Warlocks in DnD are practically screaming for a Lovecraft style treatment. While D&D is primarily a fantasy setting game, you might still want the classic, otherworldly horror style of Cthulhu or Yogsathoth in your game. While most of Lovecraft’s stories were set in the early 1900s, the real themes and structure of his work easily transcends these limitations and can be brought into your fantasy setting.
A Note Before We Begin
Lovecraft, as a person, is quite problematic. He was a racist, fascist sympathizer, and far worse than just a product of his time. It is quitce impossible to ignore these facts about his life, and they rightly should not be ignored. While a lot of his work on cosmic horror was groundbreaking and he was a phenomenal writer, he was a loathsome and vile human being. It is important to remember that while you might appreciate the greatness of someone’s art, you should never mistake the quality of their work with their quality as an individual.
What Exactly is Lovecraftian Horror?
The themes of cosmic horrors that embody Lovecraft’s style revolve primarily around secret knowledge. Many would argue that his works deal specifically with forbidden knowledge, but let’s broaden that definition a bit. Some of the most fantastic ideas presented in his works revolve around learning just one thing that changes how someone sees the world. That last part is the real hook that underlines the rest of his work: The world is not how you think it is.
The simple idea that some of the fundamental truths you hold are wrong is a primal horror. The sudden change and questioning of what you know really inspires a sense of dread, and thematically it tracks with the dramatic and tragic character progressions often witnessed in his work. While any one creature or thing in Lovecraftian fiction might be horrible on its own, the real horror comes from the internal conflict that comes from confronting opposing worldviews.
Fate, External Forces, and a Lack of Control
Outside the horrors of cognitive dissonance obtained from secret knowledge, Lovecraft often employed several other themes to enhance the overwhelming sense of fear in his stories. These additional elements were fate, otherworldly external forces, and an extreme lack of control. Fate itself is a classic literary device. Often trying to avoid a particular fate brings it about in classical writing.
Lovecraftian horror takes this a step further when it introduces otherworldly forces. Once a character is aware that something beyond their control that was previously unknown to them is pulling the strings, it provokes a response from the character and drives their narrative forward. The lack of control, no matter how hard they struggle against it, works to build up horror in the story.
Alone none of these factors of fate are all too powerful. But when combined, they seem to provide a catalyst that sets the whole thing off. The introduction of some sort of secret knowledge evolves from how a character reacts to the facts of a new world identity.
This can even be subtle, like in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In this story the main character learns a secret about Deep Ones who have interbred with humans and that their offspring change into fish monsters as they grow older. The main character initially dismisses this, but then is forced to confront it as reality.
Later still, the main character learns he is a descendant of a Deep One as well and will eventually turn into a fish monster. The story depicts a world that is at conflict with known reality and then progresses to take away agency from the character, in this case through their genealogy, which is something he can’t control.
Warlocks are a special breed. In DnD it’s possible to gain magic through study and become a wizard, through devotion as a cleric or a paladin, or to be born with it like sorcerers. Warlocks instead choose none of these options and gain magic through pacts with powerful magical creatures, gods, or otherworldly forces. That’s kind of messed up, but can be explained in a lot of ways.
First, studying magic is hard and patrons offer a shortcut. Second, while some characters may come into contact with more traditional ways of gaining magic, warlock characters might stumble upon a secret or forbidden knowledge at any time. This is not to say being a warlock is limited to these reasons. But it should not be ignored that forging a pact is hardcore in as far as magic acquisition goes.
Senses and Secrets
One of the coolest ways to create a Lovecraftian style warlock is through the devotion to one particular sense or secret. You can approach it from a lot of angles, but let’s start with the sense of sight. A character who begins to see things that others cannot see may be confused and wonder what’s going on. A logical conclusion from an outside perspective might be that the person is crazy, but that just causes them to be quiet about what they see.
From there they do research and they learn about vision itself. They study all they can find on the topic and come to hone their new sight. They might start with augmenting their vision with lenses or simply trying to focus on something they shouldn’t be able to see until it becomes more clear to them. Eventually through this practice they learn something about sight that no one else knows.
This secret develops the character’s backstory and pushes them to encounter a truth about the world. In our example the character realizes there are many things we cannot see or simply ignore. By pulling on this thread they go even deeper and glimpse something they were not meant to see. By staring into a world beyond our own, it stares back. And before they knew what they were doing, the pact was formed. The individual awakens changed, knowing the world is not as others think and perceives things others would not want to know existed.
This warlock is an enigma to their peers. The setup provides that they were a little odd, through no control of their own, and were thus forced to acknowledge a disconnect between the world they thought they knew and the world as it actually is. What really drives this home is the forging of a pact seemingly by accident. Their patron didn’t really grant them power, but by experiencing their patron they achieved power through understanding the world more clearly and falling under their patron’s gaze.
This kind of warlock creation works for any sense. An individual could perhaps focus on that ringing in their ears or that chill that runs up their spine. They could become entranced by smells both wonderful or putrid. You can even push this through taste, which lends itself to more sinister tie-ins to occult ritual and cannibalism (gruesome, but horrific in it’s own right). The key factor lies in the use of a single honed sense to an extreme which leads to deeper enlightenment and a connection with otherworldly forces.
Dreams and Hidden Lore
Another path that is very Lovecraft is the exploration of dreams. Dreams come up in countless Lovecraft tales. Particularly in Call of Cthulhu the quote:
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
is quite haunting. With dreams we already tick the box for a lack of control. Very few people control what they dream about and fewer still remember them to any great detail.
With the development of a warlock in the style of a Lovecraftian dreamer, the character can become plagued with dreams, choose dreams over reality, or simply have a fascination with them in general. The dreams twist towards the horror side when the character begins to learn secrets about real life. The knowledge they pull from their own mind at night can be mundane at first, but it must be something they couldn’t possibly know.
As this progresses the character might learn information they can’t quite piece together: a foreign language, a ritual marking, steps to call out for guidance. In their naïve state the character follows their dreams to a conclusion and ends up face to face with a being or entity far beyond the scope of anything they ever imagined.
They are presented a choice: lean into the dream and forge a pact, or wake up and forget. Best of all, you can layer in more dread with hints that they have already made their decision or the thought that the choice is a formality or comfort offered to the character.
While this kind of warlock is a bit more cliché, they’re also intensely malleable. This character can have an amazing backstory that fits into any world or setting because their backstory is mostly one of self-actualization and internal reflection. The setting and character can be changed endlessly, but the beats of the story that matter are almost completely internal and agnostic of the setting.
Rules as Stated
While it’s not necessarily a hard rule, Lovecraftian style warlocks are best suited to be paired with rules for Great Old Ones or Otherworldly patrons. Our warlock powers via the senses example above works for either, but otherworldly pairs best with sight, sound, or touch.
Great Old Ones pair best with the examples for discovery of rituals through taste, smell, or our second example of dreams and hidden lore. Besides pairing your warlock to an appropriate patron, the rules don’t need to be altered. The really important thing to focus on is that these characters are intently focused on the self. Their struggles are internal and the class features that they take should be toward pursuing a greater depth of understanding or other goals.
Another thing that H.P. Lovecraft covers a lot in his work is temptation. This isn’t your run of the mill biblical temptation, but instead a drive to see what happens next. With a warlock focused on secrets of the senses it might be a preponderance about a quirk of their senses that push them to look closer.
As they discover secrets they continue to follow the trail and develop a very strong sense of purpose. They must know what lies at the end of their questioning. What else is there to see? What else is there to feel? The temptation to answer these questions can never be fulfilled because they started their line of questioning by doubting what they already knew. No matter how many secrets they learn they’ll always continue to search for more. The core appeal to their temptation is that there is simply more beyond themselves.
What can make temptations unique is their focus. The core principles behind temptations are often the same. However, the focus of that temptation, or more correctly the path by which it is explored, is typically what defines the flavor of the warlock. Secrets of sensation, particularly touch and pain may drive a warlock to seek perfection of the body, a temptation they will never actually achieve, which could eventually put them on the path to becoming a lich.
Similarly a warlock who pursues secrets of dreams might develop a wanderlust and a deep temptation for exploration. This same warlock might also lack normal social boundaries. They feel they are entitled to all knowledge, and through dreams they may seek to acquire even the most forbidden secrets. This grants a dark twist to Divination spells and offers a lot of flavor to a character.
Notes for Dungeon Masters on Lovecraftian Warlocks
If you want to insert a Lovecraftian Warlock into your game or have players that want to, it’s important to focus on a few character elements. If you are helping a player character, talk about these topics with them and how they want to play their character.
The biggest thing you’ll need to focus on is the character’s penchant for mistrusting information or their insistence on discovering secrets. This shouldn’t be everything, but almost as a flaw these types of characters would seek out information in any scenario related to their particular topic of focus. If the warlock is following the secret of sight, they will take eye symbolism in any quest very seriously while they may ignore other symbols.
The feature of secrecy can also present itself in characters in multiple ways. A character might be open about secrets and want to share them with everyone. Alternatively, a character might share very little or actively mislead other party members to guard their secrets.
When a player makes a character like this it’s important for the DM to know which route they’re taking and get a firm handle on their backstory and motivations. Having a session zero where you talk with a player about these things and help them establish a baseline for character personality is a really good idea for Lovecraftian style warlocks.
Notes for Players on Lovecraftian Warlocks
If you’re a player and are seeking to be the best Lovecraftian warlock you can be thematically you should ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the temptation that drives you to accept a pact?
- What type of secret information do you value most?
- Should you guard secrets or share them openly?
- Does your character feel unique or special in their secret knowledge?
- Are you trusting of others or paranoid?
- How do you view other characters who don’t possess or believe in your secret knowledge?
These questions help you form a baseline personality for interactions with other players, NPCs and the world at large. Typically, Lovecraftian characters seem weird or jarring, but only slightly. Your character might have an air of mystery around them, but a lot of your struggles are internal. How you interact with others should be handled according to the character’s internal beliefs.
Character growth and development is a must for these types of characters. Lovecraft characters experience horrifying truths about reality and how they deal with that is what shapes the character’s progression. Don’t play out a mysterious loner; your character’s struggles are further defined by their interactions with other players and the world around them. If truth about reality causes dread, that can only go so far before you seek comfort and understanding.
If the burden of secret knowledge weighs heavy on you, perhaps sharing the load is a long term step towards character development that stabilizes your character. The difference is that your character has support in the form of the party, while many of Lovecraft’s characters do not and things don’t end well for them. Use the difficulty that comes with being a warlock bound by a pact to grow and try new things in your role playing.
Playing with an “Evil” Warlock
It is possible that a player character develops and plays an evil warlock. While it doesn’t stop the game from running, it is something that should be discussed with everyone at some point in the game. It can be fun for there to be some betrayal and backstabbing in your D&D campaign, but not everyone is interested in that. You should make sure everyone is on board before you run a game with evil characters.
If you get the all clear and a player plays an “evil” warlock, they will probably want to operate untruthfully. They may not let the group know their goals or they could just lie about what they’re after. These kinds of characters will take calculated risks but will really only betray the group for large, impactful gains.
Some people love playing games like this. But even if you’re excited to try it out, it’s very difficult for everyone to act without letting meta game knowledge seep into the role playing. Another alternative here is that the player might convert the group to their cult and then everyone can be evil warlocks together.
Lovecraftian Warlock Characters and Plot Hooks
Mystery abounds when toying with the secrets of the universe! Having a warlock in your party who grapples with secret knowledge and otherworldly horror opens your campaign up to have a ton of mystery elements. These don’t have to be too deep or complex, but instead can be sprinkled in throughout the campaign to develop a sense of progress in learning a complex secret.
A player’s ultimate goal might be to not only learn a core truth, but also to escape their pact. This allows you to pepper in hooks all over the place. They will naturally want to explore the content and dig deeper into the mystery of their own nature as a warlock.
Another fun plot device you can use is the creation of a cult that is similarly tied to the warlock’s patron. If a bunch of cultists show up under the same patron, the warlock in the party might feel kindred to them. But depending on how they approach their patron they might be taking shortcuts and overstepping bounds to achieve their goals. The player’s warlock may or may not agree with them, but it will likely cause some tension and conflict within the party itself.
There are a lot of really great ways to expand on this, but the easiest way is to simply pick up some Lovecraft novels and read them. They’re easy to read and their pacing is built in such a way that you can come out of a story feeling like you’ve taken a mad sprint through terrifying settings. Each story is full of reusable plot devices and nods towards exploration of ideas that fit perfectly within D&D.
Lovecraft and Warlocks Make Sense
Warlocks are perfectly set up to encapsulate the writing elements of H.P Lovecraft’s work when played out in DnD. They’re versatile enough to make most types of patrons work and their matching of D&D lore to secret knowledge makes for a great pairing.
While you might have some extra work in store when running NPCs or PCs, it can really be rewarding to have a character that walks the line between dread and insanity throughout your game. The prepacked and easily stealable plot hooks that come with this pairing also make it an exciting route for players and dungeon masters alike. We look forward to hearing your stories about warlock run-ins with cosmic horror.