Monster Analysis: Gnolls (Alfield)

Thanks to @GalacticJonah for this art piece!

“When gnolls are weakened, they seek out isolated settlements, maim and disable its inhabitants, and feed upon them as they rest and regain strength.” - Volo’s Guide to Monsters, p153

Long ago, carrion hyenas fed upon the grisly remains of the rampage of a demon lord. As their numbers grew, their form began to take on the cursed blessing of this entity, following him in an ever-growing pack of evil and reckless carnage until he was banished to the Abyss. In his disappearance, these cursed humanoids spread across the world, a sign of Yeenoghu’s persistent threat, interest in, and ongoing massacre of the entire Material Plane.

While their ever-present hunger for flesh and destruction guides their every action, gnolls will still choose their battles, targeting weak and exposed villages and victims that allow them to dominate and continue their path of destruction. They are even more disinclined to target defended settlements when their numbers are weakened, implying that the war band at Alfield, while overwhelming, are not necessarily at full capacity. It’s unclear at this time if the bodies loaded on the cart represent anything more than an addition to the gnolls’ food reserves, leaving a mystery for the party and the forces of Alfield to investigate.

Standard Gnoll

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  • First appearance: 2-05 The Open Road
  • Armor Class 15
  • Speed 30 ft
  • Darkvision 60 ft, Passive 10
  • Suggested average, max HP: 22, 40
    • 1: 17+ damage taken, Unknown finishing blow from Crownsguard longbow
    • 2: 27 damage taken, 8 finishing blow from Beau’s quarterstaff
    • 3: 11 damage taken, escaped with the cart
    • 4: 19 damage taken, 10 finishing blow from a Crownsguard longbow
    • 5: 19 damage taken, 7 finishing blow from Beau’s Unarmed Strike
    • 6: 26 damage taken, 26 finishing blow from Jester’s Inflict Wounds

While a gnoll and its reckless thirst for destruction is not to be trifled with, the average adventuring PC can still deal with a single standard gnoll. These gnolls seemed to share the majority the Monster Manual's suggestions, including their low HP totals, negative intelligence modifiers, and lower wisdom modifiers than suggested value. Individually, they are of slight concern.

The real fear comes in their sheer numbers. Proficient in spears, longbows, and teeth, their barrage maimed and killed many a Crownsguard and resident. Their Rampage went mercifully undemonstrated, which would have allowed them to move half their speed for an additional bite attack as a bonus action after reducing a target to 0 HP.

Gnoll Witherling

  • First appearance: 2-05 The Open Road
  • Armor Class 14 (suggested 12)
  • Speed 30 ft
  • Darkvision 60 ft, Passive 10
  • Immune to poison, poisoned, and exhaustion
  • Suggested average, max HP: 11, 18
    • 1: 13 damage taken, 10 finishing blow by Jester’s Spiritual Weapon
    • 2: 11 damage taken, 11 finishing blow by Crownsguard heavy crossbow
    • 3: 8 damage taken, 8 finishing blow by Beau’s quarterstaff
    • 4: 17 damage taken, 8 finishing blow by Bryce’s morningstar

When food is scarce, or there’s a battle for control of a gnoll pack, gnolls turn their violence and hunger on each other. Those that do not survive such a fray are eaten, but their bones are preserved to be reanimated into undead witherlings through a ritual of Yeenoghu. The witherling no longer feels the hunger of a living gnoll, but carries the same violent drive it carried in life.

The witherlings are pulled from Volo's Guide (p155), and also seemed to share the textbook recommendations with very little variation. The party easily dispatched the four witherlings in Alfield, especially with their lower AC, HP, and even lower intelligence and sense of self-preservation. The first witherling charged after Nott's illusion before falling to Molly’s Vicious Mockery and Jester’s lollipop Spiritual Weapon, while a Crownsguard dispatched the second witherling. The third and fourth witherlings actually managed to deal some damage (six to Beau and 11 to Jester, respectively), but fell all the same (Beau's crossbow, and the Watchmaster's morningstar).

Gnoll Pack Lord

Thanks to @Wien_Rose for this piece!

  • First appearance: 2-05 The Open Road
  • Armor Class 16
  • Speed 30 ft
  • Darkvision 60 ft, Passive 10
  • Suggested average, max HP: 49, 89
  • 65 damage taken before escaping

The pack lord earns its place by sheer brute force, willingly sacrificing its lesser pack mates to assert its dominance over foe and ally alike. Even had Fjord’s disguise been successful longer than the initial deception, it would have mattered little once he challenged the alpha.

At this level of play, his ability to multiattack is much more devastating. His Incite Rampage ability (which recharges on a 5-6 on a d6) allows one ally he could see within 30 feet of him to use a reaction to take a melee attack, one of which landed a blow on Beau. Although the pack lord stayed out of the fray for the first two rounds, merely barking orders, in round 3, he began to assert his dominance over the party. This gave his allies time to load and flee with the cart while he provided ample intimidation for both sides to stand down. Even the slightest hint of challenge from Nott resulted in him downing both Nott and Molly in a single turn with his longbow.

The Party Intervenes

Beau setting herself as the primary target was one of the best decisions of the fight, forcing the gnolls to waste most of their attacks on her instead of landing on others. Combining the unarmored monks’ AC (10 + Dex mod + Wis mod) with Beau’s defensive stance rendered her nigh impervious to the gnolls’ barrage. Even one of the five of 11 hits that made contact against her was reduced to zero, as she turned the arrow back on her attackers through the monk ability to Deflect Missiles.

Fjord's brief control of one of the gnolls through Crown of Madness saved a few attacks the party would have taken as he incited some brief in-fighting. His disguised diversion also did not last particularly long, but allowed him to move through the streets without provoking attacks from the gnolls. His Armor of Agathys also provided decent protection against the pack lord, returning ten points of damage to the gnoll.

Caleb focused his spellcasting on the big guy and staying out of harm’s way. He put the first of his new 2nd-level spell slots to use to cast Blur to make himself harder to hit (AC 11 hurts). He stuck to ranged spell attacks, casting Scorching Ray and Chromatic Orb to do an impressive amount of damage against the Pack Lord.

Nott, as we discussed in our level 3 character class update, is a hybrid caster/physical damage dealer as an Arcane Trickster Rogue, and she put both halves of her abilities to use against the gnolls. Casting Silent Illusion gave the kill-hungry gnolls something to fire at while the rest of the party prepared pre-battle casting or movement. Additionally, it lured out one of the witherlings, which Jester and Molly dispatched before initiative was even rolled. For the first two official rounds of battle, Nott fired her crossbow to back up Beau. Then, she cast another supportive spell, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, which enabled Jester to critically hit the affected gnoll.

Speaking of Jester, she made use of the gnoll’s distraction before the battle by Invoking Duplicity and casting her first 2nd-level spell, Spiritual Lollip-- we mean, Spiritual Weapon. Being 3rd level allowed Jester to deal damage (Guiding Bolt, Sacred Flame, and Inflict Wounds) while also leaving enough casting ability to heal herself, Molly, and Nott, the latter two she revived from unconsciousness.

We saw the first glimpse of Molly’s Blood Hunter Order, the Ghostslayers, when he dragged his scimitars across his body to invoke the Rite of the Dawn. Previously, his only Rite dealt cold damage. He spent his turns dealing damage to the gnoll that stayed within melee range of him. He wisely used his Blood Maledict, Curse of the Eyeless, to force that same gnoll to attack with disadvantage, negating a critical hit.

Even with Nott and Molly down and a horde of gnolls at his side, the pack leader still chose to retreat as the remaining party members stood back, with the Crownsguard slowly gathering their wits and providing enough support for the gnolls to decide they had plundered enough. Had the gnolls not already been in a hurry to escape, their lust for carnage may not have left any survivors on the battlefield.

For more information about gnolls, check out “Gnolls: The Insatiable Hunger” in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, available on DnDBeyond.com!