Home Articles Understanding the Warlock Class for DnD 5e

Understanding the Warlock Class for DnD 5e

by Jae

This is our complete guide to warlocks for DnD 5e. It’s the first in a collection of information we’re putting together to tackle all the DnD classes in depth. We’re going to cover the basic rules, tips on how to role play the class, niche roles your character can fill, and how to get the most out of the class. Additionally, when this article goes up we will be linking out to helpful mini articles at relevant points covering spells, class builds, and specific features in greater depth than we could fit in one article.

This article is for both DMs and players alike. We’ll be giving DMs tips on working with player warlocks as well as creating NPCs warlocks for your games. For players, we’ll help you understand how to build a character for your game, no matter your play style. Warlocks are a very common choice for new players and understanding their nuances will greatly improve your game.

DnD Warlock – Complete Overview

What is a Warlock?

Warlocks are a DnD spell casting class that was introduced in DnD 3.5 and converted into a core class for DnD 5e. The warlock is a spell caster that draws its powers from an otherworldly patron, a being of great power. This power is not given freely though and the Warlock is sworn to the patron in some way.

According to the Player’s Handbook (PHB), warlocks are seekers of knowledge who piece together arcane secrets in order to grow their own power. But that view of a warlock is somehow limiting in the immense depth that this class offers for backstory and motivation.

A warlock, by the nature of the class, has made a deal with an otherworldly creature in exchange for power. What power? Why? These are all up to you. The warlock class does not specify terms of a patron contract and gives you total freedom as a player or a DM to come up with a patron deal and tell an amazing story. We give hints and advice on this in our article on Creating Warlock Patrons.

What Does a Warlock Do?

Warlocks are primarily set as spell casters, but their class is not as limited as wizards or sorcerers are. The Warlock has proficiency with simple weapons and light armor from the get go. Depending on how you build your warlock, you can make a versatile character that excels in both combat and casting. Because warlocks straddle the line here like the Bard class, they sacrifice a little from both combat and spell casting to achieve a balance.

Warlocks are incredibly flexible when it comes to the path you choose. Different pact options will allow you to focus on magic or combat more heavily. As for utility options, the choices expand greatly as a warlock levels with Eldritch Invocations that allow you to speak with animals, hide in darkness, see through illusions, disguise yourself at will, and much, much more.

In addition to having a great amount of customization options for the class itself, the spell list for the warlock is not as restrictive as you might think. The class boasts some of the best early level combat spells in the game (Eldritch Blast and Witch Bolt), but also has access to a lot of utility spells like Comprehend Languages, Hold Person, Suggestion, and more.

The only real restrictions on the class are their low number of both known spells and spell slots. While the low number of spell slots means you need to be more strategic when you choose to use them, warlocks don’t need to prepare spells like some other classes. They also have class options to pick up a wider range of spells early if they want to go that route.

Overall, warlocks can fill a lot of different roles and offer a great amount of progressive customization throughout a campaign.

Role Playing a Warlock

Warlocks are innately packed full of fun role play opportunities. The fact that you have a patron and a strong bond gives your character a great deal to work with in their backstory. The patron you choose and why you were willing to make that pact will feed into your character right away. If you want to take it a step further and work with your DM on the pact details, you can have an amazingly rich plot hook built into your character at the start of a campaign.

When it comes to character interactions, warlocks can be all over the place. Some warlocks might want people to think they’re wizards or sorcerers instead. A pact with a fiend might be taboo in your world and something to be hidden, or a pact with a celestial creature might be something envied as warrior of light. These things are all very dependent on how you set up your character and the world you’re playing in, but it’s definitely going to give you options for how you interact with the game.

A neat feature that they point out in the PHB is that a pact with an otherworldly patron has effects on your visual appearance and the way you act.

The magic bestowed on a warlock ranges from minor but lasting alterations to the warlock’s being.
-Player’s Handbook

Many of these are things happen as you level up and represent powers gained from eldritch invocations, but a pact with a patron can also have a real impact on your character for the purposes of role playing. Perhaps your patron branded you, or looking upon your patron’s visage changed the appearance of your eyes. Perhaps even the knowledge you’ve acquired causes others to think you’re loosing your mind.

All of these options can be incredibly fun for a DM to work into a campaign. Just make sure that you communicate with your group to ensure that any story relevant decisions are going to be good and fun for the players.

Backstory Vs Personality

Warlocks have a bit of a leg up on backstory, since decisions about pacts and why you’d make them are baked into the class. It’s worth mentioning that having a complex character class does not make your character have a stronger a personality than any other class. The character’s personality, mannerisms, and actions should flow from their backstory, but they are not a given. So when playing a warlock, think about their goals and how they are set in achieving them. This will help you turn your backstory into a personality that you can role play.

Also be sure to think about how the warlock’s interaction with supernatural entities may have affected their personality overall. Being skewed towards the extremes of any given personality type may be more normal for warlocks, who potentially have had some traumatic events happen to them during their lives.

Patrons: Rules, Choices, and Creation

All warlocks get their magic from a Patron, but what does that entail exactly? From a mechanical standpoint, patrons offer two things: rules and flavor. The rules come from the type of patron that you choose. This determines what other options you’ll have available later in the game. The flavor comes from the patron type, but also from the specific patron you set up for the warlock. If you’re a player, you’ll likely run patron options by your DM who will work on your patron with you. If you’re a DM, the sky’s the limit here.

Patron Options and Restrictions

Patrons are powerful creatures, but the PHB specifically states that they are not gods. A patron comes in three core types: The Archfey, The Fiend, and The Great Old One. Outside of the core rules there are three additional patrons in official DnD materials: The Undying, The Celestial, and The Hexblade. Each of these has different advantages and the patron type will shape some of your future options.

The Archfey

A mysterious creature of the the fey is your patron. This is typically an immortal creature that exists within the fey realms. These may be lords or ladies of a court or ancient hags that have risen to power. The Archfey are patrons with odd motivations and may want things that seem inconsequential or whimsical to the warlock. However, their desires are real and a pact with them will have a cost just like any other.

Archfey patrons expand your utilitarian spells, giving you access to spells like Sleep, Calm Emotions, Plant Growth, and Dominate Person. All of these spells keep with the atheistic of the fey. A pact with the Archfey also adds abilities starting at first level that allow you to charm, beguile, or frighten your enemies. Initially these abilities seem similar to fey tricks, but they grow into powerful mind-altering illusory magic.

Archfey patrons are good choices for characters who desire trickery and illusion magic focuses. Additionally, Archfey make for good story elements that need to be sudden or disjointed. The nature of the fey can come through in their quickly changing whims and strong wills.

Inspiration you can draw from: William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream 

The Fiend

Your patron is literally an evil being that has made a bargain with you. Fiends try to corrupt their Warlocks and the world around them. They always have evil aims and yearn for the destruction of all things. This does not mean that a warlock with The Fiend as a patron is evil. They could have been tricked or they might have made the pact in desperation. This might be a pact for power, pure and simple.

No matter the situation under which the deal is made, the fiend is always trying to get the most they can out of their deal and their Warlock often resents the burden of the pact.

Fiends grant an expanded spell list that adds fire spells to your arsenal as well as a few utility spells, like Command and Blindness/Deafness. The spells in this list are very aggressive and combat focused for the most part.

In addition to the expanded spell list, your patron’s added bonuses are surprisingly utilitarian. You get abilities like sapping the life from conquered enemies, modifiers to your rolls, and resisting a chosen damage type. Only on your last pact feature at level 14 do you get a damaging ability, and it does a whopping 10d10 psychic damage!

The fiend is a good choice for a warlock seeking power or for one who came from a desperate situation. Fiends often try to use their warlocks to expand their own power or influence events where they cannot be, so the story elements used with them are typically more sinister and ever present.

Inspiration you can draw from: Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus 

The Great Old One

Your patron is a forgotten creature who existed before the fabric of reality was first woven. If ever a patron was to cross into the territory of gods, this would be the time. However, unlike the pantheons worshiped by clerics, the will of the Great Old Ones is incomprehensible to the minds of mortals. Pacts with Great Old Ones are often forged through a quest for forbidden knowledge.

These kinds of pacts are not as much contracts, like those of the fiends, but instead are an intertwining of knowledge and minds that cannot be forgotten or unseen. The PHB even states that The Great Old One might not even know you exist, but still your pact is forged.

Both the expanded spell list and the additional pact features for the Great Old One are that of insanity. Spells like Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, and Evard’s Black Tentacles underscore the otherworldly. You gain access to the minds of others and even make them bend to your will at higher levels.

The Great Old One is a perfect patron choice for those seeking forbidden knowledge or characters that may have peeked behind a veil they should not have.

Inspiration you can draw from: Any works of H.P. Lovecraft

The Undying

Your patron is a creature who has escaped bonds of mortal life. In knowing these secrets to immortality your patron has gained great power, though they were once mortal like you. A pact with the Undying brings you power over life and death though your devotion to their teachings.

Patrons of the Undying are any that have escaped the mortal coil. Liches are prime example and a perfect template for this type of patron. The Undying are all different, and having infinite time, their whims are not those of the impatient.

The Undying offers an expanded spell list focusing on Necromancy. While this is no surprise, the list also contains Aura of Life and Legend Lore at higher levels, which fit well but stray from the Necromancy school.

The Undying is a perfect pick for any warlock seeking eternal life or desiring to become a lich themselves.

Inspiration you can draw from: Bram Stoker’s Dracula 

The Celestial

As the name suggests, the Celestial is a force of good. Your patron is bestowing power on you for a noble purpose or to grant you a glimpse of the higher planes. Celestial patrons take great interest in their warlocks and often encourage them to become righteous and seek to promote pure ideals in the world. While all Celestial patrons are good, not all are set on fighting evil; some simply want to bestow their grace on the mortal realm. These patrons can’t help but shed light in a world of darkness.

The Celestial is an interesting choice as a patron for one particular reason: it gives its warlock a glimpse of the everlasting bliss of the higher planes. While it is not stated how this affects the warlock, living without that bliss in their life while knowing it exists could very well drive them to extremes to experience it again for even a second. Warlocks of a Celestial patron may be far more fanatical than any paladin or cleric ever would be.

The Celestial patrons expanded spell list allows warlocks to fulfill the support role in a group. They gain access to healing spells like Cure Wounds and Greater Restoration. In addition to healing, the spell list also provides protection and support spells for the warlock to utilize.

Celestial warlocks work best in campaigns that have godly intervention or guidance. A Celestial patron may also assign their warlocks to work with other noble adventures with the same ideals.

Inspiration you can draw from: Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

The Hexblade

Your patron is a sentient weapon brimming with power. While other Warlocks spend their time physically apart from their patrons, Hexblades carry theirs with them and fulfill their wills. The blade itself draws its power from a mysterious source in the Shadowfell thought to be connected to the Raven Queen herself, who may have forged the first of these sentient weapons.

Hexbalde warlocks are much more combat focused than all other warlock types. Expanded spell lists for the Hexblade offer combat bonuses and utility. In addition to these spells, the Hexblade lives up to its name by gaining features that allow you to curse your enemies and grow your own combat strength against them.

A Hexblade pact is perfect for someone who wants to be a combat caster. From a role play standpoint, it also allows for a lot more options for DMs to guide their warlock directly, as their connection to their patron is ever present in their weapon.

Inspiration you can draw from: Kring and Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic

Eldritch Invocations

Every warlock, regardless of their patron, has glimpsed knowledge and power beyond the realms of the mortal mind. These secrets and forbidden teachings are your Eldritch Invocations. An Eldritch Invocation is a class option that grants you a specific power from your patron. Some are universal while others have prerequisites, such as character level or certain pact features.

A warlock’s Eldritch Invocations are defining features for the character. There are many to choose from and they can be mixed and matched with little restriction. Some grant spells that can be cast at will, while others offer unique abilities like immunity to magical and non-magical darkness.

Choosing Eldritch Invocations is a large part of your level progression as a warlock. We won’t cover each invocation here, but will talk about them more in specific example builds where they are relevant.

You can find a full list of warlock Eldritch Invocations here.

Pact Boons

A Pact Boon is a special feature that can be chosen starting at level 3. It’s a gift that your patron bestows upon you and adds features that will be helpful for the rest of the game.

Within the core rule book there are three Pact Boons:

Pact of the Chain

This pact boon grants the warlock access to a familiar. Familiars are very useful for spell casters and offer a variety of benefits both in and out of combat. This boon can be a great choice for both role play or combat heavy campaigns.

Pact of the Blade

This pact boon grants the warlock access to a magical melee weapon. The warlock will gain proficiency with that weapon specifically, but not for other weapons of that type. This weapon is always available to you and you can even store it in an extra-dimensional space. While this can have amazing benefits, it is almost completely limited to combat for anyone except for the most creative.

Pact of the Tome

This pact boon grants the warlock a book with three additional cantrips. This adds so much early versatility to your warlock.

Creating A Warlock – Step By Step

In all of these descriptions we are assuming you will be building a level 1 Warlock from scratch. If you want to build a higher level warlock, we offer guidance in the form of several potential Warlock Builds you can view as well. If you’re making an NPC or PC the steps are same, so let’s dive in.

Step 1. Race and Stat Choice

When building a Warlock your race can be anything, but it’s important to remember that your primary stat is Charisma. You cast from your Charisma and it also plays into most of your class specific features. So making sure this stat is higher, or at least not sub-optimal, is important.

Optimal statistic allocation for a Warlock will typically follow: Charisma > Constitution > Dexterity > Wisdom > Strength > Intelligence.

The exception to this will be Pact of The Blade or Hexblade patron Warlocks, who instead want higher Strength or Dexterity and will have a distribution closer to: Charisma > Strength/Dexterity > Constitution > Strength/Dexterity > Wisdom > Intelligence. The order in which you prioritize Strength or Dexterity depends on the weapon you choose for Pact of the Blade or the form of your Hexblade weapon.

Like many players, you likely won’t want to simply build your character only for optimal combat, but also for role play purposes. The most important stat is still Charisma, but you really just need a Charisma over 10 to be effective. Many warlock spells are powerful even with an average Charisma.

My personal feelings on building warlocks, even thought it’s not optimal, are that having a low Intelligence is not very warlocky. The seekers of forbidden knowledge seem, in my mind at least, to be naturally bookish and inquisitive. These traits would lead me to believe that warlocks would have a higher Intelligence and I often build them as such. On the other hand, how smart can someone be if they make a pact with a fiend?

When allocating stats for your warlock, think about what you want them to do in game and how you want those stats to paint the character’s personality. If you’re not running optimal for combat, try to run optimal for role playing and build the character you want to play.

Step 2. Choose a Patron Type

Choosing a patron type is what gives you access to your expanded spell list and patron specific class features. This is the least customizable part of the warlock rule set, as it is set as soon as it’s chosen. While the flavor of your patron can vary wildly, it does not affect the spell lists or patron features.

When considering what patron type to choose, think about what type of role you want this character to have. If you’re a player, ask your DM what kind of campaign you’re going to be involved in. Different warlock builds favor different campaign settings. You can fill almost any role with a warlock, but your patron type solidifies the main features of your character early on, so it should not be taken lightly.

If you’re a DM making an NPC or helping a PC, it’s best to think about the implications of their patron choice in your world and setting. A Fiend vs an Archfey Patron may have very different role play consequences and goals and you should advise your players about this. When making NPCs, try not to force the warlock class where it doesn’t fit. A Hexblade warlock might seem like a cool NPC, but they are built for combat and might not be a solid choice in role play scenarios without sufficiently weaving a story around them.

Step 3. Design the Patron

This step is all about adding Patron flavor. This is when you choose the pact, its consequence and the warlock’s motivations for entering into it. Creating a Patron is a whole process unto itself and we have a full article, with step by step instructions. See How to Make a Patron for DnD Warlocks.

Step 4. Choose Your Spells

Spell choice is all over the place for Warlocks, but there are a few options that are no-brainers for most basic warlocks. At first level you know two cantrips and two first level spells. If you’re going to be in combat ever, Eldritch Blast is always a good choice for a warlock. It’s specific to the warlock spell list only and is their largest source of early game damage. While it is not required that you take it, it is highly recommended for almost every warlock.

Similarly in your first level spells, warlocks have access to another exclusive: Witch Bolt. After Eldritch Blast, this will be your second highest source of early game damage and is recommended for most warlocks. Witch Bolt has the advantage of offering you continuous damage in combat without expending additional spell slots and can be held for up to a minute. It uses a d12 for damage and after you hit once, you hit automatically on all turns after that so long as you take no other action.

While this may be a bit of a controversial stance, there are not a lot of “wrong choices” for a warlock outside of abandoning the above spells. You can do a lot of silly stuff with a warlock and still be effective. By choosing options randomly for a warlock, you still have a high chance of producing a capable character.

We’ll take a look at spell choice when we break down individual Warlock Builds. This article will get updated as we release different examples and pre-built character to reference  spell choices.

Step 5. Review and Character Personality

At this point you’ve built a character, but you should always take some time to tie everything together. Look at your character’s race and decide on their appearance and dress. You’ve already done patron design, so you understand a bit of your character’s motivations and why they formed their pact. Take the opportunity to look at their goals and desires and come up with some ideas for how the character wants to progress overall.

For more on this step take a look at our article on Creating Characters With Personality.

After you’ve given a little more thought to your character’s design and who they are, it helps to look at what you’ll be choosing as they move forward. Starting at level 2 you’ll get your first two Eldritch Invocations, and starting at level 3 you will choose your Pact Boon.

Planning what you want to do with these can help you get in the mind of your character more and make the leveling up process much easier. The Warlock has a lot of customization options as you level, so it helps to know where you’re going ahead of time.

Step 6. Starting Equipment

For warlocks, I like to choose my starting equipment as the absolutely last step in the process. Where fighters and rangers think about their equipment as a core part of their class setup, Warlocks can swing wildly between first and 3rd level.

If you’re playing anything other than a Hexblade Warlock, you’ll likely want to choose a starting weapon that supplements your spell choices. If you’ve opted for less offensive spells, choosing a ranged weapon like a light crossbow is a good choice. Light armor is a given, and your should have at minimum a dagger in your pack for close combat.

As you level up, based on the pact boon you choose and the Eldritch Invocations you pick, you could change your weapon and armor load out entirely by level 3. Hexblades will rely on their pact weapon, but other warlocks who go for Pact of the Blade with other patron types will get access to a magical melee weapon which they become proficient with.

Higher Level Choices

The following two steps are for building characters that start above level one. We will cover only the additional benefits gained in level 1 and level three here, everything else will be covered in specific build guides where the choices become more relevant and focused.

Step 7. Choose Your Eldritch Invocations

When you pick Eldritch Invocations, you gain some amazing core skills for your character. Deciding what you want can be difficult and the only wrong choices you can really make are by overlapping abilities you already have. Additionally, depending on if your campaign is role play heavy or combat focused, you may want to choose different things altogether.

If you are going for combat focused, invocations like Agonizing Blast, Eldritch Spear, Grasp of Hadar, and Repelling Blast can boost both the damage and utility of your spells early on. Conversely, if you’re looking to go more role play focused, Beguiling Influence, Beast Speech, or Eyes of the Rune Keeper all give extra conversational or utility bonuses for early role play encounters.

These examples are only a few what can be picked and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. The important thing here is that you review your options and consider them based on the role your character is playing. In combat, Grasp of Hadar and Repelling Blast help you play a support role for your team while still pumping out damage, as opposed to Agonizing Blast which offers little in the way of support or team utility.

While any options you pick are viable, as rule of thumb be careful about some of the weaker choices you can make:

  • Armor Of Shadows: the benefit is a very minor AC boost.
  • Beast Speech: this is very campaign dependent.
  • Eyes of the Rune Keeper: potentially overlaps with other spells/perks.
  • Gaze of Two Minds: rare situational usage.
  • Lance of Lethargy: effect is minor and use depends on team composition.
  • Misty Visions: usefulness diminishes as you level.
  • Aspect of the Moon: not beneficial to Elves, best used for flavor.
  • Gift of the Depths: doesn’t help on dry land.
  • Sign of Ill Omen: essentially just learning Bestow Curse.

None of the above invocations are bad, but they require specific circumstances to be a better choice than other invocations your character could pick up. Consider the path of the campaign carefully when making these choices and if you’re a player, ask your DM to help you make sound choices for where you are heading.

Step 8. Choose Your Pact Boon

Picking a Pact Boon is like choosing a specialty. Really you can break this down into three main groups: combat, utility, and scouting.

Pact of the Blade is your choice if you want to be a combat heavy character. This is best picked with Hexblade warlocks, but any warlock can use it. Its best feature is where it allows for the bypassing of resistances, which can keep your damage competitive and useful late game.

If you’re planning on going utility, Pact of the Tome is for you. Gaining extra spells is always a big bonus for any caster class. This option also opens up several useful invocations down the line and is worth considering if you want more spell options in the future.

Lastly, Pact of the Chain gets you a familiar. Familiars have scouting covered for the rest of the game. It can provide all sorts of benefits, but it will most critically be used as an extra set of eyes and ears for you. Consider this choice if you party is without a Rogue or Ranger but still needs stealth and reconnaissance from time to time.

Wrapping up Warlocks

Warlocks on their own are a strong multi-faceted class choice for many different players and NPCs. The real strength of a Warlock is their amazing flexibility. They can fill almost any role and are a great addition to any team.

While the circumstances that produce a warlock are interesting to say the least, they open the door for a lot of good story and plot development centered around their class. Backstories for Warlocks are fun and flavorful.

We hope you found this guide helpful. Remember, this is the beginning of exploring Warlocks and we’ll be updating our series with builds, spell picks, patrons, and more in the near future. Follow us on social media or subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss an update.

Happy Dming!

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