Kobolds: Fairy, Lizard, Dog?
A sprightly column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
It’s an age-old question: Is a kobold a fairy, a lizard, or a dog?
For our first article of 2023, Mythoi presents a serious, hard-hitting investigation into this elusive question, going from German folklore to the origins of TTRPGs to the present day.
And, as you’ve likely already guessed, the answer is that they’re all three.
I. Kobolds of the Hearth
In Germanic folklore, kobolds are a spirit akin to a goblin or fairy. With the ability to turn invisible, and a preference for staying that way, these sprites live secretly alongside humanity.
Most kobolds tend to have a positive relationship with humans, often assisting their mortal neighbours with jobs and menial tasks. An angry kobold, however, is just as quickly an explanation for an inexplicable accident or disaster1. When not invisible, kobolds are typically depicted as human-like, very young or very old, and the size of a small child. Many can shapeshift too, assuming the forms of other people, small animals, objects, and even fire.
Most commonly, kobolds are household spirits, putting them in the company of the Scottish brownie, English hob, Nordic nisse, Slavic domovoy… (I could definitely go on). Taking up residence in a human household, they perform chores and help out around the house—as long as they’re given food and treated with sufficient respect. If not, they’ll become angry, causing accidents and bad luck until placated or driven away.
Though many kobolds choose to live in human households, not all do. As they tend to be primarily defined by their habitat, we have two more types of kobold to discuss…
II. Kobolds of the Earth
Many spirits are said to lurk beneath the earth, and oftentimes that includes the kobold. As miners went about their businesses, they believed they could hear kobolds drilling and hammering elsewhere in the mines. Some even said they could move through rock like it was air. These underground kobolds were often far more malevolent than their above-ground counterparts, being blamed by miners for accidents, rock slides, cave-ins, and just simply for chucking rocks at people2.
A particularly important accusation levelled at kobolds was their spoiling of silver ore into a worthless and dangerous substitute. This ore was dubbed kobold by the miners, but it wasn’t spoiled silver at all, but rather a new element that came to be known as cobalt3.
III. Kobolds of the Sea
The third kind of kobold is the water spirit klabautermann (likely from the Low German klabastern meaning "rumble" or "make a noise")4. He merrily and diligently assists sailors and fishermen with their duties, to the point where, if a sailor is washed overboard, he’ll leap into the sea to rescue them. Dressed as a sailor, the klabautermann carries a tobacco pipe and wears a sailor’s cap. Sometimes his likeness is carved into a ship’s mast for good luck, though no sailor actually wants to set eyes on him—it’s only to a doomed crew will he ever reveal himself.
If you’re unlucky, however, your ship might attract a more sinister kind of klabautermann. This kobold is blamed when things go wrong on the ship as it plays pranks and, inevitably, brings about the ship’s ruin.
A Brief History of Kobolds in D&D
So, if that’s what a kobold is, how did we get from there to trap-using lizard people that serve dragons in 5E? Well, let’s go back to the beginning.
In Original D&D (1974), kobolds were sparsely described as a kind of ‘weaker’ goblin—which, given where goblins normally place in D&D power rankings, seems particularly damning. But, as ignoble as that might be, it gives us a key link in their evolution. Conflating kobolds and goblin, at least in the folkloric sense, isn’t really inappropriate at all!
In the first AD&D Monster Manual (1977), kobolds are described merely as hairless with small horns. They abhor light, and so can be found living in tribes either underground or in overgrown forests. Kobolds now also have a hatred of gnomes, which is amusing given that gnomes are pretty much exactly what kobolds in folklore are. Still, in living underground, we can see the link to the folkloric mining kobolds that will continue throughout the critters’ long career.
So, where do dog kobolds come in? Everyone knows old-school kobolds looked like dogs, right? Well, the descriptions of kobolds in early D&D remained vague. They’re ‘dog-like’, and their language sounds like ‘dogs yapping’, but they also have ‘hairless, scaled skin’ and ‘rat-like’ tails. Ultimately, what they looked like in any given book was more or less up to the artist’s interpretation. Some leant more lizard, others more dog. There are even kobolds that look particularly rat-like too!
Still, if you want an official source for dog kobolds, the Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1983) has the following description:
These small, evil dog-like men usually live underground. They have scaly, rust-brown skin and no hair.
It’s this kind of kobold that makes its way via BECMI D&D to Japan, ensuring future Japanese kobolds in video games and anime were strictly canine.
Future TSR D&D products kept kobolds ambiguous, not a dog but not fully a lizard either. This is where they would remain until Wizards of the Coast’s Third Edition gave them the subtype Reptilian and a standardised, lizard-like look. Kobolds quickly became the servants of dragons, and perhaps even their distant relations, a link which has only strengthened in recent years.
And with all that, the last remnants of the dog kobold had been swept away. Official kobolds are now strictly ‘lil lizards.
P.S. If you’re wondering where kobolds as trapmasters comes into all of this, we can safely blame the now infamous 1987 Dragon Magazine #127 editorial ‘Tucker’s Kobolds’. You can give it a read here, and see how these little dog-lizard men were changed forever.
Using the Kobolds in Your Game
Rather than write up stats for a kobold or goblin (something every monstrous compendium in the world has you covered on), I decided to do something different this week!
After all, with all that talk of old-school kobolds, wouldn’t you rather have one onside than be up against them?
The humble kobold knows that there's strength in numbers.
As such, kobold adventurers are shrewd allies, capitalising on every trick and trap they can set to get ahead in life. These diminutive humanoids, some dog-like, others lizard-like, may not last long in a one-on-one fight, but that's why they're keen to join your party.
The Kobold is a class designed for use with Old-School Essentials and similar kinds of old-school games.
Play a kobold if you want to be a cunning trapfinder, someone whose small size belies their smarts and guile. Kobolds are easy to underestimate, but you'll show all those bigfolk exactly what you're made of.
And that’s it for kobolds!
Thanks for reading and I hope you all have had a great start to the year. I’ve got an exciting project planned for Mythoi this year, so stay tuned for more information on that in the future!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever had a particularly memorable kobold experience? Has a GM ever Tucker’s Kobold’d you?
~ A.C. Luke
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Davidson, Jane, and Duffin, Christopher. 2012. “Stones and Spirit”. Folklore 123.1: 99-109.
Rose, Carol. 1996. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.