Kobolds are my favorite species of monster in fantasy games. I adore their pathetic weakness and the cleverness they have to use to overcome their shortcomings. However, in a lot of games they end up being run like any other monster, in that they attack the party in straightforward combat that inevitably results in their demise. However, that’s not how kobolds would act in any conceivable circumstance (except perhaps under the strict direction of a particularly dispassionate dragon monarch). Kobolds have few hitpoints and deal insignificant damage with their weapons, so unless they are hunting helpless prey like rabbits they use clever tactics to turn the environment against the enemy or to hit and run before the enemy has the chance to attack back. Only when backed into a corner will they fight, but even then they’ll fight dirty.
Environment and Traps
If you’ve encountered kobolds, odds are you are deep inside their territory. Because of this, they have superior knowledge of the surrounding environment and have certainly set up traps to entangle or kill you. Depending on the territory, kobolds could lead adventurers into pitch-black caverns that they know by heart, disappear into hidden tunnels, or scramble down a slippery hill. They will always use the environment as a means of escape and distancing themselves from adventurers, but when the opportunity presents itself they will also use it as a way to harm the adventurers too. When the environment isn’t enough to stop adventurers, they also make use of traps. Traps can be as simple as a hidden spike pit or as complicated as pressure-sensitive floor tiles that trigger darts or boulders. More technologically advanced kobolds might employ explosives, while magically-inclined kobolds might use magical runes. Most kobolds have at least rudimentary training in trap making, and some traps can be made on short notice. However, deep in kobold territory the traps are more elaborate and made by expert trap makers. Depending on the setup of the traps, either the kobolds memorized the layout of the traps so they avoid setting them off or the traps aren’t triggered by a creature as light as a kobold.
Hit and Run
When the environment and traps aren’t enough to halt the advance of adventurers, or when kobolds are in territory they are less familiar with, kobolds will use hit and run tactics to defeat or drive away their foes. Kobolds are agile creatures, and can easily outpace larger creatures when they push themselves. They strike from hiding and deliver a coordinated strike against their pursuers, then retreat again before anyone has the chance to retaliate. Sometimes these attacks are used to goad their enemies into walking into traps or to force them to take a defensive position so the kobolds have a chance to run away.
When backed into a corner or forced to defend something, kobolds fight as dirty as they can. When everything is stacked against them, they can’t afford to fight fair, so they aim for eyes and groins, they throw sand in faces, and they kick their foes while they’re down. Kobolds are very coordinated, so while they individually are not great fighters, they can coordinate with their group to deal some serious damage to their foes, even if they are outnumbered. Even with their backs against the wall, kobolds aren’t particularly courageous creatures, so if they see an opportunity to escape, they’ll take it. Kobolds rarely fight to the death, and are not above surrendering if the situation is bleak.
Not all encounters with kobolds should be hostile. Kobolds are not inherently evil creatures, and though they often serve evil creatures they can just as easily serve a good dragon or be independent. Even servants of evil dragons can be reasoned with as long as the adventurers are not directly threatening the dragon or its machinations. Because of their servitude to dragons, kobolds are easily swayed by shiny things, which they will either hoard for themselves or offer as a gift to their dragon master. There’s a huge amount of variety in kobold personality based on the setting of the game. While kobolds have existed in folklore for thousands of years, the version of the creatures we see in tabletop games are purely a creation of tabletop games themselves, so don’t worry about sticking to one type of presentation and instead feel free to mix it up. Use this to create unique kobolds that the party will remember rather than cookie-cutter sub-goblins that I’ve seen so many DMs use. Some traits I’d suggest focusing on personality-wise are: meekness, cunning, submissiveness, subversiveness, ingenuity, greed, or adaptability.
Kobolds are a really fun enemy to run because of their nontraditional tactics and their malleable personalities. Instead of presenting adventurers with a direct combat encounter, they string them along through hazardous environments and deadly traps, launch hit and run attacks without giving the adventurers a chance to strike back, and fight dirty if it comes down to it. Kobolds should not just be a combat enemy, so make sure you prepare plenty of unique NPCs in case your party decides to not be murderhobos and instead interact with the kobolds peacefully.