The Evolution of the Kobold

The Evolution of the Kobold

“Kobolds are a cowardly, sadistic race of short humanoids that vigorously contest the human and demi-human races for living space and food. They especially dislike gnomes and attack them on sight. Barely clearing 3 feet in height, kobolds have scaly hides that range from dark, rusty brown to a rusty black. They smell of damp dogs and stagnant water. Their eyes glow like a bright red spark and they have two small horns ranging from tan to white. Because of the kobolds’ fondness for wearing raggedy garb of red and orange, their non-prehensile rat like tails, and their language (which sounds like small dogs yapping), these fell creatures are often not taken seriously. This is often a fatal mistake, for what they lack in size and strength they make up in ferocity and tenacity.” - Kobold, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual

Kobold - The New Hotness

Kobold – The New Hotness

Let’s talk about the kobold. These poor things have had such a f$&%ing identity crisis throughout the editions of D&D. Once upon a time, the only description they got was “like goblins, but weaker.” Since then, they have been scaly lizards with dog faces, dog creatures with scales, dog creatures that look disturbingly like rats, tiny lizard people, and basically baby dragonborn. They are another one of those things that have been in every edition. Even the original White Box in 1974. And they are steeped in D&D Lore. Every group has thumped their way through a kobold cave at low levels, treating the kobolds as experience point filled pinatas. They dwell in every climate, and they can be found just about anywhere where first level adventurers need an opponent. And as much as the books try to tell us that the kobolds are clever, cunning, and inventive alchemists and trapsmiths, that never seems to be borne out at the table.

Unless your DM is named Tucker.

But the kobold goes back a lot farther than 1974 and Gary’s Game. It actually goes all the way back to Germany. Maybe even all the way back to Greece. And if you ever had a radio controlled car, it was only thanks to kobolds that the thing worked. I s$&% you not.

Enjoy These Creepy Puppet Kobolds - In Your Nightmares!

Enjoy These Creepy Puppet Kobolds – In Your Nightmares!

See, in ancient Germany, they had legends about these tricksy little spirits called kobolds. The kobold was a house spirit, it would live in the home, help out with chores, and it loved children. It was also tremendously ugly, about two feet tall with green skin and hairy feet instead of hands. And while they were very loyal to the housheholds they lived in, they were very tricksy too. Sometimes, they would hide tools and they loved kicking over people when they bent over. So, basically kobolds were the German explanation for losing your keys and falling over when you spotted them on the floor and bent down to pick them up. It’s more fun than admitting you’re both clumsy and forgetful.

According to legend, if you wanted to get a kobold for your house, you had to go into the woods in the middle of summer and find a bird sitting on an anthill. Birds sitting on anthills were ALWAYS disguised kobolds. Once you found one, you had to talk to it and lull it into a false sense of security, presumably by telling it “yes, you’re a pretty bird and not at all a disguised house elf who will fix my shoes by steal my keys and no, this sack is not to catch you and subject you to a life of mystical servitude.” And then, once the “kobold” trusted you, you caught it in a sack and brought it back to your house where it would totally turn into a kobold at night while you weren’t looking.

And steal your keys.

NOT The New Hotness

NOT The New Hotness

But see, kobolds weren’t just house spirits. If you’ve played your World of Warcraft, you know they are really more at home in mines. And the kobolds in mines weren’t nearly as nice. They were very mischeivous. And here mischeivous means “would cause mine disasters that killed people.” Yeah. Real Candid Camera level stuff, that. But kobolds were also thieves. At night, they would sneak into mines and steal the silver ore right out of the walls and replace it with worthless fake silver, called kobold ore. Eventually, they shortened to cobalt.

Silver mining was very important in central Europe for a long time, until most of the silver got mined out, but cobalt was considered useless. Well, not completely. You could make a really nice blue dye with it and really pretty blue glass. But it sure as hell wasn’t silver. Cobalt really didn’t become valuable until the 20th century when we discovered it was useful in magnets, high strength metal alloys, and as an ingredient in batteries. Like those NiCd batteries that powered radio-controlled cars. See? I got there.

But the origin of the kobold may go back even farther. See, in ancient Greece, the drunken whackadoodle god Dionysus was friends with a bunch of mischeivous, shape-shifting thieving goblins called kobaloi (singular: kobalos). Greek parents used to use threats of the kobaloi to frighten small children. THe koboloi are also beleived to have inspired impish spirits like the British boggart, the Scottish bogle, and the French goblin. So, basically, every creature in the Harry Potter universe from house elves to bankers were all inspired by the same gree, frog-like spirit that Greek parents made up to get their kids to just shut up for five minutes.

According to Google Image Search, THIS is the Norn Urd - Anime Ruins Everything

According to Google Image Search, THIS is the Norn Urd – Anime Ruins Everything

By the by, did you know that in AD&D 2E, variant kobolds were introduced with wings. They were called urds? Where does that name come from? Well, although there is a Norse being named Urd, she was one of the three Norns or Fates who ruled the destinies of the gods and mortals, so that probably isn’t. More than likely someone pulled that name out of a lower orifice, if you get my meaning.

So, how do you use the kobold in your game? Honestly, try showing them a little respect like Tucker did. If you don’t know the story, I’ll give you the short juicy version. In issue 127 of Dragon Magazine, editor and game designer Roger E. Moore responded to questions about how to create high level adventures by pointing out that you couldn’t get into a power-level arms race with your players. If you just keep creating more powerful monsters, things get out of control.

I Think I Miss Dragonmirth Most of All

I Think I Miss Dragonmirth Most of All

Instead, you need to use weak opponents in clever ways. Enter Tucker’s kobolds. Tucker had run games for Moore back in the day. And his kobolds were brutal. They used cunning, ingenuity, guerilla tactics, flawless knowledge of their dungeon environment, and pure mean-spirited spite to brutalize Moore and his friends. The kobolds would lock them into rooms, spike the doors closed, and set the room on fire with Molotov cocktails flung through murder holes. They would push flaming moving barricades before them. They would confront the party in tight spaces with no good lines of sight so the wizard’s spells were more a danger to the party than to the enemy. The 6th to 12th level PCs were humiliated time and again and learned to flee from the kobolds’ territory whenever they were discovered. And that s$&% makes sense. These are cunning, inventive little creatures defending their homes. They SHOULD be brilliant and cruel and dangerous.

Of Course, If You Can't Pull Off Cool Kobolds, You Can Just Go With Key-Stealing Sprites that Trip the PCs. THAT'LL Make a Great Adventure

Of Course, If You Can’t Pull Off Cool Kobolds, You Can Just Go With Key-Stealing Sprites that Trip the PCs. THAT’LL Make a Great Adventure


When DM's Say "You Know Who," They Don't Mean Lord Voldermort

When DM’s Say “You Know Who,” They Don’t Mean Lord Voldermort

“[The scimitar] is a long, curved, single-edged blade intended mostly for horsemen. It is a popular weapon for light cavalry. Members of the foul race of yuan-ti often use scimitars.” – The AD&D 2E Arms & Equipment Guide

“Scimitar: The curve on this blade gives it the effect of a keener edge.” – The D&D Player’s Handbook (v.3.5)

“Scimitars are only light weapons in the new PHB because otherwise Drizzt Do’Urden makes no mechanical sense” @travisnorris of Twitter.

No one really understands the weapons in D&D. No one. Not even weapon scholars. Of course, it’d be easier to understand them if the new Player’s Handbook could be bothered with a sentence of description for each weapon. But even then, D&D grossly oversimplifies weapons. We look down at that equipment list and see entries like long sword, mace, flail, greatsword, and we may think there was just this one thing called a long sword or a mace or a flail, maybe with some minor variations. But that just ain’t the way it works. There were a bajillion f$&*ing swords that would all be broadly classified as a “long sword” by D&D standards. It was different from region to region and era to era. And D&D draws from a LOT of eras and regions.

Take, for example, the scimitar. That blade that various D&D PHBs and supplements describe as a scimitar could be a shamshir, a pulwar, a shotel, or a talwar. You could make a case that it matches up with deeply curved falchions. You could call it a f$&%ing sabre. Hell, scimitar isn’t even the name the people who made the first real scimitars gave it. That was a European name for a blade that had been in use for centuries that they really only got to know intimately during the Crusades. The name scimitar didn’t come into use in Europe until the 1,600’s, but the first scimitars were in use in Egypt 3,200 years before!

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

So what is a scimitar? The scimitar is a curved backsword, a single edged sword with a single-handed grip. It wasn’t much use for thrusting like most European swords were, but the curve made it especially dangerous. As you slashed with the curved sword, you didn’t need to draw your blade back to reset it. You kept swinging in an arc, following through your cut. And as you followed through, the sword was cutting through your opponent. It was pretty nasty and there are some accounts that it could cut a limb or head clean off. Because it was light and because of its curved shape, it was very effective from horseback, which is why it is similar to the cavalry saber. The biggest drawback of the scimitar was it’s range. Because of the curve, you had to fight at much closer range. Still, when the European straight sword met the Saracen’s scimitars (that’s the broad term for Muslims) during the crusades in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and northern Africa, they discovered they were very skilled with their curved swords. Some even used the scabbards in their off hands to parry.

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

But this leads to a weird question: why do D&D druids use scimitars? The scimitar is most notably a Persian weapon, right? Actually the Persian name for it was the shamshir, which means “lions paw.” But except for the association with cats in the name, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the scimitar. Well, according to hearsay, which I can’t confirm, Gary Gygax himself gave an answer in an internet forum. He said it was the closest weapon he could think of that was similar to the sickle that existed in AD&D. And why might a druid wield a sickle? Well, because of something called the ritual of oak and mistletoe.

According to the prolific Roman author, Pliny the Elder, Magicians in Gaul (members of the druidic social caste – hence druids) used to harvest mistletoe whenever they found it, especially during certain lunar cycles, because of it’s sacred healing powers. And they would use sickles to cut it. The sickle is, of course, a small crescent shaped farming tool. The druids were very into the moon.

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

But the thing is, that connection is actually stronger than maybe Gary himself recognized. See, in the mid-11th century, curved backswords started to appear in Europe and were especially popular amongst conscripts and peasant militia (as opposed to the straight swords used by knights and nobles). These blades came in two varieties. One was broad and thick, curved, but heavy. And the other was slimmer, lighter, and more deeply curved. That second one, the more popular one that lasted up through the 16th century, was very similar to the Persian shamshir or scimitar. But it was longer and heavier. Thing is, that sword had a name. The name was falchion. And falchion comes from the Latin word “falx,” meaning sickle.

So, D&D druids wield scimitars. Scimitars are similar to falchions. Falchions are named for the Latin word falx. Falx means sickle. And real druidic magicians used sickles in their sacred rites. Good job, Gary.

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom... the Emerald-Studded Blade

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom… the Emerald-Studded Blade

So how can you use this in your D&D game? How about a neat legend for some inspiration. Let’s end this with the story of the Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār, the Persian name for the “emerald-studded sword” and Amir Arsalan, the Legend of Arsalan. This is classic Persian legend of a gifted hero named Arsalan. In the story, there is a terrible demon called Fulad-zereh. The witch who sired the demon used magic to make the demon invulnerable to everything except the emerald-studded shamshir, which had originally belonged to King Solomon. But the demon had gotten hold of it and guarded it carefully because it was the one thing that could kill him. The sword itself was also said to protect the wielder against evil magic. Of course, if you can’t get inspiration for your game out of that story, you might be interested to know that the name Arsalan translates to “lion,” and THAT name might lead you to some more wonderful inspiration for your game.

That's Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga ... What Did You Think I Meant?

That’s Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga … What Did You Think I Meant?


“You lash out with your sword, which passes right through the tentacled cat-like beast as if it is not there. Suddenly, you are knocked aside and huge gashes open in your side as something attacks you from the flank. Something unseen…”

I'll Skip the Inevitable C&D and Pre-Remove the Image, Okay WotC?

I’ll Skip the Inevitable C&D and Pre-Remove the Image, Okay WotC?

All right, time for a change of pace. Let’s talk about monsters. Specifically, a monster whose name I’m not allowed to mention. But I will give you a hint. It is a six-legged cat-like BEAST with tentacle shoulders that projects an illusion that makes it appear to be DISPLACED from its actual location. It is a DISPLACED BEAST if you get my meaning. *wink* *wink*

So this thing, this beast, has been a part of Dungeons and Dragons forever, or at least since the Greyhawk supplment written by Gary Gygax and Robert Kuntz in 1975. It has since then appeared in every edition’s Monster Manual so far, though we’re still waiting for the official release of the 5E Monster Manual to be sure. It was considered so iconic by Wizards of the Coast, that along with certain other beasties, it was classified as Product Identity and not released under the Open Gaming License. That’s right. You just can’t use the beast that shall not be named in your RPG unless you’re Wizards of the Coast.

The Beholder is an Amateur, It's Looking Right at the Camera

The Beholder is an Amateur, It’s Looking Right at the Camera

Unless you’re Paizo and you’re clever and you know where E. Gary G. ripped off the thing I am talking about from. Which brings us to the actual word of the week.

Way, way, way back in 1939, a science fiction author with the AMAZING name of A. E. van Vogt published a short story called “Black Destroyer” in which the sterilized, all male crew of the science vessel “The Space Beagle” lands on a planet and encounter these terrible, psychic, six-legged, tentacled cats call Coeurl. The sentient, evil beings deceive the crew and hang out with the scientists in order to learn more about them, but eventually they give in to their hunger and feed on the humans. The humans eventually figure out that maybe the tentacled, black alien creature is the one eating them and the alien kills itself.

Anyhoo, in the 4th part of the Pathfinder Adenture Path “Legacy of Fire” entitled “The End of Eternity” Paizo included a coeurl as an alien creature that came to Golarion via a magical portal and feeds on the “id” of other sentient creatures. Which is also what the coeurl fed on in The Voyages of the Space Beagle. Except, weird, id did not refer to some pyschological construct or anything. It was phosphorus. I s$&% you not. Id was just phosophorus. That’s how the Space Beagle crew proved the alien was the one murdering them.

Coeurl, Not That Other Thing, Got It, Wizards?

Coeurl, Not That Other Thing, Got It, Wizards?

There were other stories of the Space Beagle (a reference to Charlie Darwin’s ship) which inspired all sorts of other things, including many episodes of Star Trek. But it is interesting to end with another legal battle. See, there was this other evil alien called the Ixtl which came aboard the ship and started implanting people with parasitic eggs in their abdomens. And they actually bore a striking similarity to a certain Xenomorph (which, by the way, just means “alien shaped”) in a certain movie about an Alien which spawned a sequel about more Aliens and eventually lead to me trying to beat my $15 bucks out of a theater manager while the end credits to Prometheus rolled.

Now, while Ridley Scott and the folks behind Alien insisted they were not in any way inspired or influenced by the Ixtl that attacked the Space Beagle, there WAS a lawsuit for plagiarism, but it never went to court. It was quietly settled out of court. So you can be the judge.

Squenix: "Yeah, ours is a coeurl, too. Not a displacing thing!"

Squenix: “Yeah, ours is a coeurl, too. Not a displacing thing!”

Meanwhile, one might also wonder about the Xill that appeared in the 1981 Fiend Folio and eventually in the 3rd Edition Monster Manuals who lay parasitic eggs in the chest cavities of their victims. What a weird coincidence.

How do you use this s$%& in your game? Well, I actually want to go back and talk about the original monster I started talking about whose name I dare not utter. Because, there’s a lot of in-game lore about the damned thing. Its pelt is usual for making magical items based on illusions. Its eyes are said to have magical powers that mask the bearers location. It is the mortal enemy of blink dogs, which are teleporting magic dog creatures. And so on. And I have to be honest, I kind of miss some of that crap. Not the specifics. But I like the idea of bits of monsters being useful for things or sallable. In point of fact, in my current Pathfinder game, the PCs are often able to (with the use of the right profession and craft skills) harvest useful bits from magical creatures which they can then sell to wizards, alchemists, and artificers. It’s actually a really cool way to put “treasure” in the game. My displacer beasts don’t carry around money, but those pelts and eyes fetch a decent price if they are harvested well.

Though, It's Not Like You Can Get a Whole Game Out of Hunting Monster for their Useful Bits, Right? That'd Be Silly...

Though, It’s Not Like You Can Get a Whole Game Out of Hunting Monsters for their Useful Bits, Right? That’d Be Silly…


"Heavenly shades of light are falling/it's twilight time.."

“Heavenly shades of night are falling/it’s twilight time..”

“The sun finally dips below the horizon and the hills are bathed in red-gold light as twilight descends upon you. The elf warns ‘it is time to make camp. The hunters of the wild will be out in force now. The twilight is their time.'”

Remember back when the Monster Manual (or the Monstrous Compendium if you’re of a specific generation of D&D gamers) listed activity cycles for all the little beasties? Let’s talk about activity cycles. Specifically, let’s talk about all the animals that are not nocturnal.

See, a lot of the normal animals we think of as nocturnal aren’t really nocturnal: lots of rodents and many bats, also cats, some wild canines, moths, and lots of other insects. It’s actually a pretty long list. You thought your cat was nocturnal, right? But many cats are actually crepuscular.

Crepuscular animals are neither nocturnal (activity peaks at night) or diurnal (activity peaks during the day). Their activity peaks at dawn and at dusk. They are most active in the twilight hours. In fact, crepuscular comes from the Latin word for twilight. And twilight can be the most dangerous time to be out and about in the wilderness because so many predators are crepuscular.

So how can you use this in your game…? Wait, what? You think that was kind of short? Fine. Let’s talk about New Zealand and about demigod sibling rivalry and the imprisonment of the sun.

"Also, in churches. Always in churches."

“Also, in churches. Always in churches.”

Do you know what else is crepuscular, apart from various animals? Rays of sunlight (speaking of cats). Specifically, crepuscular rays. Crepuscular rays are those shafts of slanting light that come down between the clouds or between objects. Ancient temples in movies always have them because they look so damned cool? Well, those are crepuscular rays. But they have a lot of other nicknames too.

Those wacky Greeks with their crazy myths, right?

Those wacky Greeks with their crazy myths, right?

The ancient Greeks called them water draws because they had this crazy theory that water rode sunbeams into the sky to turn into rain (oh those wacky Greeks). They are also called Jacob’s Ladder after a Biblical tale in which Jacob dreamed of a staircase to Heaven. And they are also called Taura A Māui, which is Māori for “Ropes of Māui.”

Māui, in this case, is not the Hawaiian Island. But rather, it refers to a Polynesian demigod, which is why the phrase is of Māori origin. If you didn’t know, the Māori are the original settlers of the islands of New Zealand. They arrived sometime in the 1,200’s which makes New Zealand one of the last landmasses ever to be settled by human beings. And New Zealand has a pretty interesting relationship with the demigod Māui.

"But you should have seen the one that got away!"

“But you should have seen the one that got away!”

Māui, whose full name is Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga which translates roughly to “Māui the hair of his mother Taranga” for reasons that would take a little too long to explain did not get along with his brothers, which would also take a little too long to explain. What’s important is that his brothers were going fishing one day and they left him behind. So, he took his own canoe and an ancient, enchanted jawbone which he made into a fishing hook and went fishing on his own. He fished up a giant fish and his brothers saw it and rowed over. They wanted to cut up the fish at once, but Māui insisted on making a proper offering to the god Tangaroa who ruled the sea first. His brothers wouldn’t listen and started cutting up the giant fish. According to Maroi legend, the giant fish was the northern island of New Zealand. And all the valleys and rivers are the cuts his brothers made. The southern island is Māui’s canoe.

"But you should have seen the one that got away!"

“But you should have seen the one that got away!”

So why are shafts of sunlight (crepuscular rays) called Ropes of Māui? Well, before Māui used the jawbone (which belonged to his ancestor) to fish up New Zealand, he used it to beat the sun into submission. See? Again, according to Māori legends, the sun was whipping through the sky so fast in ancient times that there weren’t enough hours in the day to get anything done. We’ve all felt that way, of course, but Māui went out and did something with it. On a hunt, he (with the help of his jealous brothers) lassooed the sun and beat it with the jawbone until it agreed to slow the hell down and let them have a nice, long day. Thus, in addition to pulling islands out of the sea, Māui is also the reason why you have to work at least 8 hours every day. Thanks Māui! So crepuscular rays, shafts of sunlight, are called the Ropes of Māui because they resemble the ropes he used to lasso the sun.

But there is something else crepuscular on New Zealand and we’ll end our story with it: cats. See, New Zealand didn’t have any terrestrial mammals. So, when the Māori arrived, insects, birds, and reptiles had evolved to fill every ecological niche on the islands. But the settling Māori and later Europeans and then everyone else brought various animals with them. Among them, cats. Cat ownership is extremely popular now in New Zealand. But it’s also problematic. They have become what is called an invasive species. That’s when a new animal arrives in a place and outcompetes all of the other animals because there are no predators or other natural checks on the new animal population. And stray and feral cats are just that. And while they control other invasive species (like rats), they are also driving native reptiles and birds to extinction. The ecology of a given place is usually reliant on a very delicate balance. And the sudden introduction of a new species can be an ecological disaster.

"I m in ur ecosystem, killin ur native species"

“I m in ur ecosystem, killin ur native species”

There are two great takeaways for your game here. The first is the story of Māui. Or rather, why are there so few stories like the story of Māui in D&D lore? In a universe where the pantheon of gods’ is objectively real and provable, why don’t more stories like that figure into the creation of the campaign world. Most DMs and campaign authors design worlds that are explainable with natural processes: plate tectonics and geology and meteorology and stuff like that. And there’s no reason for that. You have a perfect excuse for things being wonderful and inexplicable. Use it.

The other great story is the story of invasive species. Granted, that isn’t great from an ecological standpoint, but think about all of the problems that could be caused when settlers or refugees bring their pets to an environment that can’t handle them. Or are brought in on purpose. What if a city introduces slimes and oozes to control the dire rat problems in the sewers and find that the slimes and oozes are now the dominant species and they are taking over? Great fodder for adventure.

"Sire, the good news is Operation Gygax HAS brought the dire rat population under control..."

“Sire, the good news is Operation Gygax HAS brought the dire rat population under control…”



“A bard? How dare you? I’m don’t serve some puffed up peacock on a throne, telling him his own don’t stink for thirty in rhyming couplets, kissing my artistry and integrity on the cheek for thirty bits of silver. Call me not a bard, nor a skald, nor a scop. I am no minstrel, no troubadour, no jongleur. Nay! Call me gleeman, to rhyme with free man, for I work for a living and I love my art more than I love coin. Speaking of… five coppers for a song?”

D&D BardAh, the bard, the traveling singer, storyteller, and adventurer. The quintessential free-spirit. Beholden to no one. Master of his own fate. The bard is a D&D class you either love (like d20monkey who recently posted a preview of the new D&D 5E Bard class), or you hate (like any sane, rational person). Nobody is neutral about the bard. The trouble is, the bard in D&D isn’t really a bard at all. Neither is it a skald or a scop or a minstrel or a troubadour or a jongluer or a jester or a fool. Nor is it a druid.

Bards originated in the Celtic societies of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Their first function was to compose and recite eulogies for dead rulers. According to one myth, if the bard was unsatisfied with his pay, he’d compose a satire instead to ridicule the cheapskate ruler and his cheapskate family. But that may be apocryphal. Over time, the bard’s role expanded. The ruling caste of Celtic society would retain bards to recount the histories of their families and their military conquests and just generally tell them how great they were. They were basically yes-men. Paid members of a ruler’s entourage.

And that’s where things get sort of complicated. See, there was actually a professional heriarchy in Celtic society and it varied a little from place to place. So, in some places, the word bard was used for an unemployed itinerant musician and a court poet was called a filidh, ollave, or derwyyd. This is further muddied by the fact that when Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, they may have purposely discredited bards because filidh became associated with the Faith. It also doesn’t help that the druids didn’t keep good written records, which is precisely why bards existed. In point of fact, the word derwydd (for a court poet) is the word that gave us the word druid. Bards were members of the druid hierarchy.

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We're Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We’re Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

The thing is, though, that the D&D depiction and the modern pop-culture understanding of the druid is a little off. The title “druid” simply referred to members of the educated, professional classes of Celtic society. It included Celtic priests, which is what we think of when we talk about druids, but it also included doctors, poets (like the bard), and Celtic lawyers. As a member of the druidic hierarchy and as bearer of news and a repository of knowledge, bards were protected under Celtic law. They could travel anywhere freely and say whatever they wished. Bards were also often experts in laws and customs and could be consulted on legal matters.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they were court poets paid by patrons to sing their praises.

Skalds and scops are the Viking and Germanic equivalents of the bard. Preservers of history, praisers of patrons, and sycophantic yes-men. Sorry about that. Interestingly though, they did have a very crude sense of humor and a quick wit as both societies were connoisseurs of crude, drunken humor. Skalds and scops would often be paid to mock a ruler’s enemies. It was said that the mockery of a skilled skald could cause boils to erupt on the face of their victims. From skald we get the word scold. And from scop, we get the word scoff. But still, they were basically just paid by rich kings to tell them how awesome they were and how much their enemies sucked.

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

What about a minstrel? Sorry. Minstrels were the late medieval French equivalent of bards, skalds, and scops. They were court entertainers, sometimes even retained as fools or jesters or jongleurs (which we call jugglers). All of them were tied down to wealthy, paying patrons. The word minstrel even comes from the same Latin root as minister and administration. No free spirits there.

Maybe the troubadour. Troubadours did indeed travel. But they weren’t entertainers so much as composers. But close enough, right? Well, sorry. While they DID travel from place to place, they often settled down for long periods of time and worked for… you guessed it… a wealthy patron, singing their praises and telling them how awesome they were.

So what do you want if you want to play a free-spirited chaotic-good adventuring entertainer, living by quick wits, a silver tongue, and whatever loot you can earn with your lute? Well, you sir or madam, are looking at the lowly cantabank or gleeman.

That's Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

That’s Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

Cantabank comes from the Latin meaning “to sing from a bench,” because that was often the best they could afford. Gleemen, cantabanks, circlers, or itinerant minstrels, were the lowest class of composer, singer, storyteller, and entertainer. They were even below professional fools and jesters. Why? Because they didn’t steady work. They wandered from place to place struggling to earn two coins to rub together.

And so, those are really your choices for your new bard. Are you a sellout, a nobleman’s lapdog, paid to tell your boss how awesome he is in iambic pentameter day after day? Or are you an unemployed medieval busker, wandering from town to town, looked down upon by the people who would someday invent the pie-in-the-face gag?

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage


"You blog like a dairy farmer!"

“You blog like a dairy farmer!”

All right, instead of my usual schtick of giving a descriptive piece of flavor text that uses the word in context, let’s start with a quiz.

If your DM tells you that you see a bunch of hardies, are you most likely hanging out with (a) Captain Jack Sparrow or (b) Will Turner. Tricky, eh? What if I remind you that Will “Legolas” Turner worked for a blacksmith before he pulled a Threepwood and became a mighty pirate? That piece of information should be a dead giveaway. Because, while you might hang out with your hearties on the deck of a pirate ship (or any ship, for that matter), if you’re looking over a set of hardies, you’re visiting a blacksmith.

"Not that Tempest. We don't talk about THAT Tempest."

“Not that Tempest. We don’t talk about THAT Tempest.”

Hearties is, of course, a slang term for shipmates. More generally, it refers to comrades or friends. It comes from the word “hearty” which means: full of heart. Spirited, loyal, brave, trustworthy, friendly, and courageous. It is tough to determine when “hearty” became associated with sailors and shipmates. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation dates back to the mid 1,800s. But, in the Tempest by William Shakespeare, a character on a ship gives orders to his shipmates, who he calls his “hearts.” Given how many phrases Shakespeare coined, it is not impossible that he’s the reason you call your friends “yer hearties” on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Meanwhile, “hardies” comes from the word hardy. Which means tough, strong, and enduring. In game terms, hardy is about constitution. Hearty is about charisma. Or wisdom. It’s kind of tough to separate the two. But you’ve probably never heard the word “hardies” unless you misspelled your pirate-themed e-mail. In fact, my spell checker absolutely hates the word “hardies.” And if you’ve never heard the word “hardies,” that’s because don’t realize that an anvil is more than just a table made of iron for hitting things on.

"Not Labeled: The Base (AKA: The Coyote Squisher)

“Not Labeled: The Base (AKA: The Coyote Squisher)

Sure, an anvil includes a flat surface so that you can whack pieces of orange-hot iron (because red-hot isn’t quite hot enough most of the time) with a heavy hammer without breaking or scorching your work surface. But there’s a more to it than that. Like a cutting edge, a recessed edge where you can snap off a piece of metal. And like hardy holes. Where you stick your hardies.

Hardies are shaping tools. You mount them on your anvil (sticking them in the hardy hole) so that, when you beat a piece of hot metal over them, they shape the metal. For example, you’ve got your bicks, which are rounded pieces used to give the metal a curve or bend. You’ve got your swages, which force the metal into certain shapes like squares or triangles. And you’ve got your fullers, which dig grooves into the metal.

Hardies: They Really are a Thing

Hardies: They Really are a Thing

One of the most likely bits of metal that will have a groove in it is the blade of a sword. They often have one (or more) grooves running down the middle of the blade and these grooves are called fullers after the tool that is used to dig them. There’s a lot of reasons why blades have fullers, and almost all of them are wrong. Some people say they are there to provide a channel for blood and gore to flow out of stabbing wounds. Others think they prevent the blade from getting stuck inside a person by preventing suction or something.

I Have Nothing Witty to Say Here. Sorry.

I Have Nothing Witty to Say Here. Sorry.

But those folks are grog-addled landlubbers who wouldn’t know a gaff from a handspike. The reason fullers exist is because they strengthen the blade while making it lighter in exactly the same way an I-beam provides strength but is lighter than a solid hunk of iron.

So, we’ve covered fullers, hardies, swages, bicks, anvils, hearties, and I’ve mentioned three iconic pirates from two different bits of modern pop culture. I think that’s enough for one day. It’s just a shame I couldn’t do the pirate trifecta and work this fine fella in…

Johnny Depp's Got Nothing on The Original Pirate King

Johnny Depp’s Got Nothing on The Original Pirate King


“The magistrate calls for silence. He clears his throat and speaks. ‘From what has been said, I cannot determine the truth of this matter. Therefore, either you may plead guilty and accept just punishment, or you will be consigned to a cleric of Saint Cuthbert for a Trial by Ordeal. And may the gods spare you if you are innocent.'”

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

So this week’s word has an odd story behind it. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts about economics and the word came up and I found myself wondering why the word never actually made its way into D&D. Specifically, why it never made its way onto clerics’ spell lists.

The word is ordeal. When we hear the word ordeal, we usually think of a terrible, harrowing experience. But ordeal actually has Germanic roots and it comes from the word “to judge” or “to give what is deserved.” An ordeal was actually a form of divine judgment. And it goes back a long way. Early legal codes like the Code of Hammurabi included the ordeal as a way of determining guilt. So, what was an ordeal?

Well, let’s jump ahead to European law in the Middle Ages. When the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime could not be determined, they could either settle the case (by pleading guilty and making compensation or suffering the punishment) or they could opt for a Trial by Ordeal. They would undertake some sort of injurous act and if they were unharmed or if their injuries showed signs of healing normally and not festering, they were found innocent. The idea was that G-d knew if you were guilty or innocent and would protect you if you were innocent.

Different ordeals existed at different points in history and in different parts of the world. Some of the most common included plunging your hand into boiling water, walking across hot irons, grasping a hot iron, consuming poison, and so on. There were a lot of creative trials by ordeal all over the world.

(That facial expression is less "I'm gripping a red hot iron bar" and more "I'm having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.")

(That facial expression is less “I’m gripping a red hot iron bar” and more “I’m having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.”)

Now, interestingly, an economist named Peter Leeson discovered some records from Hungary which indicated that some two-thirds of people who underwent trials by ordeal involving grasping searing hot iron bars were found innocent. And he explains that the trials were probably rigged in those cases. Once the defendant agreed to the trial, Leeson reasoned, rather than simply settling or pleading guilty, that told the priests that the defendant truly believed in his or her own innocence and that G-d would deliver them from harm. The act of accepting the ordeal and potentially having your arm or legs boiled or dying from poison or whatever was a sign of innocence, so the priests would rig the trial to exonerate you. Is that true? Who knows. But you can read about it in his book, Anarchy Unbound or listen a really nifty episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast about this and other ways of getting the guilty and innocent to reveal themselves without knowing it.

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Early Germanic law was actually quite fascinating. In addition to Trials by Ordeal, it also included Trails by Combat, in which the accuser and the defendant would duel to determine guilt or innocence (again on the assumption that some divine power would intervene to protect the innocent). More interestingly, though, it actually had some very neat ideas about compensation and damages and lawsuits. Some Germanic laws included the concept of a weregeld (literally: the cost of a person). If harm was done to a person or their property, they had to be compensated whether that damage was intentional or accidental. The base price was the weregeld and it was multiplied based on the social status of the individual. People with families were worth more than loners. Nobles were higher than commoners. Professionals higher than laborers and so on. If you couldn’t pay the compensation, you were declared an outlaw which meant you no longer enjoyed the protection of the law. That meant anything anyone did to you was nice and legal. It was usually a death sentence.

Now, I could talk about my recent D&D campaign in a society that followed a legal system heavily inspired by Germanic law traditions and a group of outsider adventurers who were stunned by some of the seemingly barbaric practices, but it was that ordeal thing that stuck with me. Trials by Ordeal were common, not just in the western world, but in many different cultures. There were all sorts of divine or magical ways to seperate the guilty from the innocent. And, if you believe in divine intervention, it just makes sense that stuff would be possible. So where, in this fantasy world where the gods are objectively real and grant magical powers, is the ordeal spell? You’ve got the Zone of Truth and you’ve got the Detect Evil and you’ve got the Atonement. But where is Ordeal. Where is a blessing that will protect the innocent heart from some harmful trial but not the guilty? How did this get overlooked?!

More to the point, what is the deal with the law in your D&D game? Every DM eventually does that game where the PCs are on trial or they have to investigate a crime or prove someone innocent of something, but the trials and the investigations are always filled with these modern ideas of evidence and forensics and fact-finding. And all of that completely ignores the fact that D&D includes an objective alignment system, a set of deities that really exist and really grant magic to help the faithful, and wizards and divination and mystical truth-telling skulls. Why is the law in D&D so f$&%ing boring?! Where are the Trials by Ordeal? The Trials by Combat?

And while we’re on the subject, why aren’t divine spells more selective in who they will work on and who they won’t? Why won’t cure spells just fail on people of the wrong alignments or people with two many checkmarks in the sin column? That’d turn every clerical spell into a trial by ordeal, right? Imagine this for a trail. The defendant is scorched with a hot iron and then a cure spell is cast. If the spell fails, the dude is guilty. The end.

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System