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Orcs and Gnolls
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

I n a recent Rule-of-Three article, Rodney Thompson talked a little bit about our approach to monster design. That column was well-timed, because we’re starting a big push on monsters right now. The D&D Story Team is leading the charge on this effort for the moment, and this column is a place for us to share what we’re thinking so that we can solicit your input.

Our job right now has very little to do with monster statistics. We are tasked with making sure that everyone is in agreement about the core story idea of D&D’s most important monsters. We’re going to be producing one-page documents for each of those monsters, and each page will describe what they are, what they’re good and not-so-good at, how they live, how they fight, what their special abilities are, and what they look like. The idea is that we can hand these documents over to the design team, and the designers can provide statistics that express all that information in the context of the D&D Next rules.

At the same time, we can also give these documents to a team or a licensing partner working on a D&D board game, digital game, or T-shirt design, so they can take that information and find the right expression of those monsters for their own particular media. In the case of T-shirt design, we just need to make sure the dragon on the shirt is recognizable as a D&D dragon. But for digital games and the like, when you’re fighting an orc in any D&D game, you should recognize it as a D&D orc—not just because it looks like an orc, but because it acts like an orc.

So this column is a way for us to make sure we’re not going wildly astray. I have a lot of issues and questions I want to explore and get your opinion on as this column continues—we’ll talk about goblinoids, wereboars, metallic dragons, locathah, yuan-ti, devils, wolverines, and more before we’re done. It seemed to me that a good place to start was with the Rule-of-Three article from July 3, 2012.

That's not always going to be the case, though; many monsters, especially among the humanoids, are likely to be very similar in their numerical statistics. As such, they may need something more exceptions-based to differentiate them from one another, so that you feel the difference when you're fighting an orc as opposed to a gnoll.
—from Rule-of-Three: 07/03/2012

The various humanoid races were a starting point for our discussions, and orcs and gnolls make a good example of the sorts of things we’ve been talking about. Let’s start with orcs.

Orcs

Orcs are savage, both in the sense of being fiercely violent and untamed, and in the historically loaded sense of being uncivilized and primitive in their technology. They’re good at offense—when an orc hits you, you’re going to feel it. They use big weapons such as greataxes or greatclubs. And they’re known for their fury in combat, launching a ferocious and violent assault against their foes. They’re strong and hardy—you’d expect orcs to have high Strength and Constitution scores—but they’re not very smart (low Intelligence).

They’re not so good at defense. They rely on their sheer ferocity to keep them going despite their wounds, rather than wearing heavy armor to protect them from wounds. Their choice of armor ties to their primitive technology as well: you expect to see orcs in piecemeal armor, such as hides ornamented with plates and belts stripped from fallen foes. The armor serves as a souvenir of past successful battles as well as protection.

Similarly, orcs aren’t very good at organization. They’re chaotic evil, gathering in loose bands or tribes where the strongest rule and the weak are bullied or killed. They do have a modicum of social order, with a rough hierarchy based on relative strength, and they use ritualized combat to resolve challenges. In combat, it’s every orc for itself, with each orc more interested in earning personal glory than in securing victory for the group. They hate sunlight, and they fight less effectively in daylight.

Orcs raid neighboring settlements for treasure, supplies, and slaves. Their bands leave trails of destruction, slaughtering and burning everything in their path. Those unlucky enough to be captured by orcs are put to work, and these slaves work until they die from exhaustion or starvation.

The bulk of an orc band is made up of common orcs with little in the way of special abilities. Powerful individual orcs with special abilities might include an Eye of Gruumsh (an orc champion devoted to the one-eyed orc god), or a cleric or shaman who serves any one of the orc deities. Other uncommon individuals in a band include orogs (larger, elite orcs) and berserkers, who turn their race’s natural ferocity into a thing of terror on the battlefield.

To borrow a turn of phrase from the original AD&D Player’s Handbook, “Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish.” In other words, you can also expect to see a number of very orclike half-orcs fighting among a tribe of orcs. Ogrillons (half-ogre orcs) are a particularly fierce breed, and half-orcs with human parentage can put their superior intelligence to good use in leading groups of orcs, though they must constantly prove their strength and ferocity to defend their positions against challengers who see them as weak. As well as half-orcs, it’s common to see ogres, boars, and wolves as allies to an orc band.

Gnolls

Gnolls have certain characteristics in common with orcs. Both races are predominantly chaotic evil, and thus lacking in structured social organizations or regimented military forces. Gnolls gather in family groups (packs) that are led by the strongest individual, which is sometimes a female. Both orcs and gnolls tend to be strong and pretty dumb. They both might have champions who fly into berserker rage during combat, and they wear hides and scavenged pieces of armor.

On the other hand, gnolls have a lot to differentiate them from the savage orcs, and these differences are largely tied to their close association with hyenas. Hyenas are actually pretty disturbing animals. The strange laughing sound they’re known for can be really eerie. They’re also a strange example of convergent evolution: an animal related to cats and mongooses that looks more like a dog. Strange anatomy, the way they mark their territory—hyenas are just strange. I suspect that’s why folklore tends to associate them with witchcraft and grave robbing.

Gnolls are strange and loathsome, too, largely because of their close association with the demon prince Yeenoghu. They’re demon worshipers, so they’re not just savage like orcs, they’re downright depraved. Gnolls kill and dismember their foes because they enjoy it. According to the 2nd Edition AD&D Monstrous Manual, they “favor intelligent creatures over animals [as prey] because they scream better.” They offer blood sacrifices to their demon prince, and they’re sometimes rewarded with the aid of a demon for their next raid or assault.

In addition to their interactions with demons, gnolls often have hyenas (or the giant dire hyenas) as guard animals or companions, treating them as members of the same pack. Occasionally multiple packs join together for large raids, though fighting between members of different packs is common during these raids, particularly when they squabble over food. A town or village that suffers such a raid is an eerie and terrifying place: blood is splattered and smeared over floors and walls, and only scraps of bodies remain uneaten. Any residents who survive the attack are dragged back to the gnolls’ home and tortured, sacrificed to Yeenoghu, or simply eaten when the gnolls have regained their appetite.

A few other things that differentiate gnolls from orcs: Gnolls are more agile (high Dexterity) and poor leaders (low Charisma). They have accomplished archers, partly because of that high Dexterity. Gnolls are cowardly, so they’re apt to flee from a fight that turns against them. They prefer hunting in outdoor environments (having no difficulties in sunlight), though they make their lairs in caves.

Unusual gnolls in a pack might include the beastmasters who work most closely with the hyenas, specialized archers or rangers, demon summoners, and sacred warriors believed to be imbued with the killing spirit of Yeenoghu.

What Do You Think?

So now you’ve read an example of the kind of things we’re thinking about monsters right now. We’ve gone through the most common humanoid races, and we’re talking about the iconic undead right now.

How are we doing? Would you say these descriptions match up with your ideas of what D&D orcs and gnolls are? Did we miss the mark? Did we forget something important? Let us know in the poll below and in the comments, and we’ll be back next week to talk about another group of monsters.

 How well do the orcs we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D orc?  
1—You call that an orc?
2—It has some vague orclike features.
3—It’s half orc, half something else.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as an orc.
5—It is the paragon of orcishness.

 How well do the gnolls we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D gnoll?  
1—If that’s a gnoll, I’m a laughing hyena.
2—You got the hyena part right, at least.
3—I can see gnoll from here.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a gnoll.
5—Yeenoghu would be proud.
James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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