Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Kobold By Any Other Name

What’s in a name?

One of the folks who commented on my post about the Reaper Bones Kickstarter wondering about my dislike of kobolds. He basically asked, why not make them more challenging and faerie-like?

My response is basically, I could, but why?

If I'm going to change everything except the name - make my kobolds trans-dimensional shape-shifting faerie creatures with magical powers, or make my demons friendly fuzzies with happy smiles and healing powers, or my dwarves tall - why keep the name? It's like saying "It's a bear, but in this world bears are plated like pangolins, amphibious, and are actually living plant creatures!” Why keep calling it a bear? I can hit my players with trans-dimensional shape-shifting faerie creatures with magical powers all I want, and it's not necessary to call them kobolds to do so.

I use a name for a reason. I want it to evoke something in my players. If I say "troll" it's because I want them to think of Poul Anderson-by-way-of-AD&D trolls. If I say "kobold" or "goblin" or something like that, I’m evoking our shared experience of what that word means. This is doubly true if I use a miniature figure, which is where this discussion comes from. If I put a Reaper kobold on the table, all half-dog half-reptile little guy with a spear and a shield, I'm making a clear statement about what the players are facing. I can play gotcha with this ("These kobolds explode on contact" or "that was a friendly wight") but I don't always choose to.

I've done variants of the same race. The hobgoblins in this game are more D&Dish than the ones in my last game, which were pure GURPS-style pointy-headed green guys. But the name evokes certain feelings in the players. I can say “D&D-style hobgoblins” and my players know what I mean, even if some details are different (mine are magic resistant, for example). I'm happy to change bits about monsters. I'm happy to use really broadly known names like orcs or dragons with a lot of changes, because they're different in every source.

Plus, I'm the GM. My opposition for the PCs is limited only by my imagination and sense of appropriateness and fairness. I could make carpenter ants into 20 HP creatures that deal lethal damage with every unstoppable blow and dodge attacks by turning invisible and out of phase and insist on calling them carpenter ants. Or not. I could do anything, regardless of the name on the creature. The connotes something, and I have to make a decision about whether I want that connotation or not.

So you add that to my dislike of the "Four Yorkshiremen brag" escalation of kobolds ("My kobolds make grown men weep." "Well, mine make them eat their character sheets to avoid being killed by them." "Well, mine [etc.]") and I'm really unlike to use those figures and that name.

This is not to say that doing differently is wrong - it's just not the approach I like to use.

Now I've got to go stat up those ants for my DF game. ;)


  1. Interesting. Exactly because of the kinds of associations you describe, I almost never use the game names for monsters, unless those game names are also directly descriptive (e.g., "giant spider", "shambling skeleton", etc). And, when I say skeleton, that doesn't really give the players any game mechanical knowledge (it could be a lich for all they know).

  2. For similar reasons I have excised kobolds from the Majestic Wilderlands so you are not alone.

  3. Funny. I had everyone in my last session worked up over holy water to fight demons (not intentionally, but they got that way). Then they faced a half-demon that wasn't affected by holy water. Sadly, this was the first time one character tried out a holy water/bagpipe/cannon device. The thing I described certainly LOOKED like a demon. But it wasn't. At least not entirely. That's a good reason to avoid names.

    Kobolds... I've never had any feelings about them one way or the other, but other critters I vehemently dislike.

  4. In my defense, when I started playing AD&D I was fascinated with the monsters and then I started to look them up in mythology books to see their origin. I guess I felt that when Gygax wrote the Monster Manuel he overlooked some of the powers that the monsters had and I felt justified in including them because the monster by that name in mythology had them. In any case, in Lejendary Adventure which Gygax wrote, he gave the fairy races (goblins, spriggins, hobgoblins, nixies, kobolds, bogarts etc.) fairy powers.

  5. Maybe neither here nor there, but I like the Dwimmermount take on kobolds:


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