Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Play Report: The Books Were Wrong

The Books Were Wrong is a solo game / writing exercise based around reading through write-ups of cultures / peoples / creatures from RPGs with a critical eye to what biases are on display from the writer (a nebulous-at-first in-universe author), and then adjusting / rewriting them to address these biases and providing a more equitable presentation. The roll-for-what-tack-you're-taking felt like an extra step to potentially get a prompt that doesn't fit the text you are critiquing, so I used that part as suggestions only.

I decided to write about kobolds, using the 5e bestiary entry, on the grounds that A) I can guarantee there will be a lot to fix and B) I dislike kobolds in nearly all contexts except the dogfolk you find in Dungeon Meshi and the like, so it's a challenge for me to come up with something that I like.

Original text in bold and quote boxes.

On Kobolds

Kobolds are craven reptilian humanoids

That the avoidance of combat is immediately characterized as cowardice (and then used as the primary defining feature of kobolds), says to me that the in-universe author (let's call him Opineus) comes from a culture with a very strong honor-shame militarist ethos. Head-to-head, face-to-face brutality is valorous and brave, it's honorable, it will win you renown, it's manly. Backing down from or avoiding conflict is cowardly behavior and to be derided.

Even with that, it is still a particularly uncharitable reading of kobold behavior. Kobolds are tiny! An adult kobold on its own would be easily outweighed and overpowered by a juvenile human, much less a dwarf or orc (and I would wager that they are more likely to encounter those). Direct combat would be tantamount to suicide, and I would read any records of a kobold making such an attack as an act of desperation.

that worship evil dragons as demigods and serve them as minions and toadies.

For this to make sense, I would say that Opineus would have to come from a belief system where A) dragons are worshiped and B) there is a distinction between good and evil dragons. Thankfully, D&D already comes with this built in, so let's say that Opineus was writing during the height of influence of the Golden Dragon Cult, which cleanly laid out the universe in a grand spritual hierarchy according the the associated metals / colors schema...and which held that dragons were much more powerful and intelligent than they are in actuality. Opineus is coming from a position where it is taken as fact that all peoples would, naturally, worship dragons in much the same way that the GDC does, despite it being founded on a misunderstanding of how dragons act within the world.

But kobolds are living side by side with dragons. They deal with dragons every day and know that they are large, dangerous lizards that most other peoples give a wide berth to.

So what if kobolds have domesticated dragons, instead. If you're small and easily killed by most of everything you come across, it makes sense to have a guard dog, and why not go for the guard dog you are already sorta related to? It'd be like humans training bigfoot to protect them from aliens or something. But not full domestication, I don't think - dragons are still enormous, territorial apex predators, likely eating dinosaurs and shit. Mutualism, then. The kobolds care for the dragon by removing parasites and providing gifts of tribute (for the dragon to arrange around their lair, boyer-bird-like), the dragon protects the kobolds from dangerous introduers by scaring them away.

Kobolds inhabit dragons’ lairs when they can but more commonly infest dungeons, gathering treasures and trinkets to add to their own tiny hoards.

If kobolds are indeed related to dragons, maybe they have the same hoard-collecting behavior. Big showy nests to attract partners. Gotta strut your stuff. But, if we're going off the last part, most of that gathered treasure is to add to the dragon's hoard.

If a dragon isn't available, I would presume that a kobold warren would aim for an easily fortified location to live, so ruins and caves (or both) would be a natural fit. The use of "infested" certainly shows Opineus' thoughts on intelligent non-humans. What an asshole. Maybe those ruins are from some older civilization that Openeus' has claimed cultural lineage from, which is likely completly false and is still an asshole thing to do if it were true.

Strength in Numbers. Kobolds are egg-laying creatures. They mature quickly and can live to be “great wyrms” more than a century old. However, many kobolds perish before they reach the end of their first decade.

I don't know what to make of this one. It makes sense that kobolds would lean towards r-type reproduction (larger broods with lower investment) since everything is out to murder or eat them, but they aren't so far on the spectrum that they can't build societies.

Actually that brings up a big question; how are kobolds able to maintain cultural continuity with such turnover? These great wyrms would be absolutely vital for maintaining oral histories, especially if brain development in kobolds mirrors that of humans.

Granted, those numbers could be a complete error or fabrication on Opineus' account, it's not like he actually interacted with any kobolds to do research. Or, worst case scenario, the short average lifespan is just because they keep getting constantly murdered by humans.

Physically weak, they are easy prey for predators. This vulnerability forces them to band together.

Opineus here seems to believe that kobolds formed and participate in society primarily out of the threat of external violence rather than any need for socialization with each other and communal relationships. I would not be surprised if he believed the same thing about humans.

Their superior numbers can win battles against powerful adversaries, but often with massive casualties on the kobold side.

If kobolds don't engage in direct combat except in desperation, the massive casualties mentioned here were likely elders and children, who would naturally make up the bulk of a warren's population.

Tunnelers and Builders. Kobolds make up for their physical ineptitude with a cleverness for trap making and tunneling. Their lairs consist of low tunnels through which they move easily but which hinder larger humanoids. Kobolds also riddle their lairs with traps. The most insidious kobold traps make use of natural hazards and other creatures. A trip wire might connect to a spring-loaded trap that hurls clay pots of flesh-eating green slime or flings crates of venomous giant centipedes at intruders.

This section is generally on point, though it frames this as some innate kobold behavior, instead of a means of getting large, murderous people out of their house.

"Insidious" traps. Gotta love how using your environment to its advantage is morally backrupt to Opineus.

The Lost God. In addition to the dragons they revere, kobolds worship a lesser god named Kurtulmak. Legends speak of how Kurtulmak served as Tiamat’s vassal in the Nine Hells until Garl Glittergold, the god of gnomes, stole a trinket from the Dragon Queen’s hoard. Tiamat sent Kurtulmak to retrieve the trinket, but Garl Glittergold played a trick on him, collapsing the earth and trapping the kobold god in an underground maze for eternity. For this reason, kobolds hate gnomes and pranks of any kind. Kurtulmak’s most devoted worshipers dedicate themselves to finding and releasing their lost god from his prison-maze.

Opineus frames this bizarrely; a story about a horrible injustice done to the kobolds (if we read the story as a legendary account of an actual occurrence, the theft of a dragon's hoard by gnomes and the subsequent death / imprisonment of a folk hero) is played off as "the gnomes were just joking, the kobolds need to have a sense of humor about this."

The historical context of why Opineus would carry water for gnomish religion is beyond my creative energies at the moment.

Winged Kobolds. A few kobolds are born with leathery wings and can fly. Known as urds, they like to lurk on high ledges and drop rocks on passersby.

Of course they fucking drop rocks on people, Opineus. If your home was being invaded by dudes with swords and you had wings you'd drop some fucking rocks on them!

Although the urds’ wings are seen as gifts from Tiamat, the Dragon Queen, wingless kobolds are envious of those gifts and don’t get along with the urds.

I'll chalk this up to Opineus just making shit up. Can't come up with a good explanation on my own, so he just made some dumb shit up.


Final Thoughts

I'd hesitate to call it a game, but it is a very good writing exercise (in no small part because, as evidenced before, I like pulling apart bad bestiary entries). I could have gone further in fleshing out the kobolds, but for the sake of this write-up I wanted to stick to the text as much as I could - so the kobolds here are still not my ideal kobolds, if such a thing exists, but they are at least better than "what if goblins had scales".

As a final final note, I would certainly not be offended if Opineus showed up elsewhere as the scion of poorly-written accounts of magical beings. Dude was prolific, and terrible at his job, unless if you consider his job to be terrible, in which case he was excellent at it.


  1. The thing with Aristotle and fly legs is bunk (he did classify it as having four, but this was because the front two of the mayfly are not used for walking), but I can guarantee you Opineus believed it. Every single stupid, easily-disprovable thing that has ever been said about an animal and definitely been said by Opineus, because he's Just That Kind of Guy.

  2. In my opinion, Opineus carrying water for the gnome religion comes from his culture being in the middle of a fad for gnomish stuff, like orientalism or egyptomania. They are likely drawing comparisons between the GDC and Glittergoldism, the most obvious one being their love of gold and their conflict with evil dragon figures (either Kurtulmak of Tiamat).

    Opineus and scholars like him tend to treat Kurtulmak and Tiamat as more or less interchangeable; this is why he believes that Tiamat gave wings to urds, when it's more likely that the urds thank Kurtulmak or another minor diety for that (typicall Kuraulyek, their own patron deity, but Opineus hasn't ever talked to an urd because of that whole rock-dropping thing).

  3. I looked up the entry for bullywugs on a whim and OH BOY Opineus is just on a rampage against frog people.

  4. Thanks for "playing" my "game"! I totally agree that it's more of a writing exercise!

    Anyway, I'd love to see more about course-correcting Opineus' views. This was a fun read.

    1. Dude had so many fingers in so many pies I am doubtless going to run into his handiwork in the future.