This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-Nine on 5th September 2018.
Ryu: Look, we need to deal with this
Lennon: No we don’t, because there’s no problem
Ostron: Okay, you keep saying that nobody likes warlocks but it’s honestly just you.
Lennon: Ryu is on my side!
Ryu: The Killer DM is more on your side than I am and really she hates everyone so that’s not a good basis.
Ostron: Do you even have any legitimate complaints?
Lennon: Do I need them?
Ostron: … Yes.
Lennon: Alright. You might want to take a seat though, we’ll be here a while.
Warlock is one of those classes that make people nervous. If the Monk is a confusing and complex class for physical combatants, the warlock is the equivalent on the spellcasting side. While they still cast spells, one look at their class table in the players’ handbook will clue you in that something very different is going on with them. They spend most of their existence with two spell slots, and the level of those spell slots changes with the warlock level. Also, because they get access to the warlock-exclusive Hex spell, they’re probably going to be using that one for at least one of the slots. So even though they’re technically a spellcaster, they don’t function like one.
However, that uniqueness opens up a wide range of possibilities. Possibly more than any other class, the combination of Otherworldly Patron abilities, Eldritch Invocations, and Pact Boon properties means you can have two warlocks on a battlefield doing wildly different things.
There are quite a few Otherworldly Patrons, and the list keeps growing through unearthed arcana articles. The Patrons quickly establish a “flavor” for the warlock that determines how they’ll function. The original patrons are the Archfey, Fiend, and Great Old One. The Archfey and Great Old One both focused on mental magic abilities, either charming for the Archfey or turning people to gibbering piles of madness for the Great Old One. The Fiend was the best choice for damage at the beginning, but since then other resources have expanded the warlocks options, including things like the Celestial that can turn the warlock into a healer with elements of both cleric and paladin, or hexblade that lets them try mixing it up in close combat.
When you start mixing the Patrons with the Invocations and Pact Boons is where things start to get complicated and confuse people.
Pact Boons are fairly simple, but they have long lasting consequences to playstyle. Pact of the Chain gives you a familiar, essentially, so you have to determine if having a familiar works with your warlock. Pact of the Blade lets you summon a melee weapon (though an Invocation can make that weapon a ranged one instead, more on those in a moment), helpful if you’re going for a close-combat warlock, and Pact of the Tome gives three cantrips. ANY three cantrips. That can effectively turn the warlock into a cantrip caster.
Eldritch Invocations are almost like a second set of feats only the warlock gets access to. Some of them are fairly generic, like the one that lets you just cast Invisibility, but others are specific to particular playstyles or abilities, like the one Lennon mentioned that lets Blade pact warlocks summon ranged weapons.
For example, let’s look at eldritch blast, one of the most famous warlock cantrips. The vanilla version at 10th level is two 120 ft. ranged attacks that do 1d10 force damage. However, add in the eldritch invocations and now the warlock can hit from 300 feet, add their Charisma modifier to the damage, push the target back 10 ft., and reduce it’s movement speed. If they also cast the Hex spell on the target the damage is compounded even more.
But an eldritch sniper is just one of the options for the warlock. With the Hexblade patron and Pact of the Chain, plus a few invocations, a warlock can conjure a magic longsword, grab a shield, cast Mage Armor completely for free, then surround themselves with a buzzing cloud that does the warlock’s charisma damage to anyone within 5 feet at the start of their turn. Oh and did I mention they teleport to their target to attack them?
However, it’s that cornucopia of options that can cause problems. Players already spend enough time narrowing down race and class, now their class has myriad options to it. And there’s also the argument that while the warlock can do many things, someone else can do them better. A Celestial patron warlock is never going to be a better healer than a cleric, and a Pact Blade warlock would be hard pressed to out damage a raging barbarian or a fighter and take as many hits before dropping to 0. And that’s not even discussing the roleplaying issues, which you can. not. deny.
It’s true that when warlocks are brought up there is a sense of unease equivalent to someone playing an “evil” character. Much of that stems from misconception, however. Quickly reading through how the otherworldly patron bond works and looking at some of the options, it’s easy to assume warlocks are inherently problematic. I mean, if you sell your soul to a fiend you have to be evil, right? And someone pledging themselves to the Great Old One is probably a little bit of a sociopath?
Except that’s not necessarily true, particularly with the newer patrons. I’m going to partially quote from the PHB here:
Sometimes the relationship between warlock and patron is like that of a cleric and a deity, though the beings that serve as patrons for warlocks are not gods… more often, the
arrangement is similar to that between a master and an apprentice…
While it’s true the warlock probably shouldn’t just ignore their patron if or when they have a request, it’s not like the warlock refusing a request instantly causes them to discorporate and get sucked into another dimension as punishment. In some ways, Paladins are actually more beholden to their oaths than warlocks are to their patrons.
Which brings up another roleplay aspect that often causes angst; the warlock hijacking the campaign. Many players, including the ones playing the warlock, think that as soon as there’s a warlock in the party it means there is a required storyline:
The warlock must bemoan their servitude to their patron at every opportunity, until the point the patron calls on them to betray the party or the party’s goals, and then there will be a whole redemption arc that’s all about the warlock, followed by a long involved quest to sever the connection between the warlock and the patron. Sometimes this also bleeds over into assuming the player decided to play a warlock specifically so they can make the campaign all about them.
Unfortunately we can’t say that never happens, but we’re reasonably confident it will be a rarity. First of all, we already established that if a warlock tells their patron to go away and stop bothering them, the response may simply be a “we’ll talk about this later” and, since the patrons are usually immortal, “later” could be a very long time later.
Secondly, assuming the patrons will want to screw over the party is also a bit of a leap. If you aren’t literally trying to set the Feywild on fire, why is an Archfey going to care what the party is doing? And hexblade patrons are sentient weapons. Chances are a magical battleaxe is not going to have a strong opinion on the merits of a party escorting refugees across frozen plains.
Finally, the DM is not the one playing the warlock, so it’s literally impossible for the warlock to hijack the campaign unless the DM goes along with it. A player can try to make the campaign all about them through roleplaying, but honestly that can be done with any class. If a player is doing that, the DM can chat with them and discuss why they’re not helping.
Now if the DM is going along with it, or if the DM decides to hijack the campaign and make it about the warlock, that’s a completely different situation. The DM should either discuss that decision with the group, or at least hint that the campaign is going in that direction so the players can weigh in with ideas
Killer DM: or just figure out when is the best time to murder the warlock in their sleep so that story arc never gets going.
Lennon: That… was you, you’re not even wearing the hat… that wasn’t that the Killer-
Ryu: Oh this isn’t about me right now. Are you satisfied? warlocks are not evil, they’re fun and varied and exciting.
Lennon: I don’t think I’d go that far
Ostron: Would you at least concede that they aren’t universally hated?
Lennon: Kender aren’t universally hated either, that doesn’t mean those people are right.
Ryu: I think that’s as close as we’re going to get.