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Da Ga-Noll
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

I 'm not sure why I take such joy in goofing around with the name of today’s monster. Da ga-noll. But much like the ill-fated ga-nome, I just can’t say the names straight. Maybe it’s just the kid hidden deep down that still likes to say ka-niggits (knights), wipe-kins (napkins), and a plethora of other silly names. I might get a little goofy with the name, but the gnoll is nothing but serious business.

When we first sat down to review the gnoll, we started off with the simple description:

“Seven feet tall (hunched head forward at the chest), humanoid bodies, with hyenalike heads. Hyena spotting and yellow fur. Swift and bloodthirsty savages that worship the demon prince Yeenoghu, a giant demonic gnoll.”

Pretty simple, eh?

When we dug into the visual archives, we found some variety in the art, but I wouldn’t say that we were worlds apart in our depictions when compared to the written description. Well, at least they were all humanoid. Color variations abounded and sometimes they looked like hyenas, sometimes like wolves, and sometimes like foxes. So we had to nail it down and define it a little better. I need to have a visual world bible that helps hold the world together—not let it run amok.

First we started by pulling together some references and built the “one-sheet” that showed what we were playing with. (A one-sheet is a simple document where reference assets and important descriptive text elements are collected to provide the creative direction to the creative teams.) Like I said, the gnoll hasn’t wandered too far, but it isn’t really matching up with the story at this point 100 percent.

Then we talked about what was working and what wasn’t, including where we had strayed from the story and where we were faithful to it. The one place we were unanimous was this: it shouldn’t look like a werewolf! At that point we really locked on to the hyena ideal.

All the illustrations we had could be made into decent gnolls, but we wanted better than decent. We wanted a guy that really fulfilled the story elements James talked about in his recent article.

Some of the comments that James made in the article really hit home.

  • “. . . predominantly chaotic evil, and thus lacking in structured social organizations or regimented military forces.”
  • “. . . tend to be strong and pretty dumb.”
  • “. . . wear hides and scavenged pieces of armor.”
  • “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.”
  • “Gnolls are more agile (high Dexterity) and poor leaders (low Charisma).”

When we took into consideration those flavor notes and the physical descriptions, then mixed in some of our historical images, the vision quickly came into focus. Okay, maybe not that quickly, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as the owlbear process was.

We started by looking at a number of concepts to explore the breadth of the idea.

Then we mulled over a few of the comments mentioned above and came up with these considerations.

Chaotic evil and depraved. These guys aren’t going to be warm and fuzzy. They are dark, corrupt, and villainous. So we have to push the design darker. One of the things that really jumped out at me was the idea of a hunched character. It has a nice corrupt and evil feel to it. Upright creatures always feel kind of noble—almost good—in nature. So, a couple of concepts lent themselves to continued exploration on this front. Then we just pushed them further.

Strong and dumb. Small beady eyes, lower foreheads, strong oversized hands, muscular build. All the physical characteristics support the idea of strong and dumb. Figuring out how to adapt these characteristics to a man/hyena mix is where the fun is. The hyena is a pretty strong and stocky creature to begin with, and integrating these elements with the human form was already working pretty well in the early concepting. At this point, it was simply a matter of playing up the features to try to make the design fit the story better. All the concepts hit on this strong and dumb idea okay, but some had more promise than others.

Hides and scavenged armor. Again, the concepts were tackling the armor aspect of gnolls pretty well. And again, I wanted to push the concept a little further. These guys were not crafters of armor—rather they were “accumulators.” They pulled together bits and pieces that they could find on their victims, and they fashioned them into something useful. I wanted to see pieces of armor being used in uncommon ways: a bit of barding used here, some chainmail here, a bit of leather and cloth over here.

Agile. I bring agility up because I mentioned that the hyena was rather stocky and muscular. The hyena doesn’t look necessarily fast or agile; it kind of looks like a little tank with teeth. So I wanted to push the design a bit so that these guys had a little more lean and lank to them—especially in the arms and legs.

We did a few more rounds of concepting, and we finally hit upon a design that I really like. When I look at him, he really seems to match up with the story that R&D put into play for him. He feels like he breathes some life into the description of the physical and cultural aspects of the gnoll. What are your thoughts? Do you think we matched the visual and the written elements of gnolls?

 Does the visual rendition above match with the written description, as presented in the Wandering Monsters article that described gnolls?  

 If you could change one thing about the gnoll to make it match the written description better, what would you change?  
Nothing. I like the gnoll just the way it is depicted.
I'd make the gnoll look even more evil and depraved.
I'd make the gnoll look stronger.
I'd make the gnoll look dumber.
I'd make the gnoll look more agile.
I'd make the armor look more pieced together or cruder.
I'd change the gnoll in some other way. I'll explain in the comments.
Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at
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