a dungeon, in which the gnoll barracks had beds. I am not thinking that they sleep in beds, but that is just me.

In first edition, the link between gnolls and demons was firmly established by the presence of Yeenoghu, the demon prince of gnolls. With this link, their alignment as chaotic evil was the natural fit. With the appearance of the D series, the drow took center stage and their culture defined chaotic evil. The drow’s form of chaotic evil is a cruel society in which the matriarchs wield power, and everyone watches their back in fear of an assassin’s blade or worse. Gnolls version of chaotic evil is very different.

Paizo, in their Classic Monsters Revisited book, dedicated a chapter to fleshing out what gnoll culture is like. True to their animal heritage, gnolls are vicious pack animals that live by the law of the pack. Their slant on the gnoll resonates well with me, as it draws on the culture and image of cannibalistic tribes, and the hunter/scavenger nature of the hyena. The flavor hangs together very nicely.

However, after spending some time reading through this, I start rethinking their alignment of chaotic evil. For the most part, the write ups in the various clearly show the gnoll as a pack animal. This feels more like lawful evil to me. Clearly their pack is ruled by the strongest alpha male, and to compare it back to the drow, feels completely the opposite of their culture. Now with this statement, I do not mean to imply that just because there is a stark contrast between the two, the gnolls would be by definition lawful evil. But this pack society with an implied law of the pack, feels a bit like lawful evil rather than chaotic evil. If we extended on this line of reasoning, it would question the categorization of Yeenoghu as a demon prince. Wizards published an interesting article on Yeenoghu in Dragon 364, which is available as a download from their website, that provides some insight into Yeenoghu. While this article is written for 4th ed, there is still some good fluff that can be pulled out and applied generically to any previous version of D&D.

To circle back around to the question on differentiation, I think it’s the link between them and the hyena, that helps to separate them from the other humanoids. Very rarely is the hyena seen as the good guy, and the pop culture view of the hyena is something that can be built upon. The Lion King is an excellent example as the hyenas are the servants of Scar, and are the embodiment of evil. Even their nature as scavengers of carrion brings up images of a savage beast. To be blunt, they are smelly, nasty animals.

If I get a chance to GM with gnolls again, what I would like to do is mount them on dire hyenas that look very similar to the wargs in Lord of the Ring movies. While I have mixed feelings about the depiction of them in the movies, if I take that warg and put a gnoll on it, now we have an interesting mounted warrior to use against the characters. The nomadic gnoll tribe now would have a quick striking arm that could run down characters that try to get away. I like it!


trollsmyth said...

Clearly their pack is ruled by the strongest alpha male, and to compare it back to the drow, feels completely the opposite of their culture.

Actually, among spotted hyenas, it's the alpha female< who rules the pack. Which still allows for some interesting contrasts with more decadent, sophisticated culture of the drow.

Mr Baron said...

I stand corrected with regards to the spotted hyenas. Thanks for the link, as it was interesting reading. I would be curious to see if this consistent with the other hyena species.

trollsmyth said...

I wanna say yes, but I'm no biologist, so I only know what I get to see on PBS. ;)

I do find animal social mechanics fascinating, though, and try to work them into my humanoids whenever it seems appropriate.

Mr Baron said...

I know what you mean!

What I find interesting with gnolls is that we can look at real life hyenas and get inspiration on what gnolls could be like, and then we can take it one step further.