Friday, September 5, 2014

Gnolls is weird.

If you're a Challenge Rating person I'm sorry but in those terms the gnoll occupies a space between the orc and the bugbear on a particular ladder which is thought traditional, but the only reason I think it's traditional is that they're a bunch of monsters about whom the most interesting thing to be said is that they work for bad guys in structured groups. They're ascending armies. You could have one stat block that said "Army Guy" and a chart for Army Guy advancement. I know that this magazine article or that novel or this setting or that edition had some gnoll you love and I don't care any more than I care about the novelization of ET when watching ET. The film is my primary text and the virtues and lack thereof within the text are not mitigated or turned around because Spielberg also produced Gremlins.

As I mentioned with kobolds I use Moldvay Basic as my primary text for old school dnd monsters. There are arguments against this but I reiterate, and this cannot be stressed enough, I think, given the sociological implications: go away.

So then, "Gnolls are beings of low intelligence that appear to be human-like hyenas." That's a pretty specific point of reference to start off with, isn't it? I mean I like it a lot because of that but just as a Dire Kangaroo might be hard to transpose to another environment the hyena-man is, too. Why not just call them hyena-men? Probably because they had a specific game logic for dealing with lycanthropy and its relatives and they didn't want to mess around too much in similar headspace. (They eventually would do a ton of this but not yet.)

That's fine and all but three sentences later: "Gnolls are rumored to be the result of a magical combination of a gnome and a troll by an evil magic-user." What? Fucking what?

This word for gnoll had been around in the game for a bit by Basic and Advanced's giggling murderer and it baffles me. Gnomes are small, clever, and generally nice. Trolls are big, dumb, and usually nasty. Averaging those two things out gives you a kind of guy not a hyena, normal enough if unremarkable. Maybe a bit odd lookin'.

What is the provenance of gnolls as a name and idea? According to the Internet's Friend One Town Over it's these two stories which say fuck and all about gnomes, trolls, hyenas, or anything, but holy shit DO NOT MAKE HOUSE CALLS ON THESE GUYS.

So I think there are four monsters here sharing space.

There is the hybrid, the troll gnome, who is sharp and hideous, and in lieu of magic or troll regeneration has the ability to swap between 6" and 9' and all levels in between. They get an AC bonus smaller than 3', a damage bonus and speed penalty larger than 6', and smaller than 1' means they do no damage on a hit but can still grab you or inject you with a poison needle or something. They are generally nasty. Let's call these tromes.

There is the gnole who dwells in creepy shelters and cottages in the deep and creepy woods, who watch the world from behind and within trees, who look like some tuber dipped in ink. They have a language of vibration and movement but nothing else, deaf and dumb. They are never surprised, because they watch. They keep a network of tentacles wrapped around themselves at all times, have short legs, toothy maws, snake tongues, and they have eyes like precious stones which they can grow more than one pair of, swapping out as their eyes get tired. They live and behave in approximations of the lives, they guess, of the people they trap and kill, and festoon their world with their ornaments and fashions. Basically these little fuckers are awesome and are showing up in a game as soon as I can get them to a table.

There is the idea of the dumb, savage, cruel, hyena-like bruiser monster from the Army Man ranks, and to me the real meat of is it in the idea of them being created. There is a patient zero for us having gnolls. I think the word we use then is knoll, and instead of created we say grown. You seed the land with tall grasses (like the Serengeti!), orange and brown spots, amber waves of pain. You water them with cursed blood and the water from heated bones. The creature who rises has the earth for its blood, stone for its skull and teeth, and yes looks very like a bipedal hyena with the way the wet and earthy grasses lay. You raise your knolls and send them off to kill for you. They are great at hiding and sneaking up on someone, a field of grasses surrounding your kingdom in the night, some knolls stalking from within others. They communicate chemically, by scent and touch, by mixing with one another...most knolls are also other knolls. They do not reproduce, this is spell technology. You've taught soil and weeds to love the taste of the living. Something like this gets around.

There's hyena-mans, the most boring I think, unless you want to play around with the idea of a creature race impossible to sex at a distance, which you should. Hyena-mans shouldn't speak like Scooby Doo. Their mouths should always be open, biting or snarling or opening impossible wide as a low growl escapes, speaking independent of what the rest of them is doing, and the yipping sound of laughter should be constant, following them around like a cloud of fear sound like Pigpen of fucking you up.

Looking at this list someone could make a pretty fun adventure, if a bit Abbott and Costello, just from a "War of the Gnolls". Maybe they're fighting for a role in a great prophecy? Maybe all four types only EXIST because of transcription errors by careless monks through the centuries, and those scriptures are prescriptive, and they illuminated them into being, meaning that getting your hands on them and adding your own commandments would be the real prize?