Thursday, February 7, 2013

About Gnolls, Gnoles and Trollish Gnomes


The original D&D (and Chainmail) is still such a trove of ideas and inspiration because of its mash-up approach to its source. It mixes all kind of fantasy (and early science fiction) sources, without regard to consistence and without taking itself seriously. Unfortunately, it can be argued that the last two traits were lost with the game’s commercial success – check the differences of tone between OD&D and AD&D 1st.

Anyway, the one part of the original Brown Books where I’m sure Gygax was having a little bit of fun is the gnole. This bizarre creature was inspired by the short story “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon The Gnoles”, by Lord Dunsany. Like many other great pieces of fiction from the author, the best parts of that short story are based on flavor and hinted things – not on clear and precise descriptions (it isn’t surprising that Lovecraft was his fan).

The aforementioned Gnoles are never described. Gygax, who seemed to love word plays, couldn’t resist the temptation. From that came the notorious OD&D gnole or gnoll.

Today, a gnoll is basically a beastman (or “the beastman”, given D&D’s importance). They actually become so famous and standard that other medias use the hyena-headed humanoids, like World of Warcraft.


However, in OD&D they were something completely different. A gnoll wasn’t a beastman, but a “gnome-troll hybrid”. The monster’s description is actually minimal, and it seems probable that Gygax was jesting with the entire concept.


As far as I know the best “description” of a Gnole comes from this illustration (from the Wonder Book, 1912 – I couldn’t find the author):


Gnoles were feared and stealthy humanoids that lived deep in dark woods. Much Dunsany’s Gibbelins, we get more a flavor than a description.

So, let’s play with some gnollish stuff for Pathfinder.

First, for the purpose of this post, let’s leave the “official” Gnoll just as a beastman. In fact, I believe one could expand the concept to cover all kind of mammal-headed humanoids by just changing a few stats and replacing some special abilities of the Gnoll. It’s easy to come up with ape-, tiger-, goat-, bear- or even bull-headed beastmen. This concept can be used to explain why there’re some many barbaric humanoid races out there (if I remember right, the D&D Mystara setting used this idea to explain the origin of all chaotic humanoids, from orcs and ogres to gnolls). The beastmen can even cover other monsters, like minotaurs or even ogres and lycanthropes. If you like world-building, it’s a cool concept to explore.

With the Beastmen done, let’s focus on the Gnoles.

I believe that D&D/Pathfinder already has a terrific Gnole: the bugbear. Think about: a bugbear is a strong and creepy humanoid, whose concept deals with fear and stealth. It’s the perfect Gnole candidate. Bugbears actually make terrific and scary monsters for low/middle-level Pathfinder – especially horrors adventures. I hate to see them wasted as “barbarian goblins” or “boss monsters” of goblinoid dungeons.

Official Pathfinder bugbears have Intelligence and Wisdom 10. They aren’t stupid. They also have Stealth and Perception as class skills, good Strength, Dexterity and Constitution – and 3 racial hit dice! Give them some Rogue/Fighter levels and you can make one the scariest things out there to hunt your player characters. If a Gamemaster is really interested in setting a “Dunsanian” mood for hits bugbears, it’s frigging easy! The cool part is that the original legends regarding bugbears reinforce that notion, check it out.

If you liked this idea, but want to can give bugbears a little more mojo, a good source of inspiration is Paizo’s Classic Monsters Revisited. Check the bugbear ideas given there, specially the awesome kardan, murd, slate-stalker and koblak variants (which can also be found here). Reading Dunsany’s tales, I believe one could give Gnoles a 1/day silence or fear spell-like ability or even a hide in plain sight (woods) extraordinary ability.

Ok. Beastmen and Gnoles are done. What more can we do? How about some gonzo-stuff?

Time for the gnome-troll hybrid. With such crazy stuff as beholders and owlbears, I’ll not even care to explain how this thing came up – probably a demented (and dead) archwizard somewhere. Mechanically speaking we can use the bugbear as a template. I’d just give it Regeneration 3 and probably a few spell-like abilities like ghost sound, minor image and silence. I’d also let our hybrid Gnoles talk with evil, dire or aberration-like burrowing creatures. Imagine a Gnole with a pet bulette. If you prefer, you can give them the illusory ability to assume a normal gnome’s shape. I also would let them command normal trolls (they’re smart, after all). This gnomish Gnole can be a good alternative to the Spriggan.

Hmmm… if I can accept a gnome-troll, maybe the Thoul isn’t such a ridicule thing either (actually, thinking about it, the Thoul seems almost like a Lovecraftian ghoul for Mystara, because it isn't an undead).