Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Moving Beyond Tucker's Kobolds

Kobolds are the lowest rung of the cursus honorum of humanoids, that list of unhappy monsters who serve as the stock dungeon threats to low-level PCs. Ever since a Dragon magazine editorial by Roger E. Moore in 1987, and compounded by a second edition boxed set called Dragon Mountain, kobolds have taken on the alternate aspect of being specialists in guerrilla warfare. With time this has itself become something of a cliché, and it can't be considered an interesting or fresh route to take the lowly kobold.

Original D&D barely even notices that it has kobolds. They're like goblins but even weaker, and that's about it. The Monster Manual expanded them into the hairless, dog-faced critters you see here. They're pretty much small, evil, vicious and hate the other short races. Particularly gnomes. And they have pet wild boars or giant weasels.

Dog-faced kobolds scream "old school" in much the same way pig-faced orcs do, particularly after 3e's rather silly attempt to make the kobold related to dragons. Though I'm also fond of the fuzzy little weirdos of Kobolds Ate My Baby!, that's not much of a stretch; I do like the idea of some tribes of kobolds being classically hairless and others being furry little sacks of teeth and murder. The mythical kobolds are closer to brownies, or else more like the knockers that I looked at back when discussing goblins.

What's most interesting about the kobold is that Gygax kept the trope that they are related to gnomes. I've been interested in gnomes for a while and they are featured in the Caverns of Temeluc (from Dungeon Crawl #2). So that's had me thinking that kobolds should in fact have dark-side parallels to the gnomes. Classical gnomes of course are earth elementals; as per Paracelsus they actually walk through earth like humans do air. In this sense I have been thinking of the kobold as virtually a dungeon elemental, that is, a creature that is totally at home in dungeons, caverns and mine shafts.

This brings me to a concept in Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (known for the fact that it inspired the film Blade Runner): kipple. In the novel, this is trash that generates itself spontaneously, driving out nonkipple and slowly taking over. It can be fought back against but not destroyed entirely. Eventually the whole world will be filled with kipple. I've always thought that this has some particular resonance with the concept that Philotomy Jurament had pointed out years ago in his OD&D musings that the dungeon is a mythic underworld, something that was growing on its own.

All of that leads to the conclusion that the kobold is not born, and does not move into the dungeon as an invasive pest. Kobolds grow naturally in dungeons, forming out of them by spontaneous generation. When an underworld is dug or forms naturally, it will eventually begin to form kobolds after its own general characteristics. A stone dungeon will form kobolds who are hairless and classic in disposition, while a cavern will tend to make kobolds that are wild and furry. They will tend to lair in a room that is distant from the entrance, and make the area they live in more "dungeon-like." It will also tend to accumulate treasure and general dungeon-junk.

I see these kobolds being the "natural" eyes and ears and arms and legs of the dungeon. Is there a trap that uses a crossbow? It's a kobold that knows the way to get behind the dungeon walls and re-load it. Pit traps need to be covered? Kobolds will find stone from elsewhere and bring it in. What makes them even weirder is that kobold-entrances are completely impenetrable to other beings. An encounter with them should reveal how little the PCs really know about the place around them, as they appear from passages that don't seem to exist, or trap doors that the PCs cannot open, etc.

Kobolds hate gnomes for a good reason. It turns out that gnomes prevent new kobolds from forming, and even a gnome statue (such as are often left in garden grottoes) will stop the dungeon from spawning fresh kobolds. But absent this, there will always be the malevolent little creatures that personify the dungeon.


  1. Gygax also had the "Old Guard Kobolds" in his personal Castle Greyhawk, who wore blue coats and were very competent fighters armed with magic items dropped by the PCs they had sliced and diced along the way.

    "Furry little sacks of teeth and murder" is a terrific turn of phrase, btw...

  2. This is a fine take on Kobolds, Wayne. I've always re-skinned mine (literally!) in deep blue skin and kept them underground exclusively to reflect the classical tie between Cobalt and mines.

    For those who have the standard as-written Kobold deeply embedded in their current campaign, I'd suggest using the Xvart as found in the Fiend Folio in the same way Wayne has described Kobolds here. Then, you could have it both ways.

    1. I love the kobold / cobalt connection, since apparently the element is named after the traditional monster. I like the xvart for this as well, but I'll be taking my kobolds in this direction.

    2. In my take on them, gnome miners exposed to cobalt were transformed into the first kobolds (blue, like yours,) who are themselves poisonous to both gnomes and humans- the gnomes become kobolds, the humans who die from the poisoning transform into cobalt.

      I avoid using the term "radioactive" here, but that's what cobalt and kobolds are, albeit a magical version. This makes them something to be feared, but not for the usual reasons and also sets up nicely, I think, the reason for the gnome/kobold animosity.

  3. Another similar metaphor would be that kobolds are the immune system of the body dungeon. They attack all intruding bacteria (adventurers) and attempt to consume them to keep the dungeon healthy.

  4. Ooh, I really like that idea. Who cleans up all the dead bodies? Sure, sometimes Carrion Crawlers or Gelatinous Cubes, but there are always the kobolds around, forever infesting the dark corners of the Earth, as their cousins the Gremlins infest the machines of the world.

    I can even imagine them harassing a party which has "holed up" for the night while underground. I'd probably just use a wandering monster check for that though, otherwise it would become impossible to recuperate while underground.

  5. Alright! That is just brilliant. I get so into thinking in biological sensible terms about these things that I forget the magic of the world they (and maybe I) live in. Their ecology does not have to be anything like mine.

  6. Cool take on the kobold - but mine are still like evil gnomes, Holmes-style, not reptilian dog-men.

  7. This is absolutely brilliant! A fascinating and fantastical take on kobolds that I'm swiping wholesale!


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