Monday, January 26, 2015

Monster Building Walkthrough: A Panoply of Kobolds

It's good to see you back at Pact of the Tome. When we talked about the Hill Giant  two weeks ago, we specifically covered upgrading the monster to create a Hill Giant Chieftain. Today, we're going to do something a bit different. Past editions of D&D had plenty of variations on monsters, from D&D 3E's gnolls with Ranger levels to 4E's Bugbear Backstabber, Bugbear Skinner, and Bugbear Strangler. (Technically, a player character who fights Bugbears could fit all of these descriptions!)
Although D&D 5E doesn't include many varieties for its monsters, it's fairly simple to use the monster creation rules to create simple variants to build more exciting encounters. For this article, we're going to focus on the Kobold, the basic statistics of which are available in your copy of the DM's Basic Rules (page 34) or the Monster Manual (page 195). The Kobold's only listed variant is the Winged Kobold, a rock-dropping flying harasser, but we can do better than that!

The D&D 5E Kobold seems to have spent some
time bulking up for its appearance in the new
edition. Strength 7 has never looked better!
Artist: Aaron Hübrich, Conceptopolis
We'll start out by quickly analyzing the Kobold's Challenge Rating of 1/8 (check the table on DMG page 274 to follow along).
Looking at the Kobold stat block, we see quickly that it's really rather abysmal at combat. With 5 hit points and an armor class of 12, it's got a whopping Defensive CR of 0. Its 4 damage with +4 to hit, even in light of the Pack Tactics ability, grants a Defensive CR of only 1/2. These average out to a CR of 1/4, but presumably because it's on the low end of each range the folks at WotC decided to bump it down to 1/8.
What are the kobold's strengths? Pack Tactics clearly points to an aptitude toward fighting in mobs, and the low Challenge Rating means this is an achievable goal for DMs even at low level. (It takes six kobolds to be a Hard encounter for the standard level 1 group!) In addition, we'll note that kobolds are equally suited to fighting at melee and at range (they have the same accuracy and deal the same damage) although they're best if at least one ally is in melee due to the Pack Tactics ability.

With that in mind, we're going to create three different varieties of kobolds, each with a different speciality:

  • The Kobold Dragonshield is a tougher "defender" for groups of kobolds, helping its kin survive the attacks of adventurers.
  • The Kobold Skirmisher darts into battle, backstabs the adventurers, then runs away before it gets hit.
  • The Kobold Sorcerer takes advantage of the kobold affinity with dragons to cast elemental spells in battle.
(An astute observer will notice that the Kobold Dragonshield and Kobold Skirmisher are based on the kobold varieties from D&D 4E.)

When building our new kobolds, we'll want to start with the basic Kobold stat block, only changing things when we feel it's necessary. This helps keep things simple and means a DM can run a kobold encounter with the basic Kobold stat block, plus a few scribbled notes. In addition, we'll be calculating changes to Challenge Rating fairly quickly. If these calculations leave you confused, you might want to review one of my earlier articles which cover the subject in more depth.

We'll start with the Kobold Dragonshield, which we'll design as a "tougher" kobold with the ability to protect its kin. To start, we'll boost the basic Kobold's survivability by giving it better armor class and hit points. Leather armor and a shield bumps armor class to 15, and adding two hit dice and boosting Constitution gives it a few extra hit points for a defensive CR of 1/4. We'll add to damage a tiny bit by giving the Dragonshield a short sword, which puts it at Offensive CR 1/4 for a total CR of 1/4.
For our finishing touch, we'll grant the Dragonshield a signature ability - to impose disadvantage on attacks made against its kobold allies (this is based on the Fighter's Protection ability). Does this ability affect challenge rating? Although it boosts an ally's defenses instead of the Dragonshield's own, it's essentially the defensive equivalent of the Pack Tactics ability (requires an ally to be within 5'; grants [dis]advantage), which adds 1 to the monster's effective attack bonus. We'll therefore rule that Shield Block adds 1 to the Dragonshield's effective AC, which luckily doesn't modify its challenge rating. Perfect!

Kobold Dragonshield
Use kobold stat block, except for the following changes and additions
Armor Class 15 (leather armor, shield)
Hit Points 14 (4d6)
Con 11 (+0)
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)
Short Sword. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6+2) piercing damage.
Shield Block. The kobold imposes disadvantage on an attack roll targeting a creature other than it within 5 feet. To do so, the kobold must see the attacker and be wielding a shield.

There's nothing keeping
you from using kobolds
in a city adventure!
Artist: Eva Widermann
Next, we'll work on the Kobold Skirmisher. For this monster, we'll co-opt some of the Rogue class's special abilities to make it nimble and more offensively powerful.
First of all, we'll let the Kobold Skirmisher have the Sneak Attack ability. To avoid making the Skirmisher too hard-hitting, we'll have it only deal 1d6 extra damage. It's not immediately clear how to word this ability on a monster, so we'll consult the Spy (Monster Manual p. 349) to figure it out. Note that this ability interacts positively with the Kobold's Pack Tactics - as long as there's an ally within 5 feet of the target, it'll trigger the Advantage necessary for Sneak Attack.
Looking again at the Spy, we notice its Cunning Action ability (also borrowed from the Rogue) gives it amazing mobility in combat. We don't necessarily want the Skirmisher to be the best at hiding or running really fast (kobolds have short legs), but being able to Disengage every turn as a bonus action means it can run into combat and out again without drawing an opportunity attack. As a nod to the 4E kobold, we'll call the ability Shifty.
The Dungeon Master's Guide is pretty clear on how traits that grant extra damage (like Martial Advantage) change Challenge Rating - if they're likely to be active every round, then add them to the effective damage of the monster's attacks. In this case, this moves the Kobold Skirmisher up to an offensive CR of 1, which would normally result in a total CR of 1/2. However, looking at the awful survivability of the Skirmisher (the same as the basic Kobold) and noting that it's on the low end for both offensive and defensive CRs, we'll bump this one down to 1/4. Shifty could also change CR, but looking at the similar Nimble Escape ability (see the Goblin for an example), the DMG assumes it is used to Hide, which actually increases accuracy and defense. Because Shifty doesn't allow hiding, it doesn't increase damage or defenses so we'll assume it doesn't modify CR.
Finally, when we look at the Skirmisher we notice its Sneak Attack is also very effective with its Sling. Because we don't want the Skirmisher to be a ranged character, it's probably fine just to take away the Sling attack - this will encourage it to get into melee and backstab the heck out of the PCs.

Kobold Skirmisher
Use kobold stat block, except for the following changes and additions
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)
Sneak Attack (1/turn). The kobold deals an extra 3 (1d6) damage when it hits a target with a weapon attack and has advantage on the attack roll.
Shifty. The kobold can take the Disengage action as a bonus action on each of its turns.
The Kobold Skirmisher does not have a Sling attack.

Finally, we're going to experiment with adding the ability to cast a few spells to a monster. I wrote a whole article on building spellcasting monsters piece-by-piece, but here we're just going to use the basic Kobold with a few Sorcerer spells tacked on. We'll give it a better Charisma score to boost sorcerous spellcasting, then add the burning hands and chromatic orb spells (with the standard two slots of a first-level character) and a few appropriate cantrips. Since burning hands averages 10.5 damage over two targets, we'll assume the kobold uses this for two rounds then casts fire bolt the third round. That's an average of 16 damage per round! With a save DC of 11 the Sorcerer is rated at CR 1 offensively, which gives it a total CR of 1/2.

Kobold Sorcerer
Use kobold stat block, except for the following changes and additions
Cha 13 (+1)
Challenge 1/2 (100 XP)
Spellcasting. The kobold is a 1st-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 11, +3 to hit with spell attacks). The kobold has the following sorcerer spells prepared:
Cantrips (at will): fire bolt, minor illusion, prestidigitation, shocking grasp
1st level (2 slots): burning hands, magic missile

Though D&D 5E's monster design tends toward just one or two monsters of each "type," with a little effort and application of the CR rules one can create many specialized variants of a monster to fit the right situation. With just the three kobold types generated above and the "basic" kobold, a DM can build many varied kobold encounters that play to the monsters' tactical strengths.

Today we've talked about the process of adding special abilities, like protection, Sneak Attack, and spellcasting, to a basic monster in order to transform it into a specialized variant. Next week, we're going to move into a different subject - using the encounter building rules to create exciting and challenging fights for your players. I'll see you then on Pact of the Tome!


  1. Perfect timing. I was just planning an encounter involving Kobolds and needed a better variety for the PCs to fight.

    I've got to say I've really been enjoying this series. Great references.

    1. Thank you so much! Any encouragement you offer inspires me to write more.
      Is there anything you'd like me to cover? I do want to talk about encounter building at some point, but if there's a monster or monster building technique you would like me to talk about I'd be glad to write it.

  2. Nice! I'll be using these to spice up my HotDQ encounters. The PCs thought they had figured out kobolds. The surprise will be on them!

  3. Great read!

    You mentioned it in passing, but what is your opinion of the Nimble Escape guidelines presented in the DMG? The advantages of Hide are obvious, but an increase in effective AC and Attack Bonus by 4 is huge! If you assume hide each turn, that increases the CR of a goblin to 1. Obviously they wouldn't be able to hide each turn, but how would you deal with it in calculations?