You may remember a while ago I talked about how, typically, in fantasy stories, dragons are used to represent governments. This idea isn’t like, hard codified facts or anything, it’s just a way to look at dragons and it can make some sense of how they behave when they’re used in stories. The thing is, that’s a sort of high-up view of what dragons are used for, and the ways we treat dragons because it’s the way we learned to treat dragons; they are, essentially, governments that you can interact with on an individual, personal level, which means that they can be petty and cruel and vain in ways that only involve changing one mind to fix or they can be benevolent and kind in the ways that an individual making reasonable judgments can.
But what if dragons were not only expressed in these forms, what if the role of the dragon in a story being a person means it is something that people can observe, can admire, can disconnect from its duties and the scope of its powers, and consider as a person that can be swayed, can be hungry, can have material needs, can-
Look, I’m circling around the question of whether or not Dragons Doink.
Now of course Dragons doink. In almost every single modern D&D style story, Dragons are not byproducts of ethereal reproduction, or spiritual cell splitting, or even magical summoning but in our modern conception, instead, absolutely and clearly about dragons that frick, and who wouldn’t want that, as a way to get baby dragons? They follow eggs, then that makes sense, and the fact it feels like it makes sense is more important than whether or not it makes sense.
And if dragons can doink…
Dragons can doink people.
And dragons can have kids with people.
Look, I’m not saying that 100% of all expressions of the Dragonborn through their history in D&D, stems from dragonfrickers, and people who associate with dragonfrickers, but it’s a pretty simple and fundamental thought: What if a dragon, but a badass or cool or pretty looking person who isn’t so powerful they shake the world? Is that a reasonable want to be?
The Dragonborn were not a new creation for 4th edition; I suspect they existed in 2nd edition as a few scattered NPCs, or maybe something from Parliament of Wyrms but damned if I’m going back that far to research them. They were given prominent showing and referred to as ‘new’ in 3.5’s Races of the Dragon, a stunningly unnecessary book about many varieties of Dragonfrickers; particularly, in this case, the kobold and the dragonborn, who at the time looked really strong, overpowered even. There were also… another… one, but this isn’t me going in on that book (and I will, don’t worry), it’s going in on the 4e race. Essential backgrounder, you know, as far as one can be essential when discussing the significance and importance of a completely fictional race of dragon-furries (scalies, I’m sure you’re correcting me in your head) for Dungeons And Dragons.
The dragonborn, that book said, were members of different cultures that were just the bestest friends of Bahamut, who, upon testing their moral character and deciding on their significance as servants, proceeded to wrap them in an egg that they then broke out of in a big sprawling mess of goo.
This idea was used to get the Dragonborn into D&D settings that didn’t have it at that stage, and even let players openly turn their existing, established, high-level mid-campaign characters into these cool scaly bastards, because D&D is like a really weird, badly maintained MMO with a need for backdoor explanations for why things even are, but it wasn’t necessary for 4th Edition D&D that launched from the jump with Dragonborn in it.
The explanation for the Dragonborn provided there was that they were a race that was related to some ancient Dragon and… they had an empire that was almost a worldwide dominion, but didn’t wind up that way. This you may recognise as echoing the story of the Tieflings, who had a global empire, that they then wrecked in their hubris. Personally, I don’t like reusing this story beat, but the default canon explanation for the origin of the Dragonborn is that they’re basically either Tieflings Two Point Oh (and I have a great fondness for Tieflings as they currently are), or they’re stuck with being Bahamut or Io’s Special Favourite Mousketeers, and well, at least in default D&D settings, AGAB, and Bahamut in particular is a narc’s narc.
There’s also the option that they were made by some other, mysterious force, that they are a created people, possible for purposes of war, but there’s also the Warforged, who exist in the same space, and present a lot of interesting questions, meaning that Dragonborn run the risk of being a Less Interesting Warforged.
What then for the poor Dragonborn?
The thing with these fangaling wingalings is that they’re absolutely something you work backwards to get. It isn’t that the setting has this great big empty space where you need to pour some sort of excitingly interesting dragon-like culture, we have that already, it’s called dragons. It’s not like dragons even necessarily imply the existence of dragonborn – dragons are big, slow, ancient and they still get whole cities built to their glory. But if you want a person who looks like a dragon and still wants to run around doin’ an adventure, then dragonborns fill that spot, and you have to then back-fill what they’re for.
In 4th Edition, we add an extra wrinkle to this exchange because the Dragonborn is also extremely strong and extremely well-supported, meaning that it’s very likely that players who don’t necessarily feel interested in being a Totally Hot Dragon Person are nonetheless going to find themselves drawn into that space as well.
The biggest challenge for me is finding something for Dragonborn to be about that isn’t just duplicating another useful cultural space. You can go with them as being inheritors of an empire, frustrated by their nearly-attained but never-quite global domination, but empires are assholes and when you’re dealing with dragons you already have the uphill struggle of dealing with a person who behaves like an empire.
What, the question is, do I want Dragonborn to be for?
Because right now?
They’re for furries.
That’s a good enough reason, no lies – but I’d like to be able to show the friends who are looking for that, that in my setting, my vision of Dragonborn lets them be the kind of characters they want to be; that they are not saddled with trauma and tragedy, nor does my world see them as inherently conquering jerkholes.
Now, the solution for Cobrin’Seil, my setting, is still something I’m working on. I’m thinking about where to go with it, but I also think it’s important to recognise the parameters of the question. If there’s a problem, it’s worth trying to get my arms around.