(OK, yes, that pun sounds as much like a riff on “gnome” as it does “gnoll,” sue me. I didn’t name them and it’s past midnight.)
So a gnoll gets +4 Strength, +2 Con, −2 Int, and −2 Cha, 2 monstrous humanoid RHD, and LA +1. Aside from these things, its only racial trait is darkvision out to 60 feet.
This is, to put it mildly, really bad. LA is near-crippling, and monstrous humanoid hit dice are pretty mediocre. Also, Strength is a somewhat difficult score to capitalize on, particularly as a pugilist.
Ultimately, the pugilist fighter is alright, but only that, in my opinion. Generally speaking, if one needs feats, dips in cleric, monk, or psychic warrior are better options than a dip in fighter unless it’s crucial to maintain BAB—which you already aren’t thanks to the LA. If you wanted Endurance for something, that’d be another story, but it’s is basically worthless to you, and the pugilist special ability options are mediocre.
Monk, of course, isn’t really a lot better. The unarmed strike damage is a bit better, but nothing to write home about. Your bonus feat options are more limited, but there may be some interesting options you couldn’t otherwise take. You could go the unarmored route, but unless your Wisdom is rather good, regular armor is probably better.
On the other hand... you don’t have a Wisdom penalty. In fact, since you have large bonuses to Strength and Constitution, you can probably afford to have a rather good Wisdom score. We could maybe roll with that. Monk, of course, exists and is relevant to fisticuffs, but it’s more important in my mind because of psionics. Ardent, psychic warrior, and war mind all have valuable possibilities here for you. (Ardent is from Complete Psionic; the others are from Expanded Psionics Handbook and are thus available in the SRD.)
All three psionic classes benefit from three facts:
- They are Wisdom-based, which is the one mental ability score you don’t have a penalty to.
- They have access to some powerful combat abilities in the form of expansion, hustle, psionic lion’s charge, reach,¹ and so on.
- Tashalatora exists.
And, frankly, it seems really fitting for your theme: these are pugilists with class, pugilists who fight you with their focused attention to the details of the battle and intense control over their own bodies and minds. They fight, in a sense, in much the way Sherlock Holmes is often portrayed (though I wouldn’t expect this character to have Holmes’s deductive brilliance with that −2 Int and every reason to dump the ability as hard as they possibly can).
If you have Monastic Training from Eberron Campaign Setting applied to a psionic class, you can take Tashalatora from Secrets of Sarlona. Tashalatora allows that psionic class to progress just about everything worthwhile about the monk class (unarmed strike damage, fast movement, flurry of blows, and AC bonus). Monastic Training can be gained as your 1st-level monk bonus feat, and Tashalatora as a 2nd-level monk bonus feat, but you can take them as regular feats and neither feat requires levels in monk (or, for that matter, the psionic class you choose, which can be useful since it means you could take those feats early on before you actually have those classes, e.g. for the feats you get from your RHD or whatever).
Ask your DM before doing Tashalatora with zero monk levels, but we can work with one or two monk levels in this build. This works out thanks to Practiced Manifester from Complete Psionic, which allows us to “make up” up to 4 missed manifester levels, say from 2 RHD and 2 monk levels (sadly, Practiced Manifester cannot help your level adjustment problem, since it’s capped by your Hit Dice rather than your ECL).
So I think that Monastic Training, Tashalatora, and Practiced Manifester should be considered a must for this character, no matter what.
Another likely key feat here is Hammer Fist from Dragon Compendium—that lets you use an unarmed strike as a “two handed” weapon, which will put your big Strength to good use, and also enables the use of Power Attack (and could lead into solid übercharger feats like Shock Trooper from Complete Warrior and/or Leap Attack from Complete Adventurer). That will apply no matter what route you go down.
Annoyingly, Hammer Fist cannot be used with “a flurry of blows attack.” If that just means it doesn’t apply to the bonus attacks during a flurry of blows, that’s fair enough, but if it means that you can’t use it at all during a flurry of blows, you are going to have to pick between Hammer Fist and flurry of blows. It may therefore be worthwhile to take the decisive strike alternative class feature from Player’s Handbook II. You won’t always want to use it, but it’s a pretty decent option and it’s definitely better than a flurry of blows you can’t really use. If you go that route, it is very worthwhile to get Combat Reflexes and have a decent-ish Dexterity score, though honestly those were always strong choices no matter what you do.
As for those routes, here’s what I see:
Ardent: greatest psionic power, maybe least fisticuffs.
You can actually get 9th-level powers as an ardent, which is astounding. Ardents are very forgiving of multiclassing, which is very nice since you have effectively multiclassed simply by being a gnoll. You will have a lot fewer feats available, however, as you will not be getting bonus feats, and you will probably want to take Expanded Knowledge at least once for expansion.
Ultimately, this is a fine trade. Psionics is stronger than fisticuffs, even when the psionics is focused on making you better at fisticuffs. Probably you just want to be a gnoll 2nd-level monk/15th-level ardent for this build, grabbing Monastic Training and Tashalatora as monk bonus feats.
If you really want to improve your combat prowess, you might drop a level of monk, take Tashalatora as a regular feat, and then also take Track as a regular feat—so you replace that level of monk and 9 levels of ardent with slayer. That will be sufficient—at 19th—to reach BAB +16 and achieve that fourth iterative. If you do that, choose slayer rather than ardent for Monastic Training, since you’ll have more slayer levels than ardent levels. On the other hand, you give up a fair few levels of monk progression by splitting your psionic classes, plus you give up two feats between losing the Tashalatora bonus feat and having to take Track, and you can’t get the excellent dominant ideal alternative class feature from Mind’s Eye. This build probably doesn’t use a lot of metamagic, so dominant ideal isn’t as good as it would otherwise be, but it’s still quite strong. To top it off, the primary draw of slayer—BAB +16 for a fourth iterative—doesn’t matter if you’re using decisive strike (there are other significant draws to slayer, though, e.g. cerebral blind). So honestly I’m not sure I would bother with slayer.
Psychic warrior or war mind: more straightforward warrior
Psychic warrior gets both bonus fighter (or psionic) feats, and psionic powers, including native access to expansion, hustle, and more. It really is a quite strong class—but RHD, LA, and a dip in monk hurt. Particularly since psychic warrior gets a bunch of bonus feats, it’s a really strong candidate for trying to push for a zero-monk-level Tashalatora build, since the bonus feats you get from monk levels are worth much less to you. If that’s nixed, you might consider seeing if you could try another class that counts as monk for, say, unarmed strike progression, and then stack Tashalatora with that for just those things. For example, a swordsage/psychic warrior doesn’t have flurry of blows, fast movement, or the monk’s scaling AC bonus, but they could have a monk’s unarmed strike damage, that stacks with monk levels and thus with Tashalatora.
War mind is a weird prestige class that gets full BAB and a small number of psychic warrior powers. Because of the lost levels due to RHD, LA, and any monk levels you take, the war mind actually has more power points than the psychic warrior (except at 20th), which is a pretty big deal. War mind also gets the excellent sweeping strikes feature, which allows every attack you make to hit two targets. On the other hand, you don’t get bonus feats, and you have to qualify for the class by getting some power points somewhere—probably needing a dip in psychic warrior anyway. That allows you to get at least a couple of bonus feats, which is probably enough.
Of the two, I like the war mind better, personally. Build both with your standard Power Attack, Shock Trooper, Leap Attack feats, grabbing expansion, hustle, psionic lion’s charge to pump yourself up.
Mindcrasher: Because we really want to have our cake and eat it, too
Really, to take advantage of that big Strength, you probably would be best off going with dungeoncrasher fighter from Dungeonscape. But for LA +1, a dungeoncrasher really wants goliath or half-minotaur, not gnoll, so they can take Knockback from Races of Stone. A half-minotaur dungeoncrasher/war hulk is terrifying. As a gnoll... not so much.
But say you really liked pugilist, and your DM was cool with a pugilist dungeoncrasher (dungeoncrasher replaces the 2nd-level and 6th-level fighter bonus feats, so it’s trivial to have it just replace the 2nd-level and 6th-level pugilist bonus feats), but this psionic stuff sounds pretty good too, and you really wish you could just do all of it. Well... OK then.
|Decisive strike, Monastic Training
|Endurance, Improved Bull Rush
|Dungeoncrash (4d6 + 2×Str)
|Dungeoncrash (8d6 + 3×Str)
|(1st-level psy war power)
|DR 2/–, reach¹
|(4th-level psy war power)
|(5th-level psy war power)
So what this does is combine decisive strike, sweeping strike, dungeoncrasher, and Knockback. Your attacks deal double damage, and each hits two targets at a time. And then you get to bull rush both of those targets, and if you bull rush them into a wall, you do 8d6 + 3×Str damage to them—and that arguably gets doubled too. You can only attack once per turn (twice at 20th), and you need to use hustle to reposition which is pricey on your limited power points, but you also have Combat Reflexes, expansion, and reach—you threaten a lot of the playing field, and every one of your attacks of opportunity threaten the same doubled damage, bull rush, potential massive damage for hitting someone into a wall that your regular attack does.
In an open field, you hit kind of hard. In a dungeon, you’re absolutely terrifying. It may be worth trying to come up with some way of casting blockade from Spell Compendium, though I leave figuring out how to fit that into this build as an exercise for the reader.
But ultimately, gnoll remains an albatross around this build’s neck. A half-minotaur kalashtar would be Large, have the same LA, have a ton of desperately-needed bonus power points, and would have two more levels to play with. A cleric dip gets Travel Devotion and Magic Domain, freeing up a ton of power points for hustle and allowing you to zap a wand of blockade. A barbarian dip gets rage and pounce. Two levels of swordsage gets Wis-to-AC again, with the option of light armor, plus tons of great options for maneuvers. Gnoll, by comparison, gets darkvision.
The ardent approach is strongest, because it has the strongest psionics, and because the ardent’s inherently multiclass-forgiving mechanics cover for so much of the gnoll’s downsides.
At high levels, the “mindcrasher” build has a lot of synergy, but I think its stamina—as measured by its available power points against its need to expend power points—is going to be extremely poor. At lower levels, that’s going to be even worse, and prior to 15th you don’t even have sweeping strike to show for it.
But if you feel that the ardent isn’t sufficiently “pugilistic” for you, and you aren’t starting at high level, I’d probably go with 2nd-level psychic warrior/10th-level war mind to 15th. Maybe sprinkle in some swordsage levels when it works out for your IL to get a new level of maneuvers—ECL 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 17th, perhaps—to fill out the rest.
- Reach is a 2nd-level power from this Mind’s Eye article. Complete Psionic has a similar power, extend reach, but its duration is much shorter and it applies only to one weapon. Note that at this level, a war mind is eligible to take a 3rd-level power—but reach might be the better option.