5 Tips for Playing Better Warlocks
A Dungeons and Dragons Guide
There are some who are born with arcane power pulsing through their veins. Others for whom that power is earned through hard work and tireless study. For those who lack the former, and who do not wish to pursue the latter, there is another path. A path that seems easier, in many respects. Pacts are forever, though, and once you have made one there is no unmaking it.
But that is the risk one takes when they become a warlock.
If you've been looking for a way to step outside many of the stereotypes that come with this particular class, the following tips may be of use to you for digging down beneath the surface. For more installments in this series, check out the master list 5 Tips For Playing Better Base Classes over on my gaming blog Improved Initiative.
Tip #1: How Did You Form Your Pact?
A warlock draws their power from the pact they have with their patron. As such, it bears asking what the warlock did to forge that pact in the first place. Was there a ritual you had to undertake? A task you had to perform? Did you need to learn a secret? Did you have to enter a forbidden place? Wait for the stars to align? What?
Every players knows what their warlock is bonded to, but it's worth asking how that bond was formed. Because it might have been as simple as finding a dusty old tome and reciting an incantation on a dare (the "playing with a Ouija board" kind of origin story), but other patrons might have different standards. They want you to prove your loyalty, and your worth, before they agree to give you real power. So was it easy? Or did you have to work for it?
Tip #2: Why Did You Make The Bargain?
For some warlocks, the motivation behind forming a pact with their patron is simple; they want power, and they want it now! While that's perfectly functional, there are a lot of other reasons to accept an (occasionally literal) devil's bargain.
Did you accept making yourself the servant of the Fiend in order to save a family member's life? Did you offer yourself to the Archfey as a way to do penance for breaking the obscure or nonsensical rules of the fey folk? Were you offered up to an Old One, and in your momentary madness agreed to do anything, be anything, just so you no longer had to hear the piping of that damnable flute any longer? Or were you down in the darkness of the lowest prison, deciding that obedience to any master was better than dying, buried alive in your stone cell?
Sure, you can become a warlock for selfish reasons. You could even become one without truly knowing what you agreed to (such as if you made a pact as a small child who'd been abandoned in the forest before coming to the attention of one of the potent Fey patrons). Before you go for the low-hanging fruit, though, ask if there were other things that compelled your character to sign on the dotted line.
Tip #3: How Old Were You When You Made Your Pact?
We tend to think of our characters as young, virile, and freshly empowered... but that is not the only way to make a warlock.
For example, a child whose imaginary friend was not so imaginary might find as they grow up that Mr. Grin tricked them, and that along with puberty they find other, darker changes occurring inside them. Alternatively, an old astrologer gone mad in the study of forbidden texts might willingly give himself to the Old Ones during the narrow window of time when the red star rises in the heavens, not to be seen again for a generation or more.
If you've lived with your patron's mark for years, that can change how you think, how you act, and mold who you grow into. Alternatively, accepting the bargain could even change the way you appear to others. An old servant might be made young again, their youth and vitality dependent upon their service to their patron. Or a child might grow quickly, reaching adulthood in a handful of years to make sure they are an appropriate vessel to contain their patron's blessing.
Tip #4: Did Your Pact Come With Strings Attached?
Warlock patrons are creatures of astonishing power, likened unto gods. They require no prayers from their chosen champions... but they may require something else.
So what strings, if any, did your bargain have attached?
When you accepted the patronage of the fiend, does it mean that any life ended by your hand, no matter how virtuous, damns them to hell? Did the lords of the fey empower you with the expectation that when they called on you to stand as their knight that you will do as they bid? Do the celestial powers expect you not to just oppose the doings of the wicked, but to seek them out and eradicate them?
These rules can be big or small, strange or silly as you feel fit your character's story, patron, and the needs of your game. But if a being who is powerful on such a magnitude chose to bless you with some of that potency, then it begs the question as to what purpose they gave you that power for... and what rules you can't break if you want to keep it.
Even if it's as simple as, "Don't cut your hair. Ever."
Tip #5: How Do You Feel About That Pact Now?
Pacts are like tattoos. Some people love them, and think it was the best decision they ever made! Others... well, others aren't so proud of the circumstances surrounding that decision. They're more likely to keep it covered up, and to do their best not to think about it.
So where does your warlock fall on that spectrum?
Are they proud of their standing as a favored of their patron? Are they ashamed of their pact, even knowing the power it grants them? Have they tried to distance themselves from it, or even to break their pact so they can go back to living a more normal life? Are they trying to use the powers granted them by their patron to fight against that patron's own interests (such as a fiendish warlock who hunts devils that serve his master)? If so, are they attempting to use the words and agreement of their pact against their patron, keeping a tight rein on the gifts they were given while not technically violating the oaths they made?
There is a lot of potential here, since warlocks might grow beyond the motivations that first drew them to make a pact, or they might become disillusioned with the power they were promised. Or, like Faust, they might seek a way to slip the noose at the eleventh hour as a way to cheat their patron out of what was promised.