Reverse Engineering: The science of Elder Scrolls Online’s dragons


I don’t think I can express how excited I am to bring this column to life on Massively Overpowered. Reverse Engineering covers the one thing I do most in every single game that I play: overthink everything. Have you ever said to yourself, “That’s not how that works” or “I bet you could actually do that in real life?” Then you are going to love this column. Too often I find myself asking, “Do jetpacks really work the way they do in Anthem?” and “What would actually happen to you if you were hit by a frost giant like in Conan Exiles?” Those and many more questions I hope to find answers by reverse engineering some of my favorite “massively” games.

Today’s question has probably been asked by many of you overthinkers — Massively Overthinkers, if you will. I watched the Elsweyr trailer for Elder Scrolls Online with as much excitement as any other Elder Scrolls fan, but of course, I saw something things that made me question how they worked. How does a tablet open a door? Can you really outrun fire? Or probably the most important, how do dragons even work?! So today, let’s reverse engineer ESO dragons.

Dragon scales

There are two ways that have been suggested for dragons to fly. The first method is to make the dragon “lighter than air.” The other suggested method is creating lift with its wings. Of course, there could be a combination of both. In fact, the book The Dragon and the George by Gordan Dickson and the corresponding animated movie the Flight of Dragons attempts to science the flight of dragons in a way that combines both methods. But before we dive into the maths of how to create lift, we need to know how much a dragon weighs.

I can literally not find anything about how much a dragon weighs in the Elder Scrolls universe, which was highly disappointing. But I did find another mythos that spoke extensively about how much a dragon weighed: the Temeraire series of novels by Noami Novik. In fact, her novels have dragons divided into weight classes. Score!

Kaalgrontiid, the dragon in the Elsweyr trailer, is absolutely massive. By all rights, he’s bigger than Alduin from Skyrim, and Alduin is no gecko. Kaalgrontiid falls easily in the heavyweight category, meaning that he would weigh at least 18 metric tons. For those doing the math at home in the US, that’s 39,683 lbs. Although it might sound like a lot, 18 tonnes is smack dab in the middle of the Federal Aviation Administration’s large-sized aircraft. But that also means that lift through buoyancy would be difficult.

Blimpy dragon

Flight of Dragons suggests that helium can be created from limestone. Perhaps the author was referring to the helium found in the pores of limestone, but I cannot find a way to easily create helium out of calcite, the most common mineral found in limestone. A natural gas resource must contain a minimum of 0.3% helium to be considered a helium source. Dragons are big, but that’s a lot of limestone to eat in order to extract the helium that way. But maybe there is a way to chemically create helium from calcite that I haven’t found – stranger things have happened.

In an article on How Stuff Works, the author explains how many helium balloons it would take to lift a human. A very cute question. It concluded that it would take approximately 3,571 balloons based on the formula that helium has 1 gram of lift per liter of helium. That means to lift Kaalgrontiid, it would take 18,000,000 liters to heliums, or 1,285,715 balloons. To put that in perspective that Americans might understand: that’s more than 3,000 football fields worth of balloons stacked on top of each other. Kaalgrontiid’s big, but not that big.

There is another solution

UK-based engineering company Hybrid Air Vehicles designed an aircraft that could lift 10 tonnes and uses a hybrid of helium, turbines, and fluid dynamics to create lift. It’s officially called the Airlander 10, but it’s also affectionately called the flying butt because it looks like a butt from a certain angle. Despite its shape, it’s an engineering marvel, and it might also be our solution to the dragon problem.

According to its specs, 40% its lift is created by the helium trapped in the massive envelope. (Envelope just sounds better than “balloon,” but that’s essentially what it is.) Its elliptical shape helps it to cut through the air as well as the rotating diesel-powered turbines. Although the Airlander 10, can lift only 10 tonnes, there are versions of this vehicle that can lift 20 or even 50 tonnes.

Unfortunately, it’s still bigger than the Kaalgrontiid we saw in the Elsweyr trailer, but it’s closer. From bow to stern, the Airlander 10 sits at 92 meters, just under the 109 meters of an American football field. But it is quite a bit shorter than the 3,000 balloon height that the previous scenario suggested.

Breathing fire

If a dragon fills itself with helium, then the fire-breathing part of the equation is simple and also very interesting. In the Dragon and the George, there is an electrochemical thimble in the roof of a dragon’s mouth that adds the spark to the ignition. In order to breathe fire, a dragon simply has to release the helium from the ballonets in its gut.

That design gives the dragon an interesting weakness: It can’t fly if it breathes out too much fire. It would have to grind more limestone in order to replenish its supply. Of course, it could keep some in reserve, but this design does ultimately put limits on the dragon’s ability to breathe fire.


Each of these articles will end with some kind of analysis to determine the plausibility of the introductory hypothesis. If you’ve read the rest of the article, I believe you will know the direction of this conclusion.

Although its possible for dragons to fly and breathe fire, the facts don’t exactly match up with what’s seen on screen. The majority of the volume of an 18-tonne dragon would take up as much as an American football field. The wings, head, and tail would likely be in addition to the main body. There would also be a limit to the amount of fire that a dragon could breathe before it just would not be able to fly at all. It’s possible that this limitation exists, but we have not seen it in an Elder Scrolls game or trailer. Additionally, the Airlander 10 never reached its full potential, having crashed in August of 2016 then was decommissioned in November of 2017.

Like all science, it should be looked at from all angles and is designed to be falsifiable. A hypothesis cannot be right unless it can be proven wrong. How would you design a dragon? What would it look like to you? Are there other approaches that might work? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Also, what do you think of this column, in general? Do you like deconstructing gaming worlds scientifically? What other game tropes and designs should I attempt to tackle next?

Have you ever wondered how the worlds of your favorite MMOs would work in the real world? Welcome to Reverse Engineering, in which MOP’s Larry Everett takes apart the tropes, equipment, and worlds from all kinds of massive online games, from dragons to jetpacks. Let him know what you’d like to see reverse engineered next!

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For flight… There’s no reason not to believe that dragon’s also haven’t adapted a similarly hollow bone structure as seen in their much, much tinier feathered friends. Borrowing from D&D a bit, Rocs are massive (classed as Gargantuan, to be fair) eagle-like birds who operate under the same general principle.

I wouldn’t discount gases being a proponent of lift though. If I’m remembering things rightly (I’m not a Marine Biologist after all), whales actually store gases in their bones rather than a swim bladder as they are moving about from one depth to another to avoid suffering from the Bends. It could be entirely likely that the ‘hollow’ bones are filled with hydrogen/helium gas of some degree as well somehow… And while helium would require limestone (as you mentioned as a possibility), hydrogen is a much more easily procured element. After all, water is 2/3rds Hydrogen, and provided they’ve likely evolved some sort of enzyme or organ that extracts hydrogen from oxygen it’d also probably help solve the issue of thinner air at higher altitudes when a dragon is flying too, provided they have some sort of sac to similarly store the oxygen as needed.

Plus, hydrogen is flammable and oxygen is a potent fuel source. I’d imagine the flames a dragon breaths is a chemical reaction though, and that is something entirely different from what hydrogen and oxygen could do in an easily stored and expressed manner. Expelling a liquid catalyst that then erupts into flames upon a non-oxygen based trigger would be much more easily controlled than igniting something and fueling it with oxygen.

The bones themselves could also be a sort of natural composite too. Dragon scales are always considered to be among the hardest stuff around so it wouldn’t be simply keratin or calcium, but an ‘alloy’ of sorts would be viable. After all, we can create Keratin/Chitosan ‘alloys’ that are mechanically stronger than the base of either. I wouldn’t be surprised if it may be some sort of metal-based chitin. But… uh…

I’m going way out of my depths on this musing…

Fenrir Wolf


Fenrir Wolf

I like you, Larry. You know of many of my favourite dragon-related works. Flight of Dragons has a very special place in my heart.

I don’t want to talk about the… dragons at hand though as I find them distasteful. I’m not a fan of the four-limbed dragons. They’re something of a cultural slight to me, as a mockery of the ddraig. Thanks to heraldry, though, the original concept of a dragon has been perversely warped.

The ddraig were separated up into two subclasses of celestial messenger, one was very similar to what we consider the most typical kind of Western dragon; the other was closer to an Eastern dragon, though unable to fly as I recall. Glaurung from the Silmarillion was at least aesthetically inspired by this latter kind.

However, unlike dragons today, these were considered kindly, benevolent, and wise. Often healers. It was Christianity’s efforts to indoctrinate the “pagans” by manipulating their beliefs that lead to the greedy, evil, hoarding war machine we’re far more familiar with.

The four-limbed dragon is just an extension of that path; pigeon-holing it into a vile beast whose only purpose is to be slain. Without hands to express, or a mind with which to speak, the dragon moves ever further away from their origination.

I find this incredibly depressing.

I was, honestly, mortified to see that Elsweyr had included them. Given the lore (which no longer seems to matter in ESO), the dragons should not be present in this era. We really shouldn’t have commonplace Redguard necromancers, either, for that matter. That’s why I wonder if ESO is winding down toward a sunset.

Still, thank you for knowing so many of my favourite draconic works. That’s nice to see.

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Bývörðæįr mòr Vas´Ðrakken

As a physician and physicist I can say with certainty that using nuclear physics two hydrogen to a helium, that a personʻs stomach could create hydrogen and thus by extension helium from the decomposition of water from limestone, the likelihood is that the author was thinking lime stone and quicklime are the same thing.

In the USA the path is earth science -> general science -> practical chemistry -> biology -> modern chemistry (college level earth science) -> organic chemistry -> inorganic chemistry -> organic chemistry II (same course as organic chem I, only everything you learn in in-organic and organic chem now makes sense) -> nuclear chemistry -> gross anatomy -> diffuse molecular biology -> particle physics.

At which point when you try to explain science people eye glaze over. In the UK some of the courses are in a different order because the nuclear chemistry model is how isotopic reaction and covalent bonds actually work, only people refuse to learn that unless they go through a bunch of other hard science course first.

So lighter than air, not likely.

What might work is compressing the gas to create stored energy to drive the push pull reaction of the muscles but then the dragons would be stronger and tougher than swords and arrows… funny that. cyrogentic helium or hydrogen hitting french fries with potassium iodine (KCl -sea salt) or iodized sodium (NaCl – salt) from french fries mixing at room temp, would explode, so creating the decomposition of water and or fire when mixing with oxygen.

Not sure they would be able to fly but harder than stone and breathing gases that ignite in the mouth mixing with saliva and food would give a creature with wings that uses the wings to blow the burning flaming mass of spit at attacking enemies. It would stink like the ozone of a bumper car ride or thunder storm.


Helium doesn’t burn at all… so a huge part of you theory doesn’t fit into the rest of it.


It could be magic (science of the future), Dragons all descended from the Aedra Akatosh, probably a lot of ‘magic’ happening in that family.

Regarding the hollow wing talk, let’s dispell this. In Skyrim when ever looting a Dragon the bones would eat up your carry weight.


Overthinking in MMORPGs and fantasy stuff isn’t something I’m that into, so this will probably be something I skip most of the time.

The reality is nobody would survive fighting the giants and such, at least not one on one or with most melee weapons. If you’re going to look for excuses for most of it, it’s going to be what they said on The Simpsons “A wizard did it”. Even the people who don’t actually cast magic in these worlds are magically enhanced, or have a different body makeup and structure than normal humans. The humans must have bones and muscles that are made of something extremely dense and hard, and then the giants are made of something flabby and weak.

Maybe I will actually read this column in the future, to see what excuses you come up with for stuff :D

Also a tablet opens a door because it’s obviously instilled with magic! It’s a series of special key codes that it transmits when all the pieces are put together, one that basically would be too difficult to put together otherwise.

You know what makes me laugh is when people say in these games it’s unrealistic for the female players to be doing certain things, when it’s basically just as unrealistic for the male characters to be doing the stuff as well. Males are a bit stronger than females naturally, but not strong enough to fight giants, swing around giant swords that are hundreds of pounds like they’re twirling a baton, do basically anything we can do in MMORPGs and live through it. So if we can bend our imagination enough to believe the guys in these worlds can do the stuff, there isn’t any reason the females can’t do it as well.

Though I guess I get it a little bit when the girl looks like a twig and the guy looks like an over the top steroid user, wondering about them doing the same stuff in a physical role then. The women in those types of games should probably be made to look a bit more like the women who compete on shows like Dwayne Johnson’s new The Titan Games.

Maggie May

Not sure about the helium part, I always thought the flame was caused by methane or sulphur …. although it would be a blue smelly flame.

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[cough]Hydrogen from hydrochloric acid[/cough]

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“Canon Exiles”: You have grossly misrepresented our dogma and must leave IMMEDIATELY!!!!

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“That’s not how that works”

I wholeheartedly approve of this new column. Larry, how did you know this was a low-key hobby of mine?

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In order to breathe fire, a dragon simply has to release the helium from the ballonets in its gut.

Hydrogen? Helium is’t flammable, no? >.>

On flight though: I’ve always viewed it largely as brute force. Nothing like the flight equivalent of “swim bladder” (at least not primarily), no hollow bones etc., just absurdly strong wings that can create enough lift for an 18+ ton beast.

However, this “flying butt” thing is now my favorite thing for today, thanks Larry.