NPC’s, or non-playable characters, are typically the filler of the RPG sausage. You need them to build out the world and provide stakes to the narrative, but more often than not they won’t bring much outside of side-quests to the table. Cullen Rutherford is not a traditional NPC. I had at one point written off this Templar until I noticed he kept showing up in Dragon Age games, each time being a little more relevant to the plot and underscoring the plights of the Templar Order, most notably substance abuse.
Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG centred on the continent of Thedas’s hostile politics, a recurrent demonic plague known as “The Blight,” and — most notably — the conflict between the mages and their keepers, the Templar Order.
When we are first introduced to Cullen, he’s a Templar witness to the Harrowing your protagonist survives in Dragon Age: Origins‘s magi origin. His job was to strike you down if you came out of that “test” as an abomination. When you later visit the Circle of Magi’s tower, Cullen can be found trapped by some blood mages and politely asks you to kill all the mages within — in case any were secretly blood mages. I didn’t expect him to show up again in any future capacity.
Cullen was next sent to the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall, the setting of Dragon Age II, wherein he was promoted to second-in-command to Knight-Commander Meredith. Unlike his portrayal in the first game, Cullen is idealistic about the Templar Order’s ability to win the hearts and minds of the city and quell rising tensions between the discontent mages and the Chantry. As the years pass, he comes to believe that Meredith is leading his order down the wrong path. The red lyrium in her sword has shaped her into a homicidal authoritarian. When she dissolves the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall (effectively sentencing all mages to death) it is Cullen who orders her to step down.
The last person I expected to see commanding the Inquisitor’s forces in Dragon Age: Inquisition was Cullen. The Templars were in active conflict with the mages and he did not seem like the type to walk the middle road. It’s clear, however, the events in Kirkwall changed the way he saw both the order and its treatment of the mages. His degree of inner turmoil isn’t fully apparent until he admits to you that he’s been weaning himself off an addiction to lyrium. In fact, Cullen made an agreement with your squad-mate Cassandra to be removed from duty should he become a liability. As the Inquisitor, you have the option to either encourage him to fight this addiction or go back on lyrium.
So, there’s a lot to unpack here. Who are the Templars and why are they abusing harmful substances? Why would substance use be a part of the Templar Order’s culture? Why is it that the Inquisitor has any say over Cullen’s path to recovery?
The Templars are the military arm of the Chantry, the most prominent religious order in Thedas. They are charged with hunting apostate and rogue mages, defeating demons, and watching over the mages researching magic within the Circle of Magi. The Templars posture as holy knights, yet their Order has insidious practices towards both mages and its own members which all come back to the use of lyrium.
While mages use lyrium to enhance spells and rituals, Templars ingest this mineral to enhance their ability to resist and dispel magic. It also gives them more boldness and power in combat. Not dissimilar in some ways to the performance enhancing chemicals used on soldiers in Vietnam. In many ways, it’s horrific that substance use like this be so ingrained in Templar life, but this is not a side-effect of their calling — it is a feature.
It becomes clear throughout the Dragon Age games that the Chantry has dominance over the entire lyrium trade, despite dwarves being the only group capable of safely mining and refining the substance. The Chantry uses their lyrium for a test called the Harrowing for all Circle of Magi members, to disable mages by removing their magical connection to the Fade using a lyrium branding technique known internally as the Rite of Tranquility, and — finally — to maintain Templar addiction to the substance for long term obedience.
On the surface it makes a twisted kind of sense — use the substance directly connected to all magic in Thedas to police its usage. Templars, with their lyrium enhanced abilities, can fight back against rogue mages, apostates, and abominations by becoming inhuman themselves. If you dig a little deeper though the Chantry’s logic falls apart.
A mage can survive a Harrowing and later become a blood mage or abomination. That first test is like getting your driver’s license — a successful exam doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an eventual car crash. Secondly, forcefully turning mages into Tranquil through lyrium castration may relieve the risk of their demonic possession but it also removes all humanity and has been repeatedly abused by the Chantry for political purposes. The greatest lyrium abuse, however, lies with the rank and file Templars.
Prolonged use of lyrium by Templars becomes addictive, the cravings unbearable. Over time they will grow disoriented, incapable of distinguishing a memory from the present. They’ll often become paranoid, haunted by their worst memories and nightmares during all hours. So, why not just quit it entirely? Well, withdrawal symptoms include physical weakness, headaches, forgetfulness, an unquenchable thirst, and cold hands. A Templar named Samson talks up the merits of lyrium in Dragon Age II before admitting, “if you stop it just about kills you.” Yet this doesn’t dissuade Cullen from attempting sobriety.
I have complicated feelings around how Dragon Age handles lyrium addiction. Being only a few months sober myself, I can understand the shame Cullen feels in relapsing on lyrium. It struck a chord with me. So, naturally, I pushed him away from lyrium use. The problem, outside of the withdrawal effects, is that his outcome as an addict or teetotaler depends wholly on your choices as the Inquisitor. Specifically, whether you’ve pushed him to use lyrium or abstain, whether you’ve disbanded the Inquisition, and whether the two of you have been romantically involved.
The potential scenarios that play out are (1) Cullen settles down with you in Ferelden to find some undefined happiness with no clear indication of how he overcame addiction, (2) Cullen opens a rehabilitation centre for former Templars and people suffering from lyrium madness, and (3) Cullen is found years later as a crazed street beggar who has fully succumbed to lyrium madness and needs to be put down like a rabid dog.
Lyrium isn’t methamphetamine. It doesn’t function at all like opioids, depressants, or hallucinogens. If anything, the use of lyrium by Templars would be more analogous to the stimulants I take to manage the physical and mental symptoms of ADHD. I’m not even sure if my advising him to go off lyrium entirely was the right choice given the immediate effects on his coordination and awareness along with the long-term effects. Sadly, any other choice the Inquisitor makes is a fast-track to Cullen becoming a drug-addled beggar. Why is the choice so black-and-white? And why is me being his romantic partner the difference between him farming in the countryside or opening up the Betty Ford Clinic for wayward Templars?
Ideally, the conversations you have with Cullen would have amounted to him making his own choice about substance usage and recovery. Or perhaps, maybe the triggering of a questline that produces some solutions around lyrium addiction and recovery. Instead, the Templar Order marches onward as does lyrium addiction. Cullen was just a glance at how challenging the world of Thedas is for those who sacrifice their physical wellbeing for shiny armor and a stat boost against magic. It’s a sad conclusion to a character who deserved to determine his own fate.
I recognize that Cullen is an NPC and you are the protagonist. Your agency in the world of Dragon Age is obvious. Still, the level of influence you have over another character’s recovery in this case is a real disappointment. My hope is that the upcoming Dragon Age sequel can find a solution to rehabilitate former Templars without removing their agency or waving away how immensely challenging the road to recovery can be.