Kobolds Revisited

Reading the section on kobolds in Volo’s Guide to Monsters gives me a much greater appreciation for kobolds. My own original assessment of kobolds was that they rely on ambush, will never fight an enemy hand-to-hand alone, and will retreat and regroup—or just retreat—if injured or isolated. Volo’s concurs, but it goes so much further. My hat is off to Volo’s.

“Because they are physically weak individually, kobolds know they have to use superior numbers and cunning to take down powerful foes,” it says. “Cunning” may be giving too much credit to a species with an average Intelligence of 8 and Wisdom of 7, but what I like about the section of Volo’s on kobold tactics (something it doesn’t offer for goblinoids) is that it takes the evolutionary perspective one step further than I did and presents kobolds as having evolved a highly cooperative society. Unlike goblins, forever squabbling and looking out for themselves, kobolds instinctively work together, even without having to discuss what they’re doing.

I’m just going to quote this bit directly, because it’s so perfect:

Kobolds avoid combat on a large scale, instead sticking to hit-and-run raids using smaller groups of warriors. If they have time, they prepare the battlefield with small bolt-holes for them to hide in and simple pit traps to hamper their opponents.

Standard kobold tactics include the following:

Attacking light sources to extinguish them, so the kobolds can use their darkvision to best advantage. [A kobold probably can’t hit a torch in someone’s hand with a sling stone, but several working together could tackle the opponent holding it, then grab the torch and run off with it. Use the shoving rule on page 195–96 of the Player’s Handbook, giving each attacking kobold advantage from Pack Tactics. —KA]

Leaving one defender in a room to lure invaders into a trap or an ambush. Often this bait is a sick or weak kobold who is otherwise unable to contribute to the tribe’s needs.

Using hit-and-run maneuvers, fleeing between attacks to better or more secure vantage points. Often their goal is to attract enemies and draw the foes into greater danger, which can be especially effective if the invaders have made camp, are injured, or are otherwise compromised (such as having to move by climbing or swimming).

Using poison, usually harvested from vermin such as centipedes and spiders. They might extract the poison and use it on their weapons, or leave a chest or clay pot full of the vermin in obvious places as false “treasure,” prompting intruders to open the container and release a swarm. [The poisons on pages 257–58 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide are too powerful for this purpose. Instead, use the effects from the Monster Manual stat blocks for giant centipedes, giant spiders or giant wolf spiders. —KA]

Volo’s also suggests giving large numbers of kobolds multiple initiative rolls, spreading out their turns so that they’re acting at different times: “Doing this gives the kobolds more opportunities to react to what their enemies do, and makes it harder for players to coordinate their characters’ attacks because not all the kobolds take their actions at the same time.” Chaos! I love this idea. I’d go so far as to use it in any combat encounter involving 20 or more cannon-fodder creatures.

But here’s the greatest value-added in Volo’s: a whole section on the geography of kobold lairs (with a cheeky nod to the classic Colossal Cave Adventure), noting the presence of deadfall traps, choke points, murder holes, escape tunnels, passages too narrow for Medium-size humanoids to move through without crawling, and more. The list of traps on page 70 is especially inspired. It’s a brilliant strategic overlay for any encounter in which players are pursuing kobolds into their own habitat. There’s taking advantage of opportunities, and then there’s creating those opportunities.

On top of these, Volo’s includes stat blocks for three new varieties of kobold: the kobold dragonshield, the kobold inventor and the kobold scale sorcerer.

The kobold dragonshield is simply an exceptionally strong kobold with a melee Multiattack and selective elemental damage resistance. These don’t affect its tactics, nor does its Heart of the Dragon feature, which allows it to shake off the frightened or paralyzed condition and do the same for allies around it. But its above-average Dexterity and Constitution, as well as its greater number of hit points, reduce its dependence on ranged combat and make it an effective skirmisher. Kobold dragonshields are bold nuisances, charging in to jab with their spears, then Dodging as they retreat, drawing their pursuers into tight situations or traps. Let’s say a kobold dragonshield Attacks until it takes a light wound (5 hp or greater), then Dodges and retreats. Since the kobold dragonshield’s armor class is predicated on its carrying a shield, assume that it wields its spear one-handed.

The kobold scale sorcerer has a more impressive set of spells than you’d expect a kobold spellcaster to have. Its 2nd-level scorching ray and 1st-level chromatic orb are sound and solid damaging spells that it doesn’t need to think twice about casting. Expeditious retreat gives it a way to slip away from a charging melee attacker; fire bolt and poison spray are useful self-defense mechanisms if it runs out of spell slots.

Its two metamagic options, Heightened Spell and Subtle Spell, are curiously only useful for charm person and mage hand, respectively. Any ranged spell attack would give the kobold sorcerer’s position away, regardless of whether the spell had a verbal or somatic component, and charm person is the only spell the sorcerer possesses that requires the target to make a saving throw. Both spells strike me as particularly useful for setting off traps—either using mage hand to do so remotely or using charm person to get an enemy to walk directly into a trap or to trigger one against his or her own allies.

The kobold inventor is sheer lunatic brilliance. It’s an ordinary kobold, and it fights like one, except on the first round of combat (or its first feasible opportunity), when it unveils its Weapon Invention. But which of its Weapon Inventions is most effective? Here’s my attempt to rank them:

  1. Green Slime Pot. Does an expected 6 hp of damage on a direct hit and distracts the target, who has to spend his or her next turn figuring out how to get it off, or it will keep doing damage.
  2. Rot Grub Pot. Its drawback is that an enemy has to walk into it for it to do any damage (or not walk away from it, if it was deployed to the enemy’s space). But if one does, it does 9 hp of expected damage and requires the victim to burn himself or herself with fire in order to keep them from burrowing in and doing the same amount of damage again, round after round, until he or she is cured or killed.
  3. Basket of Centipedes. Marginally more powerful than Wasp Nest in a Bag, in that a victim reduced to 0 hp by the centipedes’ bites will be paralyzed for an hour. That probably won’t come to pass, though, since the centipede swarm does only 8 hp expected damage, total.
  4. Wasp Nest in a Bag. Only 8 hp total expected damage, but you get to yell, “Beeeeeeeeees!” (Yeah, they’re wasps, not bees. Who cares?)
  5. Skunk in a Cage. No. 1, hilarious. No. 2, can potentially take an enemy out of combat entirely. But, No. 3, can end up disabling the inventor or one of its allies (“It rolls initiative and, on its turn, uses its action to spray musk at a random creature within 5 feet of it”—not necessarily at an enemy).
  6. Scorpion on a Stick. Does only 2 hp expected damage in any given round. However, unlike the kobold inventor’s other gizmos, it can keep using this one round after round. It comes in behind the Basket of Centipedes and the Wasp Nest in a Bag because the default length of a combat encounter in fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons is assumed to be three rounds.
  7. Acid Flask. An expected 3 hp of direct damage. Nothing special, except that it can bypass the damage resistance of a raging barbarian.
  8. Alchemist’s Fire. Weak damage, easy to put out. Even if it lasts three rounds, it probably won’t do more than 3 hp of damage.

Next: orcs, revisited.

10 thoughts on “Kobolds Revisited

  1. I especially like the examination of Mage Hand and Charm Person’s utility in setting off traps here; I hadn’t even thought of that and even wrote off the scale sorcerer’s metamagic options as useless, but what you’ve thought of puts them in perspective. And it makes sense; a *kobold* sorcerer isn’t expecting to be a cannon in battle, but another member of a whole community that defeats tougher foes through tricks traps.

  2. I really love these thank you so much for taking the time to write this! I’m definitely going to use this in my Adventurers League game “A Thousand Tiny Deaths” which features kobolds the whole way through!!! Looking forward to reading more!

  3. My players are terrified of kobolds. Another DM started it off with a diabolical kobold cave filled with traps and frustration that had a dragon at the end of it. Since I’ve started DMing on the opposite weeks, kobolds have hit the players with flasks of oil then lit zombies on fire which charged the PCs, winged kobolds have dropped swarms of centipedes on the PCs after a wizard cast fog cloud over them (centipedes have blindsight), covered areas in grease and released swarms of bees, and had vials of acid labeled potion of healing as treasure.

    Don’t forget that the scale sorcerer’s scorching rays and chromatic orbs benefit from pack tactics as well.

  4. Got a few mechanics questions regarding the inventor. For the weapon invention the current wording states only three of those attacks, namely the slime, alchemist fire, and acid, as CLEARLY ranged weapon attacks “At a target” (with +4 to hit to make it more clear that it’s at a creature, contesting AC). The scorpion, on the other hand is described as melee. Then the skunk is, in a way, a summon of a creature, releasing it next to you into an unoccupied space (it’s a beast, so they have to stress out it’s unoccupied). But the wording of the other three attacks can be problematic…
    The centipedes, wasps, and rot grub attack in particular are “into a 5-foot-square space within 20 feet”. This distinction and the fact that it doesn’t mention hit dice, suggests it’s at an empty space (essentially deploying a trap from a distance at a space, typical for a Kobold to set traps). But it doesn’t say explicitly “empty” and that is a problem bc it allows for a game breaking OP interpretation. I read it as you did, i.e. “Its drawback is that an enemy has to walk into it”. For a foe with a CR 1/4 this also makes perfect sense: not too deadly and if players fall in the visible trap, it’s bc they made a bad decision or aren’t paying attention; but otherwise, at a target, it would make it almost a save-or-die attack that cannot be dodged (not even with a monk’s Deflect missiles bc it doesn’t mention impact damage). If your characters are low level (likely, bc Kobolds are low level foes) they may not have the knowledge to fight it off without meta-gaming. In my opinion, if it is interpreted as a space with a creature in it, then it would have hit die and mod; the absence of both suggest that it’s not to be used as a ranged attack at a target creature.
    I have a vested interest in your opinion, specifically bc of an experience I had: my DM threw it at a low level character (mine), who is a monk and should’ve been able to deflect missiles, but he claimed “no bc there’s no damage from impact”. Being a good ROLE player, my character shouldn’t yet know about fire, which resulted on my character losing an arm (other character cut it as soon as the grub dug in, bc the rot grub burrows and kills in two turns). To this day I insist that it was a misreading of the rules AS INTENDED AND AS WRITTEN, but haven’t found any discussion on these attacks other than here. I get that DM rulings are “final”, but this one in particular left a very sour note and I want a chance to at least settle what’s “intended”. Is there any other place where I could get a straight answer about these attacks?

    1. All three of the attacks you mentioned are effectively creature summonings, just like the skunk. A creature doesn’t do damage unless it takes an action on its own behalf. In other words, the kobold can’t “hit you with rot grubs”; the kobold deploys the rot grubs, and then (if you’re unlucky) the rot grubs, on their own turn, hit you. And I believe the rule for creature summonings is always that the creature must be placed in an empty space, if you’re using a square or hex map.

      1. Thanks! The character was actively avoiding every other deployed trap, even being vocal in-game about steering far away from the swarm of centipedes, so if the rot grubs were deployed at an empty space in the grid as (imo) the attack was intended, she would have avoided them in the exact same fashion. The issue was that the pot was used as ranged attack at an occupied space (effectively at a character), breaking upon impact and thus unavoidable. Unlike the slime, which states hit die and specific outcomes for hit or miss, the other pots mention nothing of the sort. This enemy could be REALLY cool, but if misread it can be far more devastating than the design intended. I don’t wish to go against the DM, and at this point in that game I’m trying my hardest to just work it into a plot device… But if anything it lets me and my DM clarify this for future encounters. Thank you so much for the reply and all of the other cool content!

    2. Due to how the description reads and the fact that rot grubs can occupy another creatures space I believe it could be thrown on you, it just summons rot grubs to your space. (Something not so nice) but it still is a separate entity not an imediatly successful strike by the rot grubs.

  5. The scale sorcerer’s Subtle Magic can be used to circumvent counterspell. A spell with only verbal and somatic components cast this way just seems to happen, with no visible casting. A ray attack such as Fire Bolt or Scorching Ray would still give away the caster’s position, but it would be uncounterable, useful if the sorcerer has seen its opponents do so and is trying to finish one off.

  6. Awesome blog! Immediately reminded me of an article I read, uh, ‘some time back.’ Maybe a long time back. “Tucker’s kobolds”, sidebar in the letters column of Dragon Magazine #127, page 3 (https://www.annarchive.com/files/Drmg127.pdf)

    That piece stuck with me for many years, and was one of reasons most of my subsequent dungeon crawling campaigns often didn’t get past the first or second encounter. My players never seemed interested in understanding small-unit tactics or calculating the volume of a fireball vs the volume of the corridor they were standing in. Good times, and thanks again!

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