The Evolutionary Biology of Dragons

What if instead of accepting the notion of dragons as wholly fictitious creations of the imagination, we instead looked at them as an evolutionary biologist would? How do dragons fit into their biological niche and what purpose do their biological traits serve? Are dragons just evil or are their behaviors serving specific functions?

Defining dragons

There are many kinds of dragons from fiction. In order to not have to deal with the specific traits of each of these, I will be limiting the scope of this article to the Tolkienesque dragon. These dragons can be said to have the following traits:

  • Dragons grow to be very large perhaps as big as 100′ long and massing 15 -20 tons
  • They fly using powerful wings perhaps aided by magical properties that provide lift
  • Dragons have a tough scaly reptile-like hide
  • They breathe fire
  • Dragons are intelligent, cunning, and crafty
  • They are solitary creatures
  • Dragons horde wealth (particularly gold)

An evolutionary perspective

The first, most obvious, trait in dragonkind is that they are large. Largeness is not a trait that evolution selects against as long as it does not impact a creature’s ability to survive and reproduce. The dinosaurs were easily in the size range of dragons. In the case of dragons as apex predators, size provides them with advantages. They are able to travel great distances in a single day to find food and patrol their territory. Because of their size and build, few, if any, other creatures are in a position to compete with them. They are also able to prey on the largest of animals and can strike from the air where their attacks cannot be avoided. These attacks will often come a night where the dragon can use surprise and confusion to its advantage.

Because dragons require large amounts of food they require a large territory in which to hunt. This territory needs to be managed in such a way that the prey are inclined to remain in the territory; this despite it being the hunting ground of an unimaginably powerful apex predator.

So, I hear you breathe fire

The most extraordinary trait with dragons is that they breathe fire. Rather than assuming that this fantastic trait is simply gifted to dragons let us suppose it has both a biological cost and benefit. First, we have to assume that dragons have magical properties that are innate to their being. The two primary functions of those magical properties are to provide enough lift to allow dragons to gain and maintain flight and the ability to breathe fire. We must also assume that the dragons are immune from their own fire (and probably fire in general). Rather than speculate on how this magic works, we will assume that it is simply a part of the natural world in which dragons exist. We will also assume it comes with a biological cost (otherwise all predators would do it).

With all systems in evolutionary biology, traits with a high cost must offset that cost with a benefit. Fiction that includes dragons tends to present the benefit as simply being a means of making a terrifying monster more terrifying. However, from a biological point of view terror has no value outside of keeping those things which might harm you from approaching you. For a dragon, that thing is, for the most part, other dragons.

As already discussed, dragons would be immune to fire in general. You might say that things like armies of humanoids might pose a significant threat to a dragon and fire would certainly be a useful survival tool in that case. However, these armies came very late in dragon evolution. If a dragon lives up to 1000+ years, then the entirety of human history is only 10 dragon lifetimes long. It should be clear that dragons, in their current form, would have existed long before human civilization.

To find the solution to the utility of fire breath we have to think of dragons as more than just monsters. We need to think of them as creatures with evolutionary imperatives. To a human, a dragon may seem like a creature of pure evil, but it is simply a creature fitting into a niche that allows it to survive. More than that, dragons are highly intelligent. In some ways more that people. But why?

We know that intelligence is unnecessary in many apex predators such as sharks, crocodiles, etc. Since a stupid dragon could swoop out of the sky and pounce on prey just as easily, what is the utility of intelligence, that as we have said comes at a biological cost? The answer is ‘land management’. Dragons do not shape their environments to the extent that humans and similar creatures do. Dragons are quite comfortable living in caves with no need for light, security, or other creature comforts. They are content being solitary beings leaving their homes to patrol their domain and hunt for game. To that extent, part of managing their domain is creating and maintaining open lands where large game animals will prosper.

Dense forests on the other hand do not greatly benefit a creature that spots its prey from high in the air. Forests such as this must be maintained through controlled burns. In times of scarcity, a dragon might use its fiery breath to flush game out into the open. Again, this requires intelligence and cunning.

So can I buy you a drink?

Why would a dragon hoard wealth? This is a truly puzzling question given the fact that dragons don’t spend money. Why have it; why sleep with it? Dragons not only want money, they obsessively covet it and are likely to know exactly how much and what they have. A dragon might be able to tell you precisely how many gold pieces they have and where they came from. This is a very particular thing about dragons, their minds catalog possessions as well as lore. The dragon is likely to know quite a bit about dragon history, its own domain, threats, and the condition of the livestock in its domain. More on this later.

As previously discussed, dragonkind well predate civilization and the minting of coin. So why would they have any biological compulsion to collect these things? If we examine the basic drives of all creatures, the strongest ones are those of survival and reproduction. Since this behavior does not enhance a dragon’s ability to survive, it must enhance its ability to reproduce.

Oh, Isn’t that shiny

When we look at flying creatures we see a good deal of sexual dimorphism in many of them. Typically, males will have bright colors. The peacock is an extreme example of this. As part of sexual behavior, certain male birds will gather shiny objects to attract females. This is especially true among the more intelligent birds such as the Corvidae. These shiny items will be used to decorate the nest.

Consider the dragon; what makes him attractive: size, ferocity, and appearance. On this last one, we should ask ourselves ‘How would a healthy dragon appear?’. A healthy male dragon is likely to have glossy and colorful scales. Here we have the major attraction to gold coins. A dragon able to secure a large horde is likely to be attractive to females. The shape of coins is similar to scales. The color and shine of gold is also likely to be attractive. Again, since size is likely an attractor, a large horde would probably trigger sexual receptiveness in female dragons.

High Level Party Stress Relief

A little over a month ago I came across a question in the D&D 3.5 section of Reddit. It got my attention because if you are a DM or even a player you have run into this same problem. The version you are playing is often not relevant because the problem is quite version independent. When parties of PCs get powerful enough they tend to dominate their surroundings. They power through classically constructed dungeons and short circuit the adventure. Below is the question and I will attempt to answer it in a way that any good DM should be able to implement.

Hey all, I’m a decently experienced dm (decade or so) and I’ve run all kinds of rpgs with many different rule sets and I believe that my interests in all rpg games has gotten me in a spot of trouble. I’ve spent years with what feels like a rotating door of players with only a few constants and with life’s twists and turns for various reasons most of my dnd campaigns don’t get more than a year before half the group moves are has dramatic work hour shifts that take them away. All that aside I’ve been blessed this last year an a half with 7 players who truly would pass up everything to be at dnd, and to show them as much respect as they do me I’ve done my darn hardest to make a campaign both entertaining and fun. But a new problem has cropped up for me, and that’s taking the campaign past lv 14. The party averages lv 16 and the math provided in the dmg to create proper challenges is lacking at this point. I haven’t over feed magic items but some (mostly one) players have gone the “ill just craft or have crafted the magic item I need”. I’m typically very open to “player option C” with appropriate hurdles. But I’ve run several sessions I’ve become ashamed of. Battles that were meant to be large problems end up being easier than intended, “boss” fights don’t seem to hold any pressure, and any air of impending doom I’ve previously created is evaporating. Yesterday I ran a Tarrasque fight for the first time I’ve never had a party I thought could handle it, and they almost played with the dang thing. Sure I ate a couple of my players but even the one player that died laughed it off as the cleric performed a true res. 😳 any help or guidance in running an end of campaign scenario for lv 16 parties would be appreciated.

Posted byu/Stagheardt

My first answer I gave off the top of my head. While is was adequate I did not feel it really answered the question in way that provided a lot of flexibility to the DM.

There are many creatures that work well against high level parties. A mage that is several levels higher than the party is one of them. Mages have a tendency to become entrenched if they are on their home ground. They may have all sort of magical advantages. For instance teleport pads that require a special ring to operate. Prepared spells. enhanced familiars through which they may operate. Summoned creatures, etc. Let us not forget any number of powerful evil races. Drow come to mind. Deep in the underdark even a high level party may have difficulty. You can deny your party resources, hit them with diseases, poison, traps. Fights with golems meant as a distraction, labyrinths, puzzles. Get your party out of their comfort zone. Seperate them. Force them to fight images of themselves. Be creative.

My answer #1

With my second answer I tried to be a bit more insightful and provide strategies rather than simple opponents that could match the party.

Powerful parties will tend to use their power to their advantage. They will attempt to bulldoze their way through. Create scenarios where brute force is a bad idea. Assume your adversary is not stupid and knows what a powerful group can do. He or she will be prepared with strategies to offset their advantages. Your villain will do their best to gather intelligence on his foes while not making them aware he is doing so. The villain is also under no obligation to be fair. Perhaps that helpful bard in the village was not really being helpful after all but giving the party solutions to a few puzzle traps to lure them into false confidence for the trap where he misleads them. Better yet he is a dupe lead to believe he is helping while he is being used. Perhaps even more, one of the traps was that the paladin of the party needed to be tricked into wronging the innocent in order for part of the evil plan to work. They punish the bard (who is the victim of a frame job) and by doing so set off a series of events. Again, powerful parties never suspect their hard won victory was a means to an end possibly a means of ridding the true villain of a rival or expendable cohort.

Players, to a great extent, expect adventures to be like T-ball. They are looking for monsters to be placed in front of them so they can kill them and take the treasure; The typical D&D trope. This is one of the DMs best weapons. Make the adventure anything but what they expect. Instead offer the illusion of this. There are many ways of doing this. An opponent much smarter than most of the party is one way. Let’s, for instance, assume the party is on a rescue mission to save a princess. The princess has however been transformed into an ancient red dragon cursed to be unable to speak. All her attempts come out as roars. There in the room is an illithid looking like the princess. The dragon is chained so it must block access to the illithid/princess. The illithid will read the minds of the PCs and will encourage them to kill the dragon so that she might escape. The Illithid really does want the party to kill the dragon and does plan to escape. All the encounters up to this point have been to assess the party’s abilities and prepare to counter them. The party kills the dragon to rescue the princess. As the dead dragon transforms into the now dead princess the illithid disintegrates the body and teleports away. All the party finds is a large pearl where the girl lay. Little does the party know but the pearl is a cursed item that causes members of the party to tell the least flattering version of the truth to the king when he asks about his daughter.

Comicpalooza 2017 is all over and I am so tired

<–Previous post about this year’s Comicpalooza

Another one bites the dust

Another Comicpalooza has come and gone. I walked about 40 miles and talked to dozens of people. Now it’s all over and time to follow up on the contacts I made. I had a lot of fun talking to Marky Ramone and the guys from Daredevil. Of course is always nice to see Commander Mark and my pal from Blind Ignorents days Tod Waters. Both had booths at the show. I was very pleased to meet fellow redhead The Ginger Artist. We are planning to have redhead parties in the future. That’s pretty exciting.  Last but certainly not least are three artists who expressed an interest in helping Underlair: Edward Kraatz II, Vo Nguyen and Michael Champion.

On the down side

I wish I could say it was a perfect show but the game area was a real let down. Last year Reaper had an area with free miniature painting. This year the area featured karaoke that was promoting a video game company. The game room seemed much less active this year.

What I didn’t see

This year I didn’t make it to any of the panels. Unfortunately I spent most of my time in the dealers room and did not make it out on Saturday when the best panels went on.

After Comicpalooza

It’s time to get back to work. In the next week I will be getting caught up with website work. Of course I will also be chatting with all the people I met at the convention. I’m as always looking forward to returning next year.

Comicpalooza 2017

Comicpalooza again

The past year has flown by since I started talking to people at last year’s Comicpalooza. Once again I am walking for miles and miles talking to people about D&D and free adventures. Fortunately I am a bit better prepared this year with the website live and an actual blog. Hurrah! This year I even have help. Since this is the first day of the convention things are a bit slow, Tomorrow will be crazy. More than four hours of sleep would be nice as well. Stay tuned for updates on new participants as the show progresses.

Dungeons and Dragons: Not Just For Boys Anymore

The Early Years

I got my first D&D Basic Box in 1980, but I didn’t actually play until 1986. While in the Air Force, a group of guys in my barracks started a campaign and invited me to play. I was the only female to join, though several of us women folk had been invited along. I played a few sessions, but soon found partying at the Airmen’s Club was more interesting. I’ve played a few sessions of several campaigns over the years, but was always the only female in a campaign. I like being one of the boys, so that was okay. For various reasons, I’d always leave mid-campaign.

Play Today

Recently, I’ve started playing with my husband and a few friends. And guess what? There are two of us ladies playing in this campaign! No longer am I overwhelmed by the amount of testosterone wafting through the air as we play. Maybe the hormonal balance reaches parity with two of six of us exuding estrogen. On the other hand, I am older and more tolerant of the variations in approaches to handling crises. Or maybe, I just appreciate the various personalities contributing to the campaign. The DM and five of six of us are well in our middle ages, so that may make a difference in how we manage our situations. Whatever the case, I find our play more compelling than I ever did in the past.

D&D in the 21st Century

Some might claim that the newer editions are friendlier to women. I don’t know that this is the case, but I do know that more and more women of all ages seem to be playing. I suspect that many factors influence the changes in demographics. Tabletop gaming of all kinds has enjoyed a resurgence in the past fifteen years. Gaming is not just for kids anymore. Women of all ages can take a break from their day to day responsibilities and experience the joys of role-playing. Heck, for all I know, there are all female campaigns out there! If anyone knows of one, let me know. And if anyone wants to start one, Underlair is a great place to get going.

Wow! Super stoked about new cartographer!

Art, Maps and Cartography

Underlair is pleased to announce Derek Ruiz of Elven Tower, our first official artist/cartographer. His maps are both creative and thoughtful. They often contain interesting perspectives and also wonderful details.

Derek has granted us permission to develope adventures around his maps. Collaborating with Eleven Tower is exciting. Due to talented participants such as Derek, we are looking forward to creating great adventures.

Visit his website to see more of his great work.

Bridge Hamlet
Bridge Hamlet




The Arcanist’s Lair
The Arcanist’s Lair

Stupidest Contest Ever, Make Art and Get People to look at it 

Art, Art, Art! Ars Gratia Artis!

As part of my continuing effort to improve, I’m customizing the login page with new art. The current page features the banner from our fictional land of Verka and a spooky shaft filled with creatures of the night. My special thanks to Jayson E. Street for the use of his photo as a background.

The contest is where you create our next login page with either a nifty logo or a cool background. These things can be items you create or find but they must be free to use. Either public domain or with a licence like creative commons, GNU, MIT or other similar licence. In the case of your own work this will be credited to you.

There may be more than winner with the 1st place winner getting 1,000 points the second place 500 points and third place 250 points or some other equally meaningless prize maybe a gold star etc.

Like most contests this one has rules. By submitting entries to the contest you grant a perpetual licence to use these items on our login page. All submissions must be free to use for commercial purposes and have no copyright restrictions on them. Of course all submissions must be digital and of appropriate dimensions.  Background images must be 800 x 600 min and logo images 100 px min in width. If you submit images in a larger format they should not loose detail when reduced to this size.

Last thing. The theme for the contest is “Enter the Underlair” so all entries should attempt to follow that theme. Contest ends when I feel like it so hurry up. Contest winner(s) will be duly praised for their hard work.

All entries can be emailed to [email protected] . Good luck



Improving the website look and feel getting ready for D&D action

Spring is in the air
Time to dust off the old webserver

Over the past few weeks I have gotten back into updating the site. I still have a couple of other things to do. Actually, many things. The big things on the list are: creating forms for users to let us know (on signup)  what skills they have that could be useful in contributing to the project, a custom login screen with social login, a decent forums menu with special forums for specific user types, a subscription service to let users know about progress reports, releases, new members and products, etc.

We’re improving

Things are still pretty primitive right now (we still need a SSL Cert from a certification authority CA) however Underlair is continuing to improve functionality on multiple devices. Our mobile users, until recently, had great difficulty seeing documents located in the “Learn More” area. That has been fixed and the menus have been moved to take up less space.

Speaking of the “Learn More” section of UnderLair, now is a great time to read up on our plans for the future and how you can help. If you have ideas on how we can improve please let us know.

I hope you enjoy the UnderLair




Underlair is creating what we hope will be a large series of free adventure modules for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition and compatible games. We wish to give the Dungeon Master (DM) the ability to download a short, professionally created, adventure that will be playable very quickly with a minimum of setup. Each adventure can be completed in one to three sessions. There will be enough adventure modules at each level to advance the players to the next level plus extras, just in case. Adventures will not incorporate story elements that would make them unsuitable for insertion into your own D&D campaign. We are also developing our own campaign world somewhat like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Blackmoor, etc. for use as a generic framework for our adventures.

We would need your help making this happen. We are looking for creative people who can produce professional quality work. Even if you are not one of these people, you may still be able to help. We need interesting story ideas either original or a new spin on an old idea. We will also need play testers and DMs. We will start with live play testing in the Houston area but will be eventually looking to move to online.

If you are an Artist, Writer, Cartographer or can help in some other way please post something in the welcome forum and let us know.