Monday 1 July 2024

A friendless, fingerless mind.

 It’s difficult to imagine a concept of ‘vestigial intelligence’, of intelligence, as we understand it, evolving in a creature that uses it as we use it, and then persisting even a the creature in question, or its descendants, change shape, form and niche so much that there seems little use for it.

In humans the brain is utterly ravenous, gorging itself on perhaps a quarter of the bodies energy. For something so proportionately hungry to persist, it better be putting out some obviously useful abilities to make up for its cost.

Of course, so far as we know, intelligence has only evolved once on this planet, so it might be too early to be making strong laws about it. A creature might enlarge and change habits, making intelligence less directly useful but reducing its proportionate cost, so it ends up something like an appendix; a philosophical, intelligent creature that really doesn’t have any particular need to be, but is just kinda vibing. Or an intelligence that works on fundamentally different properties, so that it costs less overall, and so persists. Or a life form that is intelligent when it is small and social, but needs that intelligence less as it grows, yet retains it.



The closest thing I can think of is the Law of the Tongue; a group of Killer Whales forming a symbiotic relationship with a group of fishermen in which they herded prey for the Fishermen and were rewarded with the tongues of the prey – which was the main thing they wanted all along. The ritual of the Law of the Tongue seems to have ended with the death of a particular alpha female Orca, increasing the likelihood that it was an expression of intelligence, rather than just a working out of instinct and happenstance into an accidental symbiosis.

Corvids having weird relationships with particular people; recognising them by face, harassing them, or rewarding them; one man reported a group of grows he regularly fed in the park, waiting at his house when he got back from holiday. Somehow they had worked out where he lived, and when he went missing from his regular feeding stop, had gone to his address to see what’s up.

Our understanding of what intelligence is, is very strongly moderated by speech, the manipulation of objects, and complex social relationships. To the extent that if something can’t, or doesn’t speak, doesn’t, or doesn’t need to, manipulate objects and doesn’t have complex social relationships, we would have a hard time saying to ourselves precisely if or how it was intelligent.

Thence we come to the subject of this essay, an analysis of the intelligence of Dragons from a somewhat speculative-evolution influenced point of view.



Curious Habits

Obsessive Cleanliness

Prey cool when they die, and with that, all the fleas, nits and gribblies that lived on them try to migrate to the nearest warm thing, which is often whatever killed them. Thence; the Mod Predator/Hippie Scavenger dichotomy, where predators tend to look cool while scavengers tend to look homeless. Why? Because predators clean and groom themselves a lot to get rid of the FUCKING FLEAS, while Scavengers arrive after the body has cooled and can support a more rustic drip.

Social animals groom each other. Creatures with fur or feathers bathe, either in water or in dust. (In ‘The Peregrine’ J.A. Barker speaks memorably of the falcons daily, and exquisitely careful baths in a nearby stream before it begins to hunt). Lizards are a bit more basic but even they will bathe for moisture and cleanliness sometimes, and groom their own sensing organs. At the far end of the scale, Komodo Dragons are famously indifferent to whatever is in-between their teeth but even crocodiles have groomer-birds. 

What does a Dragons behaviour resemble? A bird, Croc, Lizard or something else?

A Dragons fire would help it deal with many parasites, as would its scales, but it couldn’t rely on those entirely, and would have to take care of its wings, where even a small infection or fungus would be a massive issue. 

A Feathered Dragon would likely bathe itself daily, and any period or place of grooming would be one of deep vulnerability. Finding a lair with an equally useful but isolated and secure grooming spot, like an inaccessible mountaintop tarn or glacial stream, might be a key factor in choosing where to settle.

Dragons having subspecies of carrion-eating ‘Grooming Birds’ to eat the bits of raw or burnt meat from between their teeth or spaces in its rear claws, seems like an interesting possibility. One case in which a bird-watcher might be useful is in tracing this rare species; they will likely nest wherever the Dragon goes to groom or bathe itself. If you can find these birds you may be able to find that spot.


Wing Protection

Something rarely mentioned in Dragon-Hunting stories is the enormous vulnerability of a Dragons wings. Those wing-bones may be very strong but are still likely the weakest bones in its body. If even a single one snaps, it will likely be unable to fly, or at least fly well.

Its still a big fire-breathing Bird/Lizard thing, but will be much more vulnerable on the ground, not to mention the loss of pride and status caused by loss of flight.

A Dragon is not going to stick around for attritional warfare against anything big or strong enough to damage its wings, nor will it willingly get into tight environments where something can be dropped on it. If it feels like its wings might be damaged it will simply fly away. 

Retreat to the air is one of a Dragons most powerful abilities. It can simply leave combat and circle, or just fly off to heal and think, returning at a time or place of its own choosing. This core advantage and willingness to simply run away is not remarked on in Dragon-slaying stories.




Complex Builds

Considering their intelligence and access to materials, a dragons lair may well have more 'built' elements than we might suppose. Big mountains generally don't have massive caves of the kind a dragon likes at their peaks so the Dragon will need to claw, magic, or craft the holes it wants, and will probably bring up stuff to add; spars of timber etc.

One key element of a Dragons raids might be light yet strong building material that it can carry off. Parts of ships and boats especially, with their lightness but tensile strength, might be favoured.

Though it lacks manual dexterity and its human-level crafting may be a bit rubbish, it has a high intelligence, so its structural engineering would probably be quite good. A Dragons lair might be more like some kind of crazy log-cabin/palace/aircraft hanger built into a partial cave system, rather than just a bare cave. It would at least be able to wall off parts of the cave if it wanted, and would be able to build some kind of nest or platform to sleep on as both stone and gold will absolutely drink heat away from its body.


Strange Psychological Vulnerabilities

Being largely asocial, singular, very-long lived, highly individual beings, as well as being by our standards, insanely narcissistic, and also having a very high degree of intelligence but, compared to humans, relatively little to *do* with that intelligence, Dragons may be highly vulnerable to ... queer behaviour and curious states of mind.

The closest things we have to them are Kings, Dictators, top Generals, Catwalk Models and Celebrities. I guess; if Kanye was also a fighter jet, how would he act? Or if General McArthur was combined with Naomi Campbell and an aircraft carrier, how would that act?

Singular as they are, it would be hard to us to judge; just what is 'crazy' for a dragon, but they do have a LOT of time on their own, (in a sense, they are always alone), as well as being magical and living across a much greater range of time, and having senses we don't understand. If the Dragon is seeing ghosts or hearing voices, who are we to say how real they are? Or if it is starting to have some crazy theories about reality - I suppose it might be right? Or if its hoarding twine, or the bones of humans inner ears, or just spends a week staring at a tree or something...

Where exactly does the border of madness lie for a Dragon? 

The idea of a genuinely mentally ill, conspiracy theory, Alex Jones/Howard Hawks/Kanye Dragon is utterly tantalising and somehow more worrying than just a regular predictable Dragon. What if it wants to marry a local maiden, and wants an actual marriage ceremony? Or starts acting like something it’s not, like a boar or a mountain? Or if it starts saying its 'The wind' or 'is fire', which generally Dragons say stuff like that all the time but now it’s crossed some invisible kind of Kanye line where it genuinely seems like its disassociating and *actually* literally thinks it’s 'The Wind', or it’s the Sun. Or what if it gets religion, or wants to join one, or starts talking about Jew-Tunnels hidden under the earth? Wtf do you say when a Dragon starts going on about the secret rulers of the world?




Might Simply Run Away If Humiliated

The very intense pride of a dragon, obsession with status, and need to occupy the top of a hierarchy, means that if defeated, but not killed, or endangered, publicly humiliated, it might decide to burn everything around it alive and make ruin, but there is at least a reasonable percent possibility that it might just run away, or fly away somewhere very far that no-one has heard of it and either pretend it didn't happen or strew on it for centuries.

If a Dragon just waits long enough it can kill many of its mortal enemies with Time. In a way, they don’t matter much because, to it, they will be gone in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps we can add this to the capricious just-leave aspects of a Dragon that make sense in a pseudo Evo-Spec sense, and in a Fairytale sense, but don’t fit its role in Epic Fiction of a final last Boss and ultimate challenge. Imagined in this new way, they are much more tricksy, capricious, hard to predict, but also much more indifferent; genuinely part of a different world, only somewhat interacting with ours.




Strategy and Symbiosis

A dragon can take nearly any ground, but cannot hold it, it is singular and its enemies many. It is a little like an imperial power that rules by a combination of terror, buying off elites and managing the local economy and tech level so it can't get too high, but offers some actual benefits in that at least it occupies the top of the dominance hierarchy and is (hopefully) a relatively stable weapon of mass destruction.

Certainly in the area of a Dragons control, it wouldn’t allow any other Alpha-Predator, or anything dangerous enough that it might threaten the Dragon itself. If Sauron sets up shop in a nearby valley He is getting torched. If a chunky enough Giant arrives on the scene it is getting ambushed at night, with a bite to the back of the neck from above.

Humans are useful to a dragon as they cut down forests and keep them low. The Dragon probably thinks of Humanity as a form of ‘growth’. Likely it barely thinks of them as individuals, in the same way that if our garden gets moles, we don’t individually think about this mole or that mole, we just think, ‘Damn, I got too many moles, need to reduce the numbers’.

Let the man piles reach a certain height but burn them when they get too far above it, big densities can be dangerous. Likewise, a human population is stable and controllable. They keep the Orcs out and generally occupy a useful spot in the food chain. They are also a social and hierarchal organism, and so can be dominated from the top. Once there is an Alpha-Human, you only really need to dominate that one human with the gold top, and that one will govern the rest for you, making them quiescent. Very useful, and hard to govern Orcs like that. 

A Dragon might be in some sense, a reasonably good 'Governor' of a large reach of land. Though they have no interest in human flourishing, they do in the survival of human agriculture. From a human perspective - a Dragon *probably* (it might) won't eat you personally, as you are too small and scrawny to make a good meal. It might bankrupt you by eating your livestock, but if its smart it will farm you sustainably.


Rule Through Retributive Terror And Protein Tax

Like the U.S.A., a Dragon is a dangerous Air Power, with incredible destructive potential, that really does not want to get bogged down in complex environments. The biggest threat for most bands of heroes trying to scale a dragons lair has got to be literally the whole population around that lair.

If someone tries to kill the dragon and fails, the Dragon will simply burn every available farm, village and town, maybe giving enough warning for people to escape, but breaking them all back down to poverty and starvation, so they have the strongest possible motivation to prevent anyone from trying that, and it will be pretty obvious if you are going to try that as you are approaching the dragons lair with climbing gear and weapons.


Environmentalists, (to a degree)

Dragons have a deep sense of time that actual humans lack, and a direct very long term investment in their local environment remaining sustainable (for them).

Though, just because Dragons can be wise custodians of their resources, and it would be to their direct advantage to be so, that doesn't mean they actually will. Humans can be wise, but often aren’t, and Dragons would have no innate sympathy with human life, or intuitive understanding of it, a village meaning to them about what a chicken does to us. 

And they can leave at any time, and arrive at any time. So periods of stability might be long, when they happen, but rare in total number. Young Dragons moving in, Older Dragons becoming unstable, disputes between hyper-predators, changes in political system, like a new King or religion, environmental changes leading to famine and stock-loss or famine brought about by war, all could result in rapid disordering and a more conventional Maker-of-Ruin situation where the Dragon just burns and eats everything within wing-range before moving on or just going to sleep.





The View from Above

The world seen from above - a world of landscapes, rivers, food, ocean and weather, herds, whales, schools of fish, rising thermals, rain shadows and dangerous storms.

They would favour flat lands with not too much forest, and definitely not Jungle, and singular inaccessible peaks. Deserts would be good as they are totally accessible from above, everything moving is easy to spot, food clusters round rare oasiies, and caravans and herds will move along set routes. However, even if a Dragon can fly a long way, a Desert may just not be productive enough in terms of Protein, considering how far the Dragon has to fly to get it, then fly back home. If a Dragon did rule a Desert I imagine it would be a rule of 1 Desert = 1 Dragon.


Pastoralist Dragons

They would favour pastoralism (more food on the hoof), over crop-growing (what use is Grain to a Dragon?). 

So; pastoralists, in terms of their impact on other food sources, hunter-gatherer humans are preferred, but in terms of managing developed resources, limited settlements are better, as it locks the humans in place and makes their life and development dependent on something quite easily destroyed from above. A town or small city, from a Dragons perspective, is a 'human-pen', it concentrates them, makes them accessible, and vulnerable, and exploitable.

Like many empires throughout history, Rice cultivation is good, if you can get it, as it massively concentrates populations and makes them intensely vulnerable to hydraulic despotism, but again, Rice might be too efficient. Too many humans and not enough big cows. You really probably want a lot of big cows. Like the Mongols, Dragons might just destroy complex hydraulic systems; they don’t really need intensive agriculture, its much better for them to have a lower population so long as they are all herding goats out in the open or something.


Mountaintop Kings

Even letting humans occupy lesser mountains might be considered a challenge to dominance hierarchy.

However; Kings on Mountains - this might work out. Letting or even insisting Kings occupy mountaintop palaces, on much smaller mountains, separates them from their people, impoverishes them, and brings them into a system of Hierarchy which re-affirms your own place at its unreachable height - Kings are only petty lesser dragons, or you can let them think they are if it keeps the cattle quiet.

The mountaintop palace in this case becomes a kind of Dragon-Versailles, a means of controlling and containing tributary nobility, doling out useless but prized fragments of dominance hierarchy symbology while strongly limiting their actual power. 


Fishermen and Ships

The ocean has a lot of protein, but it’s hard for a Dragon to reliably and safely get. It would be quite vulnerable out to sea, with no guarantee it could land on the surface and easily get back up, and if it did, such a brutal flailing, wet, take-off, might involve a murderous expenditure of calories.

And the things in the Sea are BIG; whales, Kraken etc. Good to eat if you can usefully get one, but how do you lift it up without risking its flailing smacking a wing-bone. Perhaps you could swim back to land - but again, this would be a personal disaster.

Fishermen however, make a business of floating about, gathering Protein which is usually inaccessible to you, then concentrating it in big heaps, which, furthermore, are isolated and vulnerable to fire.

In a way, Fishermen might be so valuable to a Dragon that lives near the sea that it would actually be quite protective of them, in a limited sense. Permanently damaging a fishing fleet, breaking them to the point where they can no longer sustainably fish and gather protein, would be like shooting your Uber Eats driver. It would be wise to only take as much as the economy can stand, vary your predation between different ships, (probably the Dragon can at least remember the ships even if the individual humans are a bit indistinct), and leave the ship intact when you eat its hold full of fish, so it can get back to port and go out again.




The Horde

A Dragon understands dominance hierarchies, high-status stuff, things that gleam and shine and have unusual textures, (an actual dragons horde might be full of rotted silk, embroidered cloth and other rare but beautiful textiles). 

It would probably think more about gems and gold than many other treasures, partly due to status and gleam, but also because they are as eternal as the dragon themselves, and so are one of few things that would last as long as the dragon in a world where everything else passes after a couple of centuries.

Horded would be more like a bower-bird display than just a pile of stuff. If Dragons are intelligent and have a lot of free time they are going to spend a lot of effort arranging things. The arrangement and visual display of a Dragons Horde would be a work of art in itself, a show of astonishing beauty, arranged with mind-blowing complexity regarding the patterns of colour and lustre, but without a humanlike organising intelligence or sense of object hierarchy.

The Dragon may also collect things which are notable to it but don't seem like much to mortal men

either because it can see across a wider range of vision and these things have a lustre in the ultraviolet, or because they have magical properties it can perceive directly, or simply because of some unique element that dragons would perceive as relating to their life-world, or simply from personal preference - they would be highly individual creatures. Its possible to imagine Dragons as deranged, eccentric collectors par-excellence, filling their Bond-Lairs with more curiosities than a Wunderkammer, arranged in wild mosaics that make sense only to itself.




Theft of even a single object from a Dragons Horde would be immediately noticeable on an autistic and aesthetic level; not only is every individual element collected and considered according to its own nature and thought of as part of a ‘set’, but within that, everything is arranged in an unrelentingly specific kaleidoscope of counterpoint and form so that if a single piece goes missing, EVERYTHING IS RUINED! Not only an autists wrath when their hyperfixation is disturbed and disordered, but an artist or aesthetes rage at their long-considered patterning of form being wrecked and made ugly. 

Also these are status objects of course. But really, a Dragons absolute, unrelenting RAGE, and even deep personal wounding, at the theft of a single fragment of a massive horde, is perfectly understandable.




Speaking with a Dragon

The key unheimlich, or even horror-like element of speaking with a Dragon would be the combination of its evident intelligence and complex reasoning, with an utterly non-human perspective, and even indifference to things humans intuitively understand, and a voice and speaking pattern also utterly unlike most other living things. It would be very distinctly weird and scary to speak with a Dragon.


Lack of Intuitive Understanding

Humans learn word-sounds and their meanings bound up with human expressions, patterns of behaviour, posturing, verbal tone and so-on. Babies who don’t even understand words can sometimes still kind of ‘argue’ in a gabbly way, or be sassy or winsome; they grasp crudely the emotional complex behind the worlds long before the words themselves have specific meanings. So for humans, words are a little like pieces slotted into a complex pre-grown structure of relationships and situations, the abstract meanings clearing, defining and making things more specific.

Then, when humans are much older, they can use words alone to try to deal with abstract concepts that may have no physical referents, (though they are not good at it).

A Dragon will have no intuitive humanlike understanding of what those sounds mean, to a human, 

but it has a high intelligence, so can work out complex arrangements of appropriate sound according to circumstance. Yet, in conversation, would be nothing like talking to an actual person.

There may be apparent fluency and perfection of repetition, and even simulation, but riding between that and the deep level abstract intelligence, would be a general incomprehension of language as it is spoken by men and manlike things. It doesn't live a manlike life in a manlike body, or have a manlike society, it would be more like a very adept Minah bird, that can associate signal to utility with great skill, knows what inputs will lead to what outputs, but from an utterly Other perspective. It might be a little like when a Chat A.I. starts to break down, or exposes that it doesn’t really understand what it is saying, but is just ‘making sounds’. This would be pretty terrifying coming from something that big and predatory.

It might be impossible to have a casual conversation with a dragon, or crack a joke, since these things are closely related to the human lifeworld and play no part in anything the Dragon is interested in.


Spellcraft & Ancient Tongues

This would help account for Dragons Spellcraft since they can probably remember and replicate anything they have heard and, with innate magical potential and a high intelligence, can probably iterate and learn to approximate the mental models the spell language is meant to mirror and support - so a Dragons spells, like its language would be an echo of those used against it.

I imagine that it would probably be better at mimicking the models of more elemental spells, less attached to the human lifeworld, since I imagine the mental models used in more 'human' spells would be intuitively alien and difficult for a dragon to grasp.


The Voice

The Dragon also doesn’t have a humanlike throat or mouth. Like a parrot or Minah bird, it can mimic, duplicate and remix highly complex and subtle sounds, and would have complex birdlike trills and repetitions, and its own use of language would be consistently unheimlich; speaking in 'recorded' strands of language from different voices.

Its vocal structure would be like talking to a bunch of tape decks - the dragon knows highly complex words and phrases (can probably repeat entire songs and conversations verbatim, and these might be hundreds, or even thousands of years old). The Dragons 'tape deck' might include many ancient languages long forgotten because, to the Dragon they were not that long ago. 

These might be bent towards the statements of Kings, Heroes, Mages etc, because these are the kind of people the Dragon actually meets and at least listens to somewhat

Many of these voices would be angry or scared, threatening, defying or pleading, since that’s most of what a dragon hears from manlike things, (or negotiating, it probably understands negotiation), or might be strands of distant conversation heard from ordinary people at night, far away, as the dragon heard this when flying above them, or church bells or other church songs, as these will be regular and will probably drift over the countryside and the Dragon will have heard most of them a bunch of times, though it would sing or replicate them with the usual bell or instrumental accompaniment, and/or in full chorus, as that’s how it heard them.

So, imagine this; the core voice is Birdlike, with the slight squarks and chirps and trilling you might expect from a bird, but way, way, way too deep. Deeper than any bird you have ever heard. And it comes from deep within the throat and chest, not from the mouth, which is lipless, and only opens slightly, and not in synch with its words in a human way.  

Above this mouth, regardless of what it is currently saying, the blank lizardlike stare of the Dragon.

And what it says, its ‘calls’, come as a kind of ‘madlibs’ or hyper-complex overlaying of ancient sounds. You are in a D&D setting so have never heard of DJ’s or seen ‘Bumblebee’ from Michael Bays ‘Transformers’, so have nothing to compare it to; voices in ancient languages, cries of ancient kings, fragments of chanted spells, the sound of crowds or singing, but heard as if far away, as the Dragon heard it, natural sounds like waves and wind, secret sounds like those animals make, flowing and overlaying of words, arranged not by precise meaning but in a kind of instinctive modernist collage of sounds.

But clearly this thing, (and it is most obviously a thing when it speaks, not a person as you understand it), understands you. It responds to what you say. Its collages of screams and cries, of sentences, and chanted poetry and old songs and muttered conversation, make some kind of sense, both emotionally, in terms of whether it means weal or woe, but also perhaps in the specifics, because it feels like there are layers of inhuman meaning there, relationships like jokes, or ironies incomprehensible to you, but you can just intuit the inference, and that there is more there you cannot understand. All of it in that terrifying giant-cassowary bird-voice, coming from that staring inhuman Dinosaur-face. The awkward pidgin communication between you limited not by lack of vocabulary, or lack of intelligence, but by a fundamental Otherness.

Speaking directly to a dragon might be more like speaking to a Demon than speaking to an actual Demon would be. Demons after all, are deeply concerned with human ranges of emotion and understanding, though antiethical to them. Speaking to a Dragon would be a truly disassociating Herzogian indifference-of-nature situation.


The Roar

A Dragons full roar, as well as freezing more totally than a lions, might be enough to rupture ears and even break bones. Also pretty likely you would shit yourself. They ‘aint put that in 5e I tell you.


13 comments:

  1. Reads like a cross between Dungeon Meshi and the Prince. I could imagine a whole series going into "Machinations for Monsters".

    Regarding hygiene fire and roars are going interesting assets, heating/cooling of rock could create fresh parasite-free gravel and expand the cave at the same time. Super-sonicating that pit could rupture any nasties that've taken up residence and separate the granules into pleasing uniformity, to an outside observer all this looks like repeated highly-destructive tantrums... it's actually a spa day! (Dumping icy chunks for the snow-capped peaks to be flash-vaporised might add a nice flair, maybe the odd resinous tree for scented steam of sorts)

    While I like the super-memory remix weirdness of talking to a dragon I think there's a different interpretation that has meat on it. Ever had semi-lucid dreams where your goals are opposed to your waking self or otherwise unachievable in waking life? That's draconic self awareness, a mostly powerless homunculus which bleeds identity and permanence through the bulk of animal instinct wherever it can. The hoards, the titles, the generational enmities? All expternalisations of the self and it's memories into the outside world via jury-rigged instinct. While hyperintelligent when "revved up" to function (for bower building aesthetic consideration or more effective food procurement) it mostly exists in a half-dreaming state vaguely aware of its own impotence. It's still a dragon and proud as hell so the idea that mere mortals enjoy something it doesn't is preposterous, it's at war with its own implicit hypocrisy as with it's nature as an appendix stapled to an animal god largely beyond needing it.

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    1. That's another very cool concept! Like Plato is asleep inside you.

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    2. Kind of automatically in a pseudo-Buddhist/Brechtian alienation of self that some philosophies would actively work towards. Probably there's a cult worshipping Dragons for that somewhere.

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  2. The two could be combined, I think. The concept of the dragon speaking using the recycled voices of prey reminded me of Wolfe's alzabo, and one of the most interesting aspects of that monster is the strange self-awareness of its lure voices. The consciousness with whom the protagonist converses knows that it is only a powerless passenger in the unthinking predator which consumed it, but has made its peace with that in order to pursue parallel goals of which the alzabo cannot conceive. Possibly, draconic consciousness could be similar; a cannibalised hybrid of some vestigial evolutionary intelligence and mimic-simalucra of consumed victims. In some cases it manages to achieve symbiotic harmony with the brute instinct that is actually governing the creature's actions, but in other cases it goes full-Kanye insane or perhaps even works against its host, trilling hysterical warnings and apologies to the heroes even as its body implacably stalks them for their meat.

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    1. I'm more scared of Dragon intelligence now. The deeper we go into the possibilities the more troubling they feel. The giant monster itself is les frightening than the potential forms of post-evolutionary non-human intelligence.

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    2. [Original post was intended as a reply to QnA, btw]
      One option I like which is maybe more bathetic than frightening - though could easily be mined for horror elements - is that of a fully vestigial draconic consciousness that has zero control over anything but speech, but has desperately convinced itself otherwise. So its hoard is just a random assemblage of shiny objects designed to dazzle a mate, but it will extemporise complex pseudo-aesthetic theories to justify the placement and significance of each bloodstained coin. The slaughter of a herd is invariably accompanied by rambling monologues explaining it in terms of ancient cosmic struggles far beyond your ken - interrupted by choking pauses in which the hunting instinct effortlessly takes over the oesophagus for another round of spewing pyrotic fluid. When the PCs first encounter it, it comes across as a devious Napoleonic supervillain, and it will always present elaborate rationales for why it often fails to follow through on promises or threats. With close observation, they may eventually discover the truth, which is that the voice which taunts them is merely an insane prisoner trapped by evolution inside a 100-ton animal that cannot be reasoned with.

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    3. Lovely though of course the TRVE draconic horror is that you can find examples of all four of these apparently "rationally derived" para-sane horrors and have each be arbitrary interpretations of the fundamentally unknowable! I was thinking more in terms of sneakily encoding chunks of memory under the guise of enacting bower instincts though as you say our efforts at symbiotic. The ultimate act of self awareness to know that one must prune their thoughts the fit the winnowing shape of instinct if they are to be thought at all, to a dragon not engaging in sublimely subtle self-deception/aggrandisement is synonym to being non-sapient. Perhaps they prefer to deal with more "naked emperor" type aristocrat intermediaries because those guys would seem more "real" to them (albeit in a pathetic fumbling way).

      Lotta fun in this mental xenofiction stuff btw. I'll hopefully be running a short game along similar lines soon!

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  3. Reminds me of this anonymous idea on /tg/, Vanga-Vangog's hyperanthropus praesperans and SMJB's Posthomo Americanus Borea.

    https://i.ibb.co/YB0XhW0/NEET-Dragons.png
    https://www.deviantart.com/vanga-vangog/art/Hyperanthropus-praesperans-908236800
    https://archiveofourown.org/works/23098414

    Species, possibly artificially created by physiologically more humanlike precursors transhumanistically enhancing themselves, which are sentient but not social because they’re individually capable enough they don’t need to work together and build tools to survive.

    Also a possibility, the ancestral species from which dragons are descended was some kind of social sophont dinosauroid whose civilization collapsed when their transhuman-equivalents no longer needed to maintain it to survive.

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    1. That VV post is very much what I had in mind (especially the part where without oversight natural selection turns the serene overman into an even viler monster than his creators) and I really dig the "transhuman dino-descendants" angle whenever I'm doing a spelljammer sort of thing. Arnold's paradox beasts and those "demiurge-angels of the Cretaceous" interpretations are also killer.

      You could make a killer "dragonpunk" setting where things are largely mundane save where pre-exodus dino-ruins and their returning god-lizard kin are concerned. All "magic" would be derived from the infusion of draconic tissues (more accurately the magitech nanites which infest their flesh) and the recovered tech of Icke-ish reptilian remnants.

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  4. I love the image of these hyper-powerful beings with strangely mirrored, fragmented, razor-sharp, but decidedly alien intelligence - there's something very sci-fi in this, like a powerful and frightening, but generally largely disinterested AI. Also interesting that you brought up the comparison with demons, who actually ARE interested in human things like petty control and torture - I was thinking of AM from I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and the purely effective horror of a hyperintelligence with infinite resources, which ought to be disinterested, but has instead put basically its entire computational power in service of maximising suffering. It's rare that rpgs work with beings at quite that scale of control, I suppose because the stories are basically a SAW movie and probably not much fun to play.

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  5. Reading this I was strongly reminded of Peter Watts' Novel Blindsight (available for free on the author's website https://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm).
    The book also deals with the idea that some traits we think of as absolutely necessary for an intelligent species might just be evolutionary leftovers. It also has an entity speaking human languages without actually understanding anything it says, with all the horrific implications that entails.

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  6. Really cool post! If you don’t mind this gave me some loose thoughts on dragons?

    Infrasound communication: i’d expect a lot of calls in low frequency, due to its capacity to travel larger distances. You wouldn’t hear it, but if you got close enough to a dragon’s lair, enough to see the mountain or outcrop in the horizon, you’d feel an uncanny sensation, the vibration in your bones. Reach the base and you begin to feel dizzy. Walk to the lair’s entrance and retching and incontinent are common. Face to face with the beast and it might give you a heart attack. This zone of infrasound accomplishes two goals then: it keeps out pesky hominids from getting too close and announces to other dragons that the territory is already occupied. Infrasound vocalization is probably mostly practiced by adults, for juveniles prefer to lay low and not bring the attention of their older territorial conspecifics which are wont to kill younger intruders.

    Altriciality versus precociality: Maybe dragons don’t exactly fit the “altricial” versus “precocial” spectrum, but if you’d have to choose, you’d call them altricial. Dragons are long lived, hold vast territories and make elaborate lairs, so we can induce their young might hatch quite feeble – maybe even blind and scaleless – and take a relatively long time to develop. Once these youngs develop however, they abandon their lair and fend for themselves. We could refer to different dragon life stages as: whelp/hatchling -> juvenile -> adult. So far, so altricial, but the thing is that juvenile dragons lack a very important capability of adult dragons and develop it on their own, away from their progenitors.

    Juvenile dragons are not sapient: Juvenile dragons are smart. They can ambush prey, learn patterns, solve puzzles and perform tricks if tamed. They can mimic sounds to lure prey or scare away predators. However, the thing is that their brains are still growing, and whatever is the draconic equivalent of the mammalian neocortex, it is relatively undeveloped for outright sophothood. You can’t teach a juvenile dragon how to speak, nor can you communicate with it beyond basic gestures. It’s as if you had something with the body of a child (for its species) mixed with a mind crossed between a chimp and a jaguar. At least an adult dragon can be bargained with, but the youngest, for all their cunning, are utterly relentless with prey, and unfortunately for humans and most humanoid races, they fall within the exact size range of juveniles in their early decades. Fortunately, adult dragons are extremely territorial, and won’t tolerate juveniles, even their own, in their territories, being willing to kill them if spotted within the adult’s range. Of course, juveniles don’t stay non-sapient forever. Eventually they grow capable of sapiency, but for the acquisition of language to take effect, they must be exposed to it. When dragons are too old to be called juveniles, but still relatively classified as adults, they might settle down and begin to interact with humanoids – who are already beyond their preferred prey range – in different ways.

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  7. Diplomacy before language: Before a dragon learns to speak, it has already spent decades observing – besides hunting and murdering – humanoids. It already knows a few basic words it used to lure its prey, even if it doesn’t quite catch the meaning. What happens, however, is that a young adult or late juvenile will settle down in a territory and, instead of devouring everything on its path, periodically “cull” the livestock of neighboring communities as long as it’s unopposed by other adult dragons, great civilizations or threats. The dragon intuitively already understands the idea of using the surrounding villages as a long-term resource, even if it doesn’t well know how to order the peasants. What will usually happen is that the own people the dragon has “conquered” will try to somehow negotiate with it, so that the dragon’s demand will not surpass the capacity of the villagers to support themselves. The young adult dragon then, already on the verge of sapience, will pick up on these communication cues and start mimicking humanoid speech. From mimicking, it will grow an increasing interest in learning speech and, alongside it, being able to better administrate the humanoids. Eventually, the dragon will force the peasants to teach it how to speak, the knowledge of language being a great pastime for a creature which now lives in leisure. As the dragon conquers surrounding ethnicities and kingdoms, so does its vocabulary and knowledge of distinct language grow. This brings us to our next point.

    There is no such thing as “draconic”: Some humanoid races try to paint dragons as barbaric simpletons, cultural parasites. According to this view, dragons are in their state simple “barbaric” monsters who must be “civilized” by the enlightened humanoids. This is a biased view, of course. Dragons just lack the capacity to learn language in their early decades, and being conspecifically asocial creatures, do not have the opportunity to learn it from other dragons in their adulthood. What happens then is that dragons never developed their own natural language. A speaking dragon is an unforeseen contingency engendered by a mixture of their own biology and cultural circumstance. As a result, dragons must communicate amongst themselves either through languages they know, interpreters or instinctual calls. A dragon’s infrasound call is either devoid of meaning, or a makeshift song composed of modified words, used in a frequency range way below the one they were ever meant to be used in. The meaning of the song, if any, is a consequence of subjective aesthetic preference instead of a necessity for communication.

    I had a few other ideas but can't write more right now. Feel free to ignore this if it doesn't interest you ofc

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