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Reimagining Kobolds
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

M onsters...

That was one of the resounding responses to my question, "What do you want to see in Dragon's-Eye View articles in the coming weeks?" Okay, monsters it'll be.

And today, I'd like to start off by talking about kobolds. A while back, James did an article on "scaly things" that touched on the kobold, but today I'd like to talk about the kobold from the visual side of things.

Let's talk about the kobold in mythology.

Real World: The kobold (or cobold) is a sprite that came from Germanic mythology. In the Germanic stories, the kobold is often invisible, but it can materialize in the form of an animal, fire, human being, or a candle. They are often depicted as humanoids the size of a child, and they come in three varieties: house, underground, and water. So, as you can see, aside from the common spelling, there is little else that links real-world mythology and D&D mythology.

Dungeons & Dragons: James talked a bit about the mythology of the kobold in D&D in his article, so I'm not going to rehash that info. Instead I'll focus on some visual thoughts.

  • According to the AD&D Monster Manual, the hides of kobolds run from very dark rusty brown to a rusty black. They have no hair. Their eyes are reddish and they have very small horns that run the range of tan to white. They favor red or orange garb.

  • Then 2nd Edition gave us a few more details. They are described as being three feet tall. They have a ratlike nonprehensile tail. They smell of damp dogs and stagnant water. The horns are small instead of very small. The garb is raggedy, their language sounds like small yapping dogs, and their hide is scaly. The image goes from being a dog/lizard/gargoyle look to being a more ratlike look.

  • In 3rd Edition, the "ratlike" reference to a nonprehensile tail is dropped, and it changes from a ratlike look to a lizard/mini-dragon look.

  • We see that 4th Edition doesn't give any visual clues in the text of the Monster Manual, but the art has an update.

Just about all the editions of D&D are consistent in that kobolds love traps, use spears/javelins, can be taken as comedic but are actually quite ferocious, and prefer to attack en masse. Their love of traps tells me that they have deft hands and crafty minds. Their size and lack of strength seem to point to a creature that is on the light side (as far as skeletal framework goes), and maybe even slightly frail? James mentions that kobolds have an affinity for dragons and like to think of themselves as infused with some of Kurtulmak's draconic essence.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves me wondering which version and visual interpretation should be used for the foundation of the kobold as they will be presented in the next iteration of D&D. Should we embrace one version as depicted in a past version of D&D, or should we go down the path of a whole new creature design? Just to throw in a little more interest, I hopped over to Google and did an image search on the kobold. For copyright reasons, I'm not going to include images that I found, but I would encourage you to go take a look at what other folks are doing with kobolds. There are some interesting designs out there.

Now, let me say this before I proceed. I have not seen the final write-up on what the kobold will look like in the next iteration of the game at this point. I know that R&D will have the details fleshed out before we head into the next concept push, so take everything mentioned from this point on as my personal preference. You are encouraged to agree or disagree—and let me hear your thoughts in the comments below. I want to start a dialog on this so that we make sure you all have a chance to weigh in on things.

My personal preference is to do a new creature design. I have issues with the way our critter is described and the way it is portrayed. While each of the editions have some interesting bits, I'm not sure I buy into any of them whole cloth. Here are my pet peeves:

  • They sound like yapping dogs and smell of damp dogs—yet they don't look like dogs?
  • They have scaly hide (in most versions) yet none of them are shown with scaly hide, and in fact the 2E version looks downright furry.
  • They love devious and cruel traps, yet most of them have clawlike hands that don't really look capable of deft and nuanced movements that trap building might call for. Speaking of traps, 2E makes particular reference to mechanical traps—if they can fashion mechanical traps, don't you think they could fashion something nicer than ragged clothing? I can create a mechanical trap, but I can't sew or make cool accessories to wear? Does anyone else see an issue with this?
  • The tail. Is it scaly, is it ratlike, or is it something altogether different? Seems like it should tie in with the rest of the body...and dang it, I wish it were prehensile. Can you imagine how useful that would be in creating traps? Can you imagine how hard a trap would be to disable if it required you to have two hands and a tail to disable?
  • Little red eyes that hate the light. Most creatures that exist in the dark don't have little bitty eyes. They either have big eyes to suck in as much light as possible, or they have no eyes at all.
  • they have them, or not?

So, if I had my way, I'd make some design changes to the kobolds to make the visual depiction better fit the ecology and culture of the kobold. Try these concepts on for size.

Creature design would be based upon the following:

  • Three-foot-tall humanoid (as in two arms, two legs, upright) form that has been infused with the draconic essence of a god. Slight skeletal frame. More about intelligence and agility than strength or brute force. Furtive and cowardly alone, but ferocious and dangerous in a crowd. This would drive all major design decisions.
  • Hairless, scaly hides that range from dark brown to black.
  • Large intelligent eyes that are suited to life underground.
  • A long tail (prehensile) that integrates with the rest of the body.
  • Hands that are quite deft and capable of intricate actions. This would also indicate an ability to craft and make culturally appropriate clothing and accessories—perhaps draconic in theme?
  • Small white or beige horns.
  • Affinity to, and reverence of, dragons.

That might be a good starting point for me. Now, I know that you haven't seen the final story design document for the kobold either, but I know that you have feelings and opinions on this issue, so pull together your references and write up your ideas of what we should or shouldn't consider for the concept push of the kobold.

It'll be a while before I can circle back around and show you what we will be doing with this creature, but I plan to share its development when we get into it.

Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at
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