I’ve always had a soft spot for gnolls. I’m fairly certain that it is the visual of a hyena-person that I appreciate, since I don’t actually like most of what D&D has done to them over the years. I’m not a fan of their demonic associations. I don’t like the characterization of them as shiftless and overly-lazy. I don’t really get the fact that they surround themselves with hyenas (like humans clearly surround themselves with monkeys?).
What’s left? I don’t know, but for some irrational reason whatever is left has long resonated with me. Maybe it has something to do with the flinds.
Anyway, over on EN World, I offered up an alternate take on the gnoll. I thought I’d share it here.
What do we know of the gnolls? They are mostly carnivorous, but they aren’t known as hunters. Instead, we know them as scavengers and raiders, and we tend to assume that this is because they are lazy. They seem to prefer humanoid flesh as food, and they set ambushes to catch their prey.
What I am going to reveal about the gnolls may shock you and seem impossible given what we know about these vicious creatures: The defining characteristic of gnoll culture is a deep-seated respect for life.
This is not to say that gnolls are ‘good’ in any conventional sense. They certainly aren’t kind or generous as a rule. In fact, if you were dying and a gnoll came along, it would almost certainly kill you and eat you.
The gnoll’s respect for life is a strange thing. A gnoll will almost never take the life of another living thing (even a plant) unless it is in a position to fight back. There are some caveats to this. Primary among them is that gnolls assume that all intelligent beings are prima facie in a position to fight back. Thus, gnolls have no compunctions about killing helpless people – or laying wait in ambush.
Since gnolls do not hunt game animals (they will hunt dangerous creatures on occasion) or kill plants for food, their lifestyle revolves around finding enough to eat. They usually subsist on scavenged goods – already dead animal or plant matter. They will occasionally follow large carnivores and steal their kills. More often, they will move into agricultural areas and raid the stockpiles that farmers have. They will also pick fruits and vegetables when they can do so without killing the plant. They do not shy away from conflict, however. A hungry gnoll tribe will not hesitate to set its sights on a community – or set an ambush along a well-traveled road.