I Like Gnolls
For me, gnolls are a much scarier race of antagonists for D&D than any of the goblinoids. For whatever reason though, they seem to have gotten far less attention than other monsters in the same threat range. They are, as presented in the Monster Manuals, two dimensional demon-worshiping monsters that live only to murder and devour the flesh of their victims. That's great for a one-shot villain that terrorizes the player characters, but for longer-term stories I think the race needs some development. At the very least, it could benefit from some consolidation. And, since I'm using them as a recurring threat for Dholavira, I might as well give it a shot.
Source Material Round-Up
Since hyenas are the creature upon which Gnolls became based in 1st Edition D&D, during white box they were described as a combination of gnome and troll, I think it's important to read up on them. Additionally, Gnolls frequently make use of hyenas and hyaenodons as hunting partners and warbeasts.
- A group of hyenas is referred to as a clan or cackle
- Hyenas are capable of digesting all portions of their prey, including bones
- Hyenas were thought by early naturalists to be hermaphroditic
- A mythical tribe of humans called Bouda were thought to be able to transform into hyenas
- The Malawi language has two terms for hyena
- Large man-eaters are called lipwereri
- Normal hyenas are fisi
- In folklore hyenas were associated with divination
Much of the older source material features gnolls using giagantic hyenas referred to as hyenadons as mounts or warbeasts. Ironically, hyaenodon gigas, which the creatures are based on are of no real relation to hyenas; they belong to an extinct family of predators with similar morphology. Hyaenodon refers to the creature's teeth. Hyaenodons are however about the right size, being described by some scholars as about the size of a small rhino.
On the one hand, I really like the idea that gnolls and hyaenodons are related. On the other, I think it's kind of absurd to have any species tied together so thematically. I mean really; they're hyena-men that use hyenas to hunt and ride on the backs of giant hyenas? It's a little silly. I'm going to retain them though because it's D&D, and silly is just part of the game.
The SRD and most other sources indicate that gnolls worship Yeenoghu, a demon that looks very much like a gnoll. However, Yeenoghu's history indicates that he stole his gnoll worshipers from Gorellik, who has fallen to the status of demigod due to the loss of worship. Additionally, the entry for Karaan, a malevolent nature deity, indicates that some gnolls worship him.
This is really where I got the idea that Gnolls could benefit from a revision that expands on their background and becomes more inclusive of the various elements published over the last 30 years. While it's hinted at that gnolls worship a lot of gods, it's never quite made explicit. What if the individual tribes actually honor all three of these beings and perhaps a few more? None of their goals are especially contradictory and all of them demand living sacrifices, so it seems to me that incorporating all three into a single faith actually enriches the background of the race.
Going about it like this opens up a lot of territory for diversity amongst gnoll encounters. A hunting party of gnolls could include a ghoulish emissary of Yeenoghu, a shape shifting chosen of Gorellik, or a berserk cleric of Karaan. A full clan could include all three. I also think the pantheon could benefit from some expansion; specifically the addition of a mother-goddess. Hyenas are matriarchal and while there is some evidence in the older material to contradict this social structure in gnolls, I would actually prefer to maintain it. I see no reason why a female dominated culture cannot idolize power above all things, and especially for a race based on hyenas; female spotted hyenas are as much as 12% heavier than males and generally bigger.
- Here's a tentative write up for a gnoll mother-goddess.
- Lipwereri most frequently appears as a tall pregnant gnoll with blood dripping from its jaws and talons. She alternates between male and female genders at will but is always visibly pregnant. Lipwereri occasionally appears to her worshipers as a pregnant black hyaenodon.
- Legendarily, Lipwereri has taken Yeenoghu, Gorellik, and Karaan, amongst other monstrous deities, demons, and gnollish heroes and queens as her consort at one time or another. Her hermaphroditic nature permits Lipwereri to act as either partner in the reproductive act. Virtually all gnoll queens claim to be descended from one of Lipwereri's trysts. Some gnoll clerics insinuate that Karaan is actually Lipwereri's son as well as her occasional lover.
- Lipwereri's nomadic nature and powers of divination permit her to avoid coming into direct conflict with other powers most of the time. She occasionally competes with other fertility gods, but her worship is mostly confined to gnolls. Obad Hai and Solonor Thelandira have hunted her for sport.
- Lipwereri, like the gnoll tribes that worship her, is nomadic and travels between the planes of existence seeking to fulfill her hunger for flesh and carnal pleasure. She may most frequently be found in Pandemonium and the Abyss.
- Lipwereri is revered by gnolls and some other monstrous humanoids, particularly females. Her endless fertility and ability to see the future even attracts human worshipers that are desperate to conceive or that seek forbidden knowledge.
- Priestesses of Lipwereri tend to eschew clothing entirely and instead paint their bodies in mystical patterns using a black paint made of charcoal and blood. Clerics gain access to the animal, evil, and knowledge domains. Her followers offer the goddess living sacrifices and stage enormous orgies in her honor.
- The Mother of Endless Hunger has no temples. Open plains where her followers may make sacrifices under the stars are considered holy places to Lipwereri.
- Cultists of Lipwereri practice bestiality, copulating with hyaenodons. Occasionally this union is blessed by the goddess and a fisi is born. Fisi have been touched by Lipwereri's power and may possess fantastic powers beyond those of normal hyaenodons or gnolls.
Since their first appearance, gnolls have always been described as taking captives for use as slave labor. While a great plot device, "Save my beautiful daughter! She was taken by a band of hideous gnolls!" this doesn't work for me for a couple reasons. First gnolls are based off hyenas. It's not a question of whether a clan of hyenas will kill and eat you if given the chance, merely the order in which they will proceed. Seriously, search YouTube and you'll find video of several hyenas tearing off hunks of a live wildebeest. I want gnolls to be that savage too. Second, gnolls are described as nomadic raiders. When a clan of nomads picks up to move on, every bit of dead weight gets tossed to the side. Slaves, while potentially viable for more advanced nomads, like the Huns under Atilla or the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan, don't seem likely for more simplistic monsters like I perceive gnolls to be. Third, there are way better monsters available to make off with damsels in distress.
So what do you do if the players lose a fight to a gnoll raiding party? If we drop slavery from the gnollish background the players won't have any hope of rescue, will they? But wait! All of the gods worshipped by gnolls demand living sacrifices. Players will still get a chance to escape or be rescued, though they'll probably also get to enjoy watching their mounts be eaten.
Strictly speaking, it's only cannibalism when an organism consumes other members of its own species. So gnolls can devour every other sapient being that they encounter without crossing that line. However, they're an evil race and all of the deities that they worship are chaotic evil. They're not just okay with cannibalism, they're probably engaging in ritual cannibalism, if not actually doing it for fun. Hyenas are prone to it as well. There's also some justification for it among primitive tribes; consuming the heart or other vital organs of defeated adversaries was thought to enable the victor to possess his vanquished foe's strengths. I think this, plus the expanded pantheon of deities, sets the stage nicely for significant tribal warfare too.
I don't like flinds. They're not different enough from standard gnolls to be interesting in my opinion. Attribute and ability wise, they're a little smarter than normal gnolls and they have a racial weapon. I honestly don't see the point in their existence, except possibly that there are a couple subspecies of hyena and their creator thought that was justification enough. I won't be using them.
Shoosuva, demonic hyaenodons with ghoul-like traits, were originally described by Rodger E. Moore in an article for Dragon in 1982. These beings are depicted as intermediaries between Yeenoghu and his disciples on the material plane. I kind of think they were created in an effort to better bridge the gap between Yeenoghu's areas of dominion; ghouls and gnolls. I'm not a huge fan of them, but I can definitely see their use as a summoned creature.
Tomas Willis described the Ghuuna for another Dragon article in 1984. The Ghuuna are shape shifters with the ability to transform from gnolls into hyaenodons. Willis's description attributes ghuunism to Yeenoghu, which is consistent with efforts to identify gnolls in general with the demon. However, in an effort to support the pantheism described above, I'll be making the ghuuna the chosen of Gorellik. This also makes more sense to me because Gorellik is said to frequently take the form of a large white hyaenodon. Willis's ghuunism is also a form of communicable curse, similar to lycanthropy. To further divorce ghuunism from Yeenoghu and make it more of a gift of a god, I'll be handling it as a Vile feat.
Hyaenodons are only a CR3, so I don't see the need to make ghuunism more expensive than a second tier feat. In some ways, even that may be too expensive.
Besides the published material, I'm thinking on other ways to spice up encounters with gnolls, like the fisi. I'm thinking that all sorts of templates could be applied to standard gnolls, hyenas, or hyaenodons under the heading of fisi.
Priests of Karaan
I haven't done anything special with these guys. I'm thinking that they're clerics with rage instead of rebuke.