“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.