Gnoll Tactics

I don’t know about your campaigns, but I think I’ve literally gone my entire Dungeons and Dragons–playing life so far without ever once either using (as a dungeon master) or encountering (as a player) a gnoll. So I’m coming at the final monster in my initial series on humanoids with fresh eyes.

Gnolls are described in the Monster Manual as rapacious raiders, scavengers and nomads with hyena-like heads. They have high Strength and low Intelligence; their behavior is driven by their violent and destructive instincts. Like many other humanoid D&D monsters, they have darkvision. They wield spears and longbows, according to the MM, and they have one distinguishing feature, Rampage, which allows them to move half their speed and make a bonus bite attack after reducing a foe to 0 hp in melee.

Honestly, I’d dispense with the longbow—it doesn’t make sense in the context of what else the MM says about gnolls. Their Strength is high enough that they gain little advantage from using one. They aren’t smart enough to craft one or social enough to barter for one. According to the flavor text, gnolls prefer to strike at easy targets; longbows are designed to puncture armor. And gnolls’ single unique feature is melee-oriented.

So my vision of the gnoll is strictly a hand-to-hand fighter. As creatures with high Strength, high-average Dexterity, average Constitution and a respectable five hit dice, gnolls are shock troops. When they spot a vulnerable target, most likely during a nighttime patrol (darkvision provides advantage against PCs who don’t have it), they strike at once. Despite the premise of this blog—that monsters don’t just go “Rrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” all the time—this is exactly what gnolls do. They’re fearless and aggressive, using their full movement speed to approach their targets, then Attacking (action) with spears; if one such attack reduces an enemy to 0 hp, the gnoll Rampages toward another enemy within 15 feet and bites it (bonus action).

As vicious as they are, however, gnolls are creatures of instinct without ideology, and they’ll place their own survival over such concepts as valor or honor. If one is seriously wounded (8 hp or fewer), it will turn tail and flee, using the Dash action to get away as fast as possible and potentially exposing itself to one or more opportunity attacks in the process.

A pack of gnolls may be led by a gnoll pack lord, which is a more able specimen in every respect, including getting two swings per Attack action and having the Incite Rampage feature. (It also wields a glaive, which I have to imagine, given that even the gnoll pack lord’s Intelligence is only 8, consists of a pillaged sword that it lashed to the end of a spear. By gnoll standards, this surely qualifies as technological genius.)

Incite Rampage is listed under “Actions,” but in fact—this is easy to miss—it’s part of the gnoll pack lord’s Multiattack combo, so the gnoll pack lord doesn’t have to give up its own Attack action to use it. Effectively, what Incite Rampage does is grant another gnoll in the pack (a technicality in the wording of Incite Rampage restricts its application to other gnolls, plus giant hyenas, since these are the only creatures with Rampage) the equivalent of an immediate opportunity attack against its opponent. This happens during the gnoll pack lord’s action. Incite Rampage consumes that gnoll’s reaction, so if its opponent moves out of its reach, it can’t make an actual opportunity attack.

Aside from this feature, the only other distinctive thing about the gnoll pack lord is the fact that its “glaive” (snicker) gives it 10 feet of reach rather than 5 feet. None of this makes the gnoll pack lord’s tactics any more elaborate than a regular gnoll’s.

At first blush, the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu also appears to be little more than an exceptionally able gnoll, with a triple claw/claw/bite Multiattack in lieu of weapons. But the Fang of Yeenoghu has some actual intelligence, so it will maneuver around the battlefield and target vulnerable PCs, particularly those who dish out a lot of damage but can’t take it. Gnolls sense weakness and zero in on it, so assume that the Fang of Yeenoghu can “read” a PC’s hit points and armor class and strike accordingly. This also allows the Fang of Yeenoghu to maximize the value of its Rampage feature, because by targeting PCs with fewer hit points first, it increases its chances of getting to Rampage more than once. If you’re a tenderhearted DM who wants to protect the fragile flowers in your players’ party, don’t throw a Fang of Yeenoghu at them, because that thing’s gotta follow its nature.

One other detail about the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which has nothing to do with its tactics but is still worth noting: Unlike gnolls and gnoll pack lords, the Fang of Yeenoghu isn’t categorized as a humanoid. It’s a fiend, and as such it’s detectable by a paladin’s Divine Sense or a ranger’s Primeval Awareness, and a protection from evil/good spell offers defense against it.

Next: Wrapping up the goblinoid family with goblin bosses, hobgoblins and bugbears.

10 thoughts on “Gnoll Tactics

  1. For gnolls, check Volo’s and read about their hunger, which is their defining trait.

    The trick with their rampage ability is the option to move, but not the necessity. So don’t use it to menace more people, use it to threaten actual kills.

    Gnolls want to eat more than kill, so it makes much more sense for them to stay in place and chow down, forcing a second death save. They can close the gap if they drop it with ranged weapons, but a pack of gnolls would rather eat a single person than drop 2 and eat nothing. In fact it should be terribly alarming to have anyone drop near a gnoll because they’re two death saves deep and any gnolls within 30 feet of the body will swarm it next turn.

    1. This is appropriate, but it’s also situational. Gnolls won’t stop to nosh if they’re still being engaged by remaining living enemies who pose a significant threat. They want to eat, but they’d prefer to do it without being stabbed mid-meal. The greater their numbers, I think, the more likely they’ll do as you suggest.

      1. But a downed opponent can be raised with a (healing) word, while a dead one is in their stomachs (at least 3 bites on a downed foe, enough to keep it down) and honours their god’s hunger. I’m picturing 3 gnolls converging on a squishy, downing him (maybe death save), bite (death save), 2 bites to keep it from moving and then move on.

        It also makes them wonderful adversaries for any kind of ‘protect the villagers’ scenario because they down potentially 2 commoners per round and their movement lets them split up.

  2. Gnolls are boring tactically, but here’s a small way to spice up an encounter. During a gnoll village raid, include a fang of yeenoghu and have it focus on slaughtering npcs. Immediately after a single npc goes down have the packs hyenas munch the corpse, and in a few turns explode spectacularly into a fresh blood coated gnoll! But be sure to have the new one born only after a few more hyenas have fed heh heh.

  3. Pingback: Táticas Gnoll
  4. Also see Maw Demons, which also possess the “Rampage” ability. As demons that belong to Yeenoghu, they make up a wonderful addition to a group of Gnolls raiders with perhaps a savvy Fang cult leader. I always exploit the fact that Gnolls are basically beastial bandits with a demonic flair, personally. Better than boring old normal bandits!

  5. Here’s my take on gnolls that may have some tactical interest, inspired by reading about hyenas in the real world and a little creative massaging of the text.

    My starting-point here is that the Monster Manual says gnolls choose easy targets. Gnolls aren’t bright, but since they use weapons they understand what one is and they can differentiate between armed and unarmed targets; as with any predator they can also distinguish between healthy and vulnerable targets.

    A typical adventuring party is likely to read as “healthy and armed”. So gnolls will only seek an engagement with them if a) the party is wounded or deprived of equipment, or b) if the party is accompanied by others who do not appear to pose a threat – children, the elderly, the infirm.

    Gnolls aren’t particularly stealthy, but they have nightvision and – I’m cribbing from hyena behavior here – are sophisticated non-verbal communicators. So they’re going to strike under cover of darkness, targeting creatures they believe to be small or vulnerable. Vulnerable because they’ll drop to 0 hit points quickly, activating Rampage; small because they’re less likely to slow down a gnoll who is carrying away its prey.

    This is the “massaging” bit: Rampage isn’t intended to get a gnoll to the next enemy, it’s intended to give them a little head start on escaping with its next meal. The bite attack is for its downed quarry – that’s the gnoll, desperately hungry and unable to resist, tucking in while it’s still in the heat of battle.

    What a gnoll considers a good target is going to include kids, elders, the sick and wounded, but also targets that may visually confuse them. Gnomes may read as children to gnolls; monks may seem “weak” by virtue of being unarmed.

    Once all targets considered “vulnerable” have been downed and dragged away, a retreat will be signaled. At this point, unless the party gets lucky, what was a combat encounter is now a chase, with the added urgency that anyone who was taken is at 0 hit points and with another bite in them, meaning they’ve failed TWO death saving throws.

    Aside from being wounded, gnolls will not hang around. If their “weak” targets aren’t going down in more than a couple rounds, gnolls will beat a retreat. But this will likely be a temporary measure with the intention of reassessing their prey’s state and perhaps returning to wear them down further when they let their guard down. They may repeat their attacks until sufficiently badly wounded or sufficiently sated by whoever they managed to carry off.

    This might suggest the sort of monster that should have some special Disengage ability or something, whereas gnolls aren’t particularly fast or agile; I put this down to the idea that any gnoll willing to attack an armed party, even one at less than full strength, is already going to be hungry and desperate enough to accept a couple opportunity attacks.

    So there you have it: gnolls aren’t sophisticated, but they understand weakness, and you bring them into the action only to put pressure on a weakened party rather than an open fight. Does that tally with the official “lore” on gnolls? I have no idea and honestly I don’t really care. But it does at least create scenarios where it would make some sense to use gnolls as opposed to orcs, bugbears etc.

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