Gnolls (/niols/) are a race of creature that was created for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. As originally conceived, they were a combination of gnome and troll, hence the name; however, by the time Advanced D&D came out, their current anthropomorphic hyena-like forms had been hammered out.
Gnolls, in the early days, were usually depicted as savage theocratic cannibals, with more numbers than sophistication. In recent years, however, gnolls are more and more often depicted as "noble savages," hyena-like scavengers, as opposed to monstrous killers, or as in the Aurastorm setting  as civilised but obsessive desert dwelling clans.
Gnolls in folklore and literature
Gnolls are similar to the hyena/demons (çíyyîm) of the Bible, the were-hyenas of African bushman folklore, and the tall dog men (Cynocephales) of early European travellers logs and bestiaries. Hyenas were associated with death because they dug up and ate human corpses.
Gnolls in the Discworld series are small, matted and dirty enough to sprout fungi and grasses on their hides, and act as street-cleaners in cities like Ankh-Morpork; as Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson puts it, they "pick up this, pick up that, maybe bang it against the wall until it stops struggling..." In the case of at least Stoolie, if not every gnoll on the Discworld, there seems to be a tendency to drop the vowels in words.
Gnolls in role-playing games
When first introduced in the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game rules (1974), gnolls were described as a "cross between gnomes and trolls." The entire concept was scrapped with the next rules edition, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and was replaced with the more popular hyena-man concept used today.
They have greenish-grey skin and are usually between six and seven feet with the females being significantly shorter. They use armor made of horn, metal plates, and leather, and large weapons. D&D gnolls are generally savage, barbaric creatures that often practice cannibalism, and enjoy eating the flesh of other sentient species. Gnolls are very strong and physically tough, although lacking in intelligence and force of personality. They are cunning and, when pressed, will fight to death. They are also very lazy and take slaves to perform their labor for them.
One notable race of gnoll is the flind, which is shorter, broader, and stronger than other gnolls; flinds are often found leading a tribe or settlement of gnolls. Flinds use a nunchaku-like weapon called a flindbar, which consists of a pair of metal rods linked together by a chain.
Gnolls in mostDungeons & Dragons settings are worshipers of the demon lord Yeenoghu, who also rules over Wikipedia:ghouls (which explains the gnolls' taste for humanoid flesh). Some gnolls also worship the evil Erythnul, god of slaughter. The gnolls' vile disposition is most likely due to the influence of their demonic patron. In many settings, gnolls often worship their original patron deity Gorellik, however his worship has been largely supplanted by that of Yeenoghu.
In Pathfinder, gnolls believe they are descended from Lamashtu, the demon goddess of monsters and nightmares, who supposedly mated with a giant hyena and gave birth to the first gnolls. Most gnolls in Pathfinder are, if anything, even more degenerate than their D&D counterparts, practicing ritual self-mutilation in emulation of their goddess, though some gnolls make their way to human cities and live as shady merchants and slave traders.
A new breed of gnolls is also emerging. Based more heavily on actual hyena culture, these new gnolls, or "Nglls" have developed a newer following, especially in the United Kingdom. They are featured heavily in a large live action fantasy event called Maelstrom.
These Gnoll Clans are led by an alpha female, also known as an "Eleri". A site featuring a short Gnoll film of this new breed of Gnoll can be found here, although they usually exist in more of a fantasy environment.
Gnolls in computer games
Gnolls play a major role in a subplot of the computer role-playing game Baldur's Gate. They are included in the Warcraft universe in the strategy game Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, where it is said that 'if they ever stopped fighting they could form a formidable army' and in the MMORPG World of Warcraft in many of the mid level areas. They are also featured prominently in the western part of the continent of Antonica in the MMORPG EverQuest.
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