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I'm working on incorporating gnolls and the demon lord Yeenoghu into a campaign, and I am wondering where all the gnolls come from. Volo's Guide to Monsters describes the origins of gnolls:

Whenever the demon lord Yeenoghu enters the Material Plane and goes on a rampage, he leaves a great trail of corpses in his wake. As the Lord of Savagery despoils the land, packs of hyenas trail him and feast on the victims until the dead flesh of Yeenoghu’s prey leave them bloated and unable to move. Then, in a shower of blood and gristle, the hyenas transform into gnolls, which take up Yeenoghu’s awful mission to kill and destroy anything in their path.

So Yeenoghu goes on a rampage, his pet hyenas eat the corpses until they can no longer move and then BAM! there are gnolls. Gnoll Fangs of Yeenoghu (a type of gnoll) can also create more gnolls in a manner similar to Yeenoghu:

Fangs of Yeenoghu are gifted with the power to spawn more gnolls. They anoint the remains of their foes using bizarre rituals. A hyena that feeds on such a corpse spawns a gnoll, while other humanoids who join in the feast become cultists of Yeenoghu. Fangs use their claws in battle, the better to imbue their victims with the magic needed to spawn more gnolls.

But what I really want to know is: can two gnolls make baby gnolls the usual way humanoids reproduce? Or some other way? 5th Edition lore paints gnolls as a mostly cultureless parade of slaughter. How did previous editions handle gnoll reproduction?

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Per the AD&D 1e MM, they were like other humanoids1

While Original D&D didn't go into this kind of detail (and thus the question's answer is mu for that edition) it did give us this:

GNOLLS: A cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Dunsany did not really make it all that clear) with +2 morale. Otherwise they are similar to Hobgoblins, although the Gnoll king and his bodyguard of from 1-4 will fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power. (Monsters and Treasures, p. 8)

Which leaves us guessing if they even reproduce at all or have to wait for a Troll and a Gnome to feel amorous towards each other.

The AD&D 1e MM treated them the same way as most giant class creatures (which was most of the humanoids plus ogres, ettins, trolls, and giants2).

In the second paragraph of the MM entry on gnolls, we find:

The lair will also contain females and young equal to 50% and 200% respectively of the number of males present (MM, p. 46)

See this similar entry for goblins

... females and young equal to 60% and 100% respectively of the number of male goblins encountered (MM, p. 47)

And this entry for orcs

... females equal 50% of the number of males, young equal to 100% of the number of males (MM, p. 76)

Entries for bugbears, hobgoblins and ogres are similar. In that respect, they were what D&D 5e would class as a humanoid like a hobgoblin or an orc, with their lair being populated by mates and young in varying proportions to the male population.

From the above we can infer, with confidence, that they reproduced like other humanoid creatures for that edition.

Yeenoghu was a demon, stats as a monster

It is worth noting that the first exposition on the gnoll deity Yeenoghu he was a "demon lord" in the MM; as a deity, he arrives in a book published three years after the MM, Deities and Demigods but they didn't go into much detail in that entry, telling the DM "see the MM".

The relevant treatment in AD&D 2e's MM:

A gnoll lair will contain between 20 and 200 adult males {snip chief bit}... in a lair , there will be females equal to half the number of males. Females are equal to males {snip}. There will also be twice as many young as there are adults in the lair but they do not fight. {perhaps females give birth to litters? = my thought}. Gnolls always have at least 1 slave for every 10 adults in the lair and may have many more.{snip} They dislike goblins, kobolds, giants, humans, demi-humans{elves, dwarves, etc} and any type of manual labor.

Looks like standard breeding in this case as well.

From the 3.5 SRD, they are described as something different from the other humanoids:

A gnoll is a nocturnal carnivore, preferring intelligent creatures for food because they scream more.

As I no longer have my 3.5 MM, I'll leave that there as a pointer to differentiating them from the goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins who are more like humans than gnolls were.

Apparently, 4e had two different kinds of gnolls in it: the demon-corrupted Yeenoghu-worshiping gnolls and the nature-worshiping uncorrupted gnolls. (per @nickl012000, Dragon #367, summarized).

Gnolls were originally created by Yeenoghu from mixing together hyena and fiend ... those gnolls that embrace their demonic heritage breed with cacklefiend hyenas ... they have a ritual where cacklefiend hyenas can devour a living humanoid to birth litters of full-blooded fiends from the devoured person's soul ... there are tribes that reject their demonic heritage to embrace their animalistic heritage instead.

This suggests that two ways to create / reproduce gnolls were in play in that edition. This leads us to ...

It might be both ways in 5e

.. can two gnolls make baby gnolls the usual way humanoids reproduce? Or some other way?

The two forms of reproduction could potentially co-exist; a precedent for this is how Corellon Larethian, being the original creator of elves in the Forgotten Realms, doesn't prevent elves in that setting from making little elves as well in the usual manner (@GMJoe, thanks). This relationship, in 5e, is carried over as shown in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes on page 35. With the idea of some carryover, there is some mild support for this theme as regards gnolls in the entry for Yeenoghu:

During his rampage across the world eons ago, the race of gnolls sprang up in his wake (MToF, page 29).

It's not a detailed treatment, and is open to interpretation, but one could infer from that a case of "Yeenoghu created them, and then they went forth, were bloody handed, and multiplied" when we tie it to previous edition lore.


1 In 1e 'humanoid' applied to orcs, bugbears, gnolls, goblins, etc and 'demi human' applied to halflings, elves, gnomes, dwarves, etc).
2Giant class creatured, per PHB p. 24 (Ranger description) were bugbears, ettins, giants, gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, ogres, ogre magi, orcs and trolls. The ranger had bonus to damage against these kinds of creatures, an early version of 'favored enemy' of 5th edition).

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's probably worth explicitly mentioning that the two forms of reproduction could potentially co-exist, just as how Corellon Larethian being the original creator of elves in the Forgotten Realms doesn't prevent elves in that setting from making little elves as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jul 24, 2021 at 22:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ IIRC 4e had two different kinds of gnolls in it, the demon-corrupted Yeenoghu-worshiping gnolls and the nature-worshiping uncorrupted gnolls. This answer might be improved by referencing that information. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 9:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Looking it up, it looks like the source is Dragon 367. It mentions that they were originally created by Yeenoghu from mixing together hyena and fiend, that it's rumored that those gnolls that embrace their demonic heritage breed with cacklefiend hyenas (but that there's little evidence that they do so), and that they have a ritual where cacklefiend hyenas can devour a living humanoid to birth litters of full-blooded fiends from the devoured person's soul. It also confirms that there are tribes that reject their demonic heritage to embrace their animalistic heritage instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 14:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I'm not sure when it started, alas; I started playing D&D in 2003, so my knowledge of the game's history before that point is somewhat fuzzy. That being said, Corellon Larethian was just an example; nearly every race in nearly every campaign setting was explicitly or presumably created by a deity and subsequently started reproducing normally. Having two possible origin stories for an individual of a race is actually pretty standard; it's the races with more of fewer origin options who are unusual. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 23:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BenBolker (1/2) While there is no particular reason to assume that gnolls (or any creature in D&D) follows real world biological principles (especially evolution which is powered by genetic selection), it should be noted that Fisher's ratio is meant to apply at the age of reproduction. Thus in humans there are more males than females at birth, but fewer males than females in old age. In theory they should be equal at peak reproductive years; currently they cross globally at 50 but that likely says more about the cultural practice of female infanticide than about evolution. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 0:14
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KorvinStarmast of course has the far more detailed answer, but to add a few notes from my personal experience:

It's not clear that OD&D or Basic gnolls reproduced

In the White Box, and as I recall my Moldvay Red Box, we are told that gnolls are a hybrid offspring of gnomes and trolls. Whether that is meant as the origin of the gnoll race (which then reproduced normally) or as the individual origin of each gnoll (and thus gnolls themselves are sterile) is unclear.

First Edition gnolls may have reproduced quickly...

It should be noted that gnolls had the lowest maximum lifespan of all the humanoid races; this could imply a correspondingly lowest age at maturation / first reproduction. If I recall correctly, they also had the highest number of children per adult male. If r and K selection and population growth rate principles apply, gnolls should show the strongest boom / bust population cycles compared to the other races. In times and places of abundant resources their numbers should increase incredibly rapidly, but as they approach carrying capacity they will also become self-limiting faster than other races (which also fits their chaotic nature).

...and been extremely sexist

Roger Moore, in Dragon #63, wrote that

Of all the humanoid races, gnolls and hobgoblins have the lowest opinions of the female sex. Goblins and kobolds tend to see their females as important, though not in leadership or military roles; their women help manufacture weapons and armor to support the military, and help maintain the cohesiveness of the tribes. Hobgoblins have no respect for their females because they don’t make good warriors; the males keep them out of public sight and busy with those things they feel their women are good for — keeping house and having little hobgoblins. Gnolls regard their females as slaves, pure and simple, and dump as much work on them as possible (which usually means all of it).

Presumably important to gnoll reproduction then was a significant lack of individual paternal investment in offspring.

For a detailed comparison of how gnolls have changed through editions, a good start is the Dump Stat Deep Dive series.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for inducing me to dig out the actual OD&D text. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 19:15

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