The Ecology of Dragons

Posted Fri, Aug 16, 2013 by gunky

Ecology of Dragons

The mighty dragon is an enduring icon of the fantasy world. It represents the ultimate foe, a monster of colossal size with supernatural powers and the intelligence (or at least the cunning) of a human foe. They take a variety of forms, from mindless beasts little more advanced than other large carnivores, to god-like rulers of vast domains. They can be noble and proud, heroic allies of their human or elven compatriots, or savage, bloodthirsty villains breathing flaming death on anything that dares to challenge them.

Dragons that pop up in MMOs are typically villains. They have evil temperaments coupled with powerful attacks, and their lairs house vast hoards of gold and riches and usually amazing loot. Battling these dragons usually requires a group effort, and these fights are often quite challenging and lengthy.

Ecology of Dragons - Draigoch (LotRO)

For me, this type of "boss dragon" is epitomized in the Lord of the Rings Online. There is only one "true" dragon in LotRO - Draigoch the Red, who lairs in the mountains of Enedwaith (Thorog, the dragon in Helegrod, doesn't really count - he's a re-animated corpse, a dragon-wight brought back from death by the Gaunt Lord Drugoth the Deathmonger) . It requires a 12- or 24-player raid to take him down, and he is so large and dangerous that the group mostly just fights one body part at a time. The group needs to attack and weaken his limbs so that he falls, leaving his body vulnerable to attack. His deadly, fiery breath, enormous wings and massive size all create constant hazards throughout the fight - indeed, it can be a challenge just getting into position to start the fight because he is always watching the twisting corridor leading in, and toasting anyone he sees between the stalactites. Draigoch is everything an epic dragon fight should be, and stands to this day as one of my all-time favorite raids.

Ecology of Dragons - Fire Drakes in Angmar (LotRO)

As well-done as that raid is, though, LotRO suffers from one particular MMO trope that universally fails to suspend my disbelief. Though Draigoch is the only "true" dragon, the game is positively littered with "lesser" dragons. Sure, they're called drakes or gwibers, but we all know they're basically dragons. They're big and scaly, they have wings and they breathe fire - that's a dragon. There are loads of them kicking around in Angmar, the Trollshaws, Enedwaith, Moria and elsewhere. There are deeds that involve killing hundreds of the things. Angmar seems to be a good representation of what would happen to an area besieged by too many dragons - a hostile ashen wasteland where only the strongest and most vicious can survive.

Ecology of Dragons - Dragon's Prophet

This abundance of dragons is cranked up to 11 in Dragon's Prophet. Dragons are literally everywhere. They are perfectly commonplace in Auratia, mingling among the giant beetles and ferocious mandrills and shaggy cattle that populate the wilderness areas. Most dragon battles that occur in the general wilderness are solo fights.

This trope doesn't make much sense. Dragons are large apex predators, the very tip-top of the food chain. They require a large daily caloric intake to fuel their massive bodies and presumably hot-burning metabolisms, and their typically dagger-like teeth and claws indicate that they are primarily carnivorous, so that means they need to eat a lot of animals. That means they would have vast hunting territories, like lions and other top predators do only moreso. The remoteness of their lairs means their hunting territories are even larger, and most animals that might otherwise share habitat with a dragon would stay as far away as possible from a known dragon lair. Because dragons have such an effective arsenal of hunting tools, and because they are usually portrayed as antisocial (or, at the very least, loners), they do not need to hunt in large packs.

Obviously, we can't really compare dragons to any one living creature. They are much larger than any existing terrestrial apex predator (lions, tigers, polar bears, etc.). They might share raw tonnage with some species of whale, but that's pretty much where that similarity ends. Fire and water.

In terms of land-based predators, they are closer in size to large carnivorous dinosaurs like the Allosaur or Tyrannosaur, and fill a similar ecological niche as super-sized meat-eaters at the very top of the food chain. The general scientific consensus is that these dinosaurs are not pack hunters. They don't need to be - they have enough size and power to take down whatever prey they want all by themselves.

But they can also fly, which invites comparisons to modern large raptors like eagles. Large birds of prey are also not pack hunters. They have the advantages of flight and keen senses and don't need wing-men to take their prey.

However, unlike massive theropods and soaring eagles, dragons are gifted with great intelligence and advanced weaponry. This puts them on par with the real-world king-of-kings apex predator: humans, the very last link in the food chain. Humans have been known to hunt large or dangerous game in packs, and mostly live in social groups of many individuals.

However, dragons are known to be solitary - they are not social animals, despite their great intelligence. They often disdain the company of lesser beings, and don't have much use for one another either. This is common among dragons across many different settings. And they usually don't need to rely on safety in numbers, or on the support of pack-mates to bring down prey larger than they are.

In other words, dragons have the killing power and intelligence of mammalian super-predators, but the social behavior of reptiles and birds.

Ecology of Dragons - Skyrim

For my money, the most "realistic" dragons were the ones in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They lair high up in the mountains far removed from any other dragons. They command large territories, can take out entire well-armed villages all by themselves and fear no other predators (except, perhaps, the Dovakhiin). They are never encountered in huge packs - you meet them one at a time. And they use clever tactics when they fight, swooping in and out of range, strafing fire, mixing in Thu'ums with fire and physical attacks. An encounter with a Skyrim dragon is an event, every time. This style of dragon encounter matches the gritty realism of that game.

The dragons in Dragon's Prophet are not all apex predators. Some of them, especially early in the game, appear to be lumbering herbivores only loosely related to the great dragons of legend. Others appear to be more closely related to birds or lizard-like bats. Yet others are small theropods like velociraptors - carnivorous, yes, but small enough to require a pack for hunting. The dragons get bigger as you go, with more "classical" draconic features, but the very large ones are rare and solitary. Encounters with these ancient dragons are also events, but the impact of these events is tempered somewhat by the proliferation of lesser dragons throughout the game.

Ecology of Dragons - Dragon's Prophet

Of course, Dragon's Prophet is also a very different kind of setting than Skyrim.Where Skyrim has dirty fur-clad Norsemen grubbing in the dirt growing potatoes, Dragon's Prophet has buxom glamazons wearing chainmail bikinis zipping around on "common" dragons sporting glorious bird-of-paradise colors. It's the fantasy of fantasy, like a dream within a dream. The other main difference is that Dragon's Prophet is a MMO - creature populations need to be denser, beyond what is reasonable for a real-world environment. In real life, you don't need to pick a careful path between two bears to avoid attracting both of their attention, but in a MMO, you need enough bears to meet the needs of many players at once.

If you want the most realistic encounter with dragons, stick with the single-player games. If, however, you want to dream a dream of dragons, Dragon's Prophet is in open beta right now, and goes live on September 18.

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