Monday, July 1, 2024

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Gnolls

There's no use in fighting it. You'll be seeing more entries in what has inadvertently become a series for a few more weeks at least, perhaps longer. After last week's post on bugbears, which are a uniquely D&D monstrous humanoid, I knew I'd have to turn to gnolls this week, as they, too, are unique to the game. Perhaps I should clarify that a little. There is no precedent, mythological or literary, for the spelling "gnoll." However, the spelling "gnole" appears in "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles" from Lord Dunsany's 1912 short story collection, The Book of Wonder (as well as in Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles"). 

There can be no doubt that Dunsany's story served as the seeds for the gnolls of D&D. In their description in Book 1 of OD&D, gnolls are described as "a cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany [sic] did not really make it all that clear." The original short story contains no description of the titular creature, leaving Gygax to advance his theory of gnolls being a weird hybrid monster. Artist Greg Bell interprets them thusly:

Sometime in the three years between their first appearance in OD&D (1974) and the publication of the Monster Manual (1977), someone at TSR decided that gnolls were, in fact, "low intelligence beings like hyena-men." That's how they're described in J. Eric Holmes's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where I first encountered them, courtesy of this delightful illustration by Tom Wham:
Meanwhile, the Monster Manual itself, published the same year, gives us this illustration by Dave Sutherland.
The Monster Manual also includes another Sutherland gnoll-related piece, this time of Yeenoghu, the demon lord of gnolls. To my eyes, Yeenoghu looks a lot more hyena-like than does the illustration above, but, even so, they're still broadly similar.
Speaking of Yeenoghu, he reappears in the pages of Deities & Demigods, this time depicted by Dave LaForce. I've always found this version of the demon lord a bit goofy. I'm not sure if it's his grin or the strangeness of the arm that holds his infamous triple flail. 
The AD&D Monster Cards sets are a good source of unusual takes on many monsters and that's especially so in the case of gnolls. Artist Harry Quinn depicts them in a way that, to my eyes, looks decidedly feline. To anyone familiar with the weird phylogenetics of hyenas, that's inappropriate, but it still feels off somehow. Perhaps it's simply the weight of all the previous depictions that makes me think so. In any case, Quinn's version of the gnoll is quite distinctive.
The 2e Monstrous Compendium features what is probably the most hyena-like of all versions of the gnoll, courtesy of James Holloway.
Tony DiTerlizzi provides an even more hyena-like version of the gnoll in the Monstrous Manual, right down the spots on its fur. 
I feel like I have probably overlooked some illustrations of gnolls from the TSR era of D&D, but, if so, they must be fairly obscure, as these are the only ones I could easily find in my collection. What's most notable about the ones I did find is how closely they hew to the post-OD&D notion that gnolls are hyena-men. I'd chalk up most of the differences to artist skill and choice rather than a fundamental disagreement about this fact. In this respect, they're quite similar to bugbears, another distinctly D&D monster whose look stayed largely the same during TSR's stewardship of Dungeons & Dragons.


  1. You missed one of my favorites... The Erol Otus illustration for the cover of the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log features not just a similar gnoll, but the SAME exact gnoll from the monster manual! I think Erol got a kick out of translating DCSIII's character exactly. He matches everything - distinctive belt, bracer on the right arm, shield, spear, fur cape, padded armor, tied shin leggings. He's just missing the pole arm... and the tail. (which I honestly never noticed in Sutherland's illustration before now!)

  2. Ahh, at a closer look, it's not a tail... it's the scabbard to a scimitar! I think Erol went a bit too far Hyena and not enough humanoid. I like the less hairy face and lower ears of the DCS design.

  3. A question to Dick McGee, unrelated to today's post.

    On May 31st, you commented the post 'How do you end a campaign?' writing "...Most recently I had three separate games (one running, two playing) using the same system all terminate over the holidays..."

    What system was this? Just curious.

    1. @Pampero It was the Sentinel Comics RPG from Greater Than Games. I love the game and continue to boost for it, but it has serious issues with long term play. Somewhere between 50-100 sessions (which is really a year or two of weekly play) the advancement system sees characters reach a point where the scene design system just falls apart completely. All three groups saw it coming and we'd collectively tried a bunch of homebrew patches for a good six months beforehand, but in the end we just couldn't find something that worked for us.

      Still a very good set of superhero rules and I think all of us have played a few times since the big breakup, but until the company addresses the problem it's pretty much restricted to one-shots, short story arcs, and miniseries that come in under a year or so. The whole situation is made extra weird because there when the full game first came out there one common complaint was that there was no character advancement system. That tells me the early critics didn't know what they were talking about. It not only has an advancement system that grants a steady increase in effective character capability, it's too fast and too poorly integrated with scene design (in D&D terms, the Challenge Rating system) for its own good. I blame inadequate playtesting, since the issue doesn't really appear until a year or more of steady gameplay with the same characters.

    2. Thank you! I'm always interested in supers gaming, especially in settings and/or systems that foster 4-color gaming, let's say. I am very interested in trying out the SC RPG.

    3. @Pampero Don't let my grousing put you off on it. For shorter games it's really quite good, sitting in a sweet spot between high-crunch systems like Champions and Mutants 7 Masterminds and more rules-lite stuff like ICONS or Tiny d6 Supers. There aren't a lot of things in that middle space - Prowlers & Paragons is the other one I'd recommend out from that bracket.

  4. One of the strangest things about gnolls to me is their enormous popularity among miniatures gamers. There have been dozens, possibly hundreds of gnoll sculpts in various scales over the years and new ones generally sell well and get a decent amount of attention in that community. And there are some excellent gnoll figures out there, with a nice variety of armaments and gear.

    But gnolls really aren't supported by many rule systems and never have been. I think the last major game that had an explicitly gnoll-centered faction was WotC's late 90's Chainmail skirmish game. There are enough design-your-own-army-list systems out there that you can get a homebrew gnoll warband or even army on the table easily enough, but targeted mechanical support for them is essentially nonexistent. Certainly nothing like what orcs (or orks) and goblinoids get.

    Doesn't reduce their popularity among folks who rarely or never roleplay any as far as I can see, though.

  5. Caverns of Thracia (1979) has a gnoll on the cover, along with a lizardman, a minotaur, and a "dog brother".

  6. In doing some digging, I came across this: No idea whether it is any good or not, it seems to be *mostly* a reprint of the two most famous stories about gnoles and how they might have influenced D&D.

  7. Most 'furry-like' anthropomorphic illustrations get the heads wrong when converting from 4-legged to 2-legged. As someone pointed out, DiTerlizzi at least makes some attempt to mount the head and shape the spine *more* like a quadruped, giving it an almost snake-like posture.

  8. The cover illustration by Larry Elmore for FR8 Cities of Mystery (1989) prominently features what might be a gnoll. TSR thought well enough of this image to re-use it inside PHBR2 The Complete Book of Thieves, as a booklet cover for the Waterdeep: City of Splendors box set, and mashed together with an Elmore novel cover for the Ravenloft adventure module Neither Man nor Beast. The head looks more like a jackalwere or werewolf, but it's wielding a pair of daggers and dressed in a full outfit.

    You might also consider a Terry Dykstra drawing, in the Champions of Mystara box set (page 29 of the Explorer's Manual), that depicts an armored gnoll stabbing a giant spider, and a Ken Frank drawing, in DMGR5 Creative Campaigning (page 17), of gnolls wearing Renaissance-era clothes and carrying arquebuses.

  9. Wasn't there a curiously gnoll-ish villainous henchman on "Thundercats" ?