Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rethinking Kobolds

Kobolds have as existed as Magic Missile-fodder for a long time in gaming now. Weaker than orcs, kobolds just don't seem to have a lot going for them. They putter around in dungeons, gather in tribes, and die at the hands of low-level adventurers.

So, for my next campaign, I decided to give kobolds a bit more flavor.

Hive Mind: Every kobold infestation is actually a hive-mind colony. There are Queens, Workers, and Drones/Builders. The further from the Queen kobolds range, the more erratic and uncoordinated their movements. This means that the closer you get to the colony's heart in a dungeon, the better kobolds fight.

Kobolds Build: The aforementioned Builders do just that. Kobolds not only build traps to protect their colony, the also build bizarre contraptions that apparently serve no purpose except to inconvenience adventurers. A kobold infestation needs only a few months to totally change the design and look of entire dungeon levels.

Beware The Queen: As stupid and weak as individual kobolds often seem, their Queens are supposedly exceedingly intelligent, with some scholars attributing mind-control powers to them. To reach a Queen's Nest is difficult enough--to defeat one is a feat of legend.

Adventurers Are Yummy: Yes, kobolds eat adventurers. More often, however, incapacitated adventurers are brought to the Nests, where they are eaten--alive--by Kobold Hatchlings.

Meepo would approve, I think.

So that's it for now. I'm also thinking I want the kobolds to have some sort of iconic weapon, but I'm just not sure what right now. Barbed spears are nasty--maybe only 1d6 damage, but another 1d4 or 1d6 when you have to yank it out.


Sean said...

Runequest has an interesting rule where for impaling weapons: If you pull it out that does damage again, and requires you to fake another action (rolling brawn in Runequest, but probably an attack in D&D). If you don't take it out, it causes a conciderable penalty (I think 20%) to all DEX based actions, like attacks.

That sort of thing really slows down PC's - and may start some of them using barbed spears themselves.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I love using kobolds, especially making them tricky.

In a game I was running, no one had dark vision, and they were in a reworking of the Keep on the Borderlands kobold cave. The party was investigating an intersection, and through their torch to get a better view. A kobold popped out, stole the torch, then his buddies attacked them in the dark. Nice :-)

Longtooth said...

All things aspire to be greater. I really like all races that are reptilian. The cold calculating efficiency coupled with some form of fierce independence.
Kobolds are like little dragon-lings who rarely see any status greater than fodder. They are deserving of a little more attention. Keep us posted.

Anthony Emmel said...

A couple of things to consider:

1. Kobolds are, in many ways, the humanoid equivalent to gnomes. The use of traps, small size, not taken seriously, etc. Having them make gnomish-type contraptions makes sense.

2. In the 1e D&DG, it lists Kolbold shamans as having the ability to reach 5th level. That can make a real difference at low levels and is frequently overlooked. Also, the DMG mentions the fact that kobolds can have witch doctors that use MU spells as well.

3. Pets are always nice. Kobolds tend to have crappy weapons like wooden spears. Give sentries a rust monster or two (a fav of mine) and watch the hilarity ensue. :)

David said...

I love kobolds, which is probably why I've written about them so much.




sirlarkins said...

"Kobold infestation"--I like it!

Alex said...

Have you ever (or recently) checked out the AD&D 2nd boxed set, "Dragon Mountain?" That did a pretty good job of making kobolds particularly troublesome as dungeon dwellers, rather than the cannon fodder role they're typically relegate to.

Matt said...

"Kobold infestation" - I think alchemists make a cream for that now.

Brett said...

I never really cared for kobolds, but I really like the hive concept for them. Makes them interesting.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Hive-mind kobolds? Oh my goodness. That is brilliant.

Zzarchov said...

I still use the old "dog faced" kobolds, not the new reptilian ones and I like to use them as fast breeding plagues.

Adolescent at 1, full adult at 2, births 7-12 a year and of normal intelligence, but with only a 12-17 year life span.

Dangerous critters to make it into civilized lands, a real rot that needs clearing.

Zachary The First said...

@Sean: Solid idea—that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I like it.

@Darius: Nice work! I’ll bet the players were none too pleased.

@Longtooth: Thanks, I will!

@Anthony: I think it’d be awesome to have kobolds riding a rust-monster—like 2 or 3 on its back, bursting into a room, throwing wooden spears all over the place.

@David: Thank you for the links! Much appreciated!

@SirLarkins: Thanks!

@Alex: I have not, but it sounds like something I should look up—thanks for the recommendation!

@Matt: If they did, it’d be indispensable to dungeoneers.

@Carpe: Thanks! I rather like it, too. ;)

@Zzarchov: That definitely sets them up as varmints to be eradicated.

Gleichman said...

Two thoughts.

1) If you change Kobolds this much, they aren't Kobolds anymore.

2) Barbed weapons make no sense in a game system where HP does not represent true physical damage (and thus means that there is nothing to pull out).

Zachary The First said...

@Gleichman: I’m not sure I understand. Is there a Universal Kobold Standard that I need to adhere to? ;) I’ve always thought of kobolds as rather open to interpretation, given their change from dog-faces to lizard-lips.

Barbed weapons…honestly, I’m not thrilled with HP as they are represented in many D&D versions, but if I’m working to have HP model physical damage (in theory, because I’m not sure HP really can model physical damage that well at all), it makes sense that pulling out a barbed weapon would do additional damage. I’ve had metal fragments extracted from a wound, and it sure felt like additional damage—I can’t even imagine what a barbed weapon would be like!

Kristian said...

3e Races of the Dragon and its web enhancements did a bit to beef them up.

Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games said...

Kobolds are related to dragons. I like the hive-mind concept, but what if, instead of having "queens", their close psychic bond can be readily dominated by an actual dragon. Perhaps even a young one could manage it, and even draws tribes of kobolds to it as a survival mechanism.

Zachary The First said...

@Jeff: Not a bad idea!

Zenfar said...

The first rule of Old School Club is you don't rethink Kobolds.

The second rule of Old School Club is you don't rethink Kobolds.

The third rule of Old School Club is you don't rethink a Kobold's ecology.

Zachary The First said...

@Zenfar: At least I didn’t invoke the Great Dwarven Female Beard Schism.

Aaron said...

Yes, yes, I know - I'm late to the party again.

I think the problem with Kobolds is that many GM's play them like idiots. Kobolds should never, as weak as they are, fight fair, or one-on-one. In fact, a lone kobold, confronted by a bound, gagged and blindfolded barmaid chained to a boulder, should immediately be thinking: "I don't like these odds - better call for backup."

The low-level Pulp Dungeons adventure "An Infestation of Kobalds [sic]" has it more or less right. At first, a lone, elderly Kobald demands a toll to pass. If the party is belligerent, the tollkeeper uses magical invisibility to hide, while his 36 buddies come out of hiding. 24 of them have bows or javelins, and the tollkeeper himself knows Magic Missile. And if the battle still goes against them? The two Orges come out to play. Now, played reasonably smartly, the Kobalds could easy TPK a low-level bunch, but that's really the way that one deals with adversaries one realized are much stronger, man for man: overwhelm them with numbers, and have an ace in the hole.

Zachary The First said...

@Aaron: Good points. A swarm of kobolds is much better than weak 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 attacks.

Gleichman said...

Of course there's a Universal Kobold Standard, you note part of it yourself right before you go on to break it :)

And really, HP to represent real physical damage? I'm good with that, if you limit HP to something like 4 or 5 points for a human no matter the level.

Zachary The First said...

No, I agree HP doesn't model physical damage well at all. I think that's why later games stressed it's a mix of physical damage, resilence, and luck, as much as anything.

Jim said...

Kobolds are now Aliens? ;)

I think it's an interesting re-skinning. But I'd call them something different and leave the Kobolds to being tricky little bastages that never fight fair.

Maybe make them look similar so that adventurers really never know against which they are operating. A little unknown is always a good thing...

halfling said...

Great idea on the one-hit-wonder kobolds. There is nothing like a hive mind, especially if they fight with pack tactics.
I particularly liked the approach to their reformatting a dungeon floor. If you can get the pc's to leave one errant kobold behind and the next time you send them back there they think they have a map only to find a reorganized infestation of little nasties.
This would carry over nicely into my Legendary Lives game I am running, I think I will be incorporating this in future adventures. Thanks for the ideas.

Russell said...

There was an article by one player, on how the DM had used kobolds to such effect, that the party was terrified of passing thru the 1st level of the dungeon to reach the lower levels.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, late to the party, but seeing two widely held but wrong assumptions here.

1. "...later games stressed it's a mix of physical damage, resilence, and luck..."

Actually, Gygax started pushing that mindset in the 1e ADD core rulebooks, and had previously mentioned it in Strategic Review and Dragon. That's pretty early on, not in "later games".

2. The idea that kobolds are something that shouldn't be tinkered with is ignoring the facts. From 1974 to 1977, kobolds were described as "evil dwarves". 1e ADD described them as "small cousins of goblins" accompanied by the incongruous illustration depicting them as scaly doglike humanoids with horns. 2e was the first place they were officially described as reptilian (although Dragon articles and modules had been doing so earlier). In 3/3.5, they are suddenly related to dragons. If TSR/WotC can't maintain a consensus about kobolds, why should the players? If you can develop a handle that makes them a viable threat in your campaign, more power to you.