A recent discussion about Dungeons & Dragons humanoids and creatures revealed some key insights as to how Wizards of the Coast looks at gnolls. A frequent discussion in Dungeons & Dragons circles involves how the game treats various "monstrous races," specifically in how they are treated as monolithic cultures with common (usually evil) alignment and motivations. This discussion led to Wizards of the Coast releasing a statement yesterday detailing their efforts to bring the game more in line with their values, which includes not presenting orcs and drow as inherently evil or driven by bloodlust or similar generalities and instead reflecting that they are individuals with free will.
While drow and orcs were specifically mentioned in Dungeons & Dragons' most recent statement, one other "monstrous race" was not - the gnolls. These hyena-like creatures have long been a part of D&D lore, usually as bloodthirsty monsters driven by an insatiable hunger. Although classified as "humanoids" in the Monster Manual, the prevalent lore in Fifth Edition describes gnolls in the same vein as demons or other creatures driven by corruptive evil forces. Volo's Guide to Monsters explains that gnolls (at least in the Forgotten Realms) are hyenas transformed by the demon lord Yeenoghu's influence to act as extensions of his will. They are described as an "elemental force," an embodiment of demonic hunger and an extension of Yeenoghu's will.
However, Volo's Guide to Monsters' description of carnivorous demonspawn differs from how gnolls are depicted in the Eberron campaign setting and other worlds, where gnolls are intelligent humanoids no different than other races. In a recent discussion that preceded Wizards of the Coast's statement on diversity, D&D designer Jeremy Crawford provided an explanation as how these conflicting ideas are looked at by the design team. In a tweet, Crawford notes that the design team internally "feel that the gnolls in the [Monster Manual] are mistyped" and that they should be classified as fiends, not humanoids. However, the gnolls of Eberron should be classified as humanoids, "a people with moral and cultural expansiveness" similar to how orcs, drows, and other groups are depicted in that world.
Given the lore that surrounds gnolls (they are literally born out of hyenas bloated from eating corpses left behind by Yeenoghu), they absolutely should be fiends in the Forgotten Realms, a classification reserved for demons, devils, and other extraplanar forces of evil. And while it's unclear whether the Monster Manual will address this or not in future reprints, Crawford's explanation gives a bit of insight as to how DMs should approach gnolls when using them as described in Volo's Guide to Monsters.
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