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.