|Dragon Temple in the Infinite Snow by Claudio Pilia on Deviantart|
There can be as many cults as there are dragon breeds, and then some. The diversity of styles and ideologies is nearly endless, certainly more than I can describe in a mere blog article. Rather, I’ll attempt to put forth a general framework as a starting point for DMs to design their own. I’ll not hold anyone’s hand here but provide instead ideas on what to cover. The previous article on Dragon Cultists already gives a glimpse of what these organizations entail. If you haven’t read it yet, go back and check it out before continuing here. The previous articles about Dragon Steeds and Fabled Horses all connect in various ways with the cultist.
Goals for dragon cults, like any other organized faith, can be hard to define. Presumably, their basic objective is to serve one or more divine beings. However, upon looking more closely, one question quickly emerges: how much more is a cult devoted to serve its leader or its elite rather than its liege deity? Is piety an end in itself or merely a means to an end? Therein lie internal politics and philosophical conflicts reflecting personal ambitions vs. true faith. Is corruption involved, and if so, at what level? Then remains the matter of its bureaucracy, which may look like a dragon itself: an ever-growing, self-perpetuating, and ravenous beast that needs to be fed when it wakes up.
Is the cult part of a military order of dragon riders or the other way around? Does it have anything to do with dragon riders? What are short-term vs. long-term aims? Does the faith support a final quest, like acquiring a relic or bringing back a banned deity to the Prime Plane? What happens then? How much sway does the liege deity have over the disciples and their activities? Does it merely grant spells and special abilities to disciples provided they don’t break rules, or does it communicate to the leadership what it wants? Does it bestow rewards and inflict divine punishments?
Is the cult overt and legal, protected by law, or illicit and covert? Is it engaged in systematic proselytizing? Does it have fearful detractors, rival faiths, powerful foes, and hated individuals? Is it at peace or engaged in warfare? Does the cult exist at the pleasure of secular rulers who own the land entrusted to the cult’s establishment, much like other clerical orders? Does it serve secular rulers or the other way around? Are they co-dependent? Can the cult be seen as a state inside a state, or a sovereign power of its own? Who are its allies and why do they support the cult? Who benefits from the cult’s activities and at whose expense?
These factors typically compel leadership to seek more power in order to forestall outside threats. For this, it needs more wealth, more land, more disciples, more facilities, and more dragons (if they keep any), all of which require even more wealth and so on. What is its driving force: acquiring more power to ensure survival or power for its own sake? What is the leadership’s priority: philosophical orthodoxy or pragmatism? Are there fast-changing modi operandi as leaders rise and fall?
Ultimately, how does this all fit in with serving a deity?
Each game world features deities around whom dragon faiths can coalesce. There can be a single godly entity driving cults or a pantheon with a hierarchy, like Kara-Tur’s Celestial Bureaucracy. A celestial monarch could rule most dragons, good or bad, with renegades possibly. Cults can fit within the wheels and cogs of the Celestial Bureaucracy, or act as independent organizations focused on specific dragon breeds and alignments. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands the isolated wandering cultists who care nothing about organized faiths and bureaucratic temples. Rather, their piety is strictly limited to their divine patrons, and what lies in their hearts and minds.
Forgotten Realms: This universe enjoys a large pantheon of dragon gods, with Asgorath at the top of the current hierarchy, Bahamut, Tiamat, and at least a dozen others. Io is mentioned to have preceded Asgorath (they may be one and the same), a primordial being so gigantic that a single scale of his is larger than any dragon alive or in past history. Bahamut and his sister Tiamat, his eternal rival, later joined the Faerûnian pantheon. A well-detailed cult focuses on the worship of undead dragons and dracoliches, called the Followers of the Scaly Way. Other godly dragon cover a wide spectrum of interests: Astilabor, Garyx, Hlal, Kereska, Kuyutha, Lendys, Null, Sardior, Tamara, Task, and Zorquan.
World of Greyhawk: As in Forgotten Realms, the originator of the dragon pantheon, Io, is seen as the creator of universes and of dragonkind, although it’s not clear whether Io’s earliest mention was first published as part of the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. The divine hierarchy includes Bahamut, Tiamat, and a number of others, some of whom also exist in the Forgotten Realms universe. Greyhawk’s Bahamut (1975) predates both Dragonlance’s Paladine and the Forgotten Realms’ Asgorath (although one might argue that FR goes back to 1967!) In any case, there seems to be a fair amount of crossover between the two settings as regards dragon mythology. The Earth Dragon Cult is an example of a creed honoring a spirit of the land rather than a deity. Other dragons of Greyhawk’s pantheon include: Aasterinian, Astilabor, Chronepsis, Garyx, Hlal, Faluzure, Lendys, and Tamara.
Dragonlance: I’d be remiss in failing to bring up Dragonlance. Paladine seems to be another Bahamut-like avatar (Bah’Mut) with a long-established cult and a related knightly caste, the Order of the Rose. Takhisis is a Tiamat alter-ego, goddess of all chromatic dragons. These two seem to be the only dragon deities in the Krynn universe so far, although they do have siblings and progeny with presumed dragon ancestry. According to Margaret Weis, many dragons of Krynn think they are gods! A faith existed which was dedicated to a wyrm-like false god, known as the Cult of the Worm, now defunct. The fate of the Great Worm and its followers is unknown to this date.
Mystara: This universe has no gods but immortals overseeing many faiths, often under different identities. There are cults among dragons, with a leader called The Great One, the ruler of all dragonkind. It glows so brightly that one can behold its appearance only through a darkness spell to perceive a colossal three-headed dragon. Three others occupy the next rung, Pearl, Diamond, and Opal, respectively the rulers of chaotic, lawful, and neutral dragons. There are no widespread dragon cults among mortals, however, there is a wizard school of dracology that could spark an underground cult illegal in the Principalities of Glantri. The immortal Ka can also take the form of a gold dragon or an amber-colored feathered serpent and be worshiped as such.
Calidar: (My own setting) The dragon deity that first comes to mind is Lord Aó, Protector of Lao-Kwei, an Oriental-style dragon turtle. His magic transported his worshiper from Munaan, a moon of Calidar, to a Mars-like planet. His followers immediately set about to conquer it from an alien race. Fallen demigods were reawakened and formed the Lao-Kweian pantheon. Meanwhile, a war-like dragon cult flourished on another world, Draconia, which is said to harbor “living gods,” immortal dragons serving Sayble, a black dragon queen. She leads a huge cult involving mortal dragons, draconic knights (humans), a caste of shapechanging assassins, and other people living on Draconia and on Calidar itself.
Decide first whether the cult is part of an order of dragon riders or the other way around. This will affect the chain of command and the cult’s needs. If an order of dragon riders is present, then is it headquartered and garrisoned within the cult’s walls or at other locations? If the cult raises dragons intra muros, then facilities other than temples and their dependencies will need substantial development. If both the military and raising dragons are extant activities, then the cult will need a significant financial network to cover related costs, people like merchants, bankers, and wealthy patrons actively supporting the faith. The cult may also be involved in collecting taxes from the population on their domains or on other lands entrusted to them by secular rulers. If a lot of money ebbs and flows through the cult’s finances, odds are it may act as a banker itself, granting loans to aristocrats using their own possessions as collateral.
Hierarchy: The most common is a pyramidal system, with a high priest or a grand marshal at the top, disciples and warriors halfway down, and ancillary staff at the bottom. Non-members gravitate outside the structure, providing support willingly or otherwise. Another approach involves a council of several key leaders at the top rather than an autocratic figure. Members of the council can represent various branches of the cult. Power could also be shared between a single ruler and a council, with more-or-less-well-defined authorities and responsibilities divided among them. It may be appropriate for a dragon to have a seat on a council, or even to be the one leading figure. Another way would be to center the cult on an all-powerful relic. It could be sentient and communicate its wishes in some way to the leadership, perhaps straight down from the liege deity (or perhaps it’s something else entirely, doling out spells to clerics on its own).
An organized cult is likely to support chapels, temples, monasteries, and shrines scattered in towns and villages. Those may be organized in parishes, with local prelates overseeing regional activities, or in commanderies run by a military order. Regional sees could instead reflect the territories of dominant dragons rather than temple locations, in which case regional prelates would have to remain in contact with dragons if the latter aren’t prelates themselves.
If the cult in engaged in warfare, there may be faraway dependencies, outposts, and strongholds under the authority of local commanders of dragon riders, more so than prelates. Calidar features a special character class, the Draconic knight, which is ideal here, as well as the dragon slayer, its hated opponent. Real-world Templars, Teutonic Knights, and Hospitalers are good examples of military-religious orders controlling foreign territories, building temples, running commanderies for profit, and acting as international bankers. Key figures could also act as ambassadors or legation heads dealing with secular rulers on behalf of the cult. Spies (or even assassins) can also be part of the organization; they monitor prelates and outside activities of concern to the cult. To whom do they report? All of this requires a sprawling bureaucracy to manage all the parts. As the cult grows in size, leadership may have to fight harder against bureaucratic inertia to get things moving.
When running D&D-style adventures involving a cult it is important to define its chain of command, who’s influential inside the structure, and who among this hierarchy connects with the heroes. Also of interest: who else knows about the heroes’ activities (whom the players are unaware of)? How do they keep an eye on them to ascertain whether they benefit the cult’s interests, or the interests of a few if not of the one?
A growing cult is always on the lookout for recruits. What sorts of skills does it need? Does it have preferences (alignments, races, character classes, social backgrounds, past histories, personal wealth)? Motivation matters: the leadership may be interested in folks who are trusted in circles it wishes to influence (merchant guilds, secular rulers’ households, families of aristocrats, schools of magic, brotherhoods, and secret societies, etc.). Anyone with knowledge of and experience with dragons is, of course, a no-brainer.
The key issue is whether the cult is approaching a potential recruit or the other way around. In the first case, recruiters already know about the potential newcomer and are likely seeking to secure an asset. Depending on the cult’s nature and style, they might not be too picky about exactly who they are trying to attract. In the opposite situation, an unsolicited applicant might have to first demonstrate dedication to the cult and its faith. This might demand ordeals, quests, blood oaths, donations to the cult, or magical spells like know alignment, detect lies, true sight, etc. A dragon’s personal reaction check (as described in Dragon Steeds Pt. 2) might be in order as another way to test a candidate, implying that a key recruiter is in fact a dragon in disguise.
Rather than being a disciple of a cult, one can choose instead to be an associate, a supporter outside the hierarchy who acts for the benefit of the cult. Anyone can fit this profile. An important cult should command a large network of worshipers and benefactors. The association can be overt or covert. There are no specific requirements, other than the faithful paying the tithe if there is one. Player characters can certainly fit in this manner, especially if one among their party is a disciple (or a dragon kin).
Personal Property: What a recruit brings when becoming a disciple can be an issue. Real world history shows that a younger sibling in a notable family (who is last in the order of inheritance) often joined the church, usually after buying an ecclesiastic office somewhere up in the hierarchy. Paupers, of course, brought nothing at all and joined at the very lowest levels.
In a D&D context, player characters probably fit in somewhere between paupers and former aristocrats, reflecting instead their experience levels. A level 1 cultist PC should start just above an entry position. Novices receive food, lodging, vestments of the faith, holy symbol, basic equipment, free training, and whatever help is appropriate for a low-level character. A high-level character may join the cult later on, probably not as a cultist but as a specialist (magic-user, thief/spy, etc.) or as another figure of some importance in the hierarchy, especially true in a military branch. Doing so requires that all personal property be turned over to the cult, plus 75% of all future adventuring profits; heroes may retain certain magic items, but only with permission. A wandering cultist who wasn’t part of an organized cult may join one of the same faith at some point; the new disciple’s rank should reflect the experience level to some degree.
As mentioned earlier, a large cult has many objectives. Its primary function can be described as serving its divine liege. It can do so by spreading the faith, performing religious services, helping the needy, protecting the faithful, possibly raising and training dragons, running a hospital, defending all that is perceived of interests to its spiritual patron and associated dragons (those of the same alignment or of the same breed), etc.
Secondary activities are those enabling primary functions. This includes earning wealth to finance all of the above and the following: building and maintaining facilities, supporting a military branch, feeding and training disciples, maintaining a library or a scriptorium, paying for professional services, bribing officials, etc. There are many ways a cult can earn money, such as soliciting temple donations, collecting taxes on mills, leveraging tithes, earning tolls from ports, bridges, and gates on its lands, plundering the hoards of enemies of the faith, exploiting a network of merchants acting on behalf of the cult, obtaining funds from secular rulers possibly in exchange for protection, operating mining businesses on the cult’s lands, running commanderies and monasteries for food and cash, acting as bankers earning interest on loans, foreclosing on assets from defaulting debtors, seizing moneys and properties from new disciples, acquiring treasure from affiliated adventurers, and so on. All of these are secondary but crucial activities enabling the organization to survive and grow. Raising and training dragons, if not a primary function, can certainly qualify as a secondary one needed to support an order of dragon riders. It is perhaps one of the most expensive, given the need to share treasure with dragons (see Dragon Steeds Pt. 3).
In a D&D game context, PCs are likely to be sent on missions for the cult, such as escorting a personality to and from various locations, rescuing a fallen dragon, slaying an enemy dragon, recovering a relic of the cult, hunting down temple thieves, unmasking a traitor in the cult’s hierarchy, investigating mysteries, defending a monastery from raiding monsters, etc. As hinted earlier, there could be internal frictions within the order where PCs might have to take sides and face consequences. A conflict in foreign lands might also offer an opportunity to dispatch a war party for whatever entertaining mayhem. Although PCs might have been pigeon-holed into various branches of the cult, it is understood that they are a team and should be granted leave from their posts to perform their missions.
Strategies and Politics
I’ve already hinted at a lot of strategies and politics in the previous sections, be they internal or external to the cult. Dealing with secular rulers on whose lands the faith is spreading will be key in the cult’s endeavor to grow its influence. Like all big organizations, as it attracts allies and supporters, it begets detractors and foes in addition to those its creed designates. Enemies of its friends will oppose the cult—it is inevitable. In its efforts to strike alliances, the cult may well become associated with rival powers, demanding at times diplomatic balancing acts to assuage all sides. Other faiths won’t see too kindly to the success of a dragon cult in their backyards. They and sects related to rival dragon breeds are sure to cause problems directly or indirectly. The cult will be caught in a web of obligations and deceit working to tear apart its fabric. Shenanigans among deities also add to the cult’s challenges.
At a higher level, a PC well placed in the hierarchy or in its military order may be entrusted with a see, most likely a borderland posting. This is an occasion to use the D&D Companion Set and its mechanics on mastering dominions and mass combat. Battlesystem is another option for tabletop combat. Conveniently, all PCs affiliated with the cult should be assigned to the see’s prelate or military commander to ease adventuring opportunities.
The Finishing Touches
At this point, you’ve got enough pointers to set up that cult. All you need now are symbols, dress codes, decorum, regalia, old traditions, and legends of prophets, heroic dragons, and low-down villains to give some depth, direction, and texture to the whole establishment. Prophesies and ancient maledictions might provide an extra spin. See how the cult blends in with the game world’s history. What major events of the past does the cult connect with? Sketch out key characters driving the faith. Add epic or mysterious figures still walking this world. Flesh out the dragon deity and its own motivations. Roll up NPCs the players’ heroes will likely be in contact with, some high ranking, others at the bottom of the hierarchy. Look into unusual rituals, sacrifices, spells, magic items, and relics, although some of this was already touched upon in the previous article. Roll up a cultist or a dragon rider (see the next article) for good measure. Tie together a dragon’s lair, a monastery, a stronghold, a dungeon, forgotten ruins, and a temple to complete the picture. Stick a flag on top and you're done!