So dragons can shapeshift in your world? And they don’t always get along with each other?
Think back to The Hobbit and put your Imagining Hat back on. Imagine that Gandalf was a dragon. That Smaug was a rival of his, for territory or treasure or something else, or maybe just an undesirable loose cannon and potential threat somewhere two or three centuries down the line.
So Gandalf-the-dragon tracks down some dwarfs that have a personal stake in the issue, gives them advice, and sends them in the right direction. Even helps them pick up a hobbit for the journey, too. And the thrush that mentions Smaug’s Achilles’ heel? Shapeshifted Gandalf again.
Lesser beings are pieces on a magnificent chess set, moved around by their draconic betters. These are moves in conflicts that can last for centuries before they even come to open blows, and sometimes never do.
Another dragon doesn’t even have to be facing down the metaphorical barrel, either. Dragons can have a multitude of reasons for manipulating humans into doing their dirty work for them.
And sometimes, of course, dragons head off potential trouble by giving false reports about themselves. Imagine the look on a dragon-hunter’s face when it’s discovered that the secret vulnerability ze was going to exploit doesn’t actually exist.
Alternatively, let’s go back to characters like Fafnir. Dragons aren’t born, they’re made, they’ve become. Sufficient greed and obsession, centered on a sufficiently-large hoard, can cause a transformation into a dragon. It may be slow and gradual or very sudden.
A dragon’s new life came on account of its hoard, and its life is forever subject to the same. Dragons can be controlled by holding their hoards for ransom. Luckily, this is usually as far as it goes. A dragon’s strength and power are linked to its hoard and it can be killed if the hoard is destroyed, but dragons seldom fear this fate. They know how hard it is for their former peers to do away with such treasures. More likely is that the thief will turn miserly as well, and a new dragon will be the result of it.
Dwarf-keeps are generally ruled by dragons, of course. More dragons were originally dwarfs than any other species, in fact. Whether this is a natural tendency or their culture has been warped by centuries of dragon rule is anyone’s guess.
I say “alternatively” in the beginning there, but I should add that these ideas are not mutually exclusive. In this scenario dragons have already changed shape once. Who’s to say that they can’t shapeshift back, either into their original form or into anything that their minds conceive. Maybe there are supernatural tells, maybe it’s a flawless impersonation.
Maybe dragons hoard gold and jewels. Maybe they don’t. Either way, though, the real profit from dragon-hunting is in harvesting body parts. Every part of the dragon is useful.
The scales make a serviceable armor. The fangs and claws may be made into weapons. But many of the other body parts may be rendered into potions. Dragons possess a venom in their teeth that keeps long and well in glass decanters. Or perhaps the venom, so quick to kill, is a multipurpose fluid that is also behind their fire.
Perhaps it is their blood, and causes paranoia and various hallucinations. Hence the tales of dragon-slayers that speak to birds after killing a dragon (especially if it can turn into a gas upon contact with the air, which can also add danger to the very fighting of a dragon). Or maybe the hallucinations are the natural side effect of getting down into the depths of reality, where things are truer and the phenomenal world is revealed to be merely symbolic. Or maybe it just makes you invulnerable, as Sigurd discovered.
The heart may prolong the lifespan, cure diseases, or grant strength. The eyes aren’t actually magic, but they do taste pretty good and make an excellent soup.
Silly dragon-slayer, you don’t go and use up a dragon’s bits like that. Didn’t you hear that the future is in renewable resources?
Wizards are the elite of society. They’re almost defined by their practice of grafting parts of dragons to themselves. Some of them have a smile like a shark’s, full of razor-sharp dragon fangs. Some of them have new blood flowing through their veins, opening their ears to the language of the birds. Some have threaded dragon muscle in with theirs, or grafted tough skin in place of their own.
Almost all of them have replaced their hearts. It’s the first thing that you want to do, even if it has a fair chance of killing you. With a dragon’s heart in your chest your lifespan can be measured in the centuries.
In some ways scientific progress is right on the level for a fantasy society, but medical science (surgery in particular) is on the cutting edge, if not entirely past anything that we can do today. Wizards direct all of their efforts in this direction, because improving the grafting process is an effort that never fails to bear fruits.
Some wizards push the boundaries of what should be possible, even allowing for magical cross-species organ transplants. Some have chopped up their stomachs to make room for additional organs, and rely on intravenous drips or nutrient slurries. Others are simply content to become bloated parodies of their former selves
Wizards. Biotech. Body horror. Dragons through and through that all. What are you waiting for?
A dragon’s hoard is cursed, man. It’s the dragon’s last revenge against thieves and murderers that would despoil it and rob its treasures.
Perhaps you hallucinate or turn mad. Perhaps you become mad with greed (maybe even as the result of partial possession by the dragon’s own spirit) until you’ll kill someone for looking at your hoard wrong.
The curse may be applied to the hoard and whoever owns so much as a single coin of it. This means that the curse can be transmitted vertically, generation to generation, and also be spread horizontally, so that many people are affected. Does it matter how much of the hoard you have, or is the person in possession of a cup subject to the curse to the same degree as the person who owns everything else? Does giving up the hoard relieve the curse?
Your turn: What are some other interesting ways that dragons could be used in a story?
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.