Monday, October 19, 2020

Alternate Humanoids

Today's Pulp Fantasy Library featured monsters called "gnoles" which were first referenced in a short story by Lord Dunsany. Though Gary Gygax gave different answers at different times, OD&D's entry on gnolls nevertheless makes reference to Dunsany, implying that the Anglo-Irish author was the ultimate inspiration for these antagonistic humanoids. 

Dunsany doesn't describe his gnoles in any detail, leaving it to the imagination of his readers. Consequently, the entry for gnolls in Volume I of OD&D theorizes that they are a "cross between Gnomes and Trolls," despite the fact it later states that the gnoll king's bodyguards "fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power." There's no suggestion whatsoever of their being hyena-headed, something I don't believe appears prior to the publication of the Monster Manual (though, as always, feel free to correct me in the comments if I am mistaken).

This relative lack of detail extends to all the monstrous humanoids in the game. Other than being small and poorly adapted to daylight, for example, neither goblins nor kobolds receive any detail. Orcs and hogoblins are not much different. Greyhawk gives us bugbears and says they are "great hairy goblin-giants" with a "shambling gait," but is otherwise silent on the matter of their appearance (though there is a genuinely compelling depiction of them on the inside back cover that features a jack-o-lantern as a head).

Why mention all of this? I've talked before about my unhappiness with the enervating self-referentiality of Dungeons & Dragons. This is a feature of all editions of the game after OD&D and necessarily so, since they all build on one another (with the possible exception of the much-hated 4e which, for all its manifest faults, did genuinely try to break free of the shackles of the past). When I first read the Holmes Basic Set or even the Monster Manual, this was all fresh and imaginative and it powerfully seized my imagination – as you would expect, given its novelty to me. 

With time, though, it's inevitable that I wouldn't feel quite as enthusiastic about the standard presentation of monstrous humanoids in the game. So I find myself returning to OD&D and using what little it presents as the basis for my own interpretations of these enemies. As I further develop Urheim, I'll share what I've come up with here. My goal is twofold: to imagine unique versions of classic monsters that convey the distinct flavor of my campaign setting and to show that this cane be done without the need for mechanical changes. That is, even if, for example, my take on orcs or kobolds is different from the received D&D version, it will still be mechanically compatible with the one everyone already knows. I don't want to create a new game, just show how the existing game can be used in (I hope) imaginative new ways.


  1. My favourite way to deal with humanoids in D&D is to have variety between *tribes* rather than *types*. So, a tribe of 'goblins' (which might equally be called 'orcs' or 'hobgoblins' or both and more besides) can contain individuals that range from 1 hit die to 7 hit dice or more. That keeps the players on their toes because they can never be sure that the pallid little creatures they've encountered near a cavern entrance aren't just the children or the stunted relatives of much bigger monsters further in and deeper down. I went on a bit about the concept here:

    And once the main distinction is between tribes of monsters rather than types, the players are automatically in a world of factional dealings, devils that you know and that you don't, and dangerous mishaps with heraldry when that Bloody Tusk shield you picked up to replace your splintered warboard is carried into Black Skull territory ...

  2. The first edition of the Holmes Basic D&D rulebook has that wonderful drawing by Tom Wham of hyena-like gnolls getting the drop on a magic-user.

    1. I wonder, though: are those really *hyena-like* gnolls? They look very like the classic Minifigs gnolls, which are very similar to the Monster Manual's hyena-like gnoll - apart from the hyena bits! (You can see them here:

      I think most people have assumed - I certainly have - that the Minifigs gnolls were based on the Monster Manual illustration. But looking at that Tom Wham drawing, I wonder if both the miniatures and the Monster Manual drawing were based on Wham's illustration instead. The miniatures and the Wham gnolls have got the same furry waistcoats and leggings and odd polearms - and the same sort of nondescript snouty faces. That snout gets refined to a hyena face in David Sutherland's Monster Manual illustration, but the Minifigs miniatures don't have that.

      Minifigs did some later Greyhawl gnolls that *were* hyena-like (they're still in production in the UK, along with one of the 'classic' sort, and you can make out the hyena features on the bottom right here:

      That suggests that the lack of hyena features in Minifigs' best-known range was down to design rather than accident; their sculptor could do hyena faces perfectly well when he wanted to.

      So perhaps the Wham illustration - published a few months before the Monster Manual one - is the ur-source of the canonical gnoll, with the hyena faces being added by Sutherland later.

    2. The thing about Holmes Basic, is that despite the Wham picture being in the monster section from the start, there was no entry for Gnolls in the Monster List until the 2nd edition of the rulebook in November 1978. Gnolls are mentioned a few times in the text, but I'm not sure someone seeing that Wham drawing in Holmes in mid-1977 would assume it was showing gnolls and not some other humanoid with an actual entry in the text (orcs, goblins, bugbears etc). When the Monster Manual came out in very late 1977 or early 1978, it was the first place that clearly established their look. It's possible that Wham's drawing was originally intended for the Monster Manual.

    3. I just located a photo of three of MiniFigs' Gnolls with the column "From the Fantasy Forge" in Dragon #6 (April 1977), which says they were released in late March. This predates both Holmes Basic (July 1977) and the Monster Manual (very late 1977). So it appears that the look was first seen publicly with the Minifigs Gnolls.

      I see two possbilities: (1) Minifigs developed this look for gnolls themselves, which was then followed/elaborated on by the TSR artists, or (2) Minifigs worked with TSR to develop these figures (which were part of licensed line), possibly using yet-to-be-published art by Wham and/or Sutherland.

      And a thank you for pointing out the similarity of these Minifig Gnolls to the Wham illustration; I hadn't known that before.

    4. Glad to be of service! Although I'd seen the Tom Wham illustration before, I hadn't twigged that it came so early in the timeline. I acquired some of those gnolls a few months ago, and I was puzzled by their lack of hyena features but clear resemblance to the Monster Manual gnoll. It seems Wham could be the missing link.

      I reckon that your possibility (2) is the most likely. The Minifigs hobgoblins, kobolds and orcs from that range are all very close to TSR artwork, and the orcs are also very like those in Swords & Spells (1976), which clearly predates the Minfigs range.

      Also, Swords & Spells shows what I'd taken to be ogres but - judging by their eastern-looking, crescent-crested helmets - might well be oversized hobgoblins.

      So, in the case of both orcs and hobgoblins, we seem to have the original designs published by TSR, then the Minifigs models, then the Monster Manual illustrations. It's conceivable that Minifigs were the 'missing link' that cemented the look already established in Swords & Spells, or it could be that the 1977 illustrations had already been shown to Dick Higgs, Minifigs' designer.

      There's one more intriguing aspect to Swords & Spells. On the cover, it shows a wolf-like humanoid wielding a two-handed sword. The only obvious candidate in that rulebook is the gnoll. Now, it doesn't look much like a hyena - but people who haven't looked at hyenas closely or recently tend to draw them as more lupine or canine than they actually are; most people don't know that they're felids.

      So I wonder if Sutherland had already been told that they were hyena-like and Wham either didn't get that specific information, wasn't great at drawing hyenas or didn't have reference material to hand, or just though of them as big monsters with snouts. And, of course, it's eminently possible, too, as you say, that Wham's beasties were meant to be some other type of humanoid - or even just generic monsters.

      One final tangential point: the Swords & Spells orcs are clearly smaller than humans, which is in accord with both Tolkien (even his Uruk-hai are significantly shorter than Men) and Chainmail, which recommends using 25mm figures as orcs with 30mm humans (and 30mm as orcs if using 40mm for humans). So between Swords & Spells and the Monster Manual, orcs increased in height to the latter's 6'+.

  3. After our campaign started I found out about the pumpkin head thing and I gave the bugbear PC a pumpkin helmet and now bugbears are known as "pumpkin heads" in my campaign and they've met several other factions of pumpkin heads. One had a sprawling mess of antlers from various deer stuck into his pumpkin.

    In my campaign, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbear etc are known as geeba speakers and are bound more by culture and language than biology.

    We have a lot of geeba speaker PCs right now. And yes of course bree-yark was the first phrase my players learned!

  4. I just recently went through all the iterations of the Gnoll from OD&D - AD&D2E. The hyena-hybrid look makes its first appearance in Tom Moldvay's Basic book.

    Moldvay Basic, B35:
    Gnolls are beings of low intelligence that appear to be human-like hyenas.

    1. But Moldvay (1981) is several years after the Monster Manual (1977), and the hyena-like description is already present in that book: "There is a great resemblance between gnolls and hyenas". So Moldvay is following Gygax here.

  5. One of my favorite bits of neglected LBB humanoids are orcs and ogres: They can be Neutral and orcs seem to have trade caravans and are sometimes ruled by ogres or humans, which makes later concepts of half-orcs and half-ogres less unsavory.