Designer's Notes: GURPS Dragons
Working With the Fire
by Phil Masters
Certain legends say that dragons tend to grow bigger and bigger if left to their own devices. GURPS Dragons has proved the point through its moderately tortuous history. Originally planned as a short book by a different author, it . . . well, grew in the telling, and my commission was to expand the earlier manuscript out to 128 pages. It has subsequently grown even beyond that, especially as its publication date has ended up falling close to that of GURPS Fourth edition, with the result that it now has an appendix of rules material updates.
The long example setting in the book, "The Reptilian Gaze," had its own twisted, coiled, and scaly history. At one point, not only was it somewhat shorter, but its dragons had a completely different, slightly more "rational" history. That was ultimately rejected as showing too little respect for the mystique of the big lizards, and replaced with something fiercer and more fiery, but I'd like to think that it has a certain integrity, even a battered power, of its own. So, in the tradition of these things, and by way of a bonus for readers of this august periodical -- here is that version of those dragons, rescued from under the eraser. Note that it assumes a baseline date for campaigns around 1901 A.D..
Second Gaze: The Alternate Ancient History of Dragonkind
Dragons have been a feature of this world for a long time, although they have been more visible at some times than at others. For the last couple of thousand years or so, they have regarded discretion as the key to survival. Nonetheless, they are native to Earth -- with an older claim to it than humanity. On the other hand, they owe humans a great deal.
The Primordial Ones
Dragons -- or rather, their distant ancestors -- started out as a small species of Antarctic dinosaur which just survived the Great Extinction. They were fairly intelligent hunters, with large eyes and a capacity for hibernation which suited their home, and helped get them through the dark days after the great meteor obliterated most large species of the time. They also had, by a freak mutation, the only even faintly reliable psychic powers ever to exist in Earth's Animal Kingdom.
Specifically, they had limited access to what, for want of a better word, we can call the Astral Plane -- a realm of pure thought and psychic energy. Through it, they could achieve momentary links to the perceptions and memories of other animals, and they could shift "out of phase with reality" for a few moments at a time (something else which helped their survival -- many of them dodged the shockwaves following the fall of the meteor by shifting to their astral state). They eventually spread widely across warm regions, although they were never common, which is why they left few fossils (and they have since made a point of hiding any which show up), and they didn't evolve much because they didn't need to.
The Apes and the Mindstorm
Then, after millions of years, the descendents of those survivors ran into another mutant species, one which was expanding out of its original ecological niche -- a primate with an over-developed capacity for abstract thought. The proto-dragons reached out instinctively with their powers, and were, in their non-sapient way, horribly surprised.
The interaction between the two very different types of oversized brain was violent and bizarre. It led to a psychic storm which lasted for thousands of years. For the apes, the night became full of ghosts and terrors. The psychic dinosaurs mostly just died a lot; if they wandered too close to an ape community, they ran around in circles until something killed them or their brains exploded.
Then, thanks to this brutally Darwinian experience, the proto-dragons evolved a strategy; they spent as much time as possible on the Astral Plane. The survivors were those who could spend most time there, and not run around in circles too much when exposed to ape-minds. Of course, the apes evolved somewhat, too; the ones with weaker mental abilities suffered a lot of heart attacks and seizures, and the survivors learned to control the use of their own memories. The story of the Garden of Eden, and the image of the serpent guarding the Fruit of Knowledge, actually represents a subtle racial memory of this time of horrors; the proto-human bicameral mind didn't just break down, as some modern scientists have suggested, it was ripped apart, accidentally, by dragons. Some would say that it explains a lot about human consciousness that it was created this way.
So the proto-dragons survived, and even began to exploit what had recently been a threat to them, gaining access to the rich seam of hominid perceptions and memories of the environment.
The Coming of the Dragons
But to humans, they were still a nightmare -- and the proto-dragons, spending much of their time as beings of pure mental energy, were shaped by this thinking. They became bigger and more terrible whenever they materialized in the vicinity of a human brain. The trouble was, they were being shaped into biological impossibilities -- huge creatures, all fang and claw and cunning, and sometimes wing and flame. They came to depend on the psychic energy of human brains to exist, even while in material form, and there just weren't that many human brains around. They could only materialize -- which they had to do to mate or breed -- very occasionally.
Then, after millennia, human beings created cities. Now, there were large enough concentrations of thinking minds in close proximity that the reptilian dream-demons could sometimes return to the material world for extended stays. Eventually, preferred forms for such incursions developed, partly drawing on the city-dweller's fear of the wilderness. Of course, being psychic projections, albeit with a legacy of dinosaur biology, dragons have mutable forms -- they can, in effect, be quite skilled shapeshifters, if they choose to work at it. They are products of their weird racial heritage in other ways, too, including their capacity for hibernation.
At this point, readers may wonder why dragons have not long since made themselves known to humanity. Why, in fact, are they so much less well known, or widely believed in, than they were in the Bronze Age?
The fact is, dragons have made themselves prisoners of human perception. If they reveal themselves to humanity too often, aside from the risk of would-be heroes trying to slay them, they become the subject of obsessive fears -- and those fears influence the shapes which dragons materializing in the vicinity can assume. If they are thought of and feared as terrifying monsters, that is what they become. They lose some of their intelligence and most of their self- control, and they hate that.
Thus, they mostly prefer that humans not believe in dragons too strongly, or at least not think about the subject too much. Over time, this preference has become a racial policy, which has spawned a racial taboo with some of the force of a law. Dragons are taught not to reveal themselves to any more humans than absolutely necessary, although trusted servants are permitted. Many dragons administer a series of formal oaths to these human employees as they are granted more complete knowledge of what it is they serve. Many humans are reluctant to violate such oaths, of course, but these ceremonies are actually as much for the dragon's benefit as anything else; they mark the points at which the taboo may be put aside, and secrecy may be breached.
Humans who find out about dragonkind by accident are sometimes destroyed, but smarter dragons find that wasteful, preferring to recruit them instead. Dragons have become not only secretive, but manipulative, and often take the time to assess any human who comes to their close attention as a tool.
Hoards and Gold
These dragons have only a restricted interest in valuable things as such. What the species has discovered is that treasure invokes strong emotions in humans who observe it, while gold -- presumably because of its conducting properties -- has some ability to channel psychic energies. Apart from which, many dragons have long recognized the pragmatic advantages to being rich. All this explains the mythological association between dragons and treasure. Used with a certain amount of skill and judgment, a hoard with a high gold content can enable a dragon to exploit human minds a little more efficiently. The potential uses of money to buy comforts and protection is a bonus. On the other hand, a dragon's attitude to wealth may be a little confusing for human observers, especially those who think in clichés.
Generally, a hoarding dragon is not really terribly interested in its hoard except as a means to an end. Rather, when humans come into its presence, they will be deliberately exposed to the sight of exceptional wealth, in such a way as to provoke some kind of emotional response. Greed and jealousy are the most likely, and are useful, but awe and admiration are just as good, and even contempt or disgust may serve. Meanwhile, the dragon remains close to at least a significant quantity of gold -- sitting on a heap of the stuff, or a gilded throne, is best, but wearing fancy jewelry is adequate -- and soaks up the emotional energy.
This means that dragons tend to be very brash and ostentatious about their wealth, so long as they are reasonably sure that the situation is safe. Some dragons even admit privately to a degree of sympathy for humans who call them tasteless or vulgar -- but refined appreciation of good taste simply doesn't meet their needs as well as simpler emotions.
A Secret History
Dragons have a peculiar need for limited isolation. The natural environment of the modern dragon is human thought. However, too rich an environment can be as dangerous to them as too little psychic energy. With no humans around, they can only materialize as mindless lizards; with too many, the old madness returns. Therefore, they seek out situations in which they can control their social environment as precisely as possible.
A dragon's ideal home is remote, but near to a small but vibrant human community which knows something about him, albeit not necessarily as anything but an unusual human being. A community of a few dozen or a few hundred people -- perhaps a couple of thousand -- serves draconic purposes best, offering useful but not overwhelming psychic energies. The crazy hermit near the village, the enigmatic owner of the big house with a busy estate, the terrifying mother superior in a large convent -- all might be dragons. But this is a balancing act, and even the cleverest dragon can sometimes fall.
Gods and Monsters
Faced with this need to exploit humanity and its emotions, without becoming trapped in human assumptions, and without becoming the target of fearful hatred, dragons have developed various strategies.
In China, they solved the problem by becoming demigods, worshipped for wisdom and power rather than feared as ravening beasts. In India, they took the role of nagas, serpents with magical powers living in a secret land of their own (actually the Astral Plane), no more monstrous than the many ordinary snakes of that land, but credited with intelligence and culture. In the West, their approach was to appear as dangerous but remote and very cunning creatures, not (usually) the subject of immediate fears, but something which lurked in secret places, to be respected but not often confronted.
The flaw with the latter approach was of course that the dragons were too often reduced to unthinking monsters, but Chinese lung and Indian nagas had another problem; they had to live up to their claims of demi-divine power, when their physical abilities were in fact rather limited.
Pacts of Secrecy
By the end of the Bronze Age, the dragons had things quite well calculated, while the dragon myth was well enough established among humanity that they very rarely had to work to reinforce it. Thus, they were mostly able to withdraw from any sort of overt presence in human society. For a while, some outside China played at impersonating very immanent gods, dwelling in the city-state temples of ancient Mesopotamia and caves or lakes in northern Europe, receiving tribute and worship through their priesthoods. But humans expected more of their deities than dragons could provide, and after one or two were butchered by conquering armies -- or worse, carried away maimed and in chains, humiliating the whole race -- that habit fell out of fashion, just as their Chinese counterparts had learned not to boast too much.
(Incidentally, despite the claims that they occasionally make, dragons did not actually invent human religion; they merely exploited a recurrent human impulse. Many human gods have nothing of the dragon about them. That said, how far that impulse may have been shaped by draconic activity in earlier times is an interesting question.)
The Iron Age made dragons ever more cautious, and better weapons and larger armies left them feeling increasingly vulnerable. The last few would-be gods in Mesopotamia fell to Assyrian blades, while more than one surly forest-dweller in the woods of Europe gained the posthumous honor of a starring role in a new myth after a warrior with a "magic" (iron) blade sneaked into his lair as he slept. Persia and then Macedonia raised empires to match those of China or India, and those dragons who were slow to adapt to new realities paid the price. (In later centuries, manipulator dragons would carefully convert the tales from those days into legends about heroic founder-princes slaying monsters.) By the time that Rome arose, sensible dragons had learned to live quietly, and more or less mastered the art of manipulating human cultures and societies. A few gloried in Rome's fall, seeking to restore the older, simpler dragon ways, but most frankly preferred to live in greater comfort at the price of a little secrecy.
And by the end of the first millennium A.D., the old informal pacts and agreed strategies had hardened into something slightly more formal. There were plenty of dragons in the world, but most remained well hidden; only on the far fringes did the occasional monster assert itself and demand tribute from humanity. The more sophisticated hidden dragons rarely mourned when they heard that such creatures had been slain by human heroes; frankly, they gave dragonkind a bad name. Some even formulated the theory that the race would do best if humanity actually denied its very existence, so long as stories about dragons were still told, and even worked actively towards this end. They could enjoy bizarre heraldic images, or tales of monster-slaying saints; it all showed what a good job they were doing of embedding themselves in human dreams. In the east, meanwhile, dragons had almost entirely withdrawn to life as astral entities associated with wild places; they could disregard the odd Mongol invasion, as the new arrivals were happy enough to adopt the local monster-tales on which dragons could subsist.
Dragons have always been rare in the Americas, though not unknown. With their ability to move through the Astral Plane and to sense and locate human thought, it was inevitable that they would follow humans to these other continents, and so far as can be told, a few draconic stragglers did so not long after the end of the last Ice Age. However, they were never numerous -- at least until relatively recently, in historical terms.
For one thing, settled human communities in the Americas were very rarely large enough and widespread enough to support a stable dragon population. These are predators, who need large herds of "food animals" to support them -- but their food source is not so much individual humans as human communities. Then again, because the Native Americans had no contact with the dragon myths which the dragons carefully cultivated in Europe and Asia, their own myths generated weird, primal, divergent forms, which might impose themselves on an astral dragon seeking to manifest. Being forced into the guise of a piasa bird or an "underground panther" was disquieting for a dragon who was aware of the more "appropriate" shapes taken elsewhere. Only eccentrics, outcasts, and renegades bothered with the Americas.
A few dragons did see an opportunity with the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayan city-states proved hard to exploit -- their imaginings were still a little too strange -- but not impossible, and eventually, the myth of Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, arose in various forms, marking the establishment of a minor dragon community which seemed stable for a while.
But again and again, these cultures and their dreams proved hard to cultivate. Dragons rarely worry about humans dying or shedding blood, but the impulses to sacrifice and pain-induced hallucination were simply not what dragons needed from humanity. By the time of Columbus, the Mesoamerican dragon population was in serious decline, the few remnants lurking in remote villages and confused dreams. Only gradually, over the centuries, did dragons of European (or occasionally Chinese) extraction move in with the great waves of immigrants.
Exploration and Empires
In Renaissance and subsequent eras, the rules changed again. Some dragons blamed each other for this, saying that someone -- someone else -- should have taken responsibility for keeping the apes more docile and less mobile, or claiming that some faction was encouraging inconvenient behavior for its short term profit or to undermine an existing arrangement. While this was mostly nonsense, it is true that several European draconic groups took advantage of human expansion, especially once they realized how effete and ineffectual their Eastern counterparts had become. Clever European dragons had learned to speculate in order to accumulate, and their unknowing human minions were sending home reports which suggested that a clever dragon could find a new home -- with lots of wonderful gold -- in other lands.
In fact, the dragon race sometimes seems to have infected humanity with a terrible obsession with that metal. Humans were always perfectly capable of being greedy on their own account, of course, but the downright bizarre, often self-destructive behavior of, for example, the Spanish conquistadors, who would endure almost any horrors if they heard a rumor of plunder, shows some signs of draconic manipulation of dreams and desires. It is also possible that the obsessive pursuit of rumors of El Dorado, the "man of gold," was promoted by a dragon looking out for dangerous rivals or competitors in new lands.
Thus, outward-looking Western dragons were thoroughly implicated as the Age of Exploration changed into the Age of Empires. (More conservative Westerners sat at home muttering that no good would come of innovation, or more intelligently criticized the violation of ancient pacts or impetuous and careless tactics.) Colonialist dragons loved plantations; they could escape the increasingly crowded and confusing lands of Europe to hole up in some great house with a small family and a pack of compliant human servitors. Friction between colonialists and their former allies and neighbors in Europe mirrored that between human colonies and parent countries, and each inspired the other; the most successful breakaway movement was among the dragons of British North America, who learned the art of spreading new dreams among their human pawns in what was essentially virgin psychological territory. Even so, their break with European allegiances required that they call in favors from the old, powerful draconic factions of France -- factions which, ironically, suffered terrible few years later. Some dragons suspect that dangerous dream- images had been carried back across the Atlantic by American dragons' agents.
Elsewhere, European influence ran into the more complex problem of native dragons. The nagas of India had mostly withdrawn to the astral realm, and so European influence -- and even a very few European dragons -- were able to move in quite successfully. However, the psychic environment of the sub-continent -- as defined the dreams of its human population -- proved less amenable to conquest. European domination was always shallow and potentially fragile. China, by contrast, proved a much more blatant sort of problem. While the Chinese dragons were mostly withdrawn from human contact, they carefully preserved a number of lines of influence -- and they were numerous, powerful, and subtle. Only a very few, cautious European dragons moved to this land, taking up residence in the entrepots of Hong Kong and Macao. Still, the effort resistance may have weakened the Chinese dragons severely; this successful defense may prove to have been their last hurrah.
Their cousins in Japan perhaps did better. For centuries, they sealed the land from all intrusions, leading many other dragons to think that their eventual collapse would be total, but in fact, they were making careful plans all that time. When Japan was opened up to the West, the dragon lords carefully allowed specific Western ideas and images to enter the Japanese dream-space, while fiercely guarding their personal independence.
Meanwhile, even in 1901, American dragons remain thinly spread and notoriously eccentric. However, with access to the resources of a growing, dynamic society, they are becoming a serious factor in global draconic society. Furthermore, with the rise of American plutocracy and concepts such as "conspicuous consumption," the cleverest of them -- especially those willing and able to maintain a convincing human form most of the time -- are finding a new place for the old draconic lifestyle. Some hold that the American Dream will be a happy hunting ground for their kind.
The Nature of the Beasts
So what do dragons do?
In brief, they try to control human society so that it remains comfortable for themselves, and to maintain a steady flow of psychic energy which they can tap. However, that energy seems to be a limited resource -- or at least, dragons, ever the reptilian predators, think so. Note also that they are habitually territorial, with highly competitive and fairly complex mating rituals. They are usually solitary, but break that solitude quite dramatically from time to time. They have lots of experience, but they are sometimes somewhat impulsive and not especially smart. They are potentially almost immortal, but terribly fragile.
Thus, they spend their time pursuing power, dominance, and security, while working hard to preserve secrecy. (They are in fact quite impressively uniformly sane, in some very important ways; they all recognize the certainty that a serious lapse in secrecy would be fatal for the individual responsible, probably quickly and painfully.) Their conflicts are primarily political, but can occasionally break out in spectacular violence, either by proxy or, very occasionally, in a personal form.
Modern dragons are essentially creatures of psychic energy rather than flesh. This means that they can assume human and other forms fairly easily. However, the shapes into which they slip reflexively are influenced by human imaginations and memory. This sometimes leads to odd results.
Dragons also have problems sustaining the stability of any form over long periods. Some are better at this than others, but most find it very tiring to retain a non-reptilian shape for more than a few hours. Only a very few are "shape masters," able to shift between human appearances with any sort of ease; indeed, the wilder stories about such individuals may represent the dragons' own mythology, especially as these experts are often described as assassins and power-thieves.
Dragons have one other problem; for all their shapeshifting powers and psychic abilities, animals invariably seem to sense something "wrong" about them, and react badly.
For all their coldly sane urge to self preservation and dependable obsessions, dragons are psychologically complex. Their tendency to political maneuverings seems to be ingrained, and almost universal, but is primarily a focused aspect of their urge to dominance. How far this in turn is truly natural to them, and how much it is shaped by human legends and fears of domineering monsters and demigods, is very hard to judge.
Dragons have to adopt a material reptilian form to breed, and the females have then to hold it for an extended period. The parents then have to guard their eggs while keeping them in a suitable physical and psychic environment.
Obviously, all this can be dangerous and stressful. It is probably fortunate for the survival of the species that they have a powerful breeding instinct, although they lose almost all parental interest once their young are out of the nest. However, dragons do see their offspring as potentially useful political allies -- or at least as pawns. Likewise, dragons are often closely allied to their brood mates, if not out of affection (although they are capable of that), at least because they know each other's habits, tastes, and weaknesses. Dragon mated pairs seem to form on the basis of a mixture of calculation, raw instinct, and a kind of affection that verges on romantic love. Such pairings often last for many decades, but not usually for life. Although most former couples are polite to each other, it is considered a lapse of taste for them to make much casual social contact.
Those few humans who study dragons tend to think of them as atheists, but this is not quite true. Most dragons are pathologically incapable of religious submission to a higher power, but this does not mean that they refuse to believe that such powers exist. Primarily, they have a mystical-religious attitude to the Astral Plane, seeing it as possessing a "higher" or "deeper" aspect where living dragons cannot (usually) venture, but which may be identified with God. A few have sought to relate this perception to human religious ideas, and some believe (or hope) that "faded" dragons are not dead, but have moved on to communion with the high mystery.
All of which said, any dragon found in church is there for purely social reasons, or to bathe in the emotions of the human congregation.
Dragons are competitive and territorial, and not generally pacifists. They also know how to do each other vast damage, either physically or psychically, in person or by proxy. Sometimes, the impulse proves irresistible. However, if they succumbed too often, draconic society would quickly collapse.
Like most such creatures, they handle this problem by means of an intricate set of social rules and taboos, which vary from region to region, but which have common underlying principles. Conflicts must be formally declared, and inflicting "collateral damage" on neutral parties is seen as poor taste. Surrenders and formal submission must be respected, and minor conflicts can often be resolved non- violently, by displays of wealth or contests between proxies (who may be humans or junior dragons). Rules are designed to ensure that the loser preserves just enough dignity, while still making it clear who won. Which is not to say that these systems always work, but they do ensure that draconic society holds together.
The Secret Threats
Dragons are actually in danger from multiple directions in 1901, although many of them refuse to recognize it. For one thing, the world is becoming more organized; it is becoming a lot harder to conceal oneself if one happens to be an immortal supernatural creature with a need to spend much of one's time in the form of a giant reptile.
For another, exploration, development, and colonialism are eliminating the last true wildernesses, or at least reducing their scope, so that dragons who seek a psychic-environmental equilibrium, or just refuge, in such areas are fast running out of room. For a third, human culture is becoming mixed up, at once randomized and homogenized; the distinctive mental images which spawned dragons and sustained their culture are being scrambled.
And last and maybe worst, ever since the Industrial Revolution, humanity's nightmares and gods have grown increasingly inhuman and detached from the dark night and the wilderness. Dragons, long since transformed into manifestations of such dreams, are slowly being reduced to incoherent fantastical tempests of chaos. Unfortunately for them, not many of them realize or accept this as yet.
A dragon is basically a spirit being for game purposes, but can take physical form; it can most easily take the classical "big reptile" shape, but most sometimes materialize in a (weaker) human guise for practical purposes. (Some also sometimes take animal forms, but few see much point to this indignity.) These game details are for GURPS Third Edition, but should be easy enough to update to Fourth Edition if necessary. Note that some of the psionic skills used here are taken from GURPS Psionics, while the rules for spirit forms come from GURPS Spirits.
Attribute Modifiers: ST +30 (No Fine Manipulators, -40%; Not in human form, -10%) ; HT +5 .
Advantages: Alertness +2 ; Damage Resistance 3 (Not in human form, -10%) ; Extra Hit Points +15 (Not in human form, -10%) ; High Pain Threshold ; Metabolism Control ×5 ; Nictating Membrane ×1 (Only in dragon form, -10%) ; Night Vision ; Passive Defense 1 (Only in dragon form, -10%) ; Sharp Claws (Only in dragon form, -10%) ; Sharp Teeth (reach 1) (Only in dragon form, -10%) ; Spirit Form (Physical Form, +80%; Unlimited Lifespan, +30%; Missing Powers -- Cannot hear name if invoked, Cannot travel to summoner, No Poltergeist Effect, Possession, or Probability Alteration, -70%) ; Temperature Tolerance ×2 ; Unaging .
Disadvantages: Bad Grip (Only in dragon form, -50%) [-5]; Chauvinistic [-1]; Compulsive Behavior (Acting like humans nearby believe that dragons behave; Only if subject thought to be a dragon by such people, -75%) [-4]; Dependency (Proximity of large groups of people with some kind of belief in dragons, or even more people feeling strong emotions; common, weekly) [-10]; Extra Sleep 1 [-3]; Frightens Animals [-5]; Horizontal (Only in non-human forms, -50%) [-5]; Inconvenient Size (Only in dragon form, -50%) [-5]; Selfish [-5].
Skills: Shapeshifting (M/H) IQ-1 -9.
Psionic Powers: Telepathy (power 5) ; +4 to Telepathy power, only in proximity of a large mass of gold (-50%) .
Psionic Skills: Emotion Sense (M/H) IQ -10; Illusion (M/H) IQ-1 -9; Telesend (M/H) IQ+4 -14.
A typical full-grown dragon in its "default" form is around 8-10 hexes in size, and weighs about 3,000 lbs. Many, especially older individuals, have high Wealth and Status, as well as related Allies, Ally Groups, Reputations, and Contacts. (They are also prone to disadvantages such as Hidebound, Greed, Megalomania, Overconfidence, and Stubbornness, and to switching Selfish to Self-Centered, as well as other dragons as Enemies.) However, younger "drakes" may still be finding their way in the world.
An individual dragon can buy extra ST with or without the limitations listed above; if bought at full cost, it also applies to their human form. In general, a dragon should have twice as many base hit points in dragon guise than in human; simply double or halve current totals when switching between forms.
The nature of belief in dragons or similar beings among the local human population can influence the physical as well as the mental state of a dragon (specifically, it influences the dragon's normal manifested form), but this is a slow and primarily cosmetic process, and so is not covered by a disadvantage.
Psionics: Dragon characters cannot buy any other psionic powers apart from Telepathy. They can buy additional Telepathy skills from the Basic Set (as well as Telescan), although Mental Blow, Sleep, Mindwipe, and Telecontrol are rare; GMs may prohibit them to PCs, or require a 20 point Unusual background to reflect unusual training or talent. They can also buy up to 3 extra levels of power, but no more. The conditional extra Telepathy power require physical contact with a couple of pounds of gold (a big, complicated crown or similar ceremonial regalia may be enough), or the presence of 10-15 lbs. within a few feet; this cannot be bought up or down. Note, when designing dragon characters, that their Illusion skill has prerequisites.
Common Options: To represent a talent for the adoption of human forms, add one or more levels of the Easy Materialization enhancement to the Spirit Form advantage, and also increase the Shapeshifting skill. A true "shape master" (if such beings actually exist) would have one or several additional Physical Forms, mostly human but possibly including some alternate dragon identities. GMs may prohibit these abilities to starting PC dragons, or require a large Unusual Background to have attained such mastery of form. Dragons cannot acquire the ability to hear their name when invoked, or to travel to an invoker, however. Any dragon may take the Alternate Identity advantage shapeshifting ability, plus draconic wealth and influence, makes this fairly easy to manage in this period.
Dragons cannot generally draw on "places of power" for Fatigue. However, there are rumors in draconic circles of locations where physical manifestation is especially easy, or that certain old and powerful dragons have more than sentimental reasons for staying in particular homes. Dragons can tap human worshippers for Fatigue, but this is long out of fashion and is widely considered rather dangerous. More importantly, it renders the dragon extremely likely to be shaped, physically and psychologically, by the worshippers' beliefs and assumptions -- and few dragons like putting themselves in others' power.
Dragons do not actually fly (in material form -- their astral forms can move however they like), breathe fire, or even possess a venomous bite. Nor can they control the seas or the weather. Human psychic influences can only warp the limits of biology and physics so far. What dragons can do is make dramatic and inventive use of their actual powers; many use these to promote the "dragon myth."
There are some dragons who have gained the Amphibious advantage through the influence of human beliefs. Rumors within dragonkind suggest that some even have Gills (or perhaps just Oxygen Storage) when in physical form.
Dragons are classed as "unaging," which is near enough to the truth for practical purposes. After 15-25 years of growth from the egg (which will have been incubated for four to five months), they achieve a form which, other things being equal, can survive unchanged for centuries, and maybe millennia, on the Astral Plane or in the physical world.
However, other things are never equal, and the true limits of dragon agelessness have never been properly tested. To begin with, of course, dragons are not immune to accident or misadventure, and every year, a few of all ages die in one way or another. More to the point, they are all subject to psychic decline. Extreme insanity tends to lead to death fairly soon -- a mad dragon rarely defends itself efficiently, and some other dragons are inclined to put such sickening and tragic individuals out of their misery -- while less extreme problems can render a dragon incapable of interacting with the human beliefs and psychic energies which sustain the biologically implausible dragon form, which leads to decrepitude and decline. Probably for very similar reasons, other dragons lose their ability to manifest in physical form, and while a dragon can survive for years or decades on the Astral Plane, the species preserves a vestigial (and possibly psychosomatic) need for physical nutrition, material world -- and in any case, purely astral dragons usually go insane eventually.
Which leaves a final category of cases, of old, powerful dragons who simply vanish. Most of the species assume that these fit into the last category, presumably having declined unusually rapidly. However, even after millions of years, the dragons do not properly understand the astral "dream realm," and some believe that it holds secrets accessible only to the uniquely enlightened -- secrets which may take a dragon beyond the merely material. There is a whole set of legends on this subject, more or less believed by some dragons, ranging from the transcendent to the messianic.
Article publication date: June 25, 2004
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