One of the greatest selling points of Skyrim is that you fight dragons. I don’t blame you if you bought it because of that. Out of the all reasons you could give me for why you would play this game, the prospect of being a bad ass dragon slayer is a pretty good one.
But I’m not sure you’ve really stopped and thought about the dragons. Sure, as a concept, killing dragons is cool and all that, but why is it cool?
I think a very big problem with Skyrim is that the dragons aren’t actually dragons.
What is a dragon?
When you hear ”Dragon”, what do you think of? Just a big, fire-breathing lizard? That also describes Salamanders in fantasy. Flying lizards? There are dinosaurs that do that.
What is it that sets a dragon apart from say, a troll or a giant gecko? Why are dragons so impressive? Why are they iconic as fantasy creatures?
The answer: Because dragons are intelligent. They’re not dangerous just because they’re big animals. They’re dangerous because they are superior both physically and intellectually. They’re often vain and arrogant, but that’s because they have very good reasons to be. They are older, smarter and stronger than most other creatures in Fantasy.
If you ever get the chance, google “Pathfinder Dragon”.
In case you don’t have time, here’s the crash course.
Dragons aren’t just another fantasy creature. They are THE Fantasy Creature. Any dragon that is older than 50 years is likely to be more powerful and intelligent than you can possibly imagine, and they do not answer to anybody but themselves.
Imagine Smaug with magic spells.
THAT is what you’re up against, if you decide to fight a dragon.
Now with that said, it doesn’t mean all, or even most dragons, will attack and obliterate you for the fun of it. After all, that is why Pathfinder has the D&D based alignment system of Law-Chaos/Good-Evil.
The problem is that dragons, as I mentioned earlier, tend to be somewhat vain, arrogant and proud. That means that when dealing with dragons, you want to be careful about what you say. When you see a dragon, you shouldn’t think “Great! I can kill that and get some nice loot!“.
You should be on your best behaviour, because if you piss that dragon off, be it intentionally or accidentally, it will fucking END you. And if the dragon is feeling sadistic and knows a thing or two about necromancy, you can look forward to spending the better part of the next century being continually resurrected and killed in different ways, for the amusement of the dragon.
Of course, I’m not saying dragons are or should be invincible. I’m just saying that trying to kill one is something that requires amazing skill, meticulous preparation and no small amount of luck, if you want to have the slightest chance of succeeding.
Now, how do the dragons in Skyrim compare to that?
Well, a single giant beats the shit out of a dragon. And the giant in question is wearing nothing but a loincloth and a beard, and his weapon is a stick with a rock on it.
THAT is what can kill a dragon in Skyrim. A tall, blue man in his underwear, armed with a stick. And he does it within 2 minutes.
Don’t you feel cool killing dragons, when that’s your competition?
Do you know why that is? It’s not because they have low health. It’s not because they have weak attacks. It’s because the dragons in Skyrim are FUCKING IDIOTS!
What makes me say that, you might wonder?
Well, my argument can be summed up in one simple question.
Why does the dragon land?
There’s no explanation for why it’d do that. It can breathe fire or frost! Meanwhile, you’re running around with a daedric greatsword, a weapon designed not only to kill, but to do it as painfully as possible. Why the hell would the dragon want to get close to that? Yes, you can shoot it with arrows, but what do you think is harder to hit, a flying target or a slow, lumbering target? It has an amazing advantage over you.
And yes, you have shouts that forces the dragon to land, and if you shoot enough arrows, it crashes. But that doesn’t change the fact it has no good reason to land voluntarily.
I’ve asked that to several people. and to voice their arguments in order to dispute them, I will require the assistance of my resident Devil’s Advocate, Dave.
Dave: The dragon gets tired from flying.
This, to me, is absolutely laughable. You mean to tell me that a dragon, a creature whose very language is magic, and has been designed for flying either by evolution or intelligent design, gets tired after 30 seconds of flight? I’m sorry, but that explanation doesn’t hold up. Look at a dragon crawling. Does that look graceful? Does it look like it was made to move like that. No, of course it doesn’t! It’s made for flying! There are birds that can fly for 10 years without landing. You’re telling me that in an endurance flight, a dragon would lose to a fucking albatross!?
And that is ignoring the fact that during the course of the game, we SEE dragons fly across the length and width of the country without landing, and at one point we RIDE on the back of a dragon. And we do that wearing full plate mail and a fucking ARMORY of weapons. Does the dragon land after 20 seconds? No. It flies over the highest mountains, miles away, and sets you down. Does he then take 10 minutes to rest? No, he flies away!
So no, the dragon doesn’t get tired. What’s next?
Dave: The dragon gets hungry.
Now, I’m no dragon, but if it were me, I’d probably try to eat something like a cow or a sheep. You know, something that has a lot of meat and doesn’t fight back. Wouldn’t you?
And even then, you wouldn’t land until after the thing was dead, right? Also, if you’ve paid attention, you’ve noticed that at no point in the game do we actually see a dragon eat something. The closest we get is the instant kill move, where the dragon bites your head, shakes you around, breaks your neck and throws you away. Clearly, it wasn’t that hungry, or it wouldn’t have thrown you away.
Am I wrong?
Now, how about some arguments that are slightly more compelling?
Dave: The Dragon is so arrogant that he doesn’t think he NEEDS to fight smart to kill you.
At first glance, that explanation makes sense…. Until you look at it closely, at which point it completely falls apart.
IF the dragon is so superior to me, if he thinks I am as amoeba to him… WHY THE FUCK DOES HE ATTACK ME?! Why does he give a shit about me, if I’m so unworthy of him?!
And then, we take this a step further. Let’s say that you’re a dragon. Let’s say you’re out flying, and you spot a humanoid walking around in the wilderness.
And for some reason you think ”That little germ is nothing to me. But I’m going to kill him, just to prove my superiority”.
That’s a bit weird, but let’s run with that. But if it’s so unworthy, so low and pitiful… Would you land and kill it with brute force, allowing the blood and guts of that piece of filth to taint your scales, your claws or your very TEETH!?
Or would you just swoop down and turn it into a speck of soot in a moment by yelling at it? No bad taste in your mouth, it doesn’t take long and you can get back to doing….whatever it is dragons do in Skyrim.
Not to mention that once you realize that close combat doesn’t work, and daedric greatswords hurt like a motherfucker, wouldn’t you want to stick to flying, seeing as that doesn’t involve close combat?
Dave: The dragons, having been revived, can’t fully connect with their souls and memories. The time it takes them to get back to normal could be years. perhaps even centuries.
Finally, this should be the clincher, right? This explains why the dragons aren’t fighting intelligently! They’re not in their prime! At this point, they’re just dumb muscle to be directed by the far more intelligent Alduin. It all adds up!
That is, until you think about it….
First of all, let’s say I accept this explanation. What does that say about the dragons? Would anyone care to explain to me why I should feel cool for killing a dragon under those circumstances? Why the flying hell am I supposed to feel proud for beating a monster suffering from the spiritual equivalent of a concussion!?
That’d be like beating Usain Bolt in a hundred meter sprint, after someone broke his foot!
It kinda takes away a bit of the achievement, if you know what I mean.
And then, let’s not forget that the explanation still doesn’t add up! At least two of the dragons Alduin wakes up are perfectly lucid, speak coherent English (by dragon standards), and one of them even recognizes Alduin, having been raised from the dead moments before. Seems a bit odd, if they don’t have access to their memories, doesn’t it?
Not to mention that breathing fire or frost, in case you forgot, isn’t a biological ability of theirs. It’s their LANGUAGE! Just saying the Dragon word for “Fire” does nothing. Fully comprehending the meaning of the word is what gives it power. You’d think one or two dragons might have some difficulty producing fire, if their memories are all muddled and distorted. And yet, when do you ever see a dragon fail to breathe fire?
According to this argument, the dragons are lucid enough to remember people, two different languages, the ability to focus their knowledge to the point where they can breathe fire, navigate Skyrim….
But the basic god damn idea that staying in the air = not being stabbed with weapons that hurt like fucking buggery? THAT’S something they forgot?! That’s an awfully convenient type of amnesia, don’t you think?
And of course, the entire argument completely falls flat when you consider one detail: Both Paarthurnax and Alduin (neither of whom were ever dead) fight the same exact way as all the other dragons!
There is ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE between their fighting styles!
To put it bluntly, the explanations do not add up with the facts the game presents.
It’s ALMOST like it was an afterthought by the fans, trying to give a bullshit hand-wavy explanation to the shitty fucking writing or something….
Now, on it’s own, this portrayal of the dragons would be ok, if it was consistent. If they made it clear that dragons are just beasts, with no higher reasoning, this behavior would be fine. But the problem is that we KNOW that dragons are supposed to be intelligent, so they just come across as badly written!
So why is this a problem?
Well, first of all, the game completely takes away the mystique and wonder of dragons. Not only because they’re not really a threat, but because, during a simple walk between keeps at higher levels, you can fight up to three or four dragons! If not for the Draugrs, they’d be among the most common enemies in the game!
(Incidentally, the Draugrs, the decrepit corpses of old Nord warriors? More of a challenge than the dragons.)
Because of this, killing dragons becomes routine in Skyrim, to the point where “Dragonslayer” may as well be a euphemism for “Pest Control“. It’s only really a challenge when you fight ancient dragons. But all it does is to make you use the same tactics you use on all other dragons. You just do it for a bit longer. They don’t change tactics, they don’t use different shouts. So why should I feel bad-ass about killing dragons in this game? Anyone can do it!
Dave: Well, the dragonborn is special! He can kill dragons permanently! Or what? Is absorbing souls not cool enough for you?
Oh, right! Of course! Killing a dragon permanently! What an accomplishment! And what do you have to do, in order to perform this amazing feat? Do you press a button combination? Do you play a minigame? Do you throw a spell? Surely such an amazing ability has some criteria? Do you train to unlock it? Maybe It’s it only accessible at a certain level? Pray tell, what excruciating trials must you endure to attain this phenomenal power?
Oh, right. you don’t do anything. It just happens automatically, because the gods said so.
I might as well be proud for making a fucking SANDWICH!
Hell, at least that would require some fucking effort on my part.
So much for “Amazing dragonslayer”…
Dave: Well, of course the dragons have to be easy to fight, you idiot! You have to kill dragons to learn the shouts! You have to kill three dragons per shout, so you need to be able to kill them quickly. I mean, how would you do it?
Well, if it were me, the first thing I would do: Remove the word walls.
You know, the big slabs of stone where you learn words in the dragon language, which you then use dragon souls to understand and use as shouts?
(I’d also reduce the number of shouts, since they make spells pretty much obsolete…)
Instead, I’d make the dragons fewer, much stronger, much tougher…
And then when you kill them, you go Highlander on their asses, and LEARN THEIR SHOUTS WHEN YOU ABSORB THEIR SOULS!
Kill one dragon, you get a unique shout.
Maybe weaker dragons could be in old burial ruins. The cramped space means they can’t fly, and they’re there because the better resting places have been taken by bigger, stronger dragons. Imagine running around some old ruined castle, entering the main dining room, and there’s a DRAGON sitting in it!
The stronger the dragon, the better the home. Giant Dwemer-halls, abandoned keeps, mountain tops… you get the idea.
You know what else I’d change?
See, one thing I just don’t understand is why exactly the dragons follow Alduin.
They clearly have no love or any real reverence for him, since they celebrate his death by the end of the game. The only one who seems upset about his death is Paarthurnax, and even he says that it was necessary.
It’s not because Alduin controls the other dragons, since they continue to be murderous monsters even after Alduin dies.
Is it just out of fear of dying? That sounds unlikely, since Alduins final goal isn’t to rule and govern humanity. It’s a well known fact that he intends to destroy the world and everyone in it, including the dragons.
There’s no good reason why they’d all be following him.
Instead, why not turn them into big, very hard to kill, very dangerous NPC’s?
Instead of hundreds of them, just have about 10 or 15. Maybe they were revived en masse, rather than Alduin going to each grave in turn and raising them. Then you can make every dragon unique, with different personalities, opinions, philosophies and powers.
See, this is a brilliant place for some sort of alignment mechanic to factor in. I’ll get into it more in later chapters, but let’s use the D&D system as an example.
- Lawful Evil dragons follow Alduin, reasoning that they owe him or that it’s the will of the Gods that the world ends.
- Chaotic Evil dragons might follow Alduin for the chance to rain death and destruction, or they may just strike out on their own.
- Neutral Evil dragons refuse to follow Alduin, since helping him will get them killed, when they can exploit peoples fears instead. Either that, or they can fight for Alduin, until it’s clear that you are more likely to be victorious.
- Chaotic Neutral dragons can reason that they never asked to be revived and owe Alduin nothing.
- Dragons with any of the three Good alignments would obviously be unwilling to follow Alduin, and might even be willing to fight to stop him.
- True Neutral dragons might refuse to get involved in the conflict altogether, knowing that if they stand up Alduin, they might get killed and if they support him, the world might end.
These are just a few suggestions. You don’t have to use the D&D formula. You can come up with something new.
Not only that, but the reduced number of dragons can be used to advance the story! Maybe Alduins army just consists of a crap-ton of fanatical cultists, with five or six dragons acting as lieutenants, but these dragons are incredibly powerful and devoted to Alduin, seeing him as a divine agent.
The ones who don’t follow Alduin could be characters to interact with. You could talk to them, argue with them, and if you piss them off by insulting them, stealing from them or hurting them, they might attack you. But they can also share rumors and ancient legends, having first hand experience of history from ages past, forgotten by most others.
How about this; you can choose to run errands for them in exchange for magic weapons, treasure or maybe you could even convince them to become allies, giving you a special shout that calls them to your side, I know that the game does that with one dragon, but it could be so much more! Suppose that by the end of the game, you might have a choice of five or six different dragons to call on for help, each with different shouts, different strengths and weaknesses, strategies and personalities.
(And don’t tell me dragons would never ally with humans. You know that’s bullshit).
Or you can take your chances and attack them, being rewarded with their specific shouts if you kill them. If you help them, and they become allies, you cannot kill them and you cannot get the shouts they know. Suddenly, you’d have to make a choice.
You know, LIKE YOU WOULD IN A ROLEPLAYING GAME!
But hey, that’s just me. Why would we want something like that in a fantasy RPG? That’d just be lame, right?