I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.
That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:
- They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
- They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
- That’s pretty much it.
And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.)
Only one sentence in this section strikes me as remotely insightful: “Gnolls use ranged attacks mainly to prevent their prey from fleeing, rather than softening up their targets with an initial barrage of arrows before an assault.” That’s consistent with my earlier assessment that gnolls’ features overwhelmingly favor melee attacks over ranged attacks. I’d accept this amendment as one condition under which it makes some sense for a gnoll to use a bow. (The subsequent sentence on gnolls’ use of fire arrows, however, is absurd. Fire arrows are a cinematic invention; in reality, a flaming tip ruins arrows’ most useful characteristics. In my own campaigns, I don’t allow fire arrows at all.)
There are four new gnoll variants in Volo’s: the gnoll hunter, the gnoll flesh gnawer, the gnoll witherling and the flind.
The gnoll hunter has high enough Dexterity to qualify it as a shock attacker and high enough Wisdom to identify weak targets, and it has proficiency in Stealth. Its longbow attack also has the added virtue of slowing its target’s speed by 10 feet on a hit, giving it the combination of attacking from hiding, then running down its target to finish it off with melee attacks.
The gnoll flesh gnawer has a high Dexterity, but instead of being a sniper, it has the Sudden Rush feature, which simply lets it charge into melee faster. The exemption from opportunity attacks allows it to charge right past its opponents’ front line to get at weaker targets in back. Unfortunately, its merely average Wisdom suggests that it’s not that discriminating in its target selection.
The gnoll witherling is undead, and it gets an extra attack as a reaction whenever one of its allies is killed. It’s also immune to poison and exhaustion. That’s it.
The flind has a magic flail. The flail has three different powers, but the flind doesn’t get to choose among them; instead, its Multiattack comprises one use of each. The flind’s Aura of Blood Thirst power also grants gnoll allies within 10 feet of it an extra bite attack as a bonus action. That ups their damage, but it doesn’t affect their tactics in any way. It affects the flind’s only to the extent that it benefits from being surrounded by lots of allies, as opposed to running off on its own, so that’s where it will stay.
Before Volo’s, gnolls seemed to me to be largely useful as monsters to encounter randomly during travels across hills, grasslands, forests and deserts, not to have meaningful interactions with. Volo’s hasn’t changed that; in fact, I’d now go further and say that unless you’re building an entire campaign that eventually pits your PCs against the Demon Lord Yeenoghu himself, there’s no reason to include gnolls in it except as random encounters. Stupid, savage killing machines are just . . . dull.