Monday, June 10, 2024

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Kobolds

One of the things I've long appreciated about early Dungeons & Dragons is the way that it took vaguely defined folkloric, mythological, and literary monsters and made them distinctive to the game. The pig-faced orcs of the Monster Manual are a good example of what I'm talking about, though there are many others, like kobolds. In folklore, kobolds don't have a clear and universally accepted description. From what I recall, they're short and vaguely dwarfish. That's probably why Holmes, in his Basic Set, calls them "evil dwarf-like beings" (and why I opted for something similar in my Dwimmermount and Urheim setting).

Within the history of D&D, however, the image immediately below is (I think) the very first time we're shown a kobold. It's from the AD&D Monster Manual (1977) and is drawn by Dave Sutherland, based on an exceptionally vague description that speaks only of their coloration, small horns, lack of hair, and red eyes. 

The MM also includes a second Sutherland kobold illustration, this one a full-page piece.
I like this second illustration a lot, because it gives a sense of how, despite having only 1–4 hit points each, kobolds could nevertheless be dangerous foes, because of their numbers. The illustration is also useful in showing the little monsters from several different angles. I suspect, more than any other, this piece is responsible for my early conception of kobolds and their physical characteristics – short, scaly dog-men with horns. Precisely why Sutherland settled on this appearance, I have no idea, since there's nothing in either folklore or the Monster Manual's own description to suggest it.

That same year (1977), Minifigs in the UK picked up the license to produce official Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. Though the company didn't produce as many figures as did Grenadier later (more on that below), it produced enough that they're often worth examining for insight into the beginnings of D&D as a product line. Take, for example, this figure of a kobold, which looks rather similar to the creatures depicted in Sutherland's illustrations, particularly the second, full-page one, right down to the harness he's wearing.
1980's Rogues Gallery features a very memorable depiction of kobolds by Jeff Dee. As you can see, Dee's kobolds look very similar to Sutherland's – almost identical, in fact. In this rendering, they're still short, scaly dog-men.

Deities & Demigods was published the same year as the Rogues Gallery, but offers up a somewhat different depiction of kobolds. The entry for Kurtulmak, the supreme deity of the kobolds, is accompanied by an illustration drawn by Erol Otus. He's described as looking like a "giant kobold (5½' tall) with scales of steel and a tail with a poisonous stinger). This suggests that what we see below is, more or less, what a kobold looks like. Though there's a very broad similarity with the Sutherland/Dee illustrations, we can see that his face has been flattened into more humanoid proportions, thereby lessening its canine associations.
Just below the Otus illustration in the DDG is another one featuring Kurtulmak, this time by Dave LaForce. As you can see, the four kobolds depicted in it look like smaller versions of their god, albeit without horns or scales. To me, LaForce's kobolds look almost simian in apperance. 
Interestingly, 1980 is also the year that Grenadier Models first started producing official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons miniatures under license from TSR. If you look carefully at this photo, what you see are three kobold miniatures whose appearance is not too dissimilar to what we see in the art of Otus and LaForce above. Pay close attention to their flat, humanoid faces and lack of horns.
The next year (1981), Otus provides a different illustration for a kobold, this time appearing in Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set. This illustration accompanies an entry that describes kobolds as "small, evil dog-like men ... [that] have scaly rust-brown skin and no hair."
This version has neither horns nor a tail, but its canine head is unmistakable. I find it notable that the module Keep on the Borderlands, included with the '81 Basic Set, has a rumor table that makes mention not just of "hordes of tiny dog-men" (i.e. kobolds), but also "big dog-men" or gnolls, suggesting a connection between these two monsters that I don't believe I've ever seen developed in the entire history of D&D. 
Above, we can see Jim Roslof's illustration of a kobold from 1982's AD&D Monster Cards. This illustration looks to me to be a further development of the Otus/LaForce version of kobolds – flat faces, no horns, no visible tail. In fact, they look rather like the goblins depicted in that same product, which makes for an interesting call-back to OD&D (and Chainmail before it), which seems to treat kobolds as if they were simply a species of goblin, or at least a closely related type of monster.

The first appearance of kobolds in AD&D Second Edition is in the Monstrous Compendium (1989), with this illustration by Jim Holloway:
Holloway's kobold is a kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back version – broadly consonant with Otus/LaForce/Roslof one but regaining the horns of Sutherland/Dee. Though there's no visible tail, the description in the Monstrous Compendium suggests that they do indeed possess "non-prehensile rat-like tails." It also notes that they "sound like small dogs yapping" and smell like "a cross between damp dogs and stagnant water." This perhaps suggests that the writer (David Cook, Steve Winter, or Jon Pickens) was attempting to restore a bit of the canine connection of early 1e while retaining the overall look established by its later artists.
Lastly, there's this illustration from the 2e Monstrous Manual (1993), provided by Tony DiTerlizzi, who's probably best known for his distinctive contributions to the Planescape setting. This version restores the elongated, muzzle-like face of early AD&D, though, to my eyes, it looks more rat-like than canine. The accompanying description is the same as in the earlier Monstrous Compendium, so it's not as if any of DiTerlizzi's alterations were required by a revised text.

Despite my recent musings about Third Edition, the post-TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons are beyond the scope of this blog, so I won't be discussing the subsequent development of kobolds. That's probably just as well, since I'm not a fan of their metamorphosis into small lizard/dragon-men. Nevertheless, looking over the pictorial history of this low-level monster has opened my eyes to just how ill-defined the kobold actually is. My own preferred version is heavily indebted to that of the first version I ever saw and I suspect that's probably true of most other D&D players. 

Do you have a default vision of kobolds? If so, what does it look like?

39 comments:

  1. Coincidentally Tony DiTerlizzi is currently blogging about his first work at TSR and has a whole section about the Kobods here: https://diterlizzi.com/behind-the-monstrous-manual-part-2/

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    1. Interesting. I'm behind on reading that blog, must go back and catch up.

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  2. Perhaps the kobolds are like dog breeds with their malleable genetics that result in such disparate forms as a long-haired dachshunds, stocky pitbulls and ursine Bernese (and yes, I just returned from a weekend of dog sitting my sibs pets)

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  3. The Holloway kobold kind of resembles the Grenadier kobolds. Kind of stocky and solid with a largish roundish head. Probably just coincidence though.

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  4. I amuse myself, and resolve the tension between the original "little dog men" description and the later "little dragon men" version by proposing my "head canon" kobolds to be a humanoid version of.a non-mammalian cynodont, an evolutionary clade that includes many transitional forms between reptile and mammal. Thus those folk encountering them have applied varying interpretations as to just what they are. And per Wikipedia, cynodont means "dog teeth" so their original concept is thus honored.

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  5. I've mentioned this before elsewhere (maybe here too) over the years and even brought it up to Tim a few months back on his youtube show- Many years ago I was having a discussion with Gary on enworld about various topics and I don't recall how, but kobolds came up. Apparently the illustration for the MM got past him and he was not happy about Sutherland's depiction. He stated that he definitely wanted them to be the evil twisted gnome/dwarf of myth/legend.

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    1. Yeah, the myths I'm familiar with were pretty consistent about them being small man-like creatures closely tied to mining - and while sometimes helpful, they were grouchy at best and prone to causing disastrous cave-ins if offended. Had a lot of that fey unpredictability to them as I recall, and they definitely weren't tiny dog/lizard man things.

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  6. For me, Kobolds have always looked more like the image in the 1e MM. I decided that, instead of being mammals/reptiles, they were "proto-mammals" - descended from creatures like those in the Permian era.

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  7. For me, kobolds are more like their folklore origins and are a type of gnome, but I acknowledged their complicated D&D history by giving them a tendency to wear dog or lizard skins for decoration.

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  8. I envision kobolds as reptilian orange humanoids without canine features. Instead, these natural climbers have geeko-like hands and talon feet that can lock in the closed position so they sleep hanging upside down like bats. Up there, they have developed a symbiotic relationship with piercers who rely on kobolds for the grooming they cannot do themselves. Few realize that when a piercer succeeds in an ambush it often wallows in the blood and organs of its prey for hours! That in turn attracts all manner of creepy crawlies such as one might find in deep dank holes. The poor piercer's only recourse is to use its clam foot to pull itself across the dirty floor and back to the ceiling with bugs riding along the whole way. Kobolds pick the vermin off, for food, cleaning the piercer in the process. So the two are natural allies. In fact, with taps and tugs the kobolds coax piercers into positions of their choice to deploy hanging traps in ideal locations.

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  9. Weirdly, I always read the AD&D kobold art as “scaled reptilian humanoid” and never noticed the somewhat canine features until you said something here. I know 2E went full-dogman and I never really got why. Subsequent editions have gone fully to distant dragon relations and I think it fits better somehow. Plus, I tend to run more games for kids these days, and it is much easier for them to fight a little reptile thug than it is to describe something as looking like a dog and watch their eyes water as they try to decide if it looks like their pet.

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  10. To be honest, I don't generally use kobolds in my games. D&D has way too many "evil humanoids" even without them, and I prefer to assign most of the kobold traits (small, cowardly but vicious, prone to using traps, poisons, guard animals and yes, scorpions on sticks to make up for their physical deficiencies, but more Wile E. Coyote than Tucker's absurdist nonsense) to goblins and be done with it.

    If I had to pick a published kobold archetype it would be the WotC version. Tiny draconic fanboys are at least distinctive in ways the many TSR variants never were, and they offer a good set of disposable minions for an actual dragon to use and abuse.

    If I wasn't going to stick to published ones, I'd go with the proper mythological "miner's nightmare" pseudo-Dwarf version, where they might be helpful sometimes but are likely to kill you with a cave-in the moment they feel like it. The existing stats for derro would be a good place to start with that version, substituting "unpredictable fey-like reactions" for actual insanity.

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  11. Worth noting that DiTerlizzi's also got a much more dog-like kobold design that's been immortalized by the sculptors over at Dark Sword. You can see Yip the Kobold Rogue in all his glory over here:

    https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/yip-kobold-rogue/

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  12. As for how I prefer them...I know I don't care for the WOTC and Paizo versions of the last 25ish years.

    I guess versions from Sutherland, Tony D, and Erol's "snake on a skewer" resonate best with me. Roslof is one of my very favorite TSR era artists, but the version posted is maybe a bit too close to a Goblin for my tastes.

    I think the dog like vocalization is more important for me and what I really try to convey as a DM (and less about how they look) The original Baldurs Gate game did the vocalization well.

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  13. I prefer Otus' interpretations, and Holloway's.

    I'm not sure but I think the first Kobold-Dragon connection happened in 1983's The Horror on the Hill?

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    1. The Horror on the Hill connection is a real one. I'm not sure how influential it was on later conceptions of kobolds, however.

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    2. FWIW I'm pretty sure I read some minor WotC staffer discussing where the re-imagined dragon-fanboy kobolds came from on a yahoo group way back when 3e was new and they claimed Horror On the Hill was an inspiration. Take that with a grain of salt, of course - it wasn't anyone big enough to be memorable to me and way back then just about anyone could claim to be working for WotC and get away with it for a while, especially on yahoo.

      Wonder if Tweet or Heinsoo remember anything about it? 13th Age leans hard into WotC-style highly-draconic kobolds, to the point where most of them are (literally) iconic scut minions for the Three.

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  14. I have jokingly resolved the Dog vs Lizard Kobolds as a Mogwai/Gremlins situation. Don't feed your Kobolds after midnight.

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  15. The "little dog men"/"big dog men" connection is really interesting. I wonder if it never took hold because gnolls are mammals and kobolds are reptiles.

    It seems more natural that kobolds are connected to reptilian dragons (which they were), but also as weaker cousins of other reptile men like lizard men and troglodytes; the same way goblins are weaker cousins of hobgoblins. Especially if you go with Otus' depictions.

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    1. Think that might be exactly why it never went much of anywhere. It's too much like the existing gob/hobgob/bugbear progression, and if you take that tiny bit of uniqueness away from them what do the goblinoids have left to make them stand out? They're already arguably the most generic "evil humanoids" barring orcs.

      Even the WotC kobolds are explicitly draconic rather than reptilian, and they've been kept separate from being "tiny lizardmen" even after we started seeing ogre-sized lizardman subtypes that would have filled the "bugbear" end of the progression.

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  16. They are scaly dog men for me.

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  17. "You say koBOLDS, I say koBALDS
    Let's call the whole thing off"

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  18. I wonder whether those first illustrations of scaly exterior triggered the reptilian association, but looking closely they could just as easily be scaly armour rather than skin

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    1. That was a hotly debated topic at my high school gaming club back in the day. I believe the majority opinion rejected the scale mail theory based on their AC not matching up, especially if they were supposed to be getting a Dex or size bonus. Sure looked like armor to me, though.

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  19. The Minifigs kobolds actually predate the publication of the Monster Manual, as they were available in the UK in early 1977. The Monster Manual wasn't published until the end of the year. Minifigs were provided with some form of information on the monsters in order to design them, but I don't know whether that included art being prepared for the Monster Manual.

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  20. I think of them as little dragon related lizard men now. Probably because they played and important role early on in the campaign u am a player in and my PC in that game hates everything chromatic dragon.

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  21. I think Gary Gygax said, in one of his Q&A threads somewhere, that he envisioned kobolds as more like evil gnomes, but David Sutherland just kind of drew whatever he wanted. (I think we got the look for gnolls the same way.) He didn't seem upset about it, mind you!

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  22. My Kobolds are from Holmes:

    "These evil dwarf-like creatures behave much like goblins, but are less powerful."

    After the Tucker's Kobolds article, I started thinking about their role in the dungeon, and they became the dungeon & trap maintainers, relatives of Dwarfs (Lovecraftian inbreeding, Mote in Gods Eye watchmakers, etc.).

    They live in tunnels in the walls and holes in pits, they refill the flaming oil, restock the arrows. They're everywhere, watching you. But they rarely stand and fight, preferring to run away and hide, let the traps kill you. So now for thousands of years they've lived like that…

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  23. I tend to go with 1e "scaly humanoid dog-creatures" with DiTerlizzi's lanky proportions (I love DiTerlizzi's kobold, but I also agree it's got a bit more rat in there than dog). As a child of 3e, I have them as particularly big on traps and ambushes, but I don't generally give them particularly draconic ties (though, again as a child of 3e, I don't hate that interpretation either).

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    1. DiTerlizzi did a series of three very different kobolds with much more canine features later on. You can see the art and the miniatures sculpted from it over on Dark Sword Miniatures along with a bunch his other post-D&D stuff.

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  24. I was always partial to Greg Rihn's article in Dragon #44 (Dec 1980) -- "Humanoids in Review," as I was always interested in Anthropology, and he looks at humans, demi-humans, and humanoids from a potential fantasy-anthropology view.

    He groups kobolds in with the goblinoids as a form of fantasy Australopithecus:

    Genus Australopithecus
    Kobold (Australopithecus boisei)
    Goblin (Australopithecus africanus)
    Hobgoblin (Australopithecus robustus)
    Bugbear (Australopithecus giganticus)

    Then there are sasquatches, ogres, and hill giants:
    Sasquatch (Homo sasquatch)
    Ogre (Ramapithecus robustus)
    Hill Giant (Meganthropus giganticus)

    This, interestingly, fits in nicely with the illustrations of humanoids by Jeff Dee in the A series at about the same time (ca 1980/81). I wonder if there was some wider comparison between humanoids and early hominins in gaming circles at the time?

    Personally, and especially in the Wilderlands, I've usually gone with them being corrupted gnomes per the myths and legends. I've also had goblins as corrupted dwarves, orcs as corrupted elves, hobgoblins as a stable mix of goblin and orc, and bugbears as hobgoblins descended from strange, sorcerous experimentation (crossings with large, powerful carnivores and omnivores).

    I also prefer gnolls as Lord Dunsany apparently felt they should be, a cross between gnomes and trolls, thus slightly larger than man-size gnome-shaped creatures with troll-like skin and a mix of gnome and troll features. Though those are Northern Gnolls; Southern Gnolls remain hyena-men, descended from a kingdom of werehyenas (a real-world mythical creature).

    Finally, GAZ 10, the Orcs of Thar, goes full-in on animalistic characteristics of humanoids, including dog-like kobolds, but there are also other dog-like humanoid types, and also the Lupin dog-folk race.

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  25. Kobold is simply the German word for goblin; so as far as my home games go, I just have kobolds as an even smaller form of goblin, like a reverse hobgoblin or bugbear. All goblinoids in my games are wacky, wildly diverse, humanoid freaks with facial features straight out of Jim Henson's nightmares. Trunks, beaks, pouty lips, snouts, feathers, scales, warts, fur, green, red, hot pink, whatever. Size and behavior are the main differentiators between the goblinoids.

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    1. Some of the local GMs around here do much the same. "Muppet" goblinoids all around. If you're ever looking for minis, I suggest taking a look at the "Nightfolk" range from Northumbrian Tin Soldiers. They're all very Hensen-esque.

      https://www.northumbriantinsoldier.com/nightfolk/

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    2. I used to go with more dog-like kobolds and somewhat pig-like orcs, neither of which I particularly liked, based on the earlier artwork. But as time went on, I liked that they developed different niches for the different humanoids, and I like the transformation of kobolds into draconic minions. It sets them apart from goblins, which are now the go-to if I want low-level antagonists who hang out in mines and similar underground areas and use mob tactics to swarm PCs. They are still similar in being individually weak, potentially terrifying in groups, and frequently exploited by more powerful figures. It's just that if you see a kobold, it suggests a story that progresses to a dragon, and if you see a goblin, it could be a standalone threat, or it could be some other kind of powerful force behind the scenes using goblins to do their dirty work.

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  26. I’ve always run with canine kobalds, and they are always on some kind of fantasy stimulants.

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