The Warlock Class, Part Two

Last time in History of the Classes, I looked at the 3.5 Warlock and Binder classes, as two different approaches to a practice of creepy, forbidden, occult power. Both classes allow and encourage the character to surprise foes with unusual powers – no two members of these classes are likely to be the same, or even especially similar. Now we come to the 4e Warlock, which is the first iteration of the class I’ve personally played.

(Part One)

Healer General’s Warning: The following article contains scurrilous puns and other degenerate acts of wordplay. Such text has been shown to cause groans of pain, rolling of the eyes, dry mouth, hair loss, avian bone disease, irritable reader syndrome, and spit takes. Protect your keyboards, monitors, and mobile devices.


4e: Player’s Handbook

When I faust saw the Warlock in 4e, I knew it was a class I wanted to play. It was the first Arcane Striker released in 4e, and it is designed to keep its distance (or punish people who try to close). They’re fragile, if slightly less so than wizards, and can build toward modest controlling or debuffing abilities. The biggest new development is the distinction between Pacts for warlocks. It sets the Warlock apart from the Wizard or Sorcerer, and makes them a dark, creepy, arcane Cleric – or at least that’s one way to play it. The Player’s Handbook includes three Pacts: Fey, Infernal, and Star. There are also a few class features common to all warlocks:

  • All warlocks have Eldritch Blast, an at-will power. Continuity with the 3.5 Warlock is the only obvious reason for this – it doesn’t factor into other abilities or spells.
    • This power is one of the few, maybe the only, that allows the player to choose which ability modifier to use. If they had done a little more of this, the Warlock class could have avoided a crippling problem, on which more later.
  • Prime Shot is a little reward for diligently playing the positioning game. It’s 4e, so accuracy is king, but a +1 bonus for having no allies nearer your target than you are is probably not enough to make it memorable, much less desirable.
    • You may be familiar with this power from the Ranger… and it’s equally forgettable there.
      • Interestingly, the Vestige of Zutwa pact sweetens the deal to +3. That’s immense, in 4e’s context; if you have to spend a round or three setting up a situation where no ally is nearer to your target than you are, that’s fine, because you’re getting a 15% better chance for your big daily attack spell to finish your target off.
    • Having said that, the Infernal Pact wants to get hit occasionally so they can deal retributive damage, and the Fey Pact is great at escaping, so taking a risk for an attack bonus isn’t the worst idea ever. The Star Pact has a solution in their at-will, but it’s an at-will, so the damage isn’t terribly convincing.
  • Shadow Walk is a defensive bonus for not staying in the same place for action after action: the warlock Styx and moves. It’s also incredibly easy to forget.
  • Warlock’s Curse, otherwise known as Proof That You Are a Striker, is a scaling damage kicker. As a minor action (which means you’re mostly not doing this more than once per round), you can curse the enemy nearest to you. There are ways to curse more than one enemy, or more distant enemies, but that usually takes a magic item or an encounter or daily power, and it’s not common even then. Anyway, each Pact gives you a tasty treat whenever an enemy that you cursed dies. That effect, called the Pact Boon, carries a large chunk of each Pact’s flavor.
    • As a result, the warlock hastur keep moving, making a new enemy be the closest, so that no enemies accidentally meet their demise while uncursed and thus deny them their tasty treat.

So about those Pacts and Pact Boons. Non-human warlocks have no choice in their at-wills, as one is Eldritch Blast and the other is decided by their Pact. This really narrowed options for content expansion, and I’m inclined to conclude that Eldritch Blast isn’t so much a class feature as a barely-concealed restriction.

The Fey Boon is a short-range teleport, and its at-will makes the caster invisible to the target – a nice, if limited, defensive combination, since your Curse strongly encourages you to make that target the nearest enemy. The Pact as a whole treats Charisma as the primary stat (attack math) and Intelligence as the secondary (occasional effect math).

The Infernal Boon is a pile of temporary hit points, and its at-will punishes the target if the caster takes damage from any source. It’s a very nice risk/reward mechanic, though the punishment is such that you might prefer it as dissuasion than actual damage output – a squishy class that wants to get hit needs to think carefully. The devil in Dis detail is that the Infernal Pact uses Constitution as its primary stat and Intelligence as the secondary, witch (yeah, I just did that. On purpose. Because there is no pit of Hell I will not descend to for the sake of puns) means they can’t get much mileage out of crossing into Fey Pact powers.

The Star Boon, or Fate of the Void (great name! kinda wish it meant something), gives you a stacking, untyped bonus to a d20 roll you make before the end of your next turn. Here’s a hint: use it on an attack roll. Unless you’re running close to death from ongoing effects that saving throws can end, attack rolls are the only thing that can set up a positive feedback loop of murder and attack bonus. The Star Pact’s at-will is fun to use, as it punishes enemies for thinking about getting closer to you, but again the damage isn’t enough to be all that scary. It wants you to create a kiting cycle, but if the enemy closes with you, or if you have the temerity to miss once, you don’t have a good way out of that. But it’s the ability score situation with the Star Pact that makes mi-go, “What in the name of the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, were they contemplating?”

Spells intended for Star Pact warlocks are split between Constitution and Charisma for their attack math, and still require Intelligence as a secondary stat. It’s the same problem as the 4e Paladin and Cleric classes, but within a more restrictive framework. The theme and mechanics of the Star Pact are so strong that the designers’ love shows in their craft, if you know what I mean and I think you do, so it’s a shame that it doesn’t really work. The bonus from Fate of the Void is great, but it takes a few rounds of any combat for the Star Pact warlock to be as good as the Fey or Infernal warlock. To offset this further, many of the powers directed toward the Star Pact inflict penalties to enemy defenses, allow rerolls, and the like; this happens so much in the early levels that the Star Pact looks like a Warlord who came at the concept inside-out.

The Player’s Handbook Warlock isn’t a bad class; it’s just three distinct classes, two of which work reasonably well and one of which falls short. There are so many incentives to stay within powers earmarked for your Pact that you’re scarcely making build choices (until we get to Arcane Power, anyway). Considering that there are so few links to the 3.5 Warlock, though, I’d say they did a good job on the class’s “first” appearance in D&D… sort of a Great Young One, if you will.


Arcane Power

Naturally, this book is pact with spells, and especially those for the warlock. It also adds the Vestige Pact, and a few more spells for the Dark Pact (from the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide). I’m interested in the Vestige Pact, of curse, because it’s the 4e descendant of the 3.5 Binder. Oddly, they didn’t keep a single one of the 3.5 Vestiges, but wrote microfiction for a whole new set of Vestiges. Replacing half-page summaries with two-sentence impressions hasn’t made them any less compelling as the potential basis for a campaign.

The Vestige Pact has a lot of moving parts, that’s for sure. Their Pact Boon and the effect of their Pact-specific at-will attack, Eyes of the Vestige, have one of two different default states (King Elidyr or Zutwa), to which they return whenever the warlock takes a short or extended rest. There are daily powers that change your current Vestige to a new entity, in addition to their other effects, and thus grant you a new Pact Boon and secondary effect for Eyes of the Vestige. It captures the sense of constant change that made the 3.5 Binder so compelling. Unfortunately, the mechanics are so byzantine that a 5e version would necessarily lose much of that feeling.


Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms

But wait, there’s more! There’s always more when it comes to 4e crunch. In Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, the designers present the hexblade, a melee warlock. Hexblades first came to D&D in 3.5’s Complete Warrior, and continue into 5e in the Pact of the Blade, so they have just as long of a lineage as Warlocks in D&D; their theme and mechanics have changed over time just as much as the Warlock’s have. The short version is that 3.5 Hexblades are about bad luck, curses, and a small amount of spellcasting, but it’s much more like a Fighter than a Warlock; the ideal 5e adaptation of the 3.5 class (is that a weird thing to even consider? Maybe) would be an Eldritch Knight that used the Warlock spell list rather than the Wizard spell list. For… reasons, the 3.5 version is “any nongood” alignment, even though 3.5 is just as obsessed as 4e is with being a Good character struggling against the inherently evil nature of your powers, and in spite of the fact that the text describes hexblades as much more cooperative with one another than Evil is described anywhere else in the entire edition.

Anyway, in 4e, the Hexblade is a melee option within Warlock that can choose from a partial list of Pacts, including two different Fey Pacts. They get to wear fighter armor (that’s scale mail, if you don’t speak 4e), and by holding a spellcasting implement in one hand, they can extrude a lightsaber from the other. They get powers with flashy names that probably do something cool, but I don’t have full access to the text as I write this. 4e’s alignment “rules” are little more than a vestige of all earlier editions, so that “any nongood” thing is gone.


A Mess of Other Books

Gloom, Sorcerer-King, and Elemental Pacts, and a Warlock subclass actually called Binder are sprinkled throughout other books. Now, the Binder has not a damned thing to do with the 3.5 Binder, but if you really liked the 3.5 Tome of Magic, you’re in luck: it’s a 4e translation of the Shadowcaster, rendered as an Arcane Controller (i.e., a Warlock without a Curse and better at multitargeting). On a related note, have I mentioned that 3.5 demon-strated no self-restraint at all when it came to new classes? (Though honestly, Tome of Magic gets a pass; its whole point was to be a weird outlier and I can respect that.)

What is the Warlock theme of 4e? Arcane + Creepy + Power for a Price (intermittently). Setting them as strikers makes them intrinsically a bit selfish: in general, other combat roles exist to set up situations strikers can exploit, while strikers often don’t have anything to give back (but see also my comments above on the Star Pact). Most warlocks are secondary controllers, which means a smaller number of area effects with somewhat smaller areas, and a more limited selection of crippling debuffs.

The gameplay loop of the 4e Warlock, managing curses, positioning, and accuracy, was incredibly rewarding for me in the brief time I played one. This was early in 4e’s lifespan, so the power options for each Pact were few – a surprising contrast to the variability of the 3.5 Warlock class. That variability returns in a big way in 5e, as I’ll discuss next week.

Looking at longer-term development, 4e introduces Pacts and Pact Boons as fundamental concepts, expands the class beyond eldritch blast and infernal themes, and folds the Hexblade into the Warlock. The Essentials Warlock adds summoning effects as well, a key step in paving the way for 5e’s Warlock. The class feels like it belongs in 4e, though it’s no one fault that it felt tacked on in 3.5.


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Brandes Stoddard enjoys games of many kinds: video, tabletop, board, card, and live-action games. He runs Dust to Dust, a fantasy LARP in Georgia, and works in freelance game design and writing. He blogs about games at