Dragons are horribly misused in fantasy adventure stories and RPGs. There are a few good writers out there who use them sensibly, but a lot of writers basically ignore what a dragon really is, and just shoehorn it into a story in a way that makes no ecological sense. Consider:
- Dragons are territorial apex super-predators that can fly. They are almost universally carnivorous, though some aberrations do occur (some consume raw minerals, some are magic and don’t eat at all, etc.). Top predators like lions require huge hunting grounds. If lions could fly, their territories would be even larger.
- Dragons are usually very large. Large bodies require large amounts of food to stay fuelled. This makes them unlikely to live in large social groups – at most, an area would contain a mated pair and a small number of offspring, which would be forced out to find their own territories when they are old enough to hunt for themselves. A large group of dragons would require more food than most ecosystems could realistically sustain for long periods.
- Since they are usually very long-lived and highly intelligent, it stands to reason that dragons would take sustainability into account. They might occasionally gorge themselves, but if they wish to establish permanent roosts with their massive treasure hordes, they will not over-hunt and slaughter indiscriminately “just ‘cuz.”
- They hoard precious metals and minerals. There’s a reason for this other than “because they just like it.” The same way there’s a reason why gold is so valuable to humans. We prize gold because it is malleable and can be easily shaped, doesn’t oxidise so it stays shiny, is a better conductor than copper, has a pleasing weight and beautiful lustre. Dragons surely have similar reasons why they hoard massive amounts of coins and gems, but they may be completely foreign and alien to us. It’s not just some arbitrary thing.
- Supremely-intelligent and incredibly vain beings that evidently have a taste for wealth and quality would not likely elect to live in dank, filthy caves. Though they might use caves because they are conveniently-located and well-suited to their purposes, the caves wouldn’t likely be dirty and smelly and littered with rotting carcasses. Dragons have expensive tastes. They evidently can’t use tools themselves, but they can perform great feats of magic or coerce/bribe/enslave lesser beings to make them awesome statues and beautiful things. A dragon cave would look awesome inside.
- Fire-breath likely has some kind of biological process involved. Digestive acids, glandular secretions, buildup of methane or other flammable gases, etc. As a result, dragons would likely have physical features that would accommodate these processes that prevent the fire from being harmful to the organism – one-way valves in the throat to prevent the fluids/gases from reversing back into the body, “jets” located inside the mouth or nose that spray the flammable agents out of the body, heat-dispersal mechanisms around the body (e.g. wings = cooling vanes). And they wouldn’t be able to sustain fire-breath indefinitely. It would come in short bursts, infrequently, and they would run out after a few spurts until they refuelled. The same as how snakes don’t have unlimited venom, they dump most of it off in one bite and then they have to produce more.
- Dragon bodies are huge. In order for them to fly, their wings would also have to be huge. And gigantic wings would require very strong supports (bones, ligaments) and huge, powerful muscles to flap them. The bat-wing style is fairly popular with dragons, but the bones in that construct would need to be immensely strong and also very, very light. Dragons would also need flight stabilizers to control roll, pitch and yaw. Giant heavy bony goat-horns and crazy spikes all over the body are not conducive to flying, unless they are arranged in a way that makes them act like rudders and/or fins, controlling roll, pitch and yaw.
- Dragons would be a distinct taxonomic class. They are not reptiles or birds or mammals, etc., but have the characteristics of several different classes.
I like the hellish-beast-style dragons. Skyrim dragons were pretty good, but there were way too many of them for a land that was only about 18 square miles or whatever. There’s no way Skyrim could support that many dragons – not nearly enough food. Games that have loads and loads of dragons tend to bug me. That’s one serious issue I have with LotRO – go into Angmar and there are worms and drakes (smaller dragon-kin) everywhere, and no possible way the ecosystem could support them all unless all they eat is ash and dust. Which is not the case.
Draigoch, the only “true” dragon in the game, lives in a giant filthy cave, but he delivers this opening speech about how awesome he is. Well, if he’s so awesome, he shouldn’t be living like a crazy hermit. Aside from his house (and the brutal glitches in that raid), I really like Draigoch. The fight makes sense – he’s an enormous creature, and you’re not just standing under his belly swinging your sword and somehow that hurts him. You fight him one body part at a time until he is crippled. THEN everyone stands underneath him swinging swords wildly about.