Divine Relationships Part 3: Warlocks

Deities, Followers, and Divine Casters

After one of my games a conversation came up about what is the relationship between a deity and a paladin vs a deity and a regular follower or an exalted being who has access to divine power. My answer to the player was unsatisfactory to us both so I thought I would explore it in more detail, especially as there are so many different ways that player characters can draw power from or have a relationship with their deity. This is part 3 of a 4-part series because I think about this sort of thing way too much.

  1. Introduction and Clerics
  2. Paladins
  3. Warlocks
  4. The Exalted


With Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, WoTC introduced the celestial pact for warlocks. This is not the only reason I am including warlocks in the current series. Every form of warlock draws power from a source that is “greater than mere mortals” and every warlock has a relationship with that patron that is both similar to and unique from the way clerics and paladins relate to their gods.

In Home, most people are ignorant and superstitious. Anyone casting a spell in public has a high chance of starting a fight or a panic, because the assumption will be you are going to do something you shouldn’t. Everyone knows that spells like charm and fireball exist, but they don’t understand the limits or mechanics, and they are afraid. So they don’t assume you are going to cast prestidigitation, they assume you are going to bind their soul and force them to give you all their wares for free. Or that you will warp their mind. Or this, or that. And they also assume that all warlocks are infernal pact who have bound their soul to a demon and are out to despoil the whole world. As a result, even though fey pact, celestial pact, and so many other pacts exist, being a warlock is punishable by death. Most people don’t use the word “warlock” they just call it being”that fuckin’ hellspawn bastard what tried to spell me”.

From a practical standpoint, I like to work with my players and determine how much a part of their character’s life they want their patron to be. Some really don’t want any part of their life, they like the mechanics but not the flavor and that is fine. For the others, we can select a patron who works. How do they communicate, how do they watch, how to they give orders, how do they respond to failure, and how do they respond to disobedience? All of this is negotiable between me and the player. Some demon lords will actually be quite hands-off and forgiving if they like what the warlock is accomplishing and are able to take a long-term-view. Other faeries might be tyrannical and abusive even at the best of times. An insane elder thing from the Cthulhu mythos might not know the difference between success and failure so could behave inexplicably. And some warlocks take their power from dead patrons or without the patron’s knowledge. So the relationship is always different.

What does stay universally, is that the warlock is never a peer, never a special bondsmate, they are a resource and a servant who has offered the patron something the patron wants. That means the warlock had better deliver, or else. So, the warlock absolutely has more of the patron’s attention than any cleric or paladin ever will. But this is not necessarily a good thing. Clerics really don’t often need to worry about being punished or struck down for disobedience. Paladins, done right, basically just need to be true to themselves and it will all work out because who they are is why the god chose them. So sure, they might break their oath, but it is unlikely, and might even be part of the god’s plan. Warlocks, get to talk to their patron and know that the patron hears, might even answer, but then they might not have any privacy. And they certainly do have much more limits and demands on their behavior than anyone else.

So what does the SRD say about warlocks and their patrons: 

  • The beings that serve as patrons for warlocks are mighty inhabitants of other planes of existence—not gods, but almost godlike in their power. Various patrons give their warlocks access to different powers and invocations, and expect significant favors in return. Some patrons collect warlocks, doling out mystic knowledge relatively freely or boasting of their ability to bind mortals to their will. Other patrons bestow their power only grudgingly, and might make a pact with only one warlock. Warlocks who serve the same patron might view each other as allies, siblings, or rivals. 
  • The Great Old One might be unaware of your existence or entirely indifferent to you, but the secrets you have learned allow you to draw your magic from it. 
  • Your arcane research and the magic bestowed on you by your patron have given you facility with spells. 
  • In your study of occult lore, you have unearthed eldritch invocations, fragments of forbidden knowledge that imbue you with an abiding magical ability. 
  • Pact Boon: At 3rd level, your otherworldly patron bestows a gift upon you for your loyal service. 
  • Your patron gives you a grimoire called a Book of Shadows… While the book is on your person, you can cast those cantrips at will… If you lose your Book of Shadows, you can perform a 1-hour ceremony to receive a replacement from your patron. 
  • At 11th level, your patron bestows upon you a magical secret called an arcanum. 
  • At 20th level, you can draw on your inner reserve of mystical power while entreating your patron to regain expended spell slots. You can spend 1 minute entreating your patron for aid to regain all your expended spell slots from your Pact Magic feature. 
  • your alien knowledge gives you the ability to touch the minds of other creatures. 
  • you learn to magically ward yourself against attack and to turn an enemy’s failed strike into good luck for yourself. 

Right at the beginning the variability is clear. The Great Old One is the only patron in the SRD and they clearly state that the patron might not know the warlock even exists so all the powers the warlock gets via their own efforts. But in the generic blurb about patrons it is the patron’s choice, some have many warlocks and some few.

In Home, I introduced an evil deity who used cursed items to bind anyone who touched them to pacts whether they wished it or not, a fey champion who made deals with mortals usually for temporary boons but sometimes for permanent power making them his own warlocks, a warlock who drew his power from the realm of hell itself not from any single fiend or evil deity, and a warlock who drew power from the corpse of a dead deity (similar to what 4e considered a “vestige pact warlock”). 

For the spell casting, it is again a mixed bag as the very first statement includes both the warlock’s arcane studies AND the magic bestowed by the patron. Which means neither is complete by itself. Eldritch invocations seem to come purely from the warlock’s own efforts and abilities, as do some of the powers related to the patron choice (see the telepathy and defense powers from the Great Old One). The things like the Mystic Arcanum and Pact Boon are completely from the patron and not at all from the warlock personally. 

So, how do we make sense of this? One interpretation could be that the GM and players are free to mix and match however they want. But that doesn’t really help. So lets look at where the warlock decides, where the patron decides, and where there is a mix or balance. 

The patron basically controls the most powerful shit. Mystic Arcanum are the highest level spells, and the 20th level capstone power. The pact boon (tome chain or sword) is also the patron’s choice exclusively and really, that is one of the key class features for minmaxing, so even though a warlock gets it at 3rd level, it fits into “most powerful shit” close enough. 

The warlock is apparently a scholarly spellcaster. “In your study of occult lore” and “your alien knowledge” are the reasons given for powers that come from the warlock themselves and not as gifts from the patron. So, this is a little like the wizard, except with less of a focus on spells and more on unusual magical effects. Eldritch invocations are primarily at will powers with a magical flavor, like extra attacks, seeing through the magical darkness that blocks even darkvision, grafting push and pull effects onto a cantrip (an at will ability itself), and so forth. The abilities related to the Great Old One patron are also magical effects and not just spells. 

In the middle the warlock’s pact magic spell slots and spells are half from the research and half from the patron. 

In home, the way this plays out is that warlocks choose during character creation how much attention they want from their patron, and how they envision their end-game to play out. The guy with the patron who was hell itself knew that he was going to end up ruling a piece of it as a prince of hell. His powers would be an expression of the layer of hell, its climate and inhabitants would both define him and match him. The follower of the fey knew that the powers he got were only those powers the fey itself had, otherwise it couldn’t give them could it? The cursed sword wielders were just happy to get power and be stronger than other warriors, but all too quickly saw the chains on their gilded cages. The vestige of the dead god was always going to be a master/apprentice scenario, even into epic level play where the secrets of the dawn of time were opening up to the book-worm warlock’s constant research into lost knowledge. 

The player and GM know this simple one-sentence idea at first level. This makes it possible to make the selection of patron (sentient or non-sentient, active or passive, etc) and the selection of powers fit thematically. Story and mechanics need to match. You can fudge each side a bit, but you should be fudging them towards a common point. Then the story basically writes itself effortlessly in play. 

Notice though, that while the paladin and warlock both have powers that aren’t spells the flavor is different. A paladin becomes like their deity and the power is just an expression of the self. Whereas a warlock keeps learning more and more secrets through knowledge. These are funky non-spell powers, but they are totally external to the warlock’s self and just learned. Warlocks have spells and spell slots but not “like a cleric” the way paladins do. Warlock spells are partly their research and partly from the patron. Cleric spells are just sort of there as options all the time, and the cleric does whatever they want; the deity isn’t really involved at all.

The tl/dr is: Warlocks be f’in’ weird yo.

  1. Introduction and Clerics
  2. Paladins
  3. Warlocks (imagine a glowing “you are here” sign, now imagine the glow is the torches of an angry mob coming to burn you at the stake)
  4. The Exalted

About GavinRuneblade

I'm a gamer. Currently in City of Heroes (Homecoming) and Fantasy Grounds for D&D. Check out www.thecaperadio.com they rock.
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