Gnolls Revisited

I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.

That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:

  • They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
  • They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
  • That’s pretty much it.

And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.)

Only one sentence in this section strikes me as remotely insightful: “Gnolls use ranged attacks mainly to prevent their prey from fleeing, rather than softening up their targets with an initial barrage of arrows before an assault.” That’s consistent with my earlier assessment that gnolls’ features overwhelmingly favor melee attacks over ranged attacks. I’d accept this amendment as one condition under which it makes some sense for a gnoll to use a bow. (The subsequent sentence on gnolls’ use of fire arrows, however, is absurd. Fire arrows are a cinematic invention; in reality, a flaming tip ruins arrows’ most useful characteristics. In my own campaigns, I don’t allow fire arrows at all.)

There are four new gnoll variants in Volo’s: the gnoll hunter, the gnoll flesh gnawer, the gnoll witherling and the flind.

The gnoll hunter has high enough Dexterity to qualify it as a shock attacker and high enough Wisdom to identify weak targets, and it has proficiency in Stealth. Its longbow attack also has the added virtue of slowing its target’s speed by 10 feet on a hit, giving it the combination of attacking from hiding, then running down its target to finish it off with melee attacks.

The gnoll flesh gnawer has a high Dexterity, but instead of being a sniper, it has the Sudden Rush feature, which simply lets it charge into melee faster. The exemption from opportunity attacks allows it to charge right past its opponents’ front line to get at weaker targets in back. Unfortunately, its merely average Wisdom suggests that it’s not that discriminating in its target selection.

The gnoll witherling is undead, and it gets an extra attack as a reaction whenever one of its allies is killed. It’s also immune to poison and exhaustion. That’s it.

The flind has a magic flail. The flail has three different powers, but the flind doesn’t get to choose among them; instead, its Multiattack comprises one use of each. The flind’s Aura of Blood Thirst power also grants gnoll allies within 10 feet of it an extra bite attack as a bonus action. That ups their damage, but it doesn’t affect their tactics in any way. It affects the flind’s only to the extent that it benefits from being surrounded by lots of allies, as opposed to running off on its own, so that’s where it will stay.

Before Volo’s, gnolls seemed to me to be largely useful as monsters to encounter randomly during travels across hills, grasslands, forests and deserts, not to have meaningful interactions with. Volo’s hasn’t changed that; in fact, I’d now go further and say that unless you’re building an entire campaign that eventually pits your PCs against the Demon Lord Yeenoghu himself, there’s no reason to include gnolls in it except as random encounters. Stupid, savage killing machines are just . . . dull.

Next: bodaks.

17 thoughts on “Gnolls Revisited

  1. First and foremost my apologies for not being so active since last year. I had told myself that I’d ignore your Volo-posts until I had the chance to read the book myself. After that, life caught up and I see that I have over 5 pages in queue that I still need to read..

    But I completely disagree with your distaste towards gnolls! Yes, they’re not open for discussion, but their relatively low stats and lovely features (the spawning of gnolls from hyenas after a Fang’s work is genius IMO) makes them perfect for large groups. I always felt that the 5-10 mobs that you’re almost forced to send against players doesn’t encompass the true feeling of a war band. I want to send hundreds of goblins against my players, and that’s just a small raid on a village.

    Back on topic, the biggest issue with the MM is its variety. Since it needs to describe over two hundred different monsters there’s no space for detail. Hence only two pages for gnolls and relatively uninteresting stats. The inclusion of Hunters, Flesh Gnawers, and Flinds (not to mention the associated Demons) makes up for this all! I imagine my players being flanked by hunters as they charge the gnoll horde, aiming for the Fangs and pack lords. Then being chased down by the Flesh Gnawers, only to tremble of the horror as the Flind enters from the woods. I want my players to experience true horror before they come up with some overwhelmingly great plan that surprises me and brings death and destruction to my lovely war band. You can’t do that with the three gnolls at level 1 xD

    What I mean is that while the gnolls themselves aren’t that interesting, I give you that, the war band that they create gives them variety and tactics.

    (Similarly, I love the addition of the new kobolds)

  2. I disagree with you on gnolls being dull, in the Rage of Demons campaign arc, I have found it quite useful to use gnolls in the Evermoors to prevent the party from reaching any settlements by throwing massive numbers of gnolls, chiefs, and fangs at them. With these new Volo monsters, they can be attacked by higher and higher difficulty parties of just gnolls, making it easy to grind them to 8th or 9th level, helping them reach the next phase of the campaign. Without gnolls, I would have to use orcs or large parties of demons to pose any threat to them. Ettins are great to use once or twice but die really quickly due to the high damage output of some of the items my placers looted whilst in the Underdark. Also, the use of savage creatures makes a lot of sense for untamed plains, and good tactics would be quite strange for the spawn of an insane beast.

  3. I think you’re underselling gnolls here and not doing them much of a service. Take the flesh gnawer, for instance. It eats spellcasters; that’s its goal and purpose. It sprints 90 feet with its action, avoiding opportunity attacks from the front line, in order to get at the guy in a robe standing at the back. I don’t think it takes a high level of wisdom to target the guy with no armor or light armor, who is also trying to stay out of the melee. These are predators, they pick up on weakness, and will be able to tell which party members aren’t willing to engage on the front line of battle.

      1. Of course, I might have to throw in some “flubs” for the flesh gnawer to make, so it doesn’t seem too smart, like targeting the unarmored barbarian- bad idea. But I’m still a big fan of the imagery, a bestial humanoid getting on all fours to sprint inhumanly fast. I think it’s a monster that can really put a \wizard on edge in the low levels of play.

  4. I realize your post is 10 months old, but I only found your site recently (and it’s already become a staple of my arsenal). So here are my thoughts on Gnoll strategy:
    The rampage trait is what’s important. They don’t have to reduce an enemy to 0 hp to get the bonus attack, just a creature. So my take is they’re always on the lookout for another gnoll who’s only one hit away from death anyway (or a witherling), and they’ll happily kill one of their own to give the whole crew a round of bonus attacks. I’m sure there’s a threshold where it isn’t worth it anymore, i.e. having one fewer ally present is more important than dishing out that extra damage. I think that could be disconcerting to a player who, after nearly dropping a gnoll, watches as another one finishes the job and then the whole mob of them cheers and lunges forwards. I also see gnolls as focusing on one opponent at a time (for the most part), in which case a round of bonus attacks can be really nasty if all directed against one player. Just my thoughts.

      1. Thank you. Honestly I probably would not have come up with that had I not found your site. I was browsing volos last night and randomly opened to the gnoll section and something just clicked about the rampage trait. Then I decided to see what you had to say about them. I’m gearing up to run a game (it’s been about a year since my group trades off DM’s), and this is really going to change the way I plan my encounters.

    1. This tactic would be terrifying, I agree, but the Rampage trait only allows the gnoll that reduced the creature to 0 hit points use it’s bonus action for move and bite, not the whole pack, or did I miss an errata somewhere?

      1. No, I realized the same thing after I made the post. It’s still good use for witherlings or even nearly dead gnolls, but not as terrifying.

  5. I agree with this assessment. Gnolls have been changed from a people to a type of demon, and not a particularly bright type of demon, either. While there are some interesting mechanics they can employ, they are virtually useless in any role playing scenario. They are sacks of xp.

  6. I agree gnolls aren’t the most exciting role playing monster, and that is exactly why I had to use them. I have a party that is very diplomatic and a bard and rogue that could talk a green dragon wyrmling out of attacking (which they did, and was awesome). It has been great having such a roleplaying and morality focused group, but it had been 2 entire gaming sessions without a real battle and I just needed something stupid and evil that was kill or be killed. Enter gnolls…

  7. I read Volo’s gnoll segment and it made me want to have a whole campaign set around the furry miscreants! I’m currently running an 8 session campaign where my low level party has been hired as caravan guards running goods from Waterdeep to Mirabar. They made it to Longsaddle and caravans have been going missing. An envoy from Mirabar has posted a bounty and several groups of heroes (along with the party) set off on the road North to see what is amiss. They fought some giant hyenas before coming upon the site of the wrecked caravans and found some gnolls and hyenas feasting on some of the adventurers who were ahead (my group penny pinched on their horses) and they witnessed a cleric of Yeenoghu and a Fang baying and the hyenas transformed infront of (and attacked) my horrified party. It was glorious. I love gnolls 😀

  8. I’m about two years too late to this party, but something stuck out to me when reading the stat block of gnolls. Their rampage ability. While this is mildly uniuqe and a bit dangerous, it seems like it wouldn’t be all that useful if gnolls were attacking just a party of adventurers. They’d gang up on the spellcaster if they could and then use their rampage in the event one of them got the lucky hit.

    Yet when I read some of the flavor text about how gnoll warbands will leave enemy fortifications alone in favor of slaughtering helpless villages, I realized something. You can greatly spice up a gnoll encounter if you I came to imagine a small settlement under attack and as the villagers are fleeing, the gnolls are moving among them, running some through with spears before leaping on others with their bonus action movement and bite attack, biting their throats out and generally making a gruesome scene. Some of the villagers at the head of the crowd begin to run, but the moment they do, arrows come flying from a flank to cut them down. A smaller group of gnolls, bearing their bows, step from the shadows, bearing savage grins as they use their longbows to effectively pen in the crowd before switching to their spears so they can get in on the slaughter.

    If this is happening in two or three different locations across the village, the party has to decide who to save first. If you have this happen to a village the party has spent some time in and have some of the party’s favored NPCs split between some of these poor villager groups, you can really make a particularly memorable encounter.

  9. Good for you on your stance regarding flaming arrows! It’s important to respect the nuances of physics, combustion, and aerodynamics in your fantasy role playing game set an a magic world with talking hyena men.

  10. The Lindybeige video kind of contradicts your point about flaming arrows, as he says that it seems that combustible flaming arrows were possibly around during the 1200s, and that they could have been effective for siege or naval warfare. I can certainly imagine Gnolls using arrows to set a village’s thatched roofs alight to smoke out their prey.

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