The Warlock Class, Part Three
I can’t believe we’re already to the last article on the Warlock class. Sure, there was a two-article bit on Sha’ir as a gratuitous lead-in. Sure, I’ve also bolted on studies of the Binder class along the way. But here we are, tackling the 5e Warlock in all of its strange glory. In all of 5e, it’s the class I feel most conflicted about – the mechanics are different, innovative, and just shy of transcendent genius. It’s okay to disagree with me on this! We can still be pals.
The Warlock is an interesting class on so many different mechanical levels. It has far and away the most internal (i.e., without leaving pages 105-111 of the Player’s Handbook) customization of any class in the game: Patron, Pact, and a bazillion invocations. (Let’s ignore the much less distinguishing Spells Known for now.) With three different options for Patron and three for Pact, there are effectively nine warlock subclasses before you get into invocations at all. Probably the closest comparison in other classes is the Fighter – a point I’ll return to later, because there are some compelling touchstones between the two classes.
Let’s start with the things that are the same for all warlocks. Warlocks are primary spellcasters… sort of. A feature called Pact Magic grants a tiny number of spell slots (one at first level, the second at second level, the third at eleventh level, and the fourth at seventeenth), but those spell slots return with a short rest and are always of the highest slot level that the character can cast (stopping at spell level 5). A warlock might get to throw his biggest spells many more times per day than any other primary caster. It depends on the DM’s and group’s style, though – many other classes get nothing but Hit Die expenditure from a short rest, and some awkward things start to happen when characters are on differing currency-refresh timers.
The warlock also gets d8s for Hit Dice, which gives them slightly more staying power in battle than wizards, and they have proficiency in light armor and simple weapons. They pick two skills from a list that suggests a scholar with a dark side, or a rogue with a magical side, which is on-point.
The warlock has cantrips, of course, to give them something to do other than spend their precious spell slots. They get a pretty normal list of cantrips shared with other classes, plus eldritch blast. Now, I have a grudge against eldritch blast in 5e. The problem is that it is really a lot better than all of the other damage-dealing cantrips available to the warlock, and when amplified with the Agonizing Blast invocation, it is better than any other cantrip in the game.
See, when other classes get to add a spellcasting ability score modifier to their cantrip damage, they add it once (cf. Knowledge Cleric, Tempest Cleric, Draconic Sorcerer, Evoker Wizard). Not so for the Warlock with Agonizing Blast: because eldritch blast fires additional rays at 5th, 11th, and 17th levels, the Charisma bonus applies to each blast separately, as clarified in Twitter:
Does Agonizing Blast add damage per Eldritch Blast casting, or per beam? E.g. 5th level lock deals 2d10+2*Cha, or 2d10+Cha? I would rule that you add your Charisma modifier whenever a beam hits. But I have my eye on this feature. – Jeremy Crawford
Now, this has the effect of putting the warlock’s eldritch blast on an equal footing with a Fighter’s Extra Attack progression. I’m fine with that part; making one casting class better with cantrips in general than others is a reasonable approach, especially if you’re giving them fewer spells per combat. What bothers me is that it invalidates the warlock’s other attack-cantrip options, chill touch and poison spray. Chill touch has an application once in a very long while, as a few enemies in D&D have healing spells or regeneration, though unless you know the enemy is going to receive a heal or mass heal, eldritch blast is probably doing enough damage to simply outpace the healing. Poison spray, on the other hand, is completely worthless: poison resistance or immunity are common, and 4d12 (average: 26 damage; zero damage on a successful Con save) is trivial compared to 4d10+20 (average: 44 damage; four separate attacks, so an increased chance to crit and very little chance of a zero-damage round).
The problem with this is that the class sets up false choices and build traps. In 4e, if the class’s structure hadn’t dictated which two at-wills a warlock got, they could have gotten along fine on any two. In 5e, unless you’re a Pact of the Blade warlock (and probably even then, because it’s such a good ranged weapon), you are making a seriously suboptimal choice if you don’t use eldritch blast, and such build traps make the game less friendly to new players. Further, if eldritch blast is always the optimal course (let’s assume you’ve already tossed out a hex for the damage boost and you’re saving your other spell slot), you’re not faced with any interesting decisions on your turn, and I believe that is a weakness in design.
Okay, moving on. Warlocks also gain Mystic Arcana, which are individual spell slots of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th level that refresh only with a long rest. Once they pick their Mystic Arcanum spell for a level, it never changes; they also can’t spend a higher-level slot to improve it. On the plus side, these four spell slots don’t count against the warlock’s paltry fifteen Spells Known. These slots keep them on par with other primary spellcasters for their highest-level spells, though at 19th and 20th level, other spellcasters gain a second 6th and 7th level slot, respectively. Anyway, Mystic Arcana are pretty much fine for what they are, but the spell list that provides their options is very short – as few as four, for the 7th-level Mystic Arcanum.
Finally, at 20th level, warlocks gain Eldritch Master. Once per long rest, they can refresh their four spell slots (not their Mystic Arcana) with one minute of entreaty, rather than one hour of rest. It’s one of the less inspiring 20th-level abilities, though it ranks above the Ranger’s damage bonus against favored enemies. Of course, for sheer awesome, nothing in the game comes close to the Paladin’s Super Saiyan forms. Many classes refresh a small portion of their power currency more frequently as their 20th-level ability, but only the Warlock takes one minute to do it. As a result, if you adopt the variant rules for faster short rests, this power can fade into near uselessness. In the balance, Eldritch Master is okay, but a little disappointing.
Now for the points of customization:
A warlock’s first major choice is the Patron, the source of all your power. The Player’s Handbook offers three Patrons: the Archfey, the Fiend, and the Great Old One. (In case it is in any regard not obvious, 4e’s Star Pact maps pretty closely to the Great Old One.) The text suggests names from real-world mythology, fiction, and D&D canon for each type of Patron. It encourages the warlock’s player and the DM to discuss the relationship between warlock and patron, spelling out some other possibilities than “willing supplicant.”
Each Patron adds ten spells to your spell list, though you still have to spend Spells Known on them. I get not wanting to force-feed these spells, but with a small Spells Known pool in the first place, this just adds pressure to that decision. When you’re going to spend $15 at the Dollar Store, increasing your options sometimes feels more like expanding the number of things you can’t have. The good news is that you can cycle out one known spell per level.
Patrons also grant powers at 1st, 6th, 10th, and 14th levels, shaping a unique playstyle for each. On the plus side, they’re very distinct. On the downside, the Archfey grant three different powers imposing the charmed or frightened conditions. In case you haven’t skimmed the Monster Manual, a huge number of monsters are immune to the charmed and frightened conditions, leaving the Archfey warlock high and dry. By comparison, Fiend patrons grant four abilities that are reliably useful, including one of the only ways in the game to gain resistance to force damage. The Great Old Ones also grant reasonably useful abilities – Awakened Mind definitely loses out to Dark One’s Blessing on raw power, but it opens the door to some wonderfully creepy roleplay. If you can rely on the DM not to use creatures immune to your powers, the Archfey offers superlative crowd control and social manipulation, so my advice there is to feel the DM out before you settle on the Archfey.
Next up are the Pacts, which also determine your playstyle, but in a more immediate way. The Pacts of the Player’s Handbook are the Blade, the Chain, and the Tome. The Blade Pact offers 5e’s version of the Hexblade that we saw in 3.x and 4e, with a magical weapon the warlock can summon and dismiss. It costs two invocations (one at 5th level and one at 12th level) to keep the Blade Pact on par for damage. Unlike other Pact-linked invocations, the Blade invocations are about turning you into a passable melee combatant, and if you aren’t a Blade warlock, you wouldn’t even want them.
The Chain Pact is the closest that the game gets to a World of Warcraft-style pet class. They gain a familiar that has nowhere near enough resilience to mix it up in combat, but with exceptional scouting abilities and some useful attacks for desperate situations. Those attacks cost the warlock’s action, so after 5th level it will be rare that you’re not better off just using eldritch blast. The Chain Pact also opens up two invocations, one of which is a nice scouting effect and the other of which is completely goddamn amazing if you’re in a situation to use it: hold monster at-will, against celestials, elementals, and fiends, which you’re probably encountering all the time at 15th level and above anyway. Having said all of that, it seems to me that the Chain Pact is probably the hardest of the three to use well. Look to the edge-case applications of familiars – workarounds for touch-casting, damage and condition immunities that you do not share, and so on.
Edited: One of my readers has pointed out that there’s another well-hidden benefit to imps, quasits, and pseudodragons have Magic Resistance (advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects), and share that trait with their companion while within 10 feet. This is not mentioned in the Player’s Handbook, but in the Monster Manual, in sidebars for each of those creatures. This is a significant failure of information presentation.
The Tome Pact is for people dedicated to the spellcasting side of the warlock. Getting to lift three cantrips from other classes is great for utilities, like guidance. Overall, though, the initial Pact Boon is not why you are here. Opening up the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation is the payoff: gaining access to the ritual-only version of every ritual spell in the game is the whole reason you showed up for this. It’s the only invocation specific to the Tome, but it’s also the only Pact-linked invocation that is destined to get more powerful when the DM accepts new content (official or third-party) into the game. It also carries the Ritual Caster ability, though it doesn’t call that out quite clearly enough. Anyway, this functionally steps you up to a “true” primary spellcaster in some regards, but mostly it gives you a long list of tricks up your sleeve. You also get part of the Chain Pact Boon – find familiar – but not the expanded list of familiar options.
Together, the Patrons and Pacts form a kind of 3×3 grid of warlock subclasses. It’s the most flexible class chassis in 5e, though in a sense it means there’s almost nothing to the Warlock but its subclasses. It magnifies the effect of new content, as well. On top of that, there are invocations for subtler tweaks and tricks, like warlock-only micro-feats.
Invocations fall into a few broad categories:
- Directly improve round-by-round combat ability, like Agonizing Blast, Repelling Blast, Thirsting Blade, and Lifedrinker.
- Reduce your spellcasting load by making something that other classes spend a spell slot on into a passive ability, like Armor of Shadows, Ascendant Step, or Eldritch Sight.
- Let you cast a spell not normally on the Warlock spell list, such as bane for Thief of Five Fates or polymorph for Sculptor of Flesh; these often cost a spell slot (but not a Spell Known), and cannot be cast a second time until you complete a long rest.
- The developers have talked a bit about this design decision – it’s a way to put a brake on spells that would be annoying, particularly for reasons of complexity, if cast many times in a day. On the other hand, you’re paying an invocation and a spell slot, and if your campaign runs more toward two or fewer short rests in an adventuring day, this is a lot to pay.
- Odd-but-useful abilities, such as One with the Shadows (which bears only a passing resemblance to 4e’s Shadow Walk), Devil Sight (great for abusing enemies if used well), Gaze of Two Minds (there’s a right time and place to use this, but it’s not common enough to spend an invocation slot), or Beguiling Influence (warlock is a Charisma class, and this invocation patches the limitations of your skill proficiencies so you can be the team’s face).
The theme expressed in these abilities is top-notch. All told, I have nothing but good to say about the thematic elements of the Warlock. When we get down to mechanics, though, there are some problems. The good part is that you can respend one invocation each time you gain a level, so you can experiment with combinations even as you’re also picking up new abilities. The bad part is that there are a lot of traps – abilities that sound a lot better than they are.
Many invocations have level prerequisites, so as you advance, more options open up. A lot of the early abilities lose their appeal at later levels, because there’s no internal progression mechanic. Suppose for a minute that Thief of Five Fates were a good buy at second level, when you pick up your first two invocations. Once per long rest, you can spend a spell slot to cast bane. At this point, your spell slot is always a first-level slot. As you advance, Thief of Five Fates isn’t just competing with your other invocations; it’s also competing with your Spells Known. If you’ve got something better to do with that action in a combat and that spell slot, Thief of Five Fates fades away.
The game could easily add a clause that at (some level, probably 8th or so) Thief of Five Fates no longer costs a spell slot. The point here is that once you’ve established something in your bag of tricks, you’ve probably started to grow attached to it, and feeling pressure from the system to drop it for something more level-appropriate isn’t all that great.
The Warlock spell list also deserves a mention. There’s a great mix of mind control, reconnaissance, dirty tricks, mobility, debuffs, and non-standard damage spells, including a few that are not shared with any other class list, like hunger of Hadar. 4e’s Warlock shines through here, with a number of spells or build features getting repackaged – such as hex, a clear nod to the 4e Warlock’s Curse (but expensive, at the cost of a spell slot). The Warlock has the shortest spell list of any primary spellcaster, but it’s still fairly well-rounded; as mentioned earlier, each Patron expands this list. It’s interesting to see what qualifies as “universal” for such a varied class: weirdness, utility, and creepiness carry the day.
I mentioned that the warlock had things in common with the fighter, especially the Battle Master. It’s no great matter to point out that eldritch blast scales at the same times that fighters gain Extra Attacks, and Agonizing Blast gives it the ability score bonus to damage that matches a weapon-wielder. More than that, superiority dice and Pact Magic are per-short-rest currencies for classes that otherwise live and die by their at-will attacks or spells. (As compared to other fighty-types and spellcasters, both of which hang a lot more on per-long-rest abilities.) The fighter also has second winds, action surges, and Indomitability; I didn’t say it was a perfect match. Anyway, superiority dice scale up in a way that somewhat resembles Pact Magic slots increasing in spell level – instead of giving you a single d6, and a d8, and a d10, and a d12, everything advances together. The fighter (and ranger and paladin) also have their Fighting Styles, which put a spin on their gameplay just as Pact Boons do for warlocks. Let’s wrap this up before I beat this point to death with any more obviousness.
In conclusion, the 5e Warlock is a stylish, innovative, wicked bit of design, but more than any other class in the game, the player and the DM need some measure of understanding about the tempo of gameplay. With a large number of smaller combats and short rests in a day, a warlock is leaps and bounds better than a more conventional spellcaster, who has only a small number of their best spells and eventually runs out entirely. With a smaller number of longer combats (which is, unfortunately, the reality of most games I run), the warlock suffers in comparison. If there’s an emphasis on the other two pillars of gameplay (exploration and social interaction) or investigating non-combative mysteries, the Warlock potentially outshines every other class in the game. (Dat Pact of the Tome. Whoa buddy.)
Over the course of three editions, the Warlock has developed from an eldritch blast-slinger with a few other tricks, to the arcane striker (who does arcane striker things in a dark & creepy way), to a spellcaster or melee skirmisher with an unusual approach; they can accomplish just about anything that other arcane spellcasters can do, but it might take more time (say, a short rest) or work a little differently.
Finally, I hope that a future adventure or supplement restores official support for Binders (preferably under the Warlock aegis) and Vestiges. They’re a relatively obscure bit of D&D lore, for something written within the past twelve or so years, but sometimes that just means they aren’t played out yet.
Edited: Also check out Rich Howard’s Blackweave Warlock, for githyanki whose patron is the Lich Queen!