Pretend for a moment that you’re a dragon. You have a hoard. You want to keep it protected, but you would like to grow it too and you can’t be over there, getting loot, if you’re over here, protecting the loot that you’ve got.
Lucky for you, there’s no need to choose. Those half-hairless bipeds you’ve noshed on now and again might try to sneak into your hoard every now and then, but maybe they could be trained.
Dragons have their own civilization (of a sort; we wouldn’t easily recognize it as such) but they didn’t intentionally replicate that in humans in the organization of their “hoard-keeps.” It simply grew around them. Writing and mathematics developed in order to keep better records of a hoard’s contents. A technological arms race was the product of struggles between tribes and clans, all trying to protect their patron’s hoard and seize the hoards of others.
The system became so successful that small bureaucracies began to emerge in order to manage all of the various tasks required by the hoard-keep. Having a dragon around is a good deterrent against raiders, too, so there’s another incentive to align yourself with a dragon.
Even today, dragon-run empires are effectively vast hoard-keeps. The national treasury and the dragon’s hoard are one and the same, and when the empire extends its holdings and establishes colonies it does so in order to add greater glory to the name of its dragon.
There are a few ways that this can go, none of them contradictory with any others:
We can run with this idea even if we assume that civilization arose more or less normally. Let’s push the date of the Bright Idea further into the future.
Imagine a story, told over generations, that starts with a few people that have been approached to protect a dragon’s hoard. Perhaps the dragon has made a cost/benefit analysis and decided that what it pays them will be a smaller loss than if there were no one to protect the hoard. Or maybe there’s something that people really like and dragons care little or nothing for. If dragons have valuable bodily substances (we’ll get to that next week) then maybe it bleeds itself or milks its venom on a regular basis for them.
Regardless of how it gets started, it goes on. The years pass and a secret society forms around the hoard. You don’t want to make this a matter of public knowledge if you can avoid it, after all. You want to help your fellow hoard-keepers in day-to-day life while you’re at it, too. And having a series of initiation levels will help you sift wheat from chaff and discover who can be trusted.
Imagine that the treasure of the Freemasons and the Knights Templar was a dragon’s hoard (and also not fake) and you might have the general idea.
Eventually, in process of time, the secret society transforms further. Perhaps it insinuates itself into society so thoroughly that it effectively takes control. Perhaps it becomes a religion, secret or otherwise.
Alternately, why don’t we forgo the humans entirely? We’ll get rid of the whole process of characters dying and being replaced by others, too. Instead, our story, still being told over a period of centuries, has a single protagonist: the dragon itself.
Start with the durg is born, or hatched, or whatever you want to call it. From youth to extreme old age we follow the dragon. History moves, the times change, and the world becomes ever more different. Once no bigger than a thumb or a hand, the story goes on until our dragon is as big as a mountain and has to retreat into the bones of the world or the depths of the sea.
And what would that be like, if the story continued for a little bit more? I want to know what civilizations exist beneath the waves. At the very least there must be dragons, great big ones that hibernate for years and have lived for millennia, and the kind of society that would develop under those circumstances.
By the way, does that proposed life cycle make dragons out to be like great big fire-breathing sea turtles?
R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available herefor free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an RPG.net column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting.