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Given a fantasy world in which magic exists and which dragons are real, what kind of tactical advantages could a dragon and rider pair have over dragons without riders?

To expand on the setting:

  • Dragons are sentient beings with intelligence and personality equal to or greater than that of humanoids. They have their own natural methods of performing magic inaccessible to non-dragons, and some dragons can expand their understanding of magic through study. They have the ability to shape shift (with considerable mental effort) into any natural shape, most often a humanoid form to ease social interaction or provide access to human spaces. They range in size depending on age, though usually only younger ones have riders and they can not normally carry more than one or two people at most. They live five to ten times longer than humanoids, with adolescence starting around one hundred years of age and most retreating to isolated family lairs by adulthood around age three hundred. Their scales are hard, but are still natural material, so metal weapons can pierce them and armor can still benefit them, though the burden is undesirable in most cases. While their digits are dexterous enough to manipulate objects, they are unlikely to wield weapons themselves. They can breathe either fire, lightning, ice, poison, or acid depending on their race, though volume and frequency is dependent on age. Riding harnesses/saddles exist as well.

  • Humanoids that ride dragons are fully sentient and intelligent, capable of performing magic with enough training. There is a wide range of cultures ranging from bronze age through renaissance depending on the nation. Simple clockwork exists in some areas and alchemy is an emerging science in the world.

  • There are also other sentient and intelligent creatures capable of magic in the world, but dragons and humanoids are the primary inhabitants.

  • There are no chemically propelled missile weapons.

So far, I have settled on that a dragon with a rider has the following advantages:

  • A second set of eyes: The dragon rider is able to keep an eye out on spots that dragons normally can't see as well, including above and behind. Dragons being apex predators are not normally inclined to look above or behind them when in flight and this is the primary method of attack during dragon on dragon combat.

  • In flight first aid: Most dragon riders are trained to bandage and use quick healing magic to patch up their dragon while still in the air.

  • Close combat support: Dragon riders can use pole arms like lances and glaives to great effect from dragon back. They can also train to use archery from dragon back. While not as effective as the dragon itself, they still add some force, provide the opportunity to attack other dragons from below, as well as deter other dragons or people trying to drop on or flank the dragon.

  • Mobile magic might: A rider experienced in magic can use the vantage point provided by the dragon to safely cast magic with little worry of being interrupted. If the dragon and mage have practiced at length, the mage can even access the magical power available naturally to the dragon.

  • Communication: Using signal flags, friendly riders can communicate while their dragons focus on staying aloft. This allows for more effective tactical coordination.

So what I am looking for now is what other possible tactical advantages could a rider provide to a dragon during either mass or single combat? Additionally, if there are any tactics that humanoids could employ against dragons beyond simply brute force efforts like hails of arrows or really large fireballs, those would also be appreciated (I have read a number of other answers to the 'How to fight dragons' question, but none seemed particularly fitting).

(PS, this is my first question on here, so please let me know how I can improve it if you see anything missing.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I get the feeling this is a duplicate, but I can't find anything other than this great question. Maybe this is just something I wondered as a result of all the dragon questions we see here. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 28 '15 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like I just read a description of Eragon dragon tactics. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 28 '15 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ In any sort of 'real' fantasy world (I know that seems like a contradiction in terms, but I mean one where the magic is on top of a background of actual physics), riding a dragon just doesn't work. First, the typical cover art version with the rider sitting on the dragon's shoulders with its neck between their legs is going to put its weight & balance way ahead of limits, so it will crash on takeoff. If the rider's further back, there're still issues of drag and extra weight, so an unridden dragon will always outperform a ridden one. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 28 '15 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ Especially if you already have answers, you really shouldn't blank your question. It takes away from those who took the time to answer it. If it is a duplicate, let the close voting take effect. As such, I am going to roll this back to the actual question. $\endgroup$ – user5083 Jun 2 '15 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Some points are missing: how many dragons are there? Are we talking of large-scaled battles with dragons? Why would the dragons (described as more intelligent) team up with humans? the first question influence the use of dragons in warfare and the second influence of the acceptance/reluctance of dragons to have a rider. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Jun 2 '15 at 12:26
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The biggest advantage of dragonriders isn't to the dragons, it's to the army fighting alongside the dragon.

You've already identified some ways that dragon-mounted riders could be useful to armies:

  • Mobile magical might
  • Communication

And I would also add

  • Scouting/reconnaissance (The dragon could do this job by him/herself, but then he/she would have to spend the time giving reports, drawing troop deployment maps, etc. Better to let a human do it).

Let's not underestimate the value of those last two points. Just imagine what any military commander before the 20th century would have said if you offered them a flawless birds-eye view of the battlefield. So we can conclude that dragonriders are of great use to armies, but what use are they to dragons? I would say their greatest use is in supporting the army. If a dragon has decided to team up with an army, either as a conscript or as a commander, they should make the best use possible of that army, which means dedicating most of your flight-time to reconnaissance and communication. Mix it up with some strafing runs to sow confusion in the enemy ranks and break up enemy strong points, and you'll win the battle with your now-unbeatable infantry, and never risk your dragon's life in pitched battles.

Of course, if the other side also has dragons, the whole situation changes. Your enemy has the same advantages to intelligence and communication that you do, and flying down low to strafe enemy infantry leaves you vulnerable to a counterattack by enemy dragons circling above (remember that altitude is a huge advantage. In real life most/all raptors hunt by diving on their prey).

Now your dragons have two main priorities:

  1. Scout the enemy formations and return this information to your troops.
  2. Disrupt enemy scouting scouting attempts.

Now you might to mount some sharpshooters (archers and/or mages) to kill enemy dragonriders before they have a chance to report back. And to kill the enemy sharpshooters targeting your dragonriders. This is probably the best way to eliminate enemy dragonriders, but if you might want to actually take down the enemy dragons themselves. Maybe the dragons are strafing your infantry, or they are doing the scouting/communication without the help of riders, or maybe you are losing the sharpshooter battle and you need to change tactics. So there is a third type of dragonrider: a lancer. Lancers don't spend any time on scouting or target acquisition. Their job is to climb high in the sky and then dive straight at an enemy dragon and stab it in the heart (or wherever). Even if the enemy dragon is wearing armor, the force to the impact may knock them into the ground. This is a very dangerous tactic due to the high-speed maneuvers and collisions, but it will kill or chase off an enemy dragon much faster than the allied dragon could without a rider (just using claws/teeth).

So we have 3-5 jobs for Dragonriders to do:

  1. Recon & communication
  2. Disrupt enemy scouting (sharpshooters)
  3. Eliminate enemy dragons (lancers)
  4. Mobile magical might
  5. Strafing ground troops (doesn't require a rider, but only when unopposed by other dragons)

Each of the first three tasks is pretty much mutually exclusive. Dragons doing recon need to stay lower to the ground where they can see more detail, and mostly over their own army where they can communicate info and orders and have the support of friendly archers. Sharpshooting dragons should be higher in the air, but need to be close enough to their targets to take shots. Lancers need to climb up above the other dragons so they can gain sufficient speed while diving at their targets. Because of these difference in positions, each dragonrider can only be effective at one of these tasks at a time. Balancing between these priorities would become a key feature of battles involving dragons. Focus too much on supporting your ground troops and your riders will get picked off; too many archers invites a rush by lancers; too many lancers and your infantry lacks support. Of course this is only a rough outline and specific situations/battles/tactics could turn these generalizations on their heads.

I expect that most dragonriders are most skilled in just one or two of the above specialties. So if you want to change tactics you'll need to communicate that to the dragon, then have them land, switch riders, and take off again. This could take a lot of time, and the enemy dragons would definitely see you do it and have a chance to react. Therefore the most skilled dragonriders would be able to switch quickly between different tasks. You can easily imagine a small, elite squad of dragonriders defeating a much larger one by working together and adapting quickly to enemy tactics.

Some bonus points to consider:

  • How do dragons communicate with the ground troops? Flags? Can the dragon operate the flags alone or do they need a rider? Are the flags for orders to the troops, to report the results or recon, or both? How much detail can they get into a flag message? (ex: "send reserves to our left flank", "cavalry are encircling us on the west", "charge NOW")

  • If the flags have orders, how do commanders on the ground communicate back to the dragons to tell them which flags to fly? Are the commanders themselves mounted on dragons? Are the dragons the commanders?

  • Mobile magical might. I didn't touch this one because I'm not sure what your idea of magic is. What is the range of magic? Shorter range = less useful while flying. How effective is magic against dragons? Does their innate magic give them some protection? Can they extend this protection to their riders?

  • How many dragons could potentially fight on a side. Tactics will be much more developed if it is 6-10 rather than just 2-3, and even more developed if there is entire corps.

  • How many dragonriders could there be? Would you train a lot of mediocre ones, knowing that many would be killed by sharpshooters or by falls, or fewer elite ones, possibly down to just one rider per dragon (like Eragon or Pern).

  • Anti-dragon weapons: I think the best anti-dragon weapon is another dragon. But you could also fight under tree cover, where their advantage is more limited. You could try to fire rocks or nets from siege weapons, but I suspect you'd have better results with massed arrow volleys (just make sure the arrows that miss don't fall on your own troops!).

  • Alternative tactics: I've only explored the most basic things dragons could do in this response. They could also carry dragoons (the real-life kind, not the Final Fantasy kind), who leap off their backs and fight hand-to-hand. Or they could carry rocks up high and drop them like catapult stones. You could mount shape-shifted dragons on other dragons. Let these sorts of tactics separate the good commanders from the great ones.

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The biggest tactic I find missing is multiple dragons in humanoid form riding on each other. This allows dragons to have at least 3 times the flight duration, and if it is possible to rest while on dragon back then potentially infinite as riders switch out.

In addition this could camouflage numbers until the last moment.

The most important role/combo is probably with two additional magic casters, or one caster and one archer. This projects the greatest power the greatest distance for use both defensively and offensively. Pivotal in any combat engagement.

In this world the best way to attack the dragons is to attack their magic partners before the battle while they are on the ground and exposed. In that way the dragon is deprived of most of the advantages during combat that a well trained partner provides.

The next step if you do not have dragons of your own is to establish some form of Anti Aircraft weaponry. You can use magic casters to combat the casters on dragon back. Building small portable ballistas to take with an army is another option. A ballista of 120 lbs can shot a 1 lb projectile 1/3 to 1/2 a mile. You can easily mount these on wagons or carriages. Their slow rate of fire means you need at least 5 per dragon you expect to attack a target.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a source for those ballista capabilities? I've managed to find one-fifth of a mile, but nothing with greater range. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 28 '15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ I have paperwork at home I shall try to provide accurate citations. $\endgroup$ – PCSgtL May 28 '15 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ My apologies. I (yet again) mixed my units. The range I found is 7/10 of a mile. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 28 '15 at 22:40
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As I wrote in a comment, there are some parameters that would certainly affect the warfare tactics with dragons. In particular three questions needs to be asked:

  • How many dragons are there?
  • Why do they team-up with the humanoids?
  • How to fight the dragons?

Dragons numbers

It makes a huge difference if dragons are as numerous as your humanoids, fairly numerous, say like horses, or pretty rare.

In the first case, if the humanoids are similar to humans, they would have try to fight the dragons at some point. And those, being mightier would probably have prevailed and possibly eradicate your humanoids. But for the sake of the discussion, let's keep that discussion for the next section, and consider the consequences of that number in the next paragraph.

In the second case, the dragons are fairly numbered (but the humanoids would have an upper-hand in case of conflicts). I suppose that you typically have humanoids wars into which dragons are included. The dragons would probably form the main body of your armies. In most cases (see next section) they would probably better be left alone for full strength, considering that war wizards or other "heavy-guns" (yes that could just mean cross-bows) support would be close by in battle for them.

In the last case, dragons are pretty rare. You probably want to make tactical squads. Smaller groups with specific aims. In that case the association with a humanoid could prove interesting.

We will detail some advantages in a next section.

Reason(s) for teaming

From your background introduction, I gather that dragons are more clever and more powerful that your humanoids. Why would they fight together?

In most cases, mounted animals by humans, like horses, wargs, elephants, or even pigs, are domesticated by the humans or humanoids. They are used for warfare for speed and strength. The animals are tamed and they don't really have a choice.

But now, your dragons are powerful. And clever. Why do they want to fight along your humanoids? I can see a few possibilities.

  • They have been enslaved by the humanoids: there have been some fightings and number overpowered the might. They may simply be coerced through pain or fear to do so.
  • Your humanoids are elves who live in symbiosis with nature and they agree to team against a common enemy.
  • Some magicians have a powerful link with dragons with allow them to fight along together.
  • Mutual necessity: with their might and cleverness, there is something that dragons aren't able to get by themselves. They agree to lend their powers to the humanoids in exchange to their providing what they can't get. Maybe protect them from some other predators?

The reason for their common work would also influence their use in warfare and how/if they should be associated with humanoids or not.

Let's just consider the four possibilities from above.In the first case, the dragons cannot be trusted wholly. So the presence of a rider is to ensure a continued loyalty. The third case implies that a rider should always be present as they are the main reason for the presence of the dragon to start with. The second and fourth cases are more opened and are probably more what you are looking for.

Fighting the dragons

If dragons are "common" and are repeatedly used in warfare, techniques to fight against them would have been developed.

Just to clear it out of the way, if a link with a rider is needed as indicated above, attacking the riders is probably the safest route.

Otherwise, if the dragons would continue on their mission/task without their riders, than it is probably better to focus on the dragon. Some ideas have been proposed in other answers, but as for me I would tend to compare the dragons to a flying tank/bomber unit. Ideas to fight against them include

  • magic spells. You already mentioned the well-loved fireball, but you have a huge amount of choice in that direction (different elements, rays/pillars/etc.). You might also consider defensive spells to block or attenuate the damages caused by dragon's fire/...
  • armour piercing weapons. Projectiles are typically the best. See PCSgtl's answer, for example.
  • traps. Those could be magical or not, but a restraining cage could be a nice way to limit the mobility of the dragons and their damage. And most of the typical large-scale traps could work.
  • Airborne anti-dragons squads. Well you could just train your dragons to fight other dragons. You could specialize your dragons squads like planes or ships in our world. You might have other ridable creatures like hyppogrifs, pegasus, which could be mounted and equipped with lances.
  • Grounded anti-dragons squads. Maybe light cavalry with lances again would do the trick.

At the end of the day it really depends on how you answered the first question. If the dragons are the main body of your army, you probably should fight them with dragons. It could be very painful otherwise. But if your magicians and/or archers etc. can effectively affect the dragons, they'd make a great support squad for your main body.

The traps are probably only interesting for less numerous dragons.

Ridden vs not-ridden dragons

Let us now consider that dragons are willing for fight along with your humanoids and that their numbers do not allow to compose the main body of your army. Let's what applications they could have.

  • Bomber squads: they fly above and burn the armies down,
  • Fast projection squads: ideally if they can take on some riders they are able to send troupes fast into the battlefield on the weakest point of the opponent,
  • Scout squads: they might recognise the numbers and positions of the enemy, can move fast between the lines facilitating the communication, sabotage the organisation of the enemy, etc.,
  • Spying: that was well explained in another answer,
  • Infantry support as tanks or other tanks tactics,
  • Anti-dragons squads.

What does it mean to have a rider, then? A rider would make the dragons slower and clumsier in battle. What you gain is an increase fire power, more thinking, better communication and more versatility.

If your dragons are in the midst of the battle: as main body, tanks, projection (after "dropping" the humanoid squad), then you probably don't want them with riders: the advantages you would hope to gain are rendered void due to the heavy presence of the humanoids all around.

For the scouting, communication and spying, you probably should have them ridden. Indeed they add more eyes, more brain, more chances to deliver the messages and increase communication capability as well as tactical advantage of being able to split on a given mission, for a little cost, as you do not expect them to be involved with a lot of direct fighting.

For bombers, you also gain: the dragons can concentrate on the attack whereas the rider on the defence, checking the air and the grounds for possible threats.

For air-fighters, unless the rider fighting can compensate for reduced speed, clumsiness etc. I would say they are better left alone. They then have an advantage on their target, namely increased speed and fighting capability.

I suggest you have a look at naval organisation with specialised ships (planes carriers, mines, torpedos, planes, etc.) to combine their strength.

TL;DR

It depends on a lot of factors. But mostly where do you use your dragons?

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I would say another advantage is a second brain. Having a second opinion when making tactical decisions, especially one experienced in human combat tactics (assuming the opponent is a human force), is rarely a bad thing.

Also, I would say a second body is an advantage. In single combat the rider can be used as potentially a distraction, or a way to attack the enemy from multiple directions.

You somewhat covered this in "Close Combat Support", but a rider would also allow for a wider arsenal. If a dragon can, for example, breathe ice, it would be advantageous to have a rider that is skilled with fire magic. Also, a rider would have to use a weapon when fighting atop a dragon, so they would be able to use a magic-imbued weapon or other special weapon that a dragon would be less inclined to use.

I agree with PCS that an anti-aircraft weapon would be an effective way to combat a dragon. Another effective weapon, assuming this is a weapon able to hurt a dragon, would be barbed wire. This would both harm the dragon with the barbs, and restrict its ability to move and fly. Assuming that dragon wings are proportionally easy to break, similar to bird wings, barbed wire could potentially ground a dragon if used cleverly.

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  • $\begingroup$ You don't even need barbs -- regular wire or even plain rope is fine, provided you know how to deploy it (hint: think balloon). $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 28 '15 at 23:59
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You mentioned usually only the younger dragons have riders. If this is true, what specific advantage could younger dragons receive from a humanoid partnership their elder kin do not necessarily need or desire to account for this age-specific trait?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Margin of Error: Taking on a partnership gives young dragons more time and flexibility to successfully complete their maneuver by giving them an extended margin to fail, especially if they are clumsy and a terrible fighter. This margin could be anything from extra time to complete a spell to increasing space for maneuvers (I am envisioning if enemy dragons try to box in the dragon, the rider could perform a spell to give their dragon more space to escape). It also gives young dragons the chance to build battle experience for later in life when they are more likely to fight alone.
  • Symbiotic Relationship: A great partnership has the rider and dragon working in tandem to attack the enemy by keeping up a steady stream of bombardment. By working together, they can maintain a constant level of spells and physical attacks. Imagine the rider throwing spells and weapons between the dragon swooping down to attack, throwing out their special physical ability (fire, ice, etc), and casting spells. This can be an effective means to fight against non-rider dragons, who will need time to recoup and prepare for the next attack.
  • Protection: Riders offer an addition level of protection and safety to a young dragon who may not fair as well alone on a battlefield. For example, if it takes a few decades for a dragon's scales to fully harden, they benefit from the protection a rider and their society offers against potential predators, enemies, or accidents more commonly found outside of the humanoid civilization.
  • Control: Having a squishy rider means young dragons learn discipline over their senses and body so they do not accidentally kill their rider with one misplaced action. This translates to an increase in control and more precise movements, potentially in fighting skills.

As for why young dragons may only spend the first hundred years or so of their lives pairing with riders, if the humanoids' lifespans are close to ours, it could be disheartening to constantly outlive your riders, especially if you build a close rapport. Alternatively, it could be related to metabolism and energy; elder dragons don't have the energy to carry around a heavy rider, worry about protecting their rider, or desire to deal with the politics and relationship maintenance required in a partnership with another creature.

For an existing intricate world where dragons exist -- but not always considered equals or superiors to humans -- please see the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. The series contains human/dragon partnerships, often in a military setting. It is different from your question because the European dragons are largely considered livestock and brute beasts, with intelligence ranging from a dog to humans.

Please feel free to edit this answer and provide feedback; I would like to improve the quality of my work to fit with this community's expectations.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WB Marion! +1 nice answer. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Apr 2 '16 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Jim2B, thank you for the welcome! I spent the last hour tweaking this answer to conform with the question; it's surprisingly hard to transition from reading answers to writing your own! I find it difficult to fully digest questions in the first iteration of an answer and have been constantly editing my answers on WB. $\endgroup$ – Marion Apr 2 '16 at 3:01
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Dragons are big and powerfully, though their disadvantage is their arrogance, and inability to cooperate.

Here is my analogy, online PVP. Most people have run in to some kind of online Player versus player action. Be it world of Warcraft, couter-strike or some kind of battlefield alternative. What team is winning?

The one team cooperating. You can have 20 heroic players running around in an arena, when the 20 less heroic that cooperate moves forward with tactics, they almost always win.

Now back to dragons, lets say (just for the fun of it) you got 20 heroic dragons running around in their own power, thinking their way is the best not cooperating. And then there is 20 with human riders, who got human riders guiding them. Making use of flanking, 2vs1 or even 5vs1 attacks.

There lies the great advantage.

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  • $\begingroup$ -1, arrogance and inability to cooperate is a generalization of stereotypical Western dragons which may not apply to the OP's dragons. $\endgroup$ – Marion Apr 4 '16 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ arrogance and inability to cooperate is a sort of balancing story, if you have to have something big and powerfull, you need to be able to defeat it, if not it would eradicate you. But you cannot say it is because balance in a story. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse Apr 4 '16 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ Good points. I upvoted your question; hopefully that removes the downvote (which isn't an unlocked feature for me yet). Thanks for the clarification! $\endgroup$ – Marion Apr 4 '16 at 16:31
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  • Managing Light Mobile Armor
    The rider would be able to adjust the lightweight armor of the dragon at the required angles and placed to deflect or absorb the damage. For example, a dragon may have a plate armor of only 5 feet length. The rider on the back would devise hinges and hooks in that plated armor to allow it to turn, move and rotate so that the same 5 feet long piece would shield a greater area than just 5 feet.

  • Throwing Explosive Pots
    The question body states that there are no chemically powered projectile weapons (aka bullets) in use. However, since alchemy is common, wise men must have created potent explosives. A rider on the back can keep a bunch of them and fling them at the miserable adversaries who are already taking the blunt of dragon fire! Add some poisonous fumes to the explosive and it will make things even more deadly for les miserables.

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Dragon Tactics

There are many ways that a dragon would be helped by a human rider.

1) Disguise

"They have the ability to shape shift (with considerable mental effort) into any natural shape..."

If this is true then if the dragon wants to sneak into some place indoors (like a castle) it can shape shift into a living organism (a flower?) and hide on the rider. I don't know if the dragon can still talk or see while in this form. The rider would then toss the "flower?" into a corner or somewhere safe. This could not be done as a rat or bird (indoors).

2) Moral Support

This answer mainly depends on the rarity of dragons in your world. If they are rare then this works. I would get pretty lonely as a dragon just flying around by myself. Also in war I hear it's good to have someone to talk to.

3) Human Ingenuity

"Dragons are sentient beings with intelligence and personality equal to or greater than that of humanoids."

I don't know if the Personality part already highlights this but humans tend to be very inventive. Dragons may be more/just as intelligent but humans may be given a more persistent/cheerful attitude. Also just looking like a human is different from being one. A dragon in human shape will not understand human culture as well as a human can.(duh) For example, a dragon will have no clue what humans are referring to when they mention "the difficulty with trying to start a fire".

Conclusion

That's all I could think of... I'm not sure if the last few ones made any sense. I'm kind of new here so pardon me if I don't answer in the correct format.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Aarthew_III : This is an intelligent answer, albeit it does somewhat overlap with several previous ones. But it is also an answer to a question from last June. It would be helpful if you could edit your answer to explain clearly why you feel a new answer is called for. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Mar 9 '16 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa I did not see any answers mention moral support or disguise. Human Ingenuity is more of an opinion based answer. Please correct me if I am wrong. Thanks, $\endgroup$ – Aarthew III Mar 9 '16 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ No correction -- just that you might want to edit your answer to reflect this: "Somewhat on the more cultural or interpersonal side of things, there are some additional factors worth considering...." No worries. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Mar 9 '16 at 3:36
  • $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa added a few sentences on culture. :) $\endgroup$ – Aarthew III Mar 11 '16 at 22:19

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