The foundation of the Way is clouded in myth and ignorance. According to legend, a successful merchant known as Bashad the Spectacular was the first to create the foundation of the faith around 400 years ago. An incredibly wealthy man, Bashad claimed that his trades were blessed by the "Divine Broker", a deity with whom he had contact because of the great prosperity he generated. Bashad offered fellow merchants the opportunity to learn of his god's gospel, provided they make an investment into the establishment of his new "temple", an exchange market in an expensive neighborhood of Qurai Free City. Although the concept was far-fetched to most, Bashad's impassioned pitch convinced enough of his fellow traders to make a tithe and adopt the Way of Divine Wealth. The small order established their market temple, where not only great deals but also holy truth could be found.
While the High Exchange in Qurai is still under the authority of the Way's merchants, and the preserved deed lists "Bashad, called the Spectacular" as its purchaser, there is question to the veracity of those claims. Qurai legal documents reference Bashad Ad'in al-Wiya as the alias of several con men who used the well-known personage as a front for money laundering schemes. Naysayers claim that "Bashad" created the faith to turn over a quick profit and establish himself in a contested place where several merchant guilds vied for control. They say the followers of the Way use parlor tricks for their "divine favors" and are interested only in profits, not prophets. Searching for the truth among these claims is difficult, but the unsure founding does not seem to perturb the merchants of the Way.
Theology & Cosmology
Followers of the Way of Divine Wealth believe that life is a journey down the Great Material River. As explained in Bashad's "The Handbook of Divine Wealth":
Here is the great secret of life: it is impossible to obtain all the things one wants and needs. Despite all the wealth one may acquire, the divine precepts of scarcity and desire create an endless void that must be constantly filled. Should we despair at this? No! For these dual precepts of scarcity and desire are the current of the Great Material River. If the baker had beer and the brewer bread, they would be islands onto themselves, and the universe would be stale and stagnant. But goods are scarce, and desire is endless: if the baker wants to drink and the brewer wants to eat, they must exchange. And there is the beauty, fellow boatman, of the Way: each trades as they need and desire. Endlessly is the universe renewed through exchange. Such is the desire of the Divine Broker, wealth be upon Him.
The Way teaches that profitable trade is the surest way to success both in this life and the hereafter. All wealth and profit is carried over into the afterlife, where the Divine Broker stands ready to negotiate. The Divine Broker deals in new lives, and the dead bid on them with their life's proceeds. With enough wealth, a soul can bid their way into a new life, a higher station. Those who were unprofitable, or who stole their wealth through thievery, will not have enough to bid. They will remain as beggars, destitute souls with no incarnation, pleading with the wealthy dead for a pittance until they can afford a new life.
Though some find the face of the faith mere cutthroat avarice, the Way of Divine Wealth does teach a certain morality. The emphasis is on trade and exchange rather than naked wealth - mercantilism is praised while piracy is denounced. There is a code of trade that followers must follow, the Ordinances of Commerce:
Theft robs wealth of its meaning and owners of their goods - let it be forbidden.
Guile and intricacy are worthy tools, praised for their ingenuity - let them be allowed. But lies are word-thieves, stealing meaning from contracts - let it be forbidden.
Piracy and conquest kills the soul of commerce - let it be forbidden.
Contracts are the bonds of trust that anchor the boatman's word - they must be honored. Breaking of contracts is the breaking of justice - let it be forbidden.
- The Ordinances of Commerce, excerpt
By the Ordinances, followers of the Way are forbidden from directly benefiting robbery and theft. They may, and by degrees are expected to, protect their property by violent means when necessary. Followers are often armed in some way, though never as soldiers, and they may employ a few guards in dangerous territories. The rules are less clear during wartime: some merchant priests become profiteers and arms dealers, while others run black markets to supply oppressed peoples at fair to good prices.
Despite the emphasis on trade - or rather, because of it - relieving poverty is a virtue of the Way. Those who are destitute do not contribute to the overall wealth, and so all suffer. Giving alms or, more preferably, finding the poor cheap labor and low-wage jobs draws them out of nonproductive poverty and into the economy, providing all with an opportunity to benefit.
A vast majority of the followers of the Way of Divine Wealth are themselves merchants; of those, roughly half go through the investiture process to become clergymen. Formally, clergy are addressed as "Merchant" or "Franchiser"; in common parlance, they are called trade priests, clergy merchants, or any number of less flattering terms. There is no prerequisite for clergymen: they may be married or bachelor, male or female. Once priests, they are expected to follow the Ordinances of Commerce and work profitably for the High Exchange.
Trade priests are often overlooked as mere merchants, and justifiably so: their work is essentially the same, and no trade priest is not a merchant in some fashion. They run shops, drive caravans, broker deals, or any other of a myriad of jobs related to business and trade. However, their motive is more than profit, or at least their religious motive is the same as profit. Trade priests owe a certain percentage to their superiors as a "tithe", who owe their superiors another percentage, all the way to the Holy Treasury in Qurai.
Besides the basic trade goods necessary to all merchants, trade priests have a key item in their arsenal that sets them apart: a holy coffer. This small coin box, usually elaborately decorated, is used by trade priests to cast their spells and ask for favor from the Divine Broker. Money placed into the coffer goes directly to the Holy Treasury in Qurai as an offering to the Divine Broker. The trade priest's spells all have a monetary component that use the coffer as a medium. This ensures that the trade priest maintains his duties as a merchant. The coffer can also be used to ask for divine favor from the Broker, everything from favorable coin flips to shifts in market trends. These favors, too, have a price, and one may find a trade priest chanting as he drops huge sums of money into the coffer asking for some miracle.
The clergy ranking system is fairly simple. There are quinary, quarternary, tertiary, secondary, and primary priests, each order below the next. The ranks, along with praise and honors by the local superiors, establish a sort of pecking order, but actual territories are more loosely defined. Quinary priests are typically apprenticed to the quarternaries, who eke out a particular area of commerce. These territories often overlap in locale but not market; for example, a particular quarternary in a city might deal in fine fabrics while another in the same city trades in jewelry. Territories can also extend to particular trade routes. Quarternaries answer to tertiaries, who oversee the trade in a wider location or market, granting permission to their inferiors to take their own territories while taking a tithe for themselves. Secondaries similarly run larger tracts, or work directly as directors of trade in kingdoms or particular commodities. The primary priests are few and number and exclusive to the High Exchange in Qurai.
Promotion through the ranks is determined by the local House of Bursars. The Bursars are tertiaries and secondaries in regions who regulate trade in a specifically defined territory. Trade priests are recommended by their superiors or others for promotion, and the Bursars review the application as well as the applicant's promotion tithe which must be made to be considered for promotion. They also have say over the assigning of territories by the priests in their realm. Earning influence among the House of Bursars is a frequent concern for ambitious trade priests, an adjective which describes nearly all as a rule.
Houses of Bursars are also physical buildings. They are market temples, modeled after the High Exchange in Qurai albeit on a much smaller scale. Trade priests come to offer their quarterly tithes, ask for loans, or negotiate territories with fellow priests/rivals. They are also bazaars where clergy can trade with one another, and are open to the public frequently to increase commerce. Their relationship with local merchant guilds vary from cooperation to competition.
The religious capital is in Qurai Free City at the High Exchange which Bashad the Spectacular was said to have founded. The building doubles as a marketplace and temple. Within the high alabaster walls is an open bazaar with sections for various types of goods: commodities, produce, artisanal goods, et cetera. At the center is a four-storied tower that houses the pontiffs of the Way, the Exalted Exchequer. A group of high-ranking merchant priests called Comptrollers manage the administration of the faith, and elect the head of the religion, the High Comptroller. The High Comptroller guides the financial decisions of the Exchequer and watches over the Holy Treasury, the holiest of holies in the Way. The Treasury is a vast repository of currency, hidden beneath the tower and guarded by a great number of enchantments and mercenaries. The funds of the treasury are disbursed to high ranking clergy who petition for funds to open new enterprises and schemes.
If the Way of Divine Wealth exists in a region, players are likely to encounter it while trading in large cities. They may see priests with their gilded coffers, or a House of Bursars that is the central marketplace in a city. If they are emissaries for a larger political entity, they may be expected to strike deals with the clergy merchants on behalf of their patrons; beware, they are skilled negotiators.
In a D&D-like setting, the trade priest class may be a sub-class or prestige class of cleric or priest. They are generally lawful neutral. They take their spells from the same lists as priests, with the domains/spheres of divination, charm, and trade. In addition to standard spell components, they always have the material component of currency which is used with the holy coffer in casting spells. To maintain their spells, the trade priest must not go more than a week without an even or better trade.
Goods and Services - While trying to track an item or piece of information, the party finds it has fallen into the hands of a particularly scrupulous trade priest. If they are a well-known group (or even if not, since trade priests are well-connected), the clergyman will see them coming and know the ins and outs of their wealth. He may be willing to trade for a particularly valuable good, or require some service be provided. Either way, the cost will likely be steep.
White House, Black Market - A city has fallen under the control of a conquering tyrant. The party is sent to run an insurgency campaign on behalf of the outcast rulers. Getting the local House of Bursars on their side could be a huge boon to the rebels, providing them with smuggled weapons and food. They must negotiate with the Bursars and convince them to side with the rebels and not the conquerers - more complicated by the fact that the tyrant has placed a high bounty on any information leading to the arrest of the insurgents.