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So, what can I do to give dragons an advantage that will possibly shine through no matter what? Which part of them have I been neglecting while trying to figure out how they fly? Yes, their breath weapon.

You see, my dragons don't breathe fire, they cast spells through their mouth (kinda like sorcerers in Dorohedoro, though they used their fingers there). This "magic" usually takes the form of greyish smoke, which is actually a swarm of micromachines under the dragon's control.

Micromachines doing stuff is considered magic here.

There are many types of micromachines that a dragon's body can produce. Some alter their optical properties to create illusions, others can act as disinfectants or deposit onto wounds, creating an artificial clot. And most importantly, they can carry strong oxidizers, toxins, or medicine.

This swarm lives in a symbiotic relationship with the dragon, using up some of their resources and life force (i.e: chemical energy, usually stored in fat and glucose) to power itself and replenish its numbers, never so much that it would kill the dragon.

In the setting, dragons are meant to be the masters of magic. Like, some of their powers can't even be replicated by humans, or at least their version would be very inefficient and lack certain features. Keep in mind, humans also have magical smoke, though that has to work off of that human's life force.

Dragons themselves are about as large as bigger horses (170 cm at the shoulders), and they can live for thousands of years. They're as intelligent as humans and while their scales can resist non-AP rifle rounds, that's about all their special biological features.

So, why are dragons, on average, more adept at using magic and why can't their spells be replicated by humans?

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    $\begingroup$ I beat this drum a lot, but actually is important. This question is opinion-based because the help center states that you shouldn't ask a question where every answer is equally valid. What makes such a question good is you, the OP, explaining the criteria for judging the best answer. If you fail to provide that, you're simply idea fishing, which is not only a bad match for the SE model, it's off-topic. So, before I VTC:OB, can you explain how you'll judge a best answer? $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 6 '20 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to check the light novel series "Didn't I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?!" which provides a couple of answers for your question. Either to crib them or to avoid them, as per your will. $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Dec 6 '20 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ Not an answer, but I noticed ‘never so much that it would kill the dragon’. It might be interesting if occasionally the machines do take too much, like how we can sometimes get flare-ups of our natural skin or gut bacteria. Perhaps dragons who wield powerful magic are especially susceptible to this, since the machines need extra resources for the extra power. If (as I gather) the people (humans and dragons) of your world don't really understand how these robots work, they might describe this as a dragon going too far and becoming consumed by their own magic. Just an idea that came to me. $\endgroup$ – Toby Bartels Dec 6 '20 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ @TobyBartels Considering that the robots would need to take and convert that to usable energy way before the spell is fired, dragons with large active swarms might feel sleepy all the time, but it's unlikely they'd Ben Solo themselves. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Dec 6 '20 at 14:26
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Bigger is Better

Since dragons are so much larger than humans, their micromachine swarms are larger as well. More micromachines allows for more power in the spell, as well as more processing resources available to the micromachines to achieve more complex effects.

If a particular spell requires a micromachine swarm that can only be supported by a body mass of 700kg in order to be cast correctly, a 70kg human just isn't going to be able to pull it off.

(This also opens the door to the possibility of "ritual" spells, with multiple humans (or dragons) networking their micromachine swarms together in order to cast more powerful spells jointly.)

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  • $\begingroup$ How would Kleiber's law affect that? Wouldn't humans be more inefficient, no matter what? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Dec 6 '20 at 0:48
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Legacy code

Dragon machines work fine with dragons. In days of yore the programmers who wrote this code took care to make sure it is so. This ancient and inscrutable code is larded with redundancies, fake bit, dangerous traps / pranks and other things. The code is much larger and more inefficient than it has to be. Modern dragons pretty much use it as received; it is intimidating to the moderns to try to edit this legacy code.

The ancient coders had rare gifts and the result of their code is awesome.

Humans find it easier to find ways to masquerade as dragons and fool the machines than it is to reverse engineer the crazy code to make their machines do what the dragon machines can do.

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    $\begingroup$ "fake bit, dangerous traps / pranks and other things." - you mean the SISPF - Set Instruction Set Page Flag bit? That is a feature, and the only way to access kernel code, it just ... look, I'm sure there's a documentation for the second page somewhere. It's just that nobody has needed that in ages. I think my IRC bot still links to it. Hold on... $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Dec 6 '20 at 7:43
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Maybe combine this with @Willk 's answer...

Dragons are super geeky coders. They're supposed to be hibernating for decades in caves... Well, the big secret is the sliding door at the back of the cave, where they keep their computer labs and network farms.

Any respectable dragon spends decades at a time honing his coding skills, or sometimes just chilling by playing an online dungeons & dragons MMORG. They even have high-stakes tournaments on the lizardnet.

All this super techy geeky scripty codey stuff makes them better geeks wizards.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't dragons go more for a game like Papers and Paychecks? $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Dec 6 '20 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @NomadMaker Homesteads & Humans? $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Dec 6 '20 at 22:47
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Communication

It's all about Precision. Assuming the micromachines operate based on direct stimuli from the nervous system, the dragons' larger size allows the nerve-based signals to be spread further, allowing the micromachines to better triangulate exactly where the cloud is intended to go, and communication can occur over a spectrum (I'm assuming the machines are controlled by RF here, but it isn't really necessary) that humans are incapable of reproducing. Also, a horse-sized dragon with a human-like brain/mass ratio would have many more nerves available for the micromachines to interface with, allowing for the control of larger or more specialized swarms. Then there's the practice bit. A dragon, having practiced control of these machine swarms for thousands of years, has developed a better interface with the micromachine swarms, possibly even creating new nervous pathways specializing only in machine-biologic interface, while humans have to make do with a control system that also performs biological functions - an odd guttural sounding "language" perhaps, when humans try to cast spells.

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The code is ancient and dragons have access to hoards of sample code written for long dead languages which humans are not privy to. They can sometimes be convinced to share the documentation for these long dead languages, which many nanobots are programmed to use, but it comes at a cost.

Here is some code written in draconic:

enter image description here

The boss has permitted me to translate this in to human language. It was something like this

int explain_your_failure(puny_mortal human) { 

    char* explanation = demand_explanation(human);

    if (!acceptable(explanation)) {
        devour(human);
    }

    return 0; 
}

It cost the translator an arm and a leg to get the full codebase translated over. Much time has been spent trying to reverse engineer this ancient script, and there were breakthroughs over the last 200 years, but a lot remains un-translated.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention losing a kidney if you forgot to follow the return with a semi colon $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 7 '20 at 22:44
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Nanobots are voice-controlled and don't deal well with human accents/pronunciation.

Nanobots have been created as voiced controlled by dragons and therefore they use dragon language. However human wizards learn it in adulthood or teens making it heavily accented and they effectively speak a foreign tongue. What worse human throat is built differently so they cannot produce all sounds.

The result is as if elephant tried to use voice control software. Nanobots being miracles of technology can guess what humans speak making it work in the first place but combination of physiological differences with accent makes only basic instructions possible - when Dragon can say "create fire in my mouth and move it outside using 50 km / h" humans attempting it would mispronounce "light a fire in your mouth and go out at a speed of 50 km / h" (I've attempted to translate the phrase between several languages) and be lucky if they end up with 1st degree burns while they stand in 50 km / h wind.

The way the Humans deal with it is by creating a list of phrases they memorize that describe what they want to do - e.g. learning how to pronounce "light a fire in my mouth and move the fire out of my mouth with speed 50 km / h" so that nanobots can figure out what they want even if some words are not understood by nanobots. Dragons can say it however easier as they don't need to deal with voice recognition AND they can do it on the fly.

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Perhaps the the dragons are totally formed of the clouds of the robots in some variant form or stage in the robot lifecycle. What else is a cell?

It's rumored there are huge dragons which produce the "normal" ones in their image, and contain the true source of the tiny robots, but nobody has ever witnessed one.

It could be that they hide about in plain sight with such powers and intelligence, but they'd need to make a mistake to be seen.

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Dragon brains are different.

Nanobot magic requires some complex\abstract\fractal\all of the above calculations performed in the mind of the caster in order to tip the bots on what you want them to do for you. The detail and correctness of these calculations determine if the resulting spell will be a success or if it will cause your arm to explode. Humans can do it reasonably well, but a quirk of evolution had made dragon brain structure be supremely more effective at cracking numbers, making every single one of them into, basically, mathematical savants. This, coupled with their larger size meaning a larger reserve of bots, results in them being able to cast more powerful and more complex spells.

And also be really good at math.

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