When building a campaign with gnoll encounters in DnD 5e, or building a gnoll adventure, consider the following elements:
- Gnoll history and creation—Yeenoghu
- Understand the pack layout and motivation
- Set adventure in the wild: hunting, survival, savannahs and jungles.
- Utilize gnoll tactics in encounters: ambush and overrun.
- Make the adventure scary/grimdark
In Dungeons and Dragons 5e, gnolls are savage, hyena-like humanoids—somewhat similar to a lycanthrope. They come from a demon lord named Yeenoghu, who is the manifestation of savagery in the DnD universe. Thus, the carrion-eating, ruthless hyena became his weapon of choice, as he summoned hordes of these beasts to create his first gnoll servants.
Gnoll history and creation—Yeenoghu
Gnolls are the result of a demon incursion on the Material Plane from the lord of savagery, Yeenoghu. This demon lord is the master of ravenous hunger and destruction, choosing the fierce, carrion-eating hyena as a vessel for earthly servants. Thus, the first gnolls were born, continuing Yeenoghu’s goal of total world destruction.
From this source of creation, gnolls remain connected to their dark lord, receiving an unquenchable blood thirst. In fact, feasting on ordinary meat is often not good enough for gnoll. They are driven to seek out intelligent victims with unyielding drive. This makes them daunting foes—the savage warriors won’t stop until they eat you.
For the gnolls, honor and ego are nonexistent. They only live to feed and destroy as much as possible. Therefore, they are more likely to pick off weak targets as a natural predator would. All of this to say, if a well-armed party of adventurers are being attacked by gnolls, there’s a good reason.
This is a good chance to use Yeenoghu as the overarching villain—or at least the source of power the party must defeat. The motivation for the adventure could be to retrieve a powerful relic infused with Yeenoghu’s power. Or the party could be at ground zero for a second incursion, where the gnolls are just the tip of the monster iceberg.
Understand Gnoll Pack Layout and Motivation
Like most feral animals who live in packs, gnolls are dominated by an alpha—the pack lord. However, the other details about the pack can be mixed, with many variations and roles for the pack members. Some packs are even mixed with other creatures like trolls and ghouls—whoever can relate or benefit from the gnolls’ savagery and bloodlust.
A Pack Lord or Flind will run the pack and is its strongest member. Pack Lords tend to carry large weapons and carve blood runes into themselves. These runes grant the pack lord power from Yeenoghu himself. Flinds are unique pack lords who possess an especially strong connection with Yeenoghu. These gnolls are larger than the rest, carrying a magical flail with several attacks.
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Gnoll Fangs of Yeenoghu hold a special role in the pack—making new gnolls. This member anoints the bodies of gnoll victims, allowing hyenas to devour the remains. These hyenas devour so much that they explode, resulting in a new gnoll. Hardcore.
Gnoll Warriors, Hunters and Flesh Gnawers make up the bulk of the pack, the latter 2 acting as scout troops for the main forces. With archers, fast ambushers and bulky warriors, gnolls will soften a target up before overwhelming its defenses.
Packs are built around one objective—feed and spread. The gnolls’ natural hunger is a force of nature. In fact, they are nearly mindless with bloodlust. Therefore, motivation for these monsters is simple. Either Yeenoghu himself has commanded his servants to attack the well-armed party, or the party is merely caught in the path of a warband.
Set adventure in the wild: hunting, survival, savannahs and jungles.
Predator themes are strong in the 5e gnoll monster, being born from hyenas and driven to hunt. Therefore, this campaign will need to tap into elements of hunting and survival. We can think of this as a theme for the overall adventure, building out treacherous, isolated landscapes for the party to venture through.
Plus, settings similar to Africa can tap into the hyena theme and bring the adventure outside of the typical medieval European setting. The party can begin the adventure in a kingdom inspired by any of Africa’s diverse cultures. Then, the party must venture into a trying wilderness.
Hunting and Survival Elements
Now that the party is off on an adventure, we should consider how the quest through the wilderness plays out. We don’t want simple walking. We want action, survival and to challenge the elements.
Perhaps the party was hired by a nearby kingdom to slay a menacing creature only to be hunted themselves. Now, isolated from the kingdom’s army, the party realizes they are being tracked across a savannah or through a jungle. Thus, we create the trope of the hunter being hunted. Build up the tension by slowly uncovering this information.
This is a good opportunity to play survivor mode, implementing:
- Food rations—what if a character falls into quicksand and loses their food?
- Water rations—the search for water can be difficult in the savannah’s dry season.
- Hunting—use Survival checks to track and Stealth checks to stalk. Naturally, the hunter will want to use a projectile weapon, so the creature doesn’t flee.
- Wildlife—consider the whole ecology of the savannah or jungle the party is questing through. A lion can be just as dangerous as a monster.
- Weather—roll for random storms that forces adventurers to find or make cover.
Utilize D&D 5e Gnoll Tactics in Encounters.
The pack should come in numbers, using their various warriors with unrelenting yet clever tactics.
Let’s set up a scenario—the biggest hoard of gnolls you’ve ever heard of is attacking a city, sent by Yeenoghu himself.
First, the scouts will pick off stragglers and prod for weaknesses. These scouts are made up of Hunters and Flesh Gnawers. Hunters will use ranged attacks, while the berserker Flesh Gnawers move unhindered to engage in melee combat. In fact, the party and town NPCs may not even know an attack is imminent until engaging these forces.
Strange Gnoll Witherlings and various other ghouls and demons may fall in next, taking the brunt of the defenses as the pack closes in.
Then, the warriors fall in—the bruisers with heavy melee weapons. You can bet these warriors will wield a longbow as well, but not much armor. By this point, tactics have all but fallen apart for the main force. The bloodlust has taken over, with each member of this class able to go into Rampage after felling an opponent. This means the foes will drop one person or NPC to 0 and gain a bonus action to bite another foe.
Within this group of warriors, the pack lord or hulking flind will get their share. These aren’t the kind of leaders that stay in the back and think strategically. They are just as blinded by bloodlust as the rest of the pack. The flind’s magic 3-tailed flail is something to watch out for, as it can paralyze, induce fear and add a mean amount of psychic damage.
Make it Scary/Grimdark.
This campaign is going to need elements of grimdark fantasy—a mixture of horror and fantasy. With all the eating people and blood magic, it’s going to get a little gory.
Building fear means building tension. As I mentioned before, the DM can give the party clues that they are being tracked. It should be subtle at first—you want to genuinely plant the question in the players’ heads. Strange tracks, far away noises, even a strange feeling using Insight checks can be used to unveil this tracking party.
Naturally, the first few encounters will introduce Flesh Gnawers and undead Witherlings. Build these smaller encounters with this tension, revealing a gruesome predator or skeletal flesh creature.
Finally, we build to a climax—the party must stop a second incursion from the demon lord Yeenoghu before the entire planet is swept away in a bloodthirsty gnoll apocalypse. You know, scary.