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Consider a magical medieval world, where the magic is very weak (small fireballs, or some basic healing spells) in which other magical races exists as well. However, a lone European dragon (description given below) can easily wipe out everything. Is there any way to make dragons less powerful, but still dragon-like? (That is, they still should be able to fly (because magic) and breathe fire).

Note: That is, apart from the obvious methods - like making them smaller or something.

Description of the Dragon: The dragon is big (but not too big, about the size of a elephant (which is small compared to other dragons), can breathe fire, and is crafty (can't speak, but won't fall for obvious traps)).

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    $\begingroup$ Why is it that the lone dragon can easily wipe everything out? There are a lot of different dragons, it would be helpful to include the specs of yours. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 25 '16 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify : I have edited it $\endgroup$ – King of Snakes Jul 25 '16 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ 'A lone European dragon' - you mention that like it's an actual species we should be able to identify. Dragons are mythical creatures and as such can be whatever you want them to be. $\endgroup$ – TheBloodyPoet Jul 25 '16 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ @NexTerren I went with that assumption in the answer but I think King of Snakes needs to edit in more information. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 25 '16 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ As a dragon, I find this post offensive. We are dragons, we are the most powerful mythical creature that exists. If you want something less powerful use a drake instead. $\endgroup$ – Dragonrage Jul 25 '16 at 21:54

12 Answers 12

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I've come up with a list of ways to weaken a dragon. I would suggest not using them all or your dragon may become too weak/unrecognisable. I would suggest using 3-5 of the following although use more or less as you see fit. I have tried to group it by feature.

Armour

  • Remove the scales of the dragon. Dragon scales are usually almost unbreakable meaning the dragon can wreak havok without fear of injury. Many books give the dragon a weak spot but I would suggest removing scales entirely and replacing them with a thick, leathery hide. This would still be tough to break making the dragon hard to injure but it would allow some defence against dragons for the humans.

Weapons

  • Reduce dragon fire length. Many dragons can breathe enough fire to destroy a town seemingly with little effort. Weaken the dragon by making fire an effort like sprinting giving only a short flame burst with a long recovery. This forces the dragon to attack with claws and teeth giving the men on the ground a chance to capture or kill the dragon.
  • Make dragon fire less dangerous. Dragon fire in most books is hot enough to melt steel and sets things alight instantly. If dragon fire was more of a hot blast of air. It would still cause burns to people but wouldn't set stuff alight or kill an army in one blast.
  • Blunt/small claws. In close combat dragons can often tear through armour like it is nothing. This could be reduced giving dragons more natural claws. Able to pin or kill an unarmoured human but which armour could deflect. This gives humans a chance up close.

Flight

  • Prevent long term flight. Make flying more like gliding or leaping. This will prevent dragons from flying over a city and setting it all on fire at once and will make them easier to track and kill letting humans fight back.
  • Slow flight. Make dragons fly at a similar speed to a running human. This gives people a chance to track or escape from the dragon.

Brains

  • Make dragons more like dumb animals. This way humans will be able to set traps and plan defences against dragons without the dragons being able to outsmart the humans.
  • Make dragons fearful. Make dragons wish to avoid humans so they will only attack in defence. This way dragons won't destroy cities unless they are attacked first.
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    $\begingroup$ Or just keep the scales but make them actually reasonable. Keratin is keratin, not impenetrable steel. $\endgroup$ – Pyritie Jul 25 '16 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ Your dragon fire can only melt steel? That's cute. $\endgroup$ – Dragonrage Jul 25 '16 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ My dragons sunbathe at Planks temperature. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 25 '16 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Dragonrage Plank temperature? This or this ? $\endgroup$ – Colombo Jul 26 '16 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ Dragon flame can't melt steel beams. Wake up, sheeple! $\endgroup$ – Engineer Toast Jul 26 '16 at 14:29
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The simplest way to avoid them wiping out everything is to have them not care to in the first place. If I was the size of a dragon I'm sure I could cause absolute havoc, but would I need to? Whould I have a good reason to?

If the dragons in your world are few in number, maybe generally loners, they may be perfectly content to just do their own thing and keep out of trouble, only doing what they have to do to defend themselves (and eat, of course).

Having the power to do something does not necessarily mean you have a reason to do it.

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    $\begingroup$ Now this is the best way :) Just change its mental attitude. Can't give a upvote now (used them all up), but I will upvote this $\endgroup$ – King of Snakes Jul 25 '16 at 15:20
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  1. Limited ability to breathe fire - ammount, distance, breadth
  2. Slow/limited reproduction rates - force dragons on the defensive for the survival of their species; if one generation is 200 years vs humanity's ~20 years, they'll exponentially have fewer members and need to more carefully mind survival
  3. Extremely high food requirements - Combined with #2, forces them away from urban areas as they need to feed constantly in low-risk environments
  4. Natural fear - Like many creatures fear fire, perhaps dragons fear water as they cannot swim, and so avoid large bodies of water
  5. Light/darkness sensitivity - Can't see in bright sunlight or late evening, meaning if ambushed during these times they would be on the defensive
  6. Weak underbelly - Maybe the classical armor plates only exist on their back, and their bellies are relatively soft. This means that any fly-overs are dangerous as a javelin or arrow can easily penetrate their flesh. Dragons can still fly for mobility, but will want to engage any threat as ground-to-ground for their own safety.
  7. Their fire, in excess, harms themselves - They can't endlessly spurt their fire out as while their mouths and throats are resistant they're not fireproof.
  8. Easily panicked/Enraged - Emotional creatures are dangerous to others, but themselves as well
  9. Dragon warding - Mages have discovered specific wards against dragon fire
  10. Lack of intelligence - They're like flying cows. That breathe fire. Okay, not a lot like cows, but you get the idea.
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    $\begingroup$ Given that all reptiles, including land turtles, have the ability to swim, and as dragons have large, muscular flight surfaces and powerful tails, I can think of no reason why dragons aught to be afraid of water. In fact, I would guess that dragons aught to be semi-aquatic! $\endgroup$ – Dent7777 Jul 25 '16 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Dent7777, maybe if water interferes with their ability to make/breath fire, they avoid it as it leaves them defenceless for a while aferwards. $\endgroup$ – TheBloodyPoet Jul 25 '16 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @NexTerren There would have to be some evolutionary reason for dragons not to be able to swim. Besides avoiding putting out "fire" (would a creature really have a fire within their bodies anyway?), I can think of no reason for dragons to avoid water. A dragon that can swim can hunt like a cormorant as a juvenile, giving them a low risk food source commonly found all around the world. A larger dragon could hunt sharks, whales, and porpoises like a naval patrol plane hunts submarines. This would even give them a plausible source of oil for their flame! $\endgroup$ – Dent7777 Jul 25 '16 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Dent7777 Only if this setting uses evolution, which is normally not the case for fantasy settings. I mean, explain the transition of a human to a banshee with evolution. How did evolution create that? Unless the asker specifies 'evolution' in the question or as a tag, it's unreasonable to insert that as a requirement. He does specify "magic" and "myth[ology]," just not evolution. $\endgroup$ – Ranger Jul 25 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Dent7777: Water is excellent for transferring heat. Maybe there isn't a literal flame to put out, but the dragon's 'natural' body heat is the source of its flame, and the dragon's scales are more than just an outer shell, but part of an intricate system to help manage that core heat without spontaneously combusting... Too much time in water saps the heat from the core preventing the use of fire. This could make the dragon both more dangerous while giving them a weakness. (touching their heat sync scales will likely cause severe burns, but a fire hose becomes a serious weapon against them.) $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Jul 25 '16 at 17:51
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If you want a realistic way to balance such creatures, you need look no further than thermodynamics. There are a few ways it could work out.

Fighter Plane Dragon

Say 4 tons of dragon meat wants to fly over the city and burn it to ash. Just getting him off the ground and letting him manoeuvre well enough to avoid catapult stones with powered flight is probably going to take about 1500 horsepower, and that's if he's as aerodynamic as an airplane. For reference, the "horsepower" unit gets its name by being the approximate amount of power generated by a large draft horse. Which means that this thing needs to consume as many calories as 1500 horses just to fly. Using a breath weapon requires more. Ballpark estimate: 25+ cows/10 hours powered flight.

To deal with this kind of dragon, just prevent it from eating. Use small parties of expert archers to track and harass it whenever it tries to stop and eat. Shoot a few arrows at its eyes so it has to take off to fight, and then scatter and hide. Even if it gets a couple of the archers, it won't recoup enough calories to make up for the takeoff. It will probably be too weak to be a threat within a day or two. (If it doesn't just leave the area entirely.) Alternatively, feed it a large meal, and then attack it while it's still digesting. A few extra tons of food in its gullet will make it sluggish, if it can fly at all. Throw nets and rocks at it until your town has a "dragon hill" on its outskirts. Plant some trees and a monument atop it and make it a park.

Eagle Dragon

You can get around the food requirements by reducing its power output (and therefore its weight.) Make it a one-ton dragon with a power-weight ratio similar to that of large birds. It will prefer to attain takeoff velocity by leaping from high places, and its rate of ascent will be slow unless it can take advantage of thermals or other updrafts. It will probably still need at least a few hundred horsepower to move that much mass, so it's still going to be a hungry fellow, but more napkin math from the mammilian horsepower/calories numbers that I remember suggests that we'd be down to about 3 whole cows per 10 hours of flying. Give it a hummingbird like variable metabolism so it doesn't waste energy when it's not flying and a propensity to take long naps in the sun and it shouldn't be too ludicrous a thing to find on a sufficiently lush world.

This kind of dragon will likely hunt by swooping down from a high altitude and snatching some large pile of meat to carry off to a safe place to eat, similar to a hawk or eagle. Conservation of energy is a must for it since it doesn't have the sheer power necessary to just fly straight up. This kind of dragon is more likely to attack a settlement's herd animals than its buildings or people. People just aren't filling enough to be worth the effort, and attacking buildings will cost it too much velocity to regain a safe altitude unless it uses fire. To fight this kind of dragon, you just have to force it to use up its velocity. Build your towns among twisty-windy rock formations to force it to spend energy changing course. Find a spot with a down-draft or a lot of turbulence in the air and it'll just stay away entirely. Catapult-thrown nets or buckets of gravel that could damage its eyes will force it to dodge and lose speed. Trained birds could likely harass it and it would have a difficult time getting away. Just keep forcing it to dodge and eventually it will be forced to the ground. Then make the above-mentioned dragon-park. Alternatively, stretch a cow hide over a large, cow-shaped rock and watch it face-plant when it tries to grab it. Be ready with the nets and rocks. It should be relatively easy since it will require a running start to get airborne again. Just keep tripping it. Ditto if you can catch it getting a drink from the river or something. And if you can track it to its lair and sneak up on it, the odds of being able to lay some kind of trap are pretty good since it needs either a running start or something to jump off of.

Buoyant Dragon

This one uses lighter-than-air gas and flies like a dirigible. It will have to be relatively large for its weight and will have a lot of air resistance to overcome if it wants to fly fast, but it can cruise around like some kind of giant manta ray and devour anything that looks tasty at its leisure. It can make its home in the clouds where it can't be attacked without flight capabilities. This is probably the most dangerous of the dragon types.

It's weakness? The only floaty gas it has access to via standard metabolic methods would be hydrogen. It might be able to get a few others, but they're all corrosive, explosive, or both, and hydrogen is the only one that wouldn't cost it a huge amount of energy. Helium would require it to digest many tons of rock, and it would be dependent on deposits of minerals that are rather rare and usually deep underground.

In any case, if you can puncture the gas bladder (which will be most of the creature) it falls to the ground and you make with the nets and rocks. Assuming of course that you don't puncture said bladder with a flaming projectile and then watch the villagers rejoice as pre-cooked dragon-kibble rains down from the sky. This dragon is more dangerous until the villagers develop weapons sufficient to puncture its hide, and then it rapidly becomes the least-dangerous type and possibly a prey animal for humans.

Armor

Yes, dragons can be armoured with scales and such. But every pound of armor is a pound of dragon that's not producing thrust or lift. The numbers I've used assume that the vast majority of the dragon is flight muscle, and the most generous numbers I can find on muscle power output barely make it possible.

Scales sufficient to stop arrows when the dragon is 300 feet up probably wouldn't be an issue. Scales to stop a ballista bolt at that height? Only if you want a lumbering air-barge that's an easy target for half-ton catapult stones. Armour to stop the stones? Forget it, you're into the realm of collision physics. Even if you stop the penetration, the sheer mass of the impactor is going to swat the poor dragon out of the sky like an errant fly. Even if it survives, it still has to contend with the villagers and their nets and rocks now.

Wing membranes and joints will be rather delicate (comparatively anyway) regardless since flapping armoured wings will waste a lot of power. Let someone with a heavy crossbow or longbow get within 30 yards and they can probably hurt the thing, especially if they're a good shot. Eyes, by their nature, have to be kind of squishy. Arrows stuck in the back of the throat or the tongue could easily make it impossible to eat. Keep in mind that injuries to the wing membranes will slow the dragon down substantially and will take a very long time to heal without stitches, and if you're riding too close to the strength limit of the structures in question in order to get enough power at a low enough weight to do what you want, then a single puncture could cause catastrophic wing failure as the membrane snaps under the imbalanced strain like a bursting balloon.

Breath Weapon

People underestimate just how much energy is involved in a breath weapon. Why do you think there aren't any critters larger than insects that use such things? Assume that said breath weapon is some kind of napalm-like compound. If we use kerosene as a model, one gallon of the stuff will set the critter back about 35,000 Calories, not including any energy losses incurred in manufacturing it. Assuming perfect efficiency, every 40 gallons will cost it another cow's worth of food. That's not too shabby, but it's not something it's going to want to use willy-nilly either. It would be enough to burn down a village of straw huts, but a village of stone huts with slate roofs might take several cows worth of napalm to do any serious damage. Also, every gallon of kerosene weighs almost 7 pounds. One cow's worth of kerosene would be almost 300 pounds, which would be almost 1/6th of our creature's bodyweight (for the light version). Odds are good it doesn't carry more than that at a time, and that it takes a considerable amount of time for it to regenerate. Keep your forces spread out so it's not an efficient way of killing things until it's used up, and then proceed to the beatdown.

As an alternative, the breath weapon could be like the one used by Pernian dragons, where some local substance that they eat provides the fuel. This offsets the metabolic costs (but not the carrying weight unless it's something more energetic than hydrocarbons). But it makes refuelling on-the-go impossible. In this case, just make the substance rare enough that the dragon can't get it just anywhere, and the humans can find and booby-trap the sources. If they do it right, they should even be able to skip the dragon-beatdown part of the story. If they can't, then they weren't sufficiently creative in their use of what has to be a fairly volatile substance.

Intelligence

This is really the thing, isn't it? If the dragon can fly and the people can't, then a sufficiently smart dragon wins every time. It just picks up the biggest rock it can carry (probably at least a thousand pounds) flies up as high as it can (probably over a thousand feet easily) and drops its weapon from perfect safety. Repeat until the town that has annoyed it is nothing but a series of impact craters. Stay above the clouds in transit, or fly in a large loop so the silly humans can't track it back to its nest.

If it's that smart though, then there's a good chance it would realise that a symbiotic relationship with humans would be far more beneficial than an adversarial one. Humans would certainly be willing to feed such a creature in exchange for protection from other larger predators/enemy nations. And a dragon's sheer muscle power could easily help them build the infrastructure necessary to produce far more than the three cows/day it requires, (assuming it's not content to just hibernate whenever it's not needed, in which case it'll need far less overall.) The best defence against wild dragons is domesticated ones. (Cue storyline about the hero saving the heroine from being sacrificed only to discover that killing the dragon means the truly big predators can move back in now...)

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  • $\begingroup$ Though I would challenge whether the dragon or the village has been domesticated, excellent answer :) $\endgroup$ – Iiridayn Dec 30 '16 at 5:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Iiridayn Depends entirely on which party controls the other's breeding. Could be either one depending on relative intelligence levels, or it could just be a symbiosis. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jan 3 '17 at 7:45
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I'd say this is actually not a question about dragons but creatures in general, as you can easily adapt physical conditions to other species.

Anyway, I'd imagine the typical "lone European dragon" appearance to be very reptile/dinosaur-like in appearance, that is:

  • very large
  • strong scaled skin
  • bat-wings, skin canvas supported by bone structure
  • long tail and neck to support balance

So, basically what you can see in the Hobbit or Game Of Thrones.

Making them less overpowered can be as simple as giving them a weaker physique. Large, heavy bodies require strong and thick bones, which are hard to break, so as you mentioned, decreasing their size weakens them. You could also decrease the size of just some body parts, like the head for smaller teeth and a weaker jaw muscles to weaken the force of a bite, or maybe their claws. Another thing is especially pointed out in the Hobbit, their pretty much indestructible scales making them invulnerable with weapons any (non-)human being can wield. With a skin made of fish-scales or anything similar, or even without scales, maybe leather skin they'd be much more prone to physical penetration.

In Game Of Thrones they say dragon fire is so hot it can melt stone, which makes it a lot more destructible than regular fire, so decrease the temperature. Also think about how that fire is supposed to be created. I'd assume some chemical components in a gland get released and their reaction in combination with the dragon's breath creates a darting flame. When a snake releases its poison the body has to reproduce the toxin and refill the glands storage. In a dragon's body this could take up any amount of time and/or energy. Decreasing the glands storage prevents them from spitting fire all over the place and would push the dragon to rather use it as last resort. It could require the dragon to eat and sleep a lot to create the necessary energy to refill the chemicals setting the dragon in a weaker state.

I'd guess chemists could further qualify the last part, as I don't know which chemicals could create the desired result and be biologically produced.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've edited the question, is the additional info helpful? $\endgroup$ – King of Snakes Jul 25 '16 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say at that size it should be somewhat vulnerable already. If people with stone age weapons can go hunt down mammoths in small groups, later developed weapons could also more or less easily pierce a scale-skinned dragon of the size of an elephant. This should also limit the dragon's attacks to small groups of humans (if at all) as long as it lives the typically depicted lone wolf life and doesn't hunt in large groups. I'd assume it would only go rampage if anyone gets too close to their lair. $\endgroup$ – Otto Abnormalverbraucher Jul 25 '16 at 15:05
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A sensible approach would be to try to be moderately scientifically plausible this fairly easily gets you to a point where dragons are viable but limited.

Fire

A sensible way for dragons to breath fire is for them to produce two separate chemicals which, when combined, spontaneously ignite in air after a short time a bit like a bombardier beetle. This means that the chemicals need to be stored in the dragons body and take some time to produce so they don't have an indefinite supply and tend to save it for when they really need to defend themselves rather than just setting fire to everything in sight for the fun of it.

Flight

For obviously reasons something the size of an elephant is going to have significant problems in flying especially getting airborne so you could say that while they can make long flights for migration etc they can't just flit about at will like a sparrow. This corresponds well with the behaviour of real world birds eg small birds tend to fly rather than walk but things like swans spend a lot of time on the ground/water and take a significant effort to get airborne.

You could also have young dragons being a bit smaller and more agile in flight and become progressively more cumbersome as they age and get larger and heavier so you could have flying dragons and huge dragons, just not at the same point in their life, cycle. Another option would be to have sexual ditamorphism where females (or males, it doesn't really matter) are smaller, can fly well and do most of the hunting but older 'bull' (or 'queen') dragons are pretty much ground based and are larger and more robust to defend their territory. Perhaps males fly away from the herd to establish new territories but lose the ability to fly as they get older.

SO you could have a situation where you have a 'pride' of dragons with a dominant male and a number of females and young males which range around and cause trouble while the more formidable male defends a remote lair in the mountains. So while the smaller ones aren't too difficult to deal with individually you have to go out and eliminate the male or breeding pair to remove the threat entirely.

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Just make it above that sort of thing. There's a strong tradition of the intelligent, long-lived dragon who is beyond human concerns.

Maybe the dragon hasn't stirred itself to wipe everything out because it can't be bothered. Think of it this way, you could go out and kick over an anthill. The ants can't stop you, even fire ants are really just an annoyance. And why bother? Another colony will just spring up in a couple days. You could mount a serious campaign of terror, stay up all night destroying hill after hill, but then where would you be? Missing sleep to destroy creatures barely worthy of notice. And really haven't you got better things to concern yourself with?

Don't nerf your dragon just make it treat the humans the way we treat ants: super stingy loud, annoying ants, but barely even worthy of notice.

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Add other huge animals to flesh out your ecosystem.

A human knight is normally little more than a snack for a hungry dragon, but what if you swap out the horse your knight is riding for an adult tyrannosaurus rex? Similarly, ground-bound humans might have few options against a dragon, but a squadron of ace archers mounted on fast flying horses might be able to easily outmaneuver a dragon and bring it down with powerful bows.

A dragon is only overpowered in the context of a world in which there are few other creatures that can challenge a dragon. If the dragon is stronger, faster, and smarter than anything else in the world, it's overpowered, but if the dragon evolved its intelligence and flight as means of escaping far larger ground-bound dinosaurs (which are dumb enough for humans to tame, carefully), then the dragon is merely another dangerous creature in a dangerous world.

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Dragons are big, they can fly and they can breathe fire. All that requires a huge amount of energy, so their weakness is that they have to eat a huge amount - probably why they are attacking in the first place

(Though one would imagine farms with cows and big animals would be better food sources than cities, perhaps they attack castles & cities to try to wipe out the land's defenses so they can feed on farms with impunity)

If the dragon is beginning to starve, perhaps he doesn't have the strength to fly, or to breathe fire as hot or as much as he otherwise would.

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Is there any way to make dragons less powerful, but still dragon-like?

Maybe it hibernates all winter (or summer if it has cooling problems which makes sense for such a large, energetic, fire breathing creature) and when its active people live like meerkats, as soon as lookouts spot it everyone runs into underground shelters. A dragon has no interest in crops and farm animals can be hidden, even if the elephant sized creature is eating its bodyweight in meat a day one of them isn't going to destroy the ecosystem or clear the land of farm animals.

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How to prevent dragons from becoming to over powered. Here are a few ideas I recommend that you try more then one method

  1. limited the about of dragons: Maybe only a couple dozen or so world wide.

2.Limit the rate of reproduction a new dragon only appears every couple hundred years.

3.Have them spend most of there time sleeping: This actually makes sense a creature the size of a dragon would need a huge food supply. If a large supply of meat wasn't always availably a dragon might enter in to a sort of hibernation to conserve energy.

  1. give them brain the size of walnuts.

  2. Give them some sort of weakness: maybe there are weak to silver like werewolves. Or maybe there is some specially "dragon poising" that will kill am sure you can come up with something.

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As someone who likes working monster characters, I thought about this before.

What I would do is not make their scales so super invincible. Maybe they'd be highly resistant to sharp weapons but blunt weapons that don't try penetrating could be way better than swords. Maaaaaybe a big enough battle axe could pierce through. I could see someone getting enough force out of it to break the scales.

Then there's the obvious weakness of the underside not having those protective scales.

Well you were saying that magic does exist in this scenario. I don't see how a dragon could defend against anything magical.

I imagine if I were a dragon, then breathing fire would be real tiring. Could you imagine how winded you'd be fighting and blowing at the same time? I tried running and singing before - seriously exhausting.

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