In a forgotten temple, a young half-elf steps off a broken platform. Slowly, he floats down, safely alighting on the cracked flagstones of the lower level.
With the shouts of the guards following her, a human woman ducks into a crowd. Moments later, she wears the shape of an old crone, shuffling carefully between the market stalls.
A cruel blade clutched in one hand, a tiefling looms over a bloodstained altar, examining the sacrifice. Pleased by the offering, he intones the name of his dark patron and drives the blade down.
Warlocks are one of the most misunderstood classes in Fifth Edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. These ambitious seekers of knowledge are often cast as willing tools of some manner of pseudo-deity, fanatical diabolists, or deranged prophets of alien masters, always bound to their patron by some mystical connection that compels them along a course of action, lest they lose their power. While this may be how a warlock is led to believe the arrangement works, the truth is far more interesting.
In this article, we will explore the nature of a warlock and their pact, and consider some alternatives to the typical arrangement that many players may have come to expect.
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The Easy Road
If a sorcerer, a wizard, and a warlock all went to an arcane university, the sorcerer would learn everything in hands-on seminars and use extended metaphors in their essays to describe how magic works, the wizard would learn everything in the library and write exhaustive essays on why magic works the way it does, and warlocks would steal last year’s exam and copy all the answers. While there are some exceptions, warlocks are generally not interested in coming by their knowledge honestly; they want the answers to their questions, how they obtain them is secondary.
It’s possible that this mentality is a result of the pact itself, that the making of a pact triggers an unslakeable thirst for knowledge, but it is more than likely that many warlocks are accepted by patrons because they already have this kind of disposition. Unlike a deity who grants spells to a devoted follower, a patron must instruct a warlock to use their power, and to master it quickly requires someone whose ambition may exceed their sense of self-preservation. Even good-natured patrons require audacious followers who can act swiftly.
While the Player’s Handbook pushes players to think more about their patron and their interactions with the character, we would suggest that you start first with asking yourself what kind of person would make a pact and what led them to that point in their life. Power may drive people to seek more power, but few people originally seek power simply as a means without end. What was so important to your character that they would seek to accomplish it through striking a deal with an entity of such formidable power?
Master And Apprentice
Some patrons may wish to be treated as gods, and some may even masquerade as such to their followers, but ultimately they can’t or don’t have the same relationship with a warlock as a god would a cleric. The reasons for this may be beyond mortal comprehension—maybe channelling the power of faith eventually makes them dependent on their followers, or maybe it is a secret beyond their knowledge. In whatever case, a warlock needn’t retain the favour of their patron to use their abilities; it is their power, forever.
The other consideration of this is what the patron gets from the arrangement. Patrons can and do make demands of their warlocks, and may refuse to teach the warlock anything more if the mortal has failed to comply with their wishes. The warlock doesn’t lose their power in this instance, but progression in the class may be restricted until a new pact is forged or until reparations are made (presuming the patron is the forgiving sort or doesn’t want one of their most useful servants defecting to the service of their enemies).
Exactly how much of an impact this relationship will have on the campaign is something that you need to discuss with your DM. If the DM has already written a campaign, they may not feel there’s room to include much about this, especially if they’re newer or the story has a drastically different theme than the story you think up for your character’s background. It may be that your patron’s demands amount to small favours you perform during downtime. If this isn’t to your expectations, it’s great to determine that up front so that you can decide if you want to make a different character. (This is why having a session zero is important!)
This section will present some warlocks who fulfill or subvert certain tropes associated with the warlock class. Feel free to use them as inspiration for your own warlock!
Alaris: A Warlock of the Fiend
From a young age, Alaris had been warned by her father never to remove her talisman. The strange symbol, bound by a thick cord, had been given to her the day that her magical talents began to manifest. She’d asked about it and why it was so important, but her father was not the sort to say what didn’t have to be said, and she learned to simply accept his instructions. Besides, it matched her older sister’s, and Alaris had always looked up to Kara.
Unfortunately, things have a way of getting lost and, when Alaris was seven, she returned home after a day in the fields and found it missing. Kara put hers around Alaris’ neck before their father could notice, and made her swear to say nothing of it.
That night, Alaris woke to a sudden chill in the room. Cold sweat drenched her, and she looked over to her sister in an inexplicable panic. Though the moon cast silvery beams in through the window, no light seemed to reach the shape that stood above Kara, one long limb extended over her face. Alaris was frozen in fear as she watched her sister began to gasp for breath. Agony seemed to grip her, and Kara’s face contorted in anguish before, without warning, she grew still.
Then the shadow turned its gaze on Alaris, and she knew she was about to die.
It crossed the room in but a few steps, reaching out for her. The entity’s form roiled as it moved, its baleful, glowing eyes the only thing that seemed fully manifest. Alaris could feel its hunger tearing at her, white fire within her soul.
Somehow, her hand found Kara’s talisman. She felt it thrum with power in her grasp. With a scream, Alaris held it forward, and the dark shape dispersed like a bank of fog before a strong wind.
Alaris would later learn of the family curse. Generations past, an ancestor had sworn a pact with a terrible fiend, one that had lasting implications for his descendants. The fiend was owed one hundred souls born Alaris’ bloodline, a debt for the power it had given to the family. The magical gifts that Alaris had so treasured were a consequence of this pact, as was her sister’s death. Alaris also learned the secrets that had been passed down through the generations to protect herself from the evil influence and, with care, draw power from the dark connection.
Though her family kept their curse secret, their reclusive nature and talismans led many to suspect them of illicit behaviour. Several years later, after a series of crop failures and mysterious deaths in the town, fanatical elements sought someone to blame. In a night of fire and fury, superstitious folk—whipped into a frenzy by the priests of a local temple—descended on Alaris’ home intent on holding someone to account. Alaris alone escaped.
Since that day, her dreams have been plagued with visions of fire and shadow. An unfamiliar voice calls out to her, and sometimes when she awakes, she can still almost hear it as a whisper. The words elude her, but she doesn’t need to hear them to know what it promises: power.
This warlock has an antagonistic relationship with her patron, one that can play out in various ways. Through dreams, the fiend may continue to fill in the blanks of Alaris’ training, allowing her to progress through the class, but it is unlikely that it would do so without a purpose in mind for the warlock. Alternatively, Alaris might try to use her connection with the fiend to demand knowledge that she is owed as long as the pact between the fiend and her family persists. Such interactions are sure to offer great roleplaying opportunities.
Deneth: A Warlock of the Archfey
Hailing from the twilit dreamscape realm of the Feywild, the eladrin Deneth is a stranger to the Material Plane. He has been tasked with an important mission by the mighty and mysterious archfey known as Pan to seek seven mystical items that were stolen from his labyrinth and taken to the mortal world. The powers of these items and why he specifically was chosen are questions he can’t answer, though he secretly ponders every night as he slips into reverie. Even more troubling is that he was offered no guidance regarding where the items may be found, leaving him struggling to retain hope in his ability to succeed.
Though he was sent alone on this quest, Deneth is never unable to call on his patron. Or one of them, at least. As a Knight of Summer, Deneth serves the greatest Seelie court, an association of powerful, goodly fey led by Titania, the Summer Queen. In reverie, his mind reaches across the planar boundary to touch the wisdom of his patrons. So great is their power that he must take care not to open himself too much to this connection. Power must be earned, and Deneth is still young—not yet having gone through the Drawing of the Veil. It is possible that this task is designed to usher him into maturity, though it is also likely that the reason lies in the fickle nature of the archfey whom Deneth serves.
In battle, Deneth wields a slender blade of patterned steel, fighting with a grace that few ever see outside of dance and a ferocity not unlike a summer storm. This is partly from to his decades of training in the art of elven swordsmanship and partly from his ability to inspire fear and awe by projecting his fey presence. This combination of skills has led to Deneth’s allies giving him the affectionate sobriquet “Tempest”.
In spite of his insecurities, he is driven and utterly devout in his faith of the archfey of the Summer Court. While he is dedicated to his quest, Deneth’s desire is to return home and bask once more in the warm presence of his patrons. But the longer his quest goes on, the more he comes to worry. If this is a test, as he suspects, how long does he have left to complete it until he’s failed? If he doesn’t succeed, could he ever return? Would he ever be worthy?
This warlock is a positive fulfillment of the common trope of the warlock faithfully serving their patron, though it offers a twist in that this warlock is not involved in a pact with one archfey, but several—perhaps an entire court. A character concept like this would require communication with the DM, as it builds a quest into the story and the DM needs to be able to incorporate that into the story. The DM should also take care to offer the occasional hint to Deneth’s character regarding the expectations of the eladrin’s patron, if only to ensure that the player doesn’t feel as though they are missing certain opportunities to advance the plot.
Putting It All Together
Warlocks are a little like getting two characters: the warlock and the patron. Discussion with the DM is important if you want to have a memorable experience with your warlock’s patron. Especially important in such a discussion are the consequences of a warlock breaking their agreement with the patron; while the warlock shouldn’t lose their abilities, the DM may determine that the would have to find another patron in order to continue advancing as a warlock.
To really make your experience memorable, try to embrace what makes a warlock different than a cleric. Patrons aren’t gods, and they don’t offer knowledge and power to just anyone. Typically, they want something back, something that they can’t get from someone else. Figure out what this might be, and you have the seed of a unique and fulfilling character arc.
Have your own experience with warlocks? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!