The true secret to understanding dragons is in comprehending their worldview. Mastering knowledge of their physical abilities is a start, but it’s all too easy for a human to assume that because dragons are intelligent mortal creatures, they must think like humans do. Dragons are at least as different from other creatures in their psychology and thought processes as they are physically.
Arrogance and Superiority
Dragons are superior beings: more powerful, more intelligent, more worthy of wealth and territory, and more important than any other mortal creature. To them, this conviction is more than a dogmatic belief; it’s a fundamental fact, something they are born knowing, and a cornerstone of their personality and worldview. This aspect makes dragons seem arrogant when they interact with humanoids, but it goes beyond any human conception of conceit. To try to humble a dragon is like trying to talk the wind out of blowing or attempting to persuade a starving person not to die of deprivation.
This attitude colors just about everything a dragon does. Chromatic dragons think of humanoids in exactly the same way humanoids think of animals— as prey or as beasts of burden, subject to dragons’ whims. More benevolent dragons treat humanoids with kindness, just as good-hearted humans would not unnecessarily hurt animals—but ultimately, humanoids are still lesser creatures. Even a nonevil chromatic dragon thinks little of taking something that belongs to humans or elves, or even of eating the occasional passerby. That is the natural order.
Dragons can, however, recognize the capabilities of powerful individuals or of people in great numbers. Arrogant though they are, dragons will negotiate with humanoids if they feel such folk pose a danger or have something to offer that the dragon cannot easily acquire on its own. Even then, though, the dragon measures and values the people in question based solely on their threat or usefulness and not on any intrinsic worth. The dragon assumes the position of authority in any such interaction, not as a conscious or deliberate choice, but because—as far as the dragon is concerned—that is the way the world works.
The situation grows more complicated when dragons apply this same attitude toward other dragons. Chromatics believe that all dragons are superior to other creatures, that chromatic dragons are superior to nonchromatics, that their own variety is superior to other chromatic varieties, and—usually—that each individual chromatic dragon is superior to all other dragons of their kind. Even as they acknowledge that older dragons are more powerful than they are, they believe that they themselves will become more potent by that age. To say that a chromatic dragon literally believes that the world revolves around it is not terribly far from the truth. This innate arrogance, more than greed or ambition, leads to dragon-versus-dragon conflicts over prey, territory, or magic items. Even when dragons band together to cooperate in family groups or in the occasional community, each dragon feels that it ought to be the one running things. A dragon might be capable of temporarily squelching that impulse for the greater good, but it remains present in the back of the dragon’s mind nonetheless.
A few nonevil chromatics and metallics go the opposite way in their arrogance, seeing humanoids not as beasts to be exploited but as poor, defenseless children (or even pets) to protect and herd. Although such dragons pose less physical danger to humanoid communities than others, they can be just as difficult to deal with. They speak condescendingly, assuming they know what is best for their chosen wards regardless of what the people themselves think. Such dragons are stifling at best and dictatorial at worst, usurping the rules of communities purportedly for their own good (there are, of course, exceptions, particularly silvers).
Dragons do not share humanoid drives, such as the needs for comfort and companionship. Even basic drives of life—food, shelter, and reproduction— common to both dragons and humanoids manifest themselves in different ways.
A dragon is a long-distance hunter, willing and able to cover dozens of miles for a single meal. Thus, it does not share the human need to gather with others around convenient sources of food or water. Further, whereas humanoids seek safety in numbers, a dragon feels safest in isolation.
Most humanoids are gregarious creatures. They gather not just for food or protection, but also because they are happiest when able to interact with others. They talk; they form friendships; they work together. Dragons, on the other hand, rarely seek companionship of any sort. Most of them happily spend the majority of their lives in solitude. They might visit other dragons once every few years, for conversation or to learn of world events. When the mating urge takes them, they seek out companions with whom they might spend several years while raising wyrmlings. With a few exceptions, however, even a loving, monogamous dragon couple spends only a few years together every few decades. With too much time together, dragons’ territorial instincts kick in, making them uncomfortable around one another. An ancient dragon proverb about mated pairs translates roughly as, “Love is best fed by borders.”
Combine the preference for isolation with innate territorial instincts, and it becomes easier to see why dragons have a difficult time understanding why human communities grow the way they do. When a dragon objects to a humanoid village growing into its territory, it might not comprehend why the people cannot move to a different location, or why the village must have so many of them.
Similarly, dragons do not recognize how relatively fragile humanoids are. They know themselves to be physically superior, but they might not know the extent to which this is the case.
Dragons and humanoids share the basic drive to find shelter—preferably a permanent home. For humanoids, this includes a predilection for comfort. Dragons, with their innate toughness, weak tactile senses, and great tolerance for temperature fluctuation, rarely experience true discomfort. Temperature bothers them only if it sinks or climbs to extremes (and, depending on the dragon’s variety, sometimes not even then). Also, a dragon’s ability to fly renders terrain all but a moot point. Thus, just as dragons might fail to grasp why humanoids gather in great numbers, they also sometimes fail to understand why humanoids are so picky about where they choose to live. The notion that one region might be more comfortable than another region with similar resources might never occur to a dragon—certainly not to the extent that comfort would justify choosing a region inside the dragon’s territory over another region outside it.
If dragons are known for any attitude beyond all others—above even arrogance—it’s greed. Even the friendliest of good dragons is as avaricious as the stingiest human miser. Dragon hoards are legendary: enormous piles of gold, gleaming gems, magic items— wealth enough to buy and sell entire humanoid communities. Yet dragons rarely do anything with all that wealth. They collect not to spend, but to have.
The desire to build a hoard is a psychological drive—even, arguably, a biological drive—in dragons. It is no less pressing than the human need for companionship or shelter. It has no discernable practical reason, no underlying purpose, no goal. Although the occasional dragon might fight the urge to hoard just as the occasional human prefers to be a hermit, it is a trait to which the race as a whole succumbs.
As to where this drive might come from, no one can say for certain. Dragons that care enough to analyze the trait assume that either Tiamat gifted (or cursed, if you ask a metallic) it to the race—a reflection of her own covetousness— or it evolved naturally. Perhaps the earliest dragons impressed potential mates with their hoards, so that the dragons with the largest hoards passed their attitudes and instincts to their offspring. Dragons wonder no more about the origins of their avariciousness than they wonder why they have a breath weapon or wings; they accept it as the natural way of things.
Lack of Societal Norms and Pressure
A relatively minor aspect of dragon psychology, yet nonetheless important for understanding the creatures, is the almost complete lack of societal pressures. Societal norms shape humanoid civilization in every respect. Laws and taboos, traditions and beliefs, are all largely social constructs. If a human chooses not to steal property from a neighbor for fear of punishment, or if a dwarf refrains from murdering a member of a rival clan to avoid retaliation, societal constraints are at work. Notions of marriage, rules about acceptable times for sexual relations, courtesy, economic transactions, work ethics—the rules of society shape and define all these customs and more.
Dragons do not have such pressures. They have traditions, but the average dragon has no peer pressure or governing body pushing it to follow those traditions. It follows traditions—or chooses not to— based entirely on personal beliefs. Except in rarely occurring draconic societies, dragons have no laws prohibiting specific behaviors. Dragons might observe religious prohibitions, but they do so on an individual basis and might or might not follow such rules consistently.
Intellectually, a dragon might understand—or at least learn—why humanoids undertake or avoid certain behaviors when law or tradition demands it. The notion that a body of laws might shape a community’s behavior rarely, if ever, occurs to a dragon at the outset; humanoids must explain that concept, unless the dragon has dealt with humanoids before. Even if a dragon does have experience in dealing with humanoids, it does not comprehend how powerful a force societal and peer pressure can be, since it has probably never experienced such a thing. When told that a specific humanoid cannot undertake an action because the action is illegal or taboo, a dragon’s first reaction is likely to amount to, “So what?”
Despite their isolationist natures, however, dragons do occasionally form larger communities. Such dragons are far more likely than others to understand and to accept the restrictions that society places on humanoids.
Patience and the Long View
It’s easy enough to speak of the passage of thousands of years, but the true significance of a dragon’s life span takes some consideration to process. Thousands of years. Multiple millennia. The average dragon can expect to live longer than most nations and many religions.
Dragons, in other words, have a lot of time on their hands.
In emergencies, dragons can react swiftly, making decisions on the spur of the moment and dealing with immediate needs. Barring such urgency, dragons have no desire to seize the moment. It does not even occur to them to do so. Dragons take their time mulling over even the simplest of decisions, considering the possible repercussions and contemplating all possible options.
When trying to negotiate with a dragon, even the most patient negotiator can lose faith. If a dragon cannot come to an agreement—and assuming the issue is not one over which the dragon would kill—it can happily walk away from the table and come back to negotiate with the heirs of the original envoy. More than once, a dragon that has held successful interactions with a given person comes back to talk to him or her later, only to be surprised to learn that the person has been dead for several generations.
As discussed previously, the long life span contributes more than anything else to a dragon’s arrogance and superiority. Consider that a dragon’s view of the human life span roughly compares to a human’s view of a gerbil’s longevity. A humanoid generation can pass in the time it takes a dragon to mull over a single problem; a dragon can wake from a long sleep to find entire empires have risen and fallen in its absence. Is it any wonder, then, that dragons cannot find it in themselves to lend weight or importance to the actions and desires of scurrying humanoids?
Unfortunately for humanoids, a dragon’s grudges live as long as the dragon. Because an angered dragon holds individual humanoids in such little esteem, it does not particularly concern itself with enacting its vengeance upon the specific person who angered it. Dragons have been known to return generations after humanoids insulted or defeated them, wreaking destruction upon those humanoids’ descendants or hometown. In such cases, the victims of the wyrm’s rage might not even remember the individual who angered the dragon, let alone the specifics of the insult.
A dragon’s long life span is not always a blessing. Although dragons lack the humanoid need for mental and physical stimulation, even dragons grow bored with the passage of decades and centuries. Many dragons study and master mystic rituals, not just for the power they offer but also for the mental exercise. As suggested in the discussion of ancient dragons, some solve riddles or puzzles, study history or religion, or even deliberately instigate conflicts to keep themselves amused. Dragons might become experts in multiple fields, not out of any real desire to master those subjects, but as a means of passing time. Some turn to religion, following various rites and celebrations more as a hobby than as a sign of true religious faith.
Perhaps one of the single greatest differences between dragons and humans, in terms of thought processes, is this: Dragons are predators. A dragon might be a sage, a priest, a connoisseur of art, a collector of treasure, or even an ambitious politician, but these are secondary identifiers. A dragon is a hunter who possesses other interests, not a collector or a leader who happens to hunt. Barring such factors as speech and intelligence, dragons are less akin to humans than they are to wolves, tigers, or snakes.
Everything discussed so far, every draconic action or personality quirk, comes about at least in part from dragons’ predatory nature. A dragon chooses the location for a lair not just defensively, but also to ensure a rich hunting ground. Because of its arrogance, a dragon sees humanoids and other beings not merely as lesser creatures, but as potential prey. Even a dragon’s acquisition of a hoard requires it to hone its hunting and combat abilities: it must locate, obtain, and defend its possessions.
When negotiating with humanoids, a dragon not only has the upper hand in dealing with a lesser being, but it is also interacting with something that, under other circumstances, would be lunch. Indeed, the option of eating an envoy and starting over with someone else rarely strays far from a dragon’s mind. When a dragon deigns to negotiate with humanoids, it expects the humanoids to be grateful; it has, after all, already done them the favor of allowing them to live.