by Mike Brotzman
©2006 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved
I have been talking a lot about dragons and our transformation abilities, but I felt that now would be a good time to explain how a dragon might get those abilities in the first place. In fact, with everything I have said about dragons and transformation being great together, many instances of dragons do not contain any TF ability whatsoever. In this episode of Dragon's Lair I will talk about the various ways that dragons can come upon their abilities.
Of course, despite all I have written over these last six months, it is perfectly acceptable for a dragon to have no transformational abilities at all. If you write a story with a horribly crippled dragon character, I am not going to fly over to your house and bathe you in cleansing fire.
Hey, nobody was talking to you. Anyway, probably at least half of the dragon-containing stories out there feature dragons without transformational abilities. The problem is, if your dragon character can't change shape, and he lives in a hewman world that might impact certain activities like home ownership, boat ownership and event attendance, your dragon is missing out on the better things in life. In fact, probably one of the main reasons that dragons have to assume a tangential or villainous role (aside from being portrayed as mindless brutes) is that they can't fit into the castle and are somewhat disruptive at meals or other get-togethers.
Now, if a dragon does have the ability to transform, there are basically three ways that he or she obtained it. Dragon can either be born with it; learn it; or obtain it through outside means. We will briefly explore each option in turn. Perhaps the seemingly most straight-forward is being born with it. This means that the transformational ability is one that comes naturally to the dragon, just like hewman children naturally breathe and walk.
Yes, even natural abilities require some level of experience to become proficient. Still, there is a clear difference between learning something that comes naturally and something that requires more specialized instruction. In terms of transformational abilities in dragons, you can have it both ways. Transformation, much like other draconic abilities like flying and/or breath weaponry, can be instinctual, a reflexive response present from hatching and later refined further. It can also be something that develops with age and experience, much like avians learning to fly or hewmans learning to walk. Naturally transforming dragons are a minority in the family of shifting dragons. The good metallic dragons from the D&D universe are natural shifters; Eastern-style dragons often have a natural ability to vary their size from "a grain of rice to a mountain", although that might be somewhat exaggerated.
The second method by which dragons can gain their TF abilities is by learning them. The condition which allows a dragon to learn to transform, much the same way a hewman would learn to add numbers, is that the dragon has access to an innate source of magic.
Did somebody say something? Anyway: As most intelligent dragons usually come with magic pre-loaded, the learned approach to transformation is probably the most popular. Unlike a natural transformation ability, the learned ability must make use of a general purpose natural ability -- magic, in the dragon's case. This is akin to a hewman being born with the ability to walk, but needing to learn how to perform gymnastics. Again, there are all sorts of valid ways that a dragon can learn to transform. It can be as easy as a hewman learns to drive a car, i.e. reach a certain maturity level, read a book, practice with a parent and off you go, or it could be an involved process requiring the whole clan and three days of chanting in the sacred circle. Also, don't forget that you can combine learned and natural, as in a dragon that can naturally change its size, but needs to learn how to take on hewman form. The Mistress of Dragons Trilogy, as well as Hasai's Steel Dragon saga, are two of the many story worlds which use dragons with learned TF abilities.
The third group involves any case where your dragon lacks the ability to transform using only the gifts and intellect the ancestors gave him, and requires a little outside help. Compared to the first two categories, this one is probably the least utilized and I can only think of a few Elfwood stories where I have seen it used; nevertheless, external artifacts are nice when you don't want a dragon to have access to a great amount of controllable magic. Now is not the time to go into designing magical or techno-magical artifacts that your dragon can use to change himself, but I will say that gems work great and they have a habit of being able to stick onto dragon's hides. External devices, which can also be other people or dragons or even gods, can enhance natural abilities to the point where they can result in TFs and of course can be used in any combination with the natural and learned modes of transformation.
Now for the fourth option
Alright, I admit it, I lied, but this one is kind of different, it is when a third party transforms a dragon. Yes, in this case the dragon does not possess any power of its own, but from the point of view of writing a story it is the fourth way you can give a dragon character a transformational 'ability'. This allows you the option of having some TF fun with an otherwise non-transforming dragon character, or even giving a normally TF-capable dragon a healthy dose of mental anguish when you take one of his shifting abilities away. Whatever floats your boat. When combining an externally applied TF with a dragon which has existing abilities, make sure that you give some thought to how the effects combine.
If you change a dragon into a hewman form, but he still has access to his magic, any magic based TF ability should still function and you'll need a better explanation than "it just doesn't". While the natural instinct is to simply lock out existing abilities, with a little though you could achieve the same effect (pissing the dragon off) in a much more fun way. For example, an external TF might reset the size reference so that a dragon's upper mass limit becomes that of the transformed form; or perhaps the dragon can regain his trueform but lacks all the related dragon instincts.
How a dragon comes by his particular TF situation is an easy detail to overlook, as one is likely to focus on the mechanics and/or aftermath. But while it's easy to overlook, it can have large implications in terms of the 'strength' of the ability. Natural abilities are often hard to block out and easy for the dragon to access, making them very strong. A learned ability is more moderate, often requiring strength and concentration, yet it is hard to lose. Also, learned abilities can be easy to limit with a variety of plausible explanations. External tools can be lost, but they can also be easily obtained. External tools are perhaps the most customizable form of ability, and may be the way to go if you are worried about having a powerful character. Externally applied TFs, just like any other plot device, need to be applied with care; like fats and sugars, they run the risk of turning your story into junk food if not used wisely.
I know today's topic has been fairly self explanatory, but I find this classification as a good way to better define an initially vague transformation idea for your dragon character. I wouldn't say that this is the most important detail in a dragon's transformational ability, but like any seasoning, it can make or break the dish.