Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adding Culture: Gnolls, the syncretic nomads

Adding Culture 2: Gnolls, the syncretic nomads

For my latest work (and for my upcoming OSR version) I designed player character-friendly variants of existing iconic monsters in Pathfinder, such as the giant and the medusa.  Many 3rd Party Pathfinder books which provide playable races create new options as opposed to drawing upon existing fantasy archetypes.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it always felt weird to ignore the myriad creatures which already exist in the Monster Manuals.

When designing new monster PCs for Playable Monsters Vol. 1, I came upon the gnolls. Traditionally they weren't much different than orcs: evil, might makes right society, enslaved those weaker than themselves, live in the wilderness, etc.  As part of redesigning their society, I decided to  make them nomadic, people born and raised among the plains, badlands, and deserts of the world.  Eventually their far-flung migrations gave them a distinct edge in trading rare goods, and many gnolls took up the art of mercantilism.

Gnoll clans also resorted to raiding in lean times, but they tended to restrict their theft towards stealth at night to avoid sparking violence and blood feuds.  As long as they took only what was necessary, gnoll clans tolerated this as a necessary evil.  Of course, this does not always end ideally, and a lot of folk who might otherwise welcome their trade fear them in times of drought and famine.

Due to their travels, gnolls interact with all manner of cultures, and as a result they learn of more faiths than sedentary villagers would.  Gnolls acknowledge the existence and influence of many deities and spirits, and often pay homage to local shrines and temples so that the deity of the region's people would grant them safe passage.  Bouts of good fortune might even turn their one-time show of respect to long-time worship, and the pantheons of many gnoll clans are a widespread combination of nature spirits, elemental entities, and deities of many races and cultures who line up well with the clan's traditions.

Note: Regarding gnoll religion, I always found the choice of limiting monsters to their own deity or pantheon odd in settings where there are so many deities of different portfolios.  As many people of campaign settings pay homage to deities in meaningful areas of their lives (like blacksmiths praying regularly to the god of the forge) and true monotheism is very rare, it would be natural for humanoids to adopt more deities into their religious rituals over time.

If this take on gnolls sounds cool and interesting, then I suggest that you check out Playable Monsters on RPGNow, or Drive-Thru RPG.  Both have full-sized previews to give you a taste of things to come.