Monday, 11 June 2012

Gnolls Are Weirder Than You Think

Gnolls have long been my favorite D&D humanoid. They're great villains, based on a foul and baleful animal. What's more, they're a whole-cloth creation in the game. There's no legendary or fictional precedent apart from Lord Dunsany's "gnoles" -- to which they bear only a homonymous relation.

But if you study up on hyena anatomy and society, gnolls get weirder. "Gynocracy" is maybe too weak a word to describe the social structure of an animal where the female is larger than the male and the lowest female outranks the highest male.

Then there's the hyena's genitalia, (warning: not safe for work or lunch) which led Pliny and other ancients to classify them as hermaphrodites. This is not strictly true, but the females do have non-functioning organs that look like the male equipment, and get in the way of reproduction. And that makes life no laughing matter.

Reaper Bones mini (I'm painting 3 of these)
In addition to inverting the more usual gender roles, hyenas are violent among themselves, and often cannibalistic. What would humanoids evolved or created from such beasts be like?

As chaotic evil creatures, gnolls would be warlike, with the larger, dominant females as the warriors. Males, which in the hyena migrate to other packs to mate, would in the gnoll society most likely be seen as chattel, good only for one-time mating and subsequently a food source.

Their tough-brutal mentality can only be helped along by the anatomical facts: mating and birth for gnolls are painful and dangerous. Perhaps any given gnoll lair will have about 5-10% of the warrior females convalescing from either of these activities, having taken d4 (mating) or d4+4 (birth) damage in the process. And this can't make their attitude toward males any kinder. They might see their male chattel as a way to prove themselves in the ultimate way, fusing sexuality with a form of self-mutilation, but ultimately - as with men who take that approach toward women - they would feel nothing but contempt toward these objects of acquisition.

Last night one of my players remarked on the tendency of my adventures to include content rated "raw and gritty" after they did some exploring of a dwarf latrine in the dungeon. I don't think I overpedal these elements, and have no desire to continually throw "flies and dung" in players' faces. But if I'm running a game where players confront the monstrous, I reserve the right to play all the keys of that concept, including the hyenas' "monstrous" gender politics that invert the worst human tendencies.


  1. Gnolls ought to weird. I approached the gnoll sexual dimorphism issues myself a couple of years back in the post "The Gnoll Truth, or Yeenoghu Looks Like a Lady."

  2. Great minds think alike, Trey, and good use of the bestiary material. The vocal mimicry is better off residing with gnolls than the boring old leucrotta, I think.

  3. And of course hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs.

  4. This is a phenomenal post! As a big gnoll fan myself, I'm fascinated with this new look at them.

  5. Thanks Roger and Trey.

    Both are great little essays.

    Gnolls have always been my preferred thugs and hooligans as well.

  6. They only bear a homophonetic, not a homonymous relationship, though in either case the meaning can differ widely.