In the dawn of time, before the Sovereigns and the Silver Flame, Eberron was the domain of the fiendish overlords. This was an age of chaos, as the overlords constantly clashed with one another. The Rage of War commanded armies of fiends and savages, while the Wild Heart raised hordes of ravenous beasts. In the struggles between the two, the Wild Heart bred dire hyenas that could consume the Zakya warriors of Rak Tulkhesh. But fiends cannot be permanently slain by tooth or claw; their energy remains. Twisted from within by the immortal essence of the demons they’d devoured, the hyenas were warped into something entirely new, something that was neither beast or demon: and so the first gnolls were born.
Formed from both War and the Wild, the first gnolls were recruited and bred by both Rak Tulkhesh and the Wild Heart. As foot soldiers of the overlords they fought against orcs and the other early humanoids, as well as battling gnoll clans serving other overlords. Even after the overlords were defeated and bound by the Silver Flame, gnolls continued to be pawns of the overlords. The fiendish spark burned within them, and when they weren’t directly serving the Lords of Dust, most gnolls engaged in savage acts of brutality. The Dhakaani goblins ruthlessly exterminated gnolls in imperial territories, driving them back into the wilds.
In the present day gnolls are primarily found on the west coast of Khorvaire. Here’s a few notable concentrations of gnolls.
- Gnolls are found across the Demon Wastes. Some have integrated into the Carrion Tribes, while other clans refuse to have anything to do with other creatures. These gnolls have embraced the Rage of War and engage in endless, ecstatic violence; when there are no outsiders to fight, they find reasons to battle the other clans. There have been times in the past when a great leader has united them and lead a horde through the Labyrinth, and this could happen again; but for the most part they are one of the ongoing dangers of the Demon Wastes, ever hungry to spill blood in the name of Rak Tulkhesh.
- The gnolls of the Towering Wood are creatures of the Wild Heart. These feral hunters prowl through the Eldeen Reaches, preying on any creatures who cross their paths. These gnolls rarely organize beyond clans. The fact that they don’t form armies limits the overall threat that they pose to the people of the Towering Woods; they’ve never amassed in sufficient numbers to threaten the Greenheart, for example. But because they’re scattered and mobile, the Wardens of the Wood and the shifter tribes of the Towering Woods have never been able to end the threat. Clans melt away into the depths, appearing to strike isolated villages and travelers. Some say that there is a piece of the Towering Wood that can only be found by gnolls and lycanthropes who serve the Wild Heart—a dark haven where these feral forces build their strength and wait to strike.
- There at least two gnoll clans that live deep in the King’s Forest of Breland. While smaller than the clans of the Towering Wood, these gnolls are likewise driven by the Wild Heart; they are cruel hunters who take pleasure in terrifying their quarry. Typically they remain in the wildest, darkest depths of the King’s Forest, avoiding the Knight Rangers and restricting their attacks to those fools who stray far from the safe paths. But there have been times when their numbers have grown, and when gnoll raiders have emerged from the Forest to prey on surrounding villagers.
While savage gnolls are often tied to the Rage of War or the Wild Heart, few know those names. Clans are guided by warlocks and fiendish visions, and each clan has its own name for the power that fuels their thirst for blood. The gnolls of Rak Tulkhesh show more martial discipline, while the gnolls of the Wild Heart are feral and cunning. Both are uniformly cruel, taking pleasure not simply in spilling blood but in instilling terror in their prey. The last great raid across the Labyrinth was centuries ago, but the people of Aundair still share grisly tales of the horrors unleashed by the pillaging gnolls, and Brelish children know gnolls devour those fools who stray from the path. This uniform cruelty is unusual in Eberron, where goblins are often more honorable than humans and orcs may be champions of the light. But gnolls aren’t natural creatures; they were shaped by overlords, and the essence of demons flows through their veins. They were bred to spill blood and sow terror, and for countless generations they gleefully embraced that path. But there are gnolls who reject the foul influence of their creators… such as the Znir Pact of Droaam.
THE ZNIR PACT
The region now known as Droaam has long been home to gnoll clans. The Rage of War seeks endless battle, and when there is no greater conflict it delights in setting its minions against one another. For countless generations, gnolls fought troll, ogre, and other gnolls seeking blood for their hungry idols. Centuries ago two gnolls from rival clans faced one another on a battlefield soaked in the blood of their kin and questioned the path that had led them there. The two urged others to deny the voice that called for endless war, to refuse to chase death in the service of a fiend. Two became four, then eight, until entire clans heeded the call. Clan leaders dragged their idols to the place now known as Znir—a word that simply means stone—and there they shattered the images of the fiends they once served. Together the gathered hunters, shamans, and warriors swore an oath: They might be many clans, but from this day forward they would be one pack. They would allow no one—not chieftain, god, or demon—to hold dominion over them.
This was easier said than done. Fighting the fiendish influence within was challenging enough, but the western wilds were a chaotic tapestry of battling forces. The leaders of the newly forged Pact had no desire to rule over other creatures, but even just holding their territory would invite attack. And so they developed the path that has carried them forward to this day: the road of the mercenary. The gnolls would claim no territory beyond the lands around Znir. They would fight for any who would pay a fair price. But if anyone sought to enslave a gnoll, or to strike against Znir itself, they would face the wrath of all of the united clans. This was a lesson that had to be taught many times, but after a century or so, the point was made. To those who paid them, the gnolls were as reliable as stone. Those who betrayed them or who picked a fight would fall before the might of the full Pact.
Some scholars of the Five Nations find it strange that the Znir Pact never took the path of conquest. There was no parallel to the united force of the Pact within the region, and they could have defeated the various chieftains and warlords they served. But the fact is that the gnolls have never had a desire to rule other creatures. They love the hunt and the thrill of battle. The path of the Pact allows them to do what comes naturally—to stalk and kill, to fight endless battles. But they do so together. They choose the paths they follow and the battles they fight. One could look at the Pact and say that they serve many masters. But the Znir gnoll would respond that they serve only themselves: that they choose who they fight for, that they set the terms of their service.
The Znir gnolls include a dozen different clans, each of which holds onto distinct traditions. Once the clans were devoted to different faces of the overlords, but when they shattered the statue, each clan chose one of the moons. All gnolls hunt and fight, but the Barrakas are known to be the finest trackers of the Pact; the Aryth the deadliest archers; and the Olarune are the strongest warriors and most forceful in the vanguard. Typically, mercenary units are comprised of gnolls of a single clan, assigned based on the nature of the task that lies ahead, and contracts are usually negotiated for a period based on cycles of the clan’s moon. The clans maintain distinct territories within the Znir region. Despite this, all gnolls are welcome around the hearth of any clan; the Znir take pains to crush any tension that arrises between the clans. Shamans and leaders from each clan maintain a council at the Znir, around the broken idols. Here they mediate disputes, assign contracts to clans, and allocate funds and equipment. The Eyre clan have honed their skills as smiths and tanners, and they craft much of the equipment used by the Znir gnolls… though there is still a strong tradition of scavenging among the Znir, and warriors will often claim trophies from fallen foes.
Gnoll vs Gnoll
Droaam is a small place, and the Znir will serve any who will pay a fair price. This inevitably leads to conflict between Znir gnolls. In such situations, Znir will fight one another with all their skill. But they will strike to wound… and a gnoll wounded by another gnoll will immediately withdraw from battle, no matter how superficial the wound. While some clients take umbrage at this—You can still fight! Get back out there!—this is an absolute rule of all Znir contracts, and those who defy this will be punished by the united clans.
In general, the Znir take their contracts seriously. If the client breaks the terms of the agreement, the contract immediately ends. As long as terms are met, Znir will face any danger and will never betray a client. They have earned this reputation over the course of centuries, and this gives them a place much like the Sentinel Marshals of House Deneith in Khorvaire; everyone knows that the word of the Znir is as unbreakable as stone.
The Daughters and Tharashk
In their rise to power, the Daughters of Sora Kell have contracted for fully half of the forces of the Znir Pact (divided among all clans). This is an extended contract, under which the gnolls serve both as soldiers, hunters, and peacekeepers. Most large communities have a Znir garrison that’s serving the Daughters. These troops are present to protect the region from brigands or invaders, and to help maintain order. But they serve the Daughters, not the local warlord; it’s understood that if the warlord turns against the Daughters, the local Znir will act in their interests. The remainder of the Pact serves other masters. Many warlords maintain their own Znir forces, either as bodyguards, enforcers, or hunters. House Tharashk has also begun brokering the services of Znir gnolls within the Five Nations. The Pact is still cautious about this arrangement, however. Within Droaam, Znir customs are known and respected, and the Znir can unite against anyone who defies them. The Znir recognize that they don’t hold such power over the rulers of the Five Nations… and thus they are concerned about serving so far from their stones. In addition to those who serve through House Tharashk, a number of Znir have been sent east to study the Five Nations, gathering knowledge of its people and customs so the Znir council can determine how to engage with the wider world. This scouting role is a reasonable path for a gnoll player character; it’s their job to travel the world beyond and learn its ways, and to make friends and allies.
The Demon Within
The Znir defied the overlords when they shattered their statues, but there is still a spark of a fiend in the blood of each gnoll. Znir refuse to allow the demon within to hold dominion over them. Young gnolls learn how to resist this influence—to channel the strength of the fiend without giving it power over them. For most gnolls this is simply a matter of discipline. Znir gnolls are known for remaining calm in the face of provocation; having learned to fight their own demons, they aren’t easily manipulated by mortals. However, some gnolls learn to draw on their unnatural heritage and to channel this power in useful ways. Znir gnolls have their own equivalents of rangers and barbarians; the ranger’s primal magic draws on the Wild Heart, while the barbarian channels the fury of the Rage of War. Znir shamans are similar to warlocks, typically following the path of the Fiend. However, in all of these examples, the Znir don’t serve the dark power. Rather, they can be seen as stealing their strength from it; learning to draw on it without giving anything in return.
In their determination not to let fiendish forces hold dominion over their people, the Znir gnolls have also developed their own techniques for fighting supernatural threats. Champions trained to face fiends and undead are known as hwyri, and wield powers similar to those of paladins in other lands. However, hwyri don’t worship any divine power. Their abilities come from training and understanding of the demon within; they aren’t crusaders, they’re mercenary demon hunters. Most hwyri come from the Vult clan, and in a land that shuns the Silver Flame, these gnolls can be the best hope for people facing fiendish threats. There has been some tension between the Vult and the lycanthropes of the Dark Pack; the Vult shamans suspect that the Pack is vulnerable to the influence of the Wild Heart.
ZNIR GNOLL TRAITS
Exploring Eberron will include my rules for Znir gnoll player characters. For the moment, here’s a few general tips on playing a Znir gnoll.
- Bone Eaters. Gnolls possess powerful jaws, as reflected by their bite attack. Gnolls can chew through and digest bone, and dislike letting food go to waste. When savage gnolls raid a village, they will consume even the bones of their victims. Znir gnolls won’t eat their fallen foes if they’re in the company of creatures who will be uncomfortable with such behavior. But they will often eat a small piece of any creature they slay—even if it’s just a finger—to form a bond with the victim. The Znir believe that those you kill wait for you in the realm of death, and honoring them ensures that they won’t be hungry when you travel to that land.
- Pack Instincts. Gnolls have very strong pack instincts. They instinctively work together in combat, and they think nothing of placing themselves in harm’s way to protect their kin. Znir gnolls will not deceive members of their pack; if there are problems, they will call them out directly. If a gnoll character adopts a group of adventurers as their temporary pack, these things apply to the other players—but they will be surprised and angry if their non-gnoll packmates don’t show them the same respect.
- Casual Aggression. Gnolls often seem very aggressive to other creatures. However, gnolls themselves don’t consider casual intimidation to be a hostile act; it’s just a way to establish a place in the hierarchy of the pack, largely ignored once that hierarchy is established. One of the most common ways this manifests is that gnolls make demands rather than requests. As a gnoll, use active statements rather than passive queries.
- Cunning Hunters. Gnolls are strong and aggressive by nature. But both the Znir gnolls and there savage kin are cunning hunters rather than simple brutes. Gnolls work together as a pack, always searching for weaknesses in enemies and supporting injured allies. Znir goals won’t break their word, but they don’t hold to any idea of honorable conduct on the battlefield; they are ruthless and efficient, and see nothing wrong with ambushing or tricking a superior foe. Some gnolls have a supernatural knack for minicry, and will use this gift to draw enemies into danger.
- The Fiend Within. As a gnoll, there is a spark of demonic influence within you. The Znir learn to control this at an early age. But how does it manifest in you? Do you suppress it completely, or do you channel it in some way—possibly reflected by your class abilities? Are you a hwyri who seeks to fight supernatural threats, or are you not concerned with such things?