Monsters Mastered: Kobolds
Dragons are fearsome, powerful creatures that inspire awe in all living things. They embody strength, cunning, ferocity, guile, and often command the respect of lesser beings. And no creatures revere dragons as ardently as kobolds, who are their direct contrast in so many ways!
What is a kobold, you ask? The answer to that has changed over the editions of Dungeons & Dragons. DnD 5e kobolds are small, reptilian humanoids that have been the butt of DnD’s jokes for years now. Alongside goblins, kobolds continually get the short end of the stick. They are craven, weak, scrawny, short creatures that amount to little more than canon fodder in a typical game. But they can be so much more if played with intentionality.
In this latest installment of Monsters Mastered, our aim is to elevate kobolds to something beyond a comedic encounter in your campaigns, and give them distinguishing features useful for kobold enemies, kobold NPCS, and kobold player characters alike!
While the kobold has been reimagined several times since the early days of D&D, throughout their history they have had a few things in common: they are small, they live below ground, they love hoarding shiny objects, and they HATE gnomes.
Their dislike for gnomes comes from their patron deity: Kurtulmak. The kobold god is a vassal of Tiamat, the 5-headed dragon goddess. Kurtulmak the Cunning was once a valued enjoy and trusted aide to the devilish dragon, but fell victim to one of his own traps thanks to the meddling of the gnome god, Garl Glittergold. Kurtulmak is now bound in an inescapable maze of tunnels, awaiting his servants to steal its magical key from the gnomish divine.
Kurtulmak embodies several philosophies that all his kobold children hold dear. First, that bravery is for fools. Better to run and live to fight another day than to throw one’s life away for the sake of honor or chivalry. So long as a single kobold survives to seek revenge, a battle is not truly over, nor lost. Second, a cunning scheme or clever trap is more efficacious than any weapon. Third, that a dirty win is still a win, and that underhanded and sneaky tactics that risk little and have high chances of success are always better than open confrontation. Your enemy’s opinion of your valor matters little after they’re dead. And finally, that revenge is the sweetest of delights! Kobolds will remember slights for several generations, and always attempt to repay the offense twice over!
Though gnomes and dwarves would never admit it, a kobold's efforts at gem finding and tunneling are comparable to their own. Kobolds have no interest in finely smithed goods or in cutting and setting the gems they find into jewelry, but they are talented at sniffing out gem deposits and veins of precious metals beneath the earth. And while their tunnels aren’t built to impress or to last, they build sound networks or interlocking pathways that are in no danger of collapsing accidentally, and they do it with surprising speed.
Though they are naturally averse to sunlight, kobolds thrive underground. They eagerly dig homes for themselves in the ground, or make themselves at home in underground ruins or caves. They will happily inhabit any space that they believe they can defend themselves in from anything that would eat them… which is most things.
Mirroring how Kurtulmak serves Tiamat, kobolds often seek out dragons and offer themselves in service to them. Viewing the dragons as demigods, kobolds need little urging to indenture themselves to a dragon, considering their acts of servitude as divine ministrations. Kobolds idolize dragons in all regards, and consider their own saurian appearance to be a lesser reflection of the draconian ideal (though there is no lore to substantiate their wishful thinking).
In lieu of a dragon to follow, kobolds will eagerly accept the leadership and protection of any suitably intimidating master. Kobolds are often at their happiest and most fulfilled when following orders and relieved of the obligation of independent thought. For this reason, they make ideal minions and toadies for more powerful subterranean enemies like drow, beholders, or unscrupulous giants.
Kobolds don’t have a strongly defined social structure of their own, typically looking to their masters to define their social roles. A favored minion is elevated above its peers, and other kobolds will look to it for guidance and leadership. When left to their own devices, kobolds typically see one another as equals.
Urds are the exception to this rule. Urds are kobolds with bat-like wings that give them the power of flight and a more draconic appearance: traits are seen as gifts from Tiamat. While you would think that urds would be afforded some measure of authority and respect among their kin, other kobolds are typically envious of urds and choose not to associate with them.
While kobolds often eagerly attend to the needs of stronger, more charismatic creatures, they can be pushed too far. If a group of kobolds is large enough and their master’s treatment of them is poor enough, then they can be driven to rebel. If they believe they might succeed they might directly oppose or attack their overseer, but they are just as likely to unite to escape or flee their situation.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, then you have likely rightly gathered that kobolds aren’t much of a threat. They are toadies and minions meant merely to sap your resources on the way to greater threats. And that’s all well and good. Kobolds aren’t designed to be your BBEGs or campaign villains. They’re meant to do a handful of things well, and be relatively useless otherwise. But even so, their stat blocks don’t seem to match their theme.
The sourcebooks for 5e use adjectives like “clever” and “dastardly” to describe kobolds and their works, even going so far as to mention their “cruel inventiveness.” And yet the highest Intelligence ability score in any kobold stat block is an 8? That’s only 80% as smart as an average villager, who I daresay would not have the creative genius that creating a kobold deathtrap would require. Furthermore, whereas their enemies the famously intelligent gnomes are famously able to hoodwink kobolds, the fact that they have not been able to wipe out kobolds entirely over the centuries belies some shrewdness. Given the lore and flavor that are attributed to kobolds, I think roleplaying them as being uncommonly intelligent makes sense. Not to the point of erudition or eloquence, but to the point that they make more effective adversaries.
Kobolds in my campaign setting walk this line. They don’t speak Common very well, often using childish and choppy phrases. They are comfortable with armor and weaponry, but prefer to eschew them in favor of greater mobility in their narrow tunnels, which put larger creatures with larger weapons at a disadvantage. They are smart enough to employ traps rather than risk losing their lives in combat, to diligently serve creatures that can protect them from other threats, to run when the tides turn, to prepare for a fight in advance, to employ guerilla tactics and pincer attacks, and to employ effective measures against different types of enemies.
These dastardly delvers see things in a different way than others. Where an adventurer sees a green slime as an enemy, a kobold sees it as ammunition! Where others might see a poisonous centipede as a nuisance to be ground underfoot, a kobold sees the makings of an excellent addition to a new trap! Kobolds love to use other creatures and elements of their natural environment to foil and frustrate their enemies. Feel free to get creative with what combinations of creatures kobolds could throw at their enemies (often literally)!
A kobold’s naturally high dexterity and propensity for being easily frightened would logically lead one to assume that they are proficient in Dexterity (Stealth) checks.… but no. At least, not in their stat blocks as they currently exist. I’d recommend giving them proficiency in that area, because that lends itself to ambush tactics and easier escapes.
With the above in mind, I encourage you to trick out kobolds in your games with some superior equipment to help them live up to their potential. Wearing leather or hide armor and shields will improve their flimsy chances at survival. Wielding finesse weapons like shortswords and rapiers (whether looted, found, or crudely fashioned) will increase their poor damage output. Ranged weaponry like shortbows or crossbows are also obvious fits for these creatures, but not seen in their stat blocks as written.
Compared to the other creatures that inhabit the D&D multiverse, kobolds are quite small and weak. Most creatures consider them prey, if not easy prey. They are not particularly strong, fast, or hardy, making them quite ineffective in combat. Kobolds won’t win fair fights, so they don’t engage in fair fights. Having few natural advantages, they do anything they can to level the playing field, or tip the scales in their favor (yes, that’s a dragon pun). A kobold’s best weapons in combat are their traps, surprise, and overwhelming numbers. They are happiest when they can use all three to their advantage.
First, let’s handle traps. Kobolds work best when they’re not on the offensive. Kobolds are naturally skittish and cowardly creatures, and will rarely be the aggressors. Most often, adventurers will encounter them by entering a cave, dungeon, or ruin system that kobolds call home. In addition to this making the most sense from a roleplay standpoint, it also plays to the kobolds’ strengths. Kobolds can’t set traps in the heat of battle, but they can defend their warrens and the strongholds of their masters with traps that give them a home field advantage. Traps are a kobold’s best friend, since they involve no personal risk for the kobolds, and have a high chance to inconvenience if not slay their foes.
Then, there’s surprise. Whether or not you give kobolds proficiency in Stealth, a kobold that expects an enemy will always seek cover and/or a hiding place. Trusting in their trapmaking genius, they will wait for their enemies to be wounded, incapacitated, or at least distracted by their traps before springing into action! Cheeky attacks against unprepared enemies are a kobold’s favorite! If kobolds lack the element of surprise, they are likely to flee rather than fight.
They will then send the hardiest and most protected of their number to harry the enemy while the bulk of their numbers pepper their target with ranged attacks. Outnumbering their opponents is the final, and most essential part of a kobold combat strategy. A kobold’s best trick in combat is their Pack Tactics feature, which gives all kobolds advantage on attack rolls against their target so long as an ally of the kobold is adjacent to the creature (and not incapacitated). There is a limit to how many kobolds can strike a single target in melee, and being in melee with an enemy incurs risk… but any number of kobolds can pelt their target with advantage with relative impunity even if only a single ally is standing next to their adversary. Kobolds happily gang up on a single target before moving to another, increasing their chances of victory.
Therefore, an ideal encounter for a kobold begins with the party falling for a clever trap. Then several, ideally a dozen or more, kobolds spring from nearby hiding places to attack their enemies with ranged attacks as the tankiest kobold ally steps up to tank damage and stymie the heroes. This could be a sturdy creature such as an ogre, or a creature with a higher AC like a kobold dragonshield. This creature can even take the Dodge action, increasing their survivability. So long as the other kobolds can make their attacks with advantage, that creature is doing its job.
In combat as in life, kobolds are at their best when supporting other creatures. An encounter of nothing but kobolds can be exciting, but mixing them in with larger, stronger creatures or spellcasters can help them reach their full potential.
While kobolds use effective strategies in combat, their signature maneuver is a tactical retreat. Kobolds will flee combat if they sense that the tides are turning. If a key figure on their side is taken down, if their tactics are proving ineffective, or if their numbers begin to dwindle, kobolds will flee. When cornered, kobolds will gladly surrender rather than face death. Unless their enemies are gnomes, that is… kobolds will gladly fight to the last man when trying to kill gnomes, and would rather die than be a captive or servant to their similarly diminutive enemies.
In Your Campaign
Use kobolds in your campaigns as minions of your subterranean villains. Have them be foot soldiers and servants in the dungeon, use them to guard treasure rooms and important items, or as a surprise encounter in an unassuming place. While kobolds don’t present much of a threat on their own, a clever mastermind will know just where and how to utilize them in their defense strategy.
Don’t be afraid to add more kobolds! A handful will amount to little more than a comedic encounter, so really pump up the numbers to get the full effect! If things start getting out of hand, they can always retreat.
There’s an expression in cooking that says “season to taste,” meaning keep adding seasoning until you get it just right. Kobolds are a great way to season an encounter to taste! If you’re in an encounter that isn’t providing the punch you wanted it to, have one or two at a time keep crawling out of holes to reinforce their friends until you find that perfect encounter balance.
If you are fortunate enough to have a player character who is a gnome, consider making a kobold a recurring minor villain for that character. This can be as funny or as dire as you wish to suit your campaign, but every time this kobold escapes, they turn and shout an oath of vengeance against the gnome in the heroes’ party, promising to return and settle the score next time!
Fifth edition koblods are more than just canon fodder. They are among the most effective defenders of dungeons, the most subservient and eager minions, and enemies that make intelligent decisions when fighting in the interest of self-preservation. While they certainly can still fill the role of comic relief, they have so much more potential. Be sure not to waste these wily wastrels at your table!
What is your greatest takeaway from this article? What excites you about kobolds? Do kobolds in your campaigns wear #freekurtulmak tee shirts? No? Just mine? Well, let us know on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in our Discord community!
Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.