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Dragonshifting 101
by Mike Brotzman
©2005 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved

In the last (and, incidentally, first) installment of my column, I went on about how involved dragons typically are in transformational behavior. However, dragon transformations are somewhat different than those which occur in a typical transformation genre story. Any of you who are familiar with dragons and dragon stories are probably well aware of the differences, but I felt that the topic deserves some discussion to bring all of my many readers onto the same page.

But Cubist and I are the only ones who read your column.

::The Silver Dragon rolls his eyes and glares:: Yeah, well, you two often display your ignorance regarding dragons and could definitely use a refresher course. Anyway, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted: When a dragon transforms into some lesser being, like a hewman, typically it isn't a complete change. If you read through the stories on the TSA, most victims -- errr, protagonists -- undergo a complete transformation where they are changed in body, in DNA and often in mind as well. Dragons undergo an incomplete transformation which mostly affects their physical dimensions and outward appearance. Some might call this shapeshifting rather than transformation, and they would be mostly right. However, shapeshifting brings up connotations of beings with an undefined physical form remodeling their body into a desired shape, like Odo from Deep Space 9. Since dragons are neither energy beings nor economy-sized protoplasmic blobs, I tend to discard the term 'shape shift' and instead use the term 'formshift'.

Formshifting means that the dragon is still a dragon, even when he happens to look hewman. Now, I am not trying to say that all dragons formshift; I'm not even saying that it's somehow incorrect for a dragon character not to formshift. What I am saying is that, given what dragons are and the powers they have access to, formshifting is by far the most logical course of action for willful dragon transformations. Why is formshifting so much more popular than a complete transformation? Well, can you imagine us dragons having any desire to fully become a weak little mortal? A formshifted dragon is still a dragon in most places it counts. Their blood is dark dragon blood; their DNA, dragon DNA; and their biological systems work like a dragon's would. Because they are not actually becoming a different species, but only reshaping the physical substance of their body, they have quite a bit of leeway in terms of how that form is constructed. The shift form may have hybrid features like scales, or wings or the original dragon's breath weapon. Most importantly, the shift form will almost certainly retain the dragon's innate magic, the dragon's constitution (i.e., resistance to disease and longevity) and any draconic abilities which are not dependent on the possession of certain body parts.

What does formshifting do for a dragon story? Well, besides cool explosions and general ass kicking, formshifting gives a dragon motivation to shift and the ability to fall flat on his or her snout. If a dragon had to become a weak mortal in order to shift getting them to do so would be exceedingly difficult. Imagine under what circumstances you would crawl through a sewer and that's about what you would need to get a dragon to willingly turn into a mundane hewman. Also, by allowing the formshift you get to keep your dragon character in a nice ivory tower, unaccustomed to the trials and tribulations of mortal living. If or when they are cast out of this tower by losing their powers and/or access to their trueform, the dragon in question will probably go into a panic and probably find a nice dark place to curl up in the fetal position, whimper and hide. Such a situation is always good for some general character growth, and gives your formerly belittled mortal character a chance to have a leg up on their draconic friend.

For those of you worry that formshifting is a shortcut which lets a writer hang up his/her brain, so that he can just phone in a story or create insanely powerful characters, have no fear. Considered as a plot device, formshifting enables you to better customize your character with exactly the strengths and weaknesses which best suit the plot. Also, it gives you the ability to have your dragon get totally robbed of his powers at some point in time. I mean, if your dragon is already used to being a pathetic mortal, you can't have much fun turning him into a pathetic mortal. So as a concrete example, let's say your character is immune to fire in his natural form. If you decide that this immunity to fire comes from his scales, that means no scales, no immunity -- and his human form can get burnt, if he's not careful. However, if this immunity is derived from his intrinsic magic, he would still be fireproof in human form. Another example: If the dragon's flight is mostly powered by magic, in human form your dragon should be able to hover or fly, superhero(ine)-style. If it's only slightly powered by magic, in human form your dragon could do cool Matrix-type aerial acrobatics. As you can see, the formshift device can help you tailor your dragon character in all sorts of different ways.

So, how does this formshifting thing work? Well, it can work anyway you want it to work, but the most common way is that the dragon in question creates an image of the form he wants in his mind and then uses his magic to force his dragon body into that shape. If you like, this can be as easy as 'point and think', with your dragon being able to change forms as easily as a hewman might put on a fresh T-shirt. On the other hand, it could be exceedingly hard, with the dragon needing to visualize the new form down to the smallest detail, maybe even including the way his trueform needs to shift to achieve that shape. If this is the case, it may take your dragon characters decades to become proficient at formshifting. Moreover, improper formshifting may result in death, if the resulting form turns out to be missing a few important bits -- such as kidneys or alveolai.

But what about i the excess mass?  Surely it can't just disappear?

::If the Silver Dragon's look could freeze, the meddlesome centaur would leave in an icebox:: Yes. How very kind of you to bring that up. There are many ways to deal with the mass issue. In one book I read, the dragon just compressed his mass, possibly by diminishing the space between his electrons and nuclei. He therefore ended up being the size of a hewman -- with the entire weight of a full-sized dragon! If you ever run into a dragon shifted using this process, I strongly recommend that you make sure to take the upper bunk.

Another option is for the 'extra' mass to be drawn from or released into the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, this can lead to sticky situations, considering how much mass a full grown dragon has and the gas/solid density ratio...

The most common, or at least most convenient, method to handle mass-differential is to let the formshift spell create a pocket dimension and stuff all the unneeded mass into it for later retrieval. This leads to the common formshifting phenomena of it being easier to take smaller forms than larger ones. This is highly useful when it comes to dragons, because size matters and being able to ignore mass restrictions when growing bigger would quickly get out of hand from a competitive aspect. This 'mass storage' dimension is usually assumed to be (a) always accessible by the dragon, and (b) not accessible by anyone else. However, if either or both of these two assumptions were to be violated, some very interesting effects could result. I'll let you use your imagination.

The other popular way to formshift involves magical illusions or simulacra. The explanation behind this usually involves wishy-washy magical reasoning, but if that sort of thing appeals to you knock yourself out. The basic premise is that you're still a dragon, but you just don't appear that way. While the mass rearrangement method is easily detected by physical means (e.g., the dragon gets shot and the blood is dark green), the illusion method is best detected by metaphysical means (e.g., your neighborhood psychic sees through the illusion to perceive the dragon's trueform). Since an illusion, by definition, doesn't mess with any part of the dragon's physical nature, an illusion-disguised dragon will still have a full draconic appetite, not to mention the continuous expenditure of magical energy needed to keep the illusion going.

There are probably many other methods than these two, but these are the most popular and the best known. When designing the specific formshifting method for your dragon character, there are a number of issues that should be addressed to properly flesh it out, even if you want to use one of the 'basic' methods. You need to think about which powers the dragon has and what the formshifted body is composed of. You need to think about what your character will need to eat, how much energy the shift takes, how long the shift takes and what it looks like to an observer. Does the shift have a time limit? What evidence of the trueform are there (i.e. bodily wastes or auras)? You definitely need to address mass issues and the senses the shift form has. A properly thought out shift engine will go a long way to making the plot more exciting, and preventing your dragon character from being too godlike.

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