"For the sake of humanity, join in Bitterwood's revolt." - Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Building a Better Dragon

I was in high school when Dungeons and Dragons was first breaking into popular culture. I bought the boxed set with the red dragon on the cover and was hooked. When I went to college, I devoted roughly 20% of my intellectual energy to classes, 30% to playing spades, and the remaining 50% to running D&D games. I was never the sort of dungeon master who invested any money in pre-made modules. For one thing, I had no money. For another, I liked crafting my world to provide unique challenges for the people playing in my games. And the name I gave my D&D universe? Dragonsworld.

I know. Not terribly imaginative. I introduce this bit of ancient history primarily to explain how I came to spend so many hours thinking about creatures that didn’t exist, and wondering if they ever could exist. Could there be a dragon lurking somewhere in a jungle, waiting to be discovered? Or, could a dragon evolve from an existing animal, if not through artificial selection, then by the careful manipulation of genes? Back in the mid-eighties, the scientific world was abuzz with discussion of the genetic code, and it seemed like any day we would learn to rewrite DNA and make our own monsters… within limits.

After college, I made up for some of the education I’d lost to D&D by reading a lot of non-fiction. I loved the writings of Stephen J. Gould, a biologist who explained genetics and evolution in terms even I could understand. One lesson I carried away from his writings is how constrained evolution can be. Who your ancestors are sets limits on what you (as an organism) can become. For instance, vertebrate life, since it crawled out of the seas, has been limited to creatures with four limbs. These limbs can turn into an amazing number of things—arms and legs and wings and flippers—but, for hundreds of millions of years, four’s been the limit, because whatever first crawled out of the sea all those years ago had four limbs, and all birds, reptiles, and mammals descend from it. Once you tune into this fact, it’s easy to wander through a zoo and see how everything is connected. You can look at a bat wing and see the same bones you find in a chimp's hand, stretched and distorted and with a different set of pulleys, but still, under it all, the same shared framework.

Unfortunately, the four-limb rule was bad news for the dragon that sat atop that pile of gold on the D&D box set. It had six limbs—four legs, two wings. Also, let’s face it… the typical fantasy dragon just wasn’t terribly aerodynamic. It was pot-bellied and had kind of stubby wings. The only way they could get off the ground was in a magical world, unbound by the laws of physics we operate by on Earth.

The challenge to my imagination became to design a creature that would be instantly recognizable as a dragon without requiring any new rules of biology or physics.

Here are the assumptions I made:

  1. My dragons would have two legs and two wings, like birds and bats. Birds and bats use the bones that make up the fingers of our hands to form wings. I wanted my dragons to have hands as well. So, a thumb and two fingers would be devoted to a clasping hand, and the remaining two fingers would become wing struts. (See figure 1.)
  2. My dragons wouldn’t breathe fire. Yeah, I can think of some scenarios where this is vaguely plausible, but earth to date hasn’t evolved any fire breathers and I don’t think it will any time soon. Acid and poison spitters, sure. But, fire’s a no no.
  3. A tiny dragon isn’t much fun. I wanted these beasts to be big. Unfortunately, flight seems to favor the small. Still, there have been some big flying creatures in the past. The biggest I could find was the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a forty foot wingspan. This gave me my upper limit on size. I have evidence that creatures this big can fly here on Earth.
  4. Just why were dragons always sitting on top of piles of gold? Seriously, what did they need it for? It wasn’t as if they were going to go down to the town square and buy melons in the market. Or, could they? Accumulation of wealth implies a societal structure… money has meaning only in the context of civilization. So, why couldn’t dragons be civilized? If you’re smart enough to know the value of money, you are smart enough to know the advantages of working together, using tools, etc. Dragons are also traditionally portrayed as being able to talk, and in our world, talking leads to culture. This meant my dragons probably had mythologies about their history and strong ideas about their place in the world--ideas that might be in stark contrast with other talking creatures, like humans.

With these as my guidelines, I started imagining a dragon that was something between a bird and a lizard. Fortunately, the fossil record has a couple examples of just such creatures, the most famous being Archaeopteryx. Archaepteryx wasn't very big but if you supersize him and make him a little scalier, you get a pretty passable dragon. Throw in "hands" in the middle of the wings and you're pretty close to the sort of winged dragons that haunt the world of Bitterwood. (Figure 2) In Bitterwood, if frequently refer to "fore-talons" and "hind-talons." These are the draconian equivilents of hands and feet. However, dragon hind-talons are much more dexterous than our feet, since they use them to carry weapons, live-stock, virgins, etc. when they fly.

As long as we're looking at pictures, at Ravencon a few months back, I ran into an artist named Christina Yoder who had a fantastic sketch of something she called a "parragon" in her portfolio. (Figure 3). I was excited when I saw this picture. It's obvious Christina has studied anatomy, and I found this sketch to be a very plausible interpretation of a dragon. She tells me she's drawn the details from her pet parrot and from bats that flit around where she lives. It's not hard to imagine this creature in the real world, if not today, then in the past, sharing space in the sky with Archaopteryx.

Finally, the ever-talented Mr. Cavin sent me this collage of a dragon, taking quite literally my wishes to show the underlying biology of the beasts. (Figure 4.) The thing I love about this picture is that it's easy to look at the dragon's face and see its shared genetic heritage with a chicken. Should you ever find yourself confronting a dragon with a forty foot wingspan, a useful tactic might be to shake your fists at it while shouting, "You don't scare me, you big chicken!" It's still going to kill you, of course, but at least you'll impress your friends with your knowledge of anatomy. "He was smart," they'll say. "Shame he got eaten."


Simon Haynes said...

Your post triggered a few memories for me, especially of the D&D kind. Back in 1981 my family was living in Spain, and my only contact with D&D was a book called 'What is Dungeons & Dragons?' by a group of UK teenagers. (That book is still sitting on a shelf about twelve feet from where I'm sitting now.)

I used the book to make up my own version of the game, since I had no chance of picking up the rulebooks in Spain. My brother and I spent months on it, tweaking and playing it to exhaustion.
Later, a visitor from the UK brought me out the original Basic D&D book as a gift, and I just went nuts from that point on, drawing endless dungeons and writing pages of description. Of course, I couldn't get the proper dice so I made big cardboard ones based on the geometric shapes in my maths textbook. I also spent several weeks in school transferring monster descriptions onto hand-trimmed squares of paper for my very own monster file, writing under the desk so nobody knew what I was up to. (It helped that I was attending a Spanish school - even if the teachers had caught me they wouldn't have been able to read the descriptions!)

Oh yes, and that year I failed just about all my subjects except art and technical drawing ;-)

Mr. Cavin said...

Giant dice is a great idea. I wish I'd thought of that myself.

James Maxey said...

Simon, I preferred designing my own monsters as well. For one thing, it eliminated the problem that all my players had memorized the monster manual and knew every weakness and statistic about the existing D&D creatures. Godslayers, viscious cubes, silver cats... those were the days.

Simon Haynes said...

'When I were a lad ...'

One of the first things I wrote for my ZX Speccy was a little monster database.

It didn't have enough memory for large monsters.