Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Welcome to our guide to gnolls, vicious, feral creatures who live to slaughter, hunt, and shed blood in the name of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
Born of an unholy union between demons and hyenas, these nightmarish humanoids are one of Dungeons & Dragons’ most terrifying foes, roaming the edges of civilization in packs, their warbands descending upon defenseless communities in a tide of razor-sharp teeth and rank, stinking fur.
In this guide, we’re going to look at the dark origin of the gnolls, their culture and society, as well as what they’re like to run in your own games.
Also, while there are no official rules for playing a gnoll character, we’ve pulled together materials from previous editions of D&D, as well as materials from the community into rules for playing a gnoll character in your own games.
You can jump to any of these sections using the table of contents.
The sun beat down across the arid plains, stretching away into a horizon broken only by stands of withered acacias and the shimmering heat haze. Though midday was still several hours away, the air already seemed to boil.
The human fighter shifted awkwardly in her chainmail, thinking wistfully about the cool, shady cave where she and her companions had camped the night before. From up ahead, a half elf ranger clad in dark red leathers scanned the road ahead from a rise in the ground.
“There’s a village up ahead.”
“About time,” grinned the halfling thief from her seat beside the road. She shook her boot, dislodging a fistful of grit before clambering to her feet, still barely coming up to the fighter’s waist. “I could use a bite to eat. Maybe some roasted mutton. A little ale…”
The fighter sighed. “We already had breakfast not two hours ago. I honestly don’t know where you put it all.”
“Fast metabolism,” said the thief, patting a belly roughly the size and shape of a watermelon. “Now that you mention it, perhaps I’d prefer something lighter. Maybe some roasted chicken. Or maybe stewed rabbit. Or a quiche!”
The walk into town took another hour, and by the time they passed through the ramshackle wooden gate, the heat was becoming unbearable. Wiping the sweat from her brow, the fighter surveyed the single main street that ran from the hamlet’s northern gate to the south.
In the middle of the settlement was a central square dominated by a church – the only building that looked as though it was built with the intention of lasting longer than a season.
“What a dump,” muttered the ranger, lighting his pipe and peering into the darkened doorway of a general store. “Where is everyone anyway?”
“Yeah,” said the thief, scanning the several dozen windows of the seemingly empty houses along the main market square. “That’s definitely weird. Hey, does it smell like dog out here to you?”
The fighter didn’t respond. Hand moving unconsciously to the hilt of her broadsword, she walked towards the double doors of the church, one of which hung open, its hinges barely clinging to the wooden frame.
Stepping through the doorway, she found herself plunged into gloom that the small stained glass windows built into the far wall behind the altar did little to alleviate. Even as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she knew what she’d see.
The smell hit her like a battering ram. Decay. Sweetness. Death… The bodies of more than two dozen townsfolk lay stacked in a pile, burying the humble altar devoted to their god in a perverse offering to something far worse.
More corpses sat in the temple’s pews, posed in a ghoulish mockery of a congregation, chunks of flesh missing from their arms, faces, chests, necks. Blood. On the walls, the floor. Blood daubed into the design of a single red eye, staring down on the scene.
Bile rising in her throat, the fighter staggered to the door and stood doubled over in the midday heat. The ranger walked over to her.
“I found something. Some tracks and arrowheads embedded in a wall,” said the ranger. “Still doesn’t explain where all the people went.”
“I know where they went,” said the fighter through ashen lips. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the temple door. “We should leave.”
A moment’s glance inside the desecrated church was enough for the ranger. He nodded and looked around for the thief. “You see where she went?”
“I thought she was with you.”
And then she heard it. “Help… me… Please…” Almost snatched away by the dry wind, the halfling’s voice, unmistakable and clearly in pain. “Pluhheeaasseee…”
Weapons drawn, the ranger and the fight raced towards the sound, round a corner, down an alley, blood pounding in their ears. Ahead of them, a figure lay motionless on the ground.
The fighter crouched down beside the body of her friend, staring blankly back at her with a single sightless eye. The other was pierced by a short, ugly arrow fletched with black feathers.
Then, as her lifeless body stared up at the ranger and the fighter, the voice came again. “Help… me… please…” from the darkness of a doorway, the thief’s voice began to change, rising to a high pitched laugh that was joined by another. And another. And a moment later the air was filled with shrill giggling and animal snarls.
From the darkness ahead, behind, all around them, tall figures with wiry frames emerged. The fighter locked eyes with one of them, its axe still dripping with her friend’s blood. It stood a good foot taller than the fighter, and was covered in matted brown fur.
The stink of wet dog and rotting flesh grew stronger as the creature’s long canine snout parted to reveal jagged yellowing teeth.
The ranger’s hands shook so hard he had to fight not to drop his bow. The fighter drew her sword, determined to make these monsters pay dearly for their lives, and for a moment the air was filled with high pitched laughter and screams.
That story is ripped straight from the third session of D&D 5e I ever played.
Our characters had fought a trio of goblins, got in a bar fight, bullied a shopkeeper, and basically thought we were untouchable badasses. The DM clearly had other ideas.
It’s worth noting that our characters had plenty of opportunities to run away from the spooky town. If we’d done a more thorough search or rolled better on perception checks, we might have spotted the gnolls before they spotted us and set an ambush.
We didn’t have to die. And we didn’t, actually. Well, the fighter and the ranger didn’t. They woke up in a rolling cage two days later en route to the Bloodmaw Fighting Pits, fated to die at one another’s hands for the gnolls’ amusement. But that’s not the point.
The point is that the gnoll warband that took us out was, to put it mildly, pure nightmare fuel. They reveled in slaughter and delighted in cruel torturous games, even letting our badly wounded characters escape at one point so they could hunt us down again.
You remember Ramsey from Game of Thrones? Imagine if he was a yellow-eyed hyena monster the same height as Shaquille O’Neal.
Later, as I started to get a feel for how to be a dungeon master, I found myself coming back to gnolls time after time. Sure, I tried out gangs of goblins and colonies of kobolds, fascist dwarves, and even homebrewed a race of ratfolk to scratch a particularly Warhammher-adjacent itch.
But all that’s done has made it abundantly clear…
You Should Put Gnolls in Your Game
Gnolls are hands down my favorite low-level enemy in D&D.
In a game where player characters tend to start out killing rats in basements and locking swords with goblins and kobolds half their size, it can be hard as a dungeon master to instill a genuine sense of risk in their encounters.
Of course, even the lowliest goblin (or in the cast of a game I played in last week, particularly angry rat) can take down a 1st-level player – potentially for good. There’s a difference, however, between perceived risk and actual mechanical threat.
And, while it can be fun to watch your players go from amused, to surprised, to desperately trying to crawl away from a gang of tiny lizards holding sticks, sometimes you want to angle for a different tone. Something a little… darker.
There’s nothing like throwing a pack of seven-foot-tall, malevolent demon-dog people at a gaggle of frightened 1st-level adventurers to convince your players that the world is a dangerous, scary place.
If you’re a DM looking for a long-running antagonist for your campaign, I’d like to humbly suggest gnolls for the following reasons:
- The average Gnoll has a low enough CR (½) that they make a scary – but not insurmountable – foe for a 1st or 2nd level party.
- Gnolls live for combat, and as such are going to fight smart and dirty.
- Gnoll culture is just dripping with occult, demonic horror, which makes transitioning a low-level gnoll adventure into a desperate battle with demons at later levels easy.
- If you want to keep gnolls as the villains of your campaign from start to finish, the supplement Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden contains rules for a CR8 gnoll vampire, which adds a whole new, deliciously creepy element to a gnoll incursion.
- Everything from their appearance to their culture is geared towards making them excellent villains.
The Origin of Gnolls: Yeenoghu’s Unholy Litter
In ages past, the demon prince Yeenoghu (also known as the Beast of Butchery and the Ruler of Ruin) sought to extend his dominion into the material plane. However, it’s hard for demons to stay in the mortal realm for long, Yeenoghu’s armies were small, and his reach in the material plane was short.
And so, Yeenoghu gathered his strongest demons together, slaughtered them, and fed their corpses to a pack of hyenas, which is pretty much the most metal thing ever.
Those hyenas and their offspring became the first gnolls, vicious humanoids that combined the cunning and predatory instincts of a hyena with the unbridled malice of a demon. At least, that’s how the legend goes.
D&D 5e claims that the gnoll’s demonic origin was more of an unhappy accident.
“The origin of the gnolls traces back to a time when the demon lord Yeenoghu found his way to the Material Plane and ran amok. Packs of ordinary hyenas followed in his wake, scavenging the demon lord’s kills. Those hyenas were transformed into the first gnolls, parading after Yeenoghu until he was banished back to the Abyss. The gnolls then scattered across the face of the world, a dire reminder of demonic power.” – D&D Basic Rules, pg 137
Although there are exceptions, gnolls tend towards still worshipping Yeenoghu, devoting themselves to sowing destruction and death in his name. They believe (and may well be right) that his demonic blood flows in their veins, and that the atrocities they commit in some way honor their hellish progenitor.
While gnolls have no use for organized religion, some of their numbers, having pleased their demon prince, become possessed by some evil entity. These accursed, nightmarish creatures are known as Fangs of Yeenoghu.
Just as Yeenoghu created the first gnolls, a hyena that feasts on a fang’s slain foe undergoes a horrible transformation, becoming a full-grown adult gnoll. Depending on the number of hyenas in a region, a fang of Yeenoghu can lead to a startling increase in the gnoll population. Finding and killing the fang is the only way to keep that population in check.
Gnoll Culture: The Butcher and The Beast
All gnolls, according to an article published in Issue #367 of Dragon Magazine by Kieth Baker, are defined by two powerful forces: “the primal nature of the hyena, and the pure malevolence of the demon.”
The gnolls that seem to align with how 5e portrays their race (Baker’s more nuanced portrayal is from D&D’s 4th Edition) definitely embrace the demonic side of their heritage.
Gnolls in 5e are “feral humanoids that attack settlements along the frontiers and borderlands of civilization without warning, slaughtering their victims and devouring their flesh.”
They’re nomadic destroyers with a thirst for blood and basically no redeemable qualities. It’s probably for this reason that, while hobgoblins, goblins, kobolds, and orcs were all made into playable races as part of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the gnolls have to receive the same treatment.
Gnolls that embrace their ties to the Beast of Butchery reject the concepts of mercy and kindness. They assemble into large warbands that roam the edges of the civilized world, striking out at weak or poorly defended targets. A gnoll raid is a brutal thing.
Those who are slaughtered in the initial assault are the lucky ones. Those that survive or foolishly throw themselves on the gnolls’ nonexistent mercy and surrender are taken as slaves, forced into hellish lives of servitude to masters who are just as likely callously murder them for sport as they are to force them to perform backbreaking labor until they drop dead from exhaustion.
For a gnoll who embraces their inner demon, every enemy killed and moment of miserable agony inflicted is more proof that the gnoll perpetrating these acts is worthy to descend into the hellish underworld upon their death, where they shall serve at Yeenoghu’s side for all eternity.
In earlier editions of D&D, gnolls that embraced their demonic lineage were gifted skills for mimicry, using chilling renditions of their slain enemies to lure unsuspecting enemies into ambushes. It’s a trait that’s sadly missing from gnolls in 5e and should definitely be reintroduced.
However, it’s not productive to tar all gnolls with the same brush. There are other packs that, over generations, chose to reject their demonic heritage, instead embracing the primal nature of the hyena.
These gnolls do not raid and kill – and may even develop cordial relationships with nearby humanoid cultures – instead choosing to focus their instincts into a burning passion for the hunt.
Gnoll Characteristics: Scavengers, Hunters, Killers
Whichever path a gnoll chooses to follow, it will likely be determined by its loyalty to its pack. While different groups of gnolls often fight one another (if a more tempting target doesn’t present itself) a gnoll tends to remain fiercely loyal to its own pack.
Outside transitions of power, life in a gnoll pack is fairly harmonious thanks to constantly reinforced hierarchies.
Every gnoll’s goal in a social situation is to figure out if it is stronger or weaker than you. Gnolls tend not to ask questions, as it puts them at a disadvantage in their eyes.
Rather than ask “what do you want?” a gnoll will bark “tell me what you want, now.”
The goal is always to test the social framework; it frequently seems brutish or aggressive to non-gnolls, but their constant aggression isn’t always a sign they’re planning to kill you. If they want to do that, they’d have probably tried it already.
Gnolls do not raise cities, plant crops, or make armor and weapons. Instead, they are wont to take over abandoned forts and mines, steal food (or just eat local farmers), and strip anything they need from the dead.
A gnoll warrior will dress in the scraps of armor belonging to half a dozen slain enemies. Their weapons may be elvish, dwarvish, human, or even bastardized combinations.
They also love to take trophies to commemorate their past battles, whether they are practical or wholly decorative. Gnolls can even become obsessive collectors, constantly searching the bodies of their enemies for that one special thing that they have come to covet.
Much like hyenas, gnolls will happily steal and eat the kills made by other predators. It’s very feasible that, in the wake of slaying a dragon or other gargantuan monster, heroes may find an area infested with gnolls who have arrived to feast on the decaying flesh. There have even been stories of gnolls digging up graveyards to lick the marrow out of long-rotten corpse bones.
Gnoll Appearances and Names
Gnolls cut an imposing figure. Each one typically stands somewhere between six and eight feet tall, although they have slim, wiry frames, and seeing a musclebound gnoll is rare. Their movements, compared to humans at least, seem unnaturally quick.
A gnoll’s face strongly resembles a hyena, with a long snout, jagged teeth, and piercing yellow eyes. Gnolls tend toward having grey to greenish skin beneath fur that ranges from browns and muddy yellows to oranges and even jet black.
Many of them, like hyenas, have spots and stripes. A gnoll’s coloration tends to be a mark of their particular clan or pack. The gnoll’s silhouette is also defined by a crest of hair rising up their back which stands on end when they are excited or afraid.
Some gnolls are more closely touched by Yeenoghu’s grace than others, developing demonic mutations like razor-sharp claws, blood-red eyes, and fiery orange spots on black fur.
While first edition D&D (Issue #63 of Dragon Magazine to be specific) painted gnolls as a deeply patriarchal, heavily misogynistic society, by 4th edition, that perception had changed. Gnoll society in modern D&D is egalitarian to the point where the distinction between the sexes has more or less disappeared.
Gnolls may be able to tell a female gnoll from a male, but unless that female is actively nursing or pregnant, it’s unlikely another humanoid could spot it. Gnolls fulfill the same roles in society, male or female, although it’s worth noting that – since young are born in litters and raised communally, lineage among gnolls is traced along the matriarchal line.
Gnoll names are gendered, but the nuances of gnollish naming conventions are, much like gender presentation itself, lost on anyone who isn’t seven foot tall with fuzzy ears and too many teeth.
Male Gnoll Names: Dagnyr, Dhyrn, Doryc, Ghyrryn, Gnasc, Gnoryc, Gnyrn, Hyrn, Lhoryn, Lhyr, Mognyr, Sorgnyn, Thyrn, Toryc, Yrgnyn, Yrych
Female Gnoll Names: Dagnyra, Gnara, Gnora, Gnyrl, Hyra, Hyrgna, Lhyra, Lhyrl, Malgna, Myrl, Sargna, Shyrla, Tarnyra, Yrgna
Creating a Gnoll Character
There are no official rules for playing a gnoll character in D&D 5e. However, mostly because I am personally itching to play a gnoll in my next campaign, we thought we’d put together our best shot at a balanced gnoll race that your DM might just let you use in their game.
Of course, if you have a DM that’s been through one too many over-eager homebrew-happy player misadventures, you can absolutely use the Custom Origin rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything to make a gnoll. However, I think we can put a little more flavor into it.
First, all abilities are going to be tweaked or verbatim pulls from things that existing gnolls can do in 5e already. Second, because of the dual nature of the gnoll, we’re going to be creating two subraces: The Butcherborn and the Hyena Soul.
Gnolls are brutal hunters with a demonic ancestry who are fiercely loyal to their pack.
Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 1.
Age. Gnolls reach adulthood by the age of 5 and live to around 30.
Alignment. Gnolls are usually chaotic neutral or evil, though there are exceptions.
Size. Most gnolls are between 6 and 7 feet tall. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Bite. Your teeth are natural weapons which you can use to make unarmed melee attack actions that inflict 1d6 piercing damage + your Strength modifier.
Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Frightful Appearance. You are proficient in the Intimidation skill. When you make an intimidation check, you may use your Strength modifier instead of your Charisma.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Gnoll. You can also understand, but not speak, read or write Abyssal.
Feral Pariah. You have disadvantage on Charisma-based skill checks when interacting with strangers in large cities, towns, or other population hubs where gnolls are not the dominant species.
When you create a gnoll, choose one of the following subraces, depending on whether they embrace the demonic ancestry of Yeenoghu, or strive to walk the primal path of the hyena.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2.
Rampage. When you reduce a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack on your turn, you may use a bonus action to move up to half your speed and make a bite attack.
Pack Warrior. You are proficient in the Athletics skill.
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
Sudden Rush. As a bonus action Until the end of the turn, your speed increases by 60 feet and you do not provoke opportunity attacks. You must take a long rest before you can use this feature again.
Nomad. You are proficient in either the Survival or Nature skill.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.