K:
Cobalt's metal, hard and shining;
Cobol's wordy and confining.
Kobolds topple when you strike them;
Don't feel bad, it's hard to like them.

--The Roguelet's ABC

A Germanic trickster and household spirit, inevitably chthonic in origin, who variously helps and punishes his human hosts. The name derives from the old German Kobel (a stall for household animals, a sty) and Holde (a poltergeist, malicious spirit, or elf). Rarely visible to men, they are said to be hideous, with pitted, gnarled faces, hairy tails and bald, bare feet, the look of the rocks and trees from which they sprang. Much like the Lares of ancient Rome, they serve and protect their household; according to Jacob Grimm:

In certain places, every farmer, wife, son, and daughter has his personal kobold, who performs all sort of household tasks, carries water to the kitchen, chops wood, provides beer, cooks, cares for the horses in the stalls, cleans the stalls, and similar tasks. Where there is a Kobold, the animals will increase, and all things will fare well. Even today, there is a saying that a girl who finishes her work too quickely "has a kobold".

A household with a kobold is obliged only to leave a bit of food and beer at a particular place every night, and thus guarantees that the spirit will remain appeased; there is evidence that at one time, in the later dark ages, families made kobold images of wax or wood and left offerings at its altar. Should the farmer's wife just once forget to feed the kobold, she will be cursed, will break her dishes, spill food, and burn herself in the kitchen, each time hearing the maniacal laughter of the kobold behind her. Another story compiled by Jacob Grimm suggests a more violent result, summarised here:

There were two travelling students who stopped one night at the house of a farmer. They arrived late, and though the kitchen was closed, the hearth off, saw some bread and beer laid out on the table. They pleaded with the farmer for just a bit of the food, offering to pay for it, but he refused, explaining that this belonged to the house's kobold, warning them not to touch it. During the night, one of the students became so hungry, he crept from his bed and ate all the food. Soon, the kobold arrived, making a dreadful noise. When he came to the table, he overthrew the empty bread-bowl, turned over the pot of beer, cursing, and began his chores, cleaning the kitchen. When he finally came to the benches where the two students slept, he ignored the one completely, but seized hold of the other, the one who had eaten the food, dragged him from the bench, and threw him about the room before returning into the wall behind the hearth. He repeated this twice during the night. When the farmer finally found the two frightened students in the morning, he became angry, saying that only with luck had they survived the night at all.

These were the spirits that haunted the woods and fields of medieval Germany, of the older Germanic sagas. Originally, the kobold was just a type of elf, and like the elf, began as a malicious poltergeist, a spirit of the restless dead. Often the kobold appears to his family with a knife in his back, or otherwise deformed and mangled, the wandering ghost of the murdered previous inhabitants. Heinrich Heine describes these tales as the darkest, most gruesome part of German folklore, telling the following tale:

A girl for several years kept company with an invisible house spirit, who every night sat at the hearth and talked to her. One night, the girl asked whether he might reveal himself to her in his true form; though he refused at first, he eventually relented, and told her to go down to the cellar, where she might see him. She took with her a light, climbed down into the cellar, and there, in a barrel of water, saw the ghost of a dead child, swimming in blood. It was the spirit of the child she herself had born out of wedlock and drowned in the water, years before.

There are few named kobolds in german mythology; part of their character is that they are nameless, anonymous beasts. On one occasion, however, the kobold finds notoriety in the legends. Heine, again, tells the tale of Hüdeken:

This was a kobold who lived in the 12th century in Hildesheim. In the year 1132, in the bishopric of Hildesheim, appeared an evil spirit, in the guise of a farmer with a cap on his head; for this reason, he was called Hüdeken. This spirit took delight in living among men, occasionally visible, most often invisible, in posing questions and answering them in turn. When the duke Burchard de Luka was murdered by Hermann von Wiesenburg, and the land fell into the latter's possession, Huedeken woke the Bishop Bernhard von Hildesheim and convinced him to take the throne, thereafter warning him occasionally of dangers to his rule. A kitchen boy once insulted him, and when the cook refused to punish him, the kobold seized the kitchen boy while he was sleeping, threw him around the room, tore him asunder, and threw him into the kettle. When the cook uncovered the murder, he began cursing the spirit, and on the next day, the kobold spoiled all the meat by pouring over it the blood and entrails of toads. When again the cook, cursed the kobold, he caused the cook later that night to cross a faulty bridge and fall to his death.

Malicious, dangerous, and carefully portrayed exacting his vengeance only when mistreated. The more violent elements of the kobold's mythology were soon forgotten over time, and he began to represent only a prankster, kicking careless farmers who bent over or spilling the milk. For Goethe, in his poem, Der Zauberlehrling, about a wizard's apprentice made famous by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, the animating spirit of the brooms is called a kobold. In his Faust, the kobold becomes a generic name for an earth-spirit, opposite the salamander, sylph, and undene. By the end of the 19th century, these romanticisms lefts their remnants in folksongs; one speaks of a comical hunter, running away from a rabbit because he mistakes it's bright eyes and long ears for a kobold lurking in the brush.

*yap!*

(I was always thinking of cobalt when I heard Nethack talking of Kobolds...)

Kobolds in fantasy games are often amusing little creatures, and surprisingly varied from setting to setting. Well, the only common things that can be said is "amusing" and "little". They're one of the fantasy "staple" races, most often in the role of cannon fodder. As seen, they range from evil dogmen to humanlike comical idiots... all in all, the games probably wouldn't feel quite the same without them. Absolutely adorable little folks. (However, I prefer to like them from distance.)

Kobolds in (A)D&D (And most other FRPGs)

In Dungeons & Dragons and its immediate progeny, Kobolds have some canine bits in them, and some humanoid bits, and also reptile bits.

Some recent art in Neverwinter Nights (based on the new D&D 3rd ed.) shocked people a great deal - most people had got used to the idea that kobolds are above all dog-like in appearance, or at very least in sound, but apparently the reptilian bit has been there at least since AD&D 2nd edition and perharps even far earlier (for example, my D&D Classic Rules Cyclopedia from 1991 mentions "scaly, rust-brown skin"), and is now very much emphasised in the new edition! Opinions in gaming circles are split, but kobolds are still kobolds.

So, in the most recent incarnations of D&D (The 3rd edition, and the Open Gaming Foundation's SRD), the kobolds are little rustyish-grayish reptilian humanoids, with only remotely canine sound in their language (they speak Draconic; former editions recognized Kobold language as language of its own). The Neverwinter Nights website described them pretty accurately as "Attack Geckoes".

Kobolds live in darkness, don't have much talent on fashion side (no, they got a new edition and look, but they still can't afford decent clothes!). They prefer to attack in numbers from distance, often with tricks and well laid traps helping them, due to their weakness as individuals and their less well defined hand-to-hand combat - they are fearsomely accurate crossbow users, and if they have to go forth in melee, they use half-spears. And as said, they like traps. A lot.

They fill the ecological and political niche right below goblinoids and orcs, and can often be found not far from them - some suggest they're actually relatives, an assumption which may have had some basis before, but due to this new-found reptilian nature it is hard to believe - and I could not find a mention of this in the game references, either, not even the older ones, but they do share the same sort of function as orcs. Kobolds dislike other humanoid or fey races, some really really much (gnomes, spirits, and - if I'm to believe Nethack - elves, for example, fall in this group).

Kobold favored class is sorcerer, mostly because kobolds like to believe they are descended from dragons.

(Personally, I don't care whether they're canine or lizards, because I like both wolves and dragons. =)

GURPS Kobolds

While many fantasy games still do describe kobolds as anthro-canids, GURPS Fantasy Folk source book has another kind of kobolds, probably putting them closer to German household sprit origin, but on the way there, sort of tosses them out of the wagon to the wayside and lets them walk to the destination. And they sort of try to walk back where they came from.

GURPS kobolds are smallish blueish-skinned humanoids, definitely not of spiritual origin. They are the "obligatory race of funny little idiots", often comdemned to slavery in societies of more intelligent races (even orcs seem bright compared to them). They have generally low intelligence, very short attention span, and definite urge to do practical jokes at every turn - but they are also simultaneously very easily offended and don't take criticism or jokes aimed at them too well. The kobolds live either in bands in wilderness robbing unsuspecting travellers in numbers (though something as simple as shoting "Look, Bigfoot!", pointing at one direction, and running to other, is often found to be a great protection in case of kobold assault), or as thieves, or, more often, in service or as slavery in areas populated by other races. They sometimes breed so fast that they overrun cities and eat food stocks, which is why the kobold quarters are often purged of unwanted individuals by the authorities.

Sources:

  • http://nwn.bioware.com/builders/creature_profile1.html - Neverwinter Nights profile of Kobolds
  • http://www.opengamingfoundation.org/srd/srdmonstersijk.html - Monsters, section I,J,K. System Reference Document. published by the Open Gaming Foundation.
  • GURPS Fantasy Folk, 2nd ed., Steve Jackson Games 1995. ISBN 1-55634-309-4.
  • http://advancedkid.narod.ru/mm00178.htm - Kobolds. This is probably from AD&D 2nd ed. Monstrous Manual.
  • Dungeons & Dragons Game Rules Cyclopedia, TSR Inc, 1991. ISBN 1-56076-085-0.

Ko"bold (?), n. [G., perh. orig., house god, hose protector. See Cobalt]

A kind of domestic spirit in German mythology, corresponding to the Scottish brownie and the English Robin Goodfellow.

 

© Webster 1913.

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