Dragons. It's all so complicated:
-Some people call the typical D&D repertoire "vanilla fantasy". Why use a dragon instead of--say--an undead star-urchin the size of Venus with lasers for teeth? The standard models are interesting because of their primality. Classic mythical tropes are classic because they are things that remind you (the primitive, fearful, superstitious you) of things.
-Dragons are--a few leonine variants in both the Eastern and Western imagination aside-reptiles.
-Reptiles are what, then? Try imagining "a frightened expression" on a reptile's face. You can't. You can figure out how your brain reads reptiles by contrast.
Mammals always remind us of ourselves. We see their faces and invest them with personality traits-kinglike lion, the nonchalant giraffe, the stoned sloth, the endless empathic possibilites of dogs and monkeys and the cuteness of all the little rodents built like baby people. Mammals can be disturbing precisely because they seem like us--it is terrifying to watch footage of a dog or a gorilla murdering and eating a large living thing, in a way that watching a shark eat the same thing isn't.
Invertebrates strike us as totally alien and sometimes disgusting. However--the primitive imagination knows they are small and not a fight-or-flight threat (bugs can fuck you up--but if they're going to, they're likely to do it at night while you sleep, so your cavebrain doesn't register them with the do-something-about-this-alarm it reserves for big things.)
Fish and birds generally strike the primitive brain as either stupid, moving food or else as a predator. But your inner neanderthal knows that even the fiercest bird is generally not after you, and human history had gotten pretty far before people were regularly on any kind of intimate terms with predatory fish, and even then it was only in certain cultures, and, in the west, only people with certain jobs. And anyway, if you just remember to stay out of the water, fish are hardly an omnipresent threat.
So then, reptiles...Snakes are everywhere, and are genuinely dangerous. Baby humans and monkeys are actually born afraid of snakes. (Or at least that's what scientists say.) So here is an animal that--like a wolf or a leopard--can actually hurt you and you should actually run from, but--unlike those fur-covered predators--has absolutely nothing human in its eyes. To a human cognitive process that's used to reading human emotion all day just to survive, an angry snake's eyes look creepily nonfunctional--as if something's that's already dead is trying to kill you.
Reptiles--languid, sluggish, hard and angular where you expect curves or fur or feathers--always seem eerily close to the inanimate. Think how the Fiend Folio's Iron Cobra seems just about right, yet "Iron Panther" is strictly a gonzo monster. Robot snake? Sure. A snake is halfway there already.
A robot insect makes sense, but whereas an insect's face seems totally incomprehensible, the reptile face has all the same parts as ours--eyes, nose, mouth--yet has none of the curves and hollows that give mammals their warm, fuzzy (the cliches themselves are an indicator) appeal. The reptile has a body plan and a face that a mammal would recognize, but it is impossible to imagine that it has a soul. The alligator's smile seems like it's just endlessly grinning about a very new and very cruel joke. It's difficult to imagine--despite what our rational brain and neuroscience tells us--that a reptile could be scared.
In the end, it all just boils down to another cliche: the reptile is cold. But--unlike bugs--they seem just enough like us that this seems like a purposeful rejection of the pasionate mammalian way of doing things. You look at a cockroach or an octopus and figure it just doesn't know about "warm"--a snake, on the other hand, seems to have decided against warm.
-Does the often benevolent dragon in eastern myth ruin all this? I don't think so. When good, dragons are, classically, dispassionate--when they have human vices, they are the coldest vices--selfishness and greed. It got into the Manual: "Brass dragons are quite forward and officious, and they love to converse. They are rather selfish and tend toward neutrality because of this." "Despite their love of wealth, bronze dragons are basically of a benificient nature." "They tend to be rather selfish, and thus many Copper dragons are somewhat neutral in their outlook if gain is concerned." It's also worth noting that the Asian dragon has a lionlike and bearded and otherwise extensively mammalianized face.
-Christianity has the serpent, of course, in Genesis, which by Revelations, has become a great dragon with seven crowns. It's easy to see the dragon as a sort of flanderization of the serpent--basically a snake with everything bad attached to it. Fangs, talons, horns, bat wings, alligator legs.
-So the dragon represents the natural world (like all animals do) and the aspect of the natural world that it represents is it's pitilessness. The dragon wants things and these are generally things that you want (unlike the insect-who knows what the insect wants?) however unlike you, the dragon's base desires are not balanced with any "softer" concerns. The dragon is nature but only the scary, inimical parts of it.
-Even failing all that, everybody knows, in the game, that what a dragon means is it's a fucking dragon. You don't just kill it you have to go out there and slay it. Like how you can't just murder presidents, you have to assassinate them.
-This is good and bad news for the dragon in a game: on the one hand it's pretty easy to make killing a dragon feel like it really means something in a game and to set the dragon up as a sort of milestone obstacle to be overcome, on the other hand, since such a big part of the appeal is that the dragon is the primal ur-monster from the deepest murk of the id, using too many of them--to my mind--completely ruins them.
It always seems like a pathetic waste to me when there's talk in a story of a whole "tribe" or "people" or "race" or planet that rides around on dragons or dragons plural are considered responsible, as a group, for anything. Dragons shouldn't be something you can get used to. Do that and it's just the Flintstones, where something like the unbelievable, uncanny brontosaurus is domesticated into a piece of construction equipment.
-The worst part of this problem for me is that--despite the obvious monster-variant-bloat involved--there are an awful lot of interesting different dragons to use. I like the colored ones, I like the metal ones, I love Tiamat, I like the asian ones, I like the dragonne. I like the dragon-turtle, the dracolisk, the dragonell, the shadow dragon, the many eccentric medieval-style dragons, even the faerie dragon. They all seem to have a plausible niche somewhere in the world or the mind's eye.
-One thing I really don't like about D&D's dragons is the symmetry of the original dragon scheme: good metal dragons on the left--evil colored dragons on the right. I think dragons should be completely uncategorizable and unknown. It's a dragon, no-one who's gotten close enough to it to have any idea what it is or does or breathes has lived. I think D&D should've done dragons the way they originally did artifacts and relics--a few basics and then a bunch of empty lines to fill in on your own. Actually, Palmer not only said better than me, he did something about it.
As for the old standards:
-Green dragon: this one needs and implies an ecosystem. I imagine it lives in the forest, and has, over time, slowly made the forest horrible in many ways. It is scaled in clumps and uneven camouflage. The "cloud of chlorine gas" breath weapon seems disproportionate and dainty--why bother with a cloud of gas when you could just rip someone's legs off and eat them?
-Black dragon: The cruelest and most insane one--and the most modern, too, since pre-20th century art generally shied away from the true reptilian black you see in the Alien or in the beasts the Nine rode around on in the Lord of the Rings movies. The black here is not simple negation--it's a deep and devouring black--like a black pit or a black hole. I find the "acid" hard to picture. Maybe: Its breath corrodes the very air. That I can get behind.
-Red dragon: I imagine it being the impossibly rich, sleek red of those crabs that invade the Cuban coast at intervals, or Tim Curry in the movie Legend. This is the go-to dragon for when you want things to get all metaphysical. A black dragon is an abyss, a green dragon is the old legend in the woods predator--the red dragon is a symbolic evil.
-White dragon: Draco Rigidus Frigidus There are several albino and leucistic alligators in captivity in the American South. Go look at one in real life if you never have--a snow-white reptile is an amazing thing to see. The sculpted and artificial-seeming texture of reptile scales looks almost like a living bone shell: anyway, point is: the cold, white dragon is obviously the one most straightforwardly about death. More interesting and frightening by far than the skeletal dragon.
-Blue dragon: The sci-fi one. The whole "lightning breath" thing sounds cool but visually just doesn't work. I prefer it just be the locus of some profound electromagnetic anomaly. Things go all staticky and haywire around it. Iron starts to vibrate at a weird pitch.
-The Brass, Bronze, and Copper Dragons: I imagine them on their hind legs, with small, spellcasting forelimbs up, patiently explaining some simple truth to lost adventurers on a lonely mountain drawn by Moebius. Barely moving, buddhalike, dully reflecting in the sun, textured like Ultraman monsters, they never have to hunt--once a month monks kill something big and haul it to the peak and leave it baking on the rocks. Bahamut seems redundant.
-Silver Dragon: I suppose. Put it next to the unicorn.
(-Edit: Forgot The Gold Dragon. Which is weird because they have the best chicken chow mein in Los Feliz. But, seriously folks, I figure they--like the bard--were just a placeholder until they got into the genuine Oriental Adventures material, like, say...)
-The Asian Dragons: Apparently, they begin life as water-snakes, then turn into newts, then grow into lizards, and then, by stages, become the twisted fantasmagorias familiar from sleeve tattoos all over the world. At each phase they seem to become less corporeal. It's difficult to imagine an asian dragon doing anything in detail. "Grinning, the Mountain Dragon ate the yak," sure, fine, you can say it--but really, the asian dragon is so otherworldy and decorative it's difficult to picture it actually going through all the effort it'd require to do that.
And it's always flying. I can't imagine a properly pulpy combat with something that's always flying with no visible means of staying in the air--not swooping on wings, not science-fictionally hovering like a Beholder, the Asian dragon is just up in the sky as if it's a part of it.
This is the kind of dragon you definitely need some sort of intrigue or mcguffin or pearl or magic joke to get past--just waiting for it to finish conversing with the Council of the Four Winds in the tongue of the 10,000 Blessed Diplomats so you can hit it with your +3 sword isn't really going to cut it, I think.
The Dragonne seems like maybe a decent compromise if you want really want to hit something and you really want it to be kind of Asian.
-Of the lesser, later variants, the Gloom Dragon, with its breath of apathy kind of seems like it has possibilities--especially if it's very small. I imagine this one as being like those dog-sized ones St. George is always killing in Renaissace art. It curls in a cave just outside the walls of your fair city, or in a forgotten well-shaft in an abandoned building, imperceptibly ruining everyone's life just by being there: -3 to that reaction check roll in the bar, -3 to that "make that mince pie taste good" roll, -3 to that "find that sock you lost" roll...
Or, like in the John Gardner story:
Every time there was a full moon the dragon came out of his lair and ravaged the countryside. He frightened maidens and stopped up chimneys and broke store windows and set people’s clocks back and made dogs bark until no one could hear himself think. He tipped over fences and robbed graves and put frogs in people’s drinking water and tore the last chapters out of novels and changed house numbers around so that people crawled into bed with their neighbors.
In other words, an unimaginably petty dragon.
-Shadow dragon: I figure a dragon is like a god. Some are clever, and can detach themselves from their shadows before they die--kill the dragon and let the shadow escape and you get a shadow dragon, which moves ray-like across the walls of dungeons and around the twisting trucks of old forests.
-Dragonnel: Half-pterosaur/half-dragon. Awesome retro-stupid. I like it best if the real dragon is entirely off-screen, like a legend, but its brutal, screeching child is still here, terrorizing this cursed Thundarrian land.
(There is a dragonnel hidden in most episdodes of I Hit It With My Axe--find it and win a prize.)
-Dragon Turtle: Again, works especially well if there's no actual dragon to be found anywhere. I imagine inexplicable disappearances in the dense, Shanghai-like harbor. I see no reason it couldn't be as intelligent as any other dragon. Pirates should fear or worship it. Why are turtles less funny in Asia?
-Faerie Dragon: Small and weird enough that their presence won't dilute the effect of the big dragon, I think the primary function of the Faerie Dragon is to let the party know things have suddenly gotten vintage-psychedelic. Put "Pictures of Matchstick Men" on repeat as they wander into the forest, switch to the Camper Van Beethoven cover when they start talking to the Faerie Dragon, then switch to the Ozzy/Type-O-Negative cover when the faerie folk take advantage of their distraction to start spitting caustic adhesive and jabbing needles into the clerics eyes.
-Pseudodragon: Like Jerry Seinfeld hates any kid that had a pony, I think any wizard that has a little dragon is pretty crap. However, the illustration in the original Monster Manual is really nice--I just looked at it and was slightly surprised to find that the room full of shoji screens, incense burners and lacquered snuffboxes that David Trampier evokes in it is nowhere to be found in the actual picture.
-Wyvern: Ok--it has two legs, so what? Except I'm thinking every dragon should be a unique thing with its own legends and ecosystem and a funny name. So being able to call a local menace The Blacke Wyverne of Crenshing Downes is pretty good. Also good: Wyrm.
-Dracolisk: There's no reason not to just say a dragon has a petrifying gaze or decide that, aside from that one thing, a basilisk is just a kind of dragon, but actually using the word "dracolisk" implies cross-breeding.
In Medieval natural philosophy, half the time the spawn of a chicken and a donkey ends up being a cricket, so the dracolisk definitely suggests thinking about the dragon as a plausible species rather than as just a Monster, so I imagine the dracolisk in a sword-and-planet or crazy-alchemist context. Again, like the Dragonnel, the Dracolisk is a terrible spawn of mythical things you otherwise don't get to see. Also, like the Wyvern it has one of those names that's half-legendary already--fear the Dread Dracolisk of Dreeving Gate...
When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
When Gary Gygax conjectured that chaos, our mother, was actually a many-headed dragon, he elegantly solved several problems that has been bedevilling philosophers for milennia: Where did it begin? Tiamat. How will it all end? Tiamat. Where do we come from? Tiamat. Where are we going? Tiamat.
And why is there suffering in this world?
Well, here at the start of the Babylonian creation myth in the Enuma Elish, Tiamat and Apsu are trying to sleep but the young gods won't be quiet.
Apsu opened his mouth and spake,
And unto Tiamat, the glistening one, he addressed the word:
By day I can not rest, by night I can not lie down in peace.
But I will destroy their way, I will...
Let there be lamentation, and let us lie down again in peace."
When Tiamat heard these words,
She raged and cried aloud...
She uttered a curse, and unto Apsu she spake:
"What then shall we do?
Let their way be made difficult, and let us lie down again in peace."
A totally plausible divine motivation there--the gods are not making life hard to get us to do things, they are just trying to make our lives difficult so we'll stop trying and they can get some sleep. So: gods intervene out of sheer laziness. Try telling your cleric that next time she casts commune "Yes, you can have Cure Moderate Wounds if you just promise to shut up."
The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. How many conspiracy theories have we formed in our heads assuming our parents, bosses or governments were sadistic or insane or wanted to exploit us or inspire us when really, the truth is they just did what they did because they were just too lazy to think any harder about it. David McCullough said that's why Truman dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.
So, perhaps: The gods must be lazy. And The Glistening One is the laziest of them all. The Great Sleeping Mother with a basement full of shrieking children, on a Saturday morning that never ends, which we call existence.
They joined their forces and made war,
Ummu-Hubur, Tiamat, who formed all things,
Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.[game over, man]
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;
After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.
You kids be quiet, or I'll send more monsters down there.
image credits: I have no idea. If you do, let me know.