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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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).
- 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.
- Acid Flask. An expected 3 hp of direct damage. Nothing special, except that it can bypass the damage resistance of a raging barbarian.
- 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.