Given that it’s my Patreon patrons who make it possible for me to spend time on this site, I thought I’d take some time to write about someone else who relies on patrons… Warlocks. With that said, I am working on articles about Phoenix: Dawn Command and the 5E campaign I’m running in Q’barra, and you’ll see these soon. But for now, let’s talk about warlocks.
The basic concept of the warlock is an arcane spellcaster who gets their power from a bargain with some sort of patron. However, at the end of the day this is like the idea that the bard is a musician: it’s a cosmetic detail that doesn’t actually factor into the mechanics of the class. Yes, the warlock gets a “pact boon” and gets different abilities based on the nature of their patron. But there are no hard mechanical effects tied to their relationship with their patron. There’s nothing concrete like “You must perform a service for your patron to regain your spell slots” or any concrete statement that a warlock could lose their powers based on annoying their patron. What’s said instead is that the relationship between the warlock and patron is something that should be established between the player and the DM. It can drive adventures if that’s something you both want, or it could “consist of small favors you can do entirely between adventures.” Your patron could communicate with you directly or very indirectly. And once you accept the possibility of a friendly patron who communicates indirectly and doesn’t require you to do anything in an adventure, it’s a very small step to acknowledging that you don’t actually need a patron at all. A warlock’s patron is an excellent story hook that gives the player and DM something interesting to work with. But it’s possible to come up with an equally interesting story for a warlock that doesn’t involve a patron. In this article I’m going to talk about both approaches… starting by exploring things you can do with patrons, and then looking at warlocks who go it alone.
If you embrace the basic story, the warlock is someone who gains their powers through their relationship with an outside source. A warlock doesn’t have to have any understanding of arcane science, and they don’t have to be tied to a mystical bloodline; they can be someone who has stumbled into power or earned it through a clever bargain. And while there’s no mechanical basis for a warlock to be stripped of their abilities or denied new powers when they level, as long as both player and DM agree, you can always add this; the question of what you’re willing to do for your power can be an excellent foundation for roleplaying. And even losing your powers can be a great story… as long as you’re excited about that story and have a clear means to resolve it. Let’s look at a few ways you could handle patrons.
The Classic Patron
The standard story is that you’ve got a patron who provides you with power in exchange for you acting as their agent in the world. Perhaps you’re entirely happy with that concept, and just want a few ideas for forces in Eberron that can fill that role. Here’s a few thoughts.
- Fey Patrons. You have made a bargain with one of the Archfey of Thelanis. I discuss the Fey at length in this post, and the critical point is that each Archfey has a story… and that story will likely tie to the services they expect you to perform. Do they seek revenge? To find a lost lover or a stolen treasure? To be freed from a curse? To spread winter over the land or to save a lost soul? A secondary question is whether your patron is in Thelanis or whether they are actually in Eberron. The 4E Eberron Campaign Guide introduces the idea of the Feyspires, Fey cities that have been trapped in Khorvaire. If your patron rules one of these cities, their needs may be more grounded in the material world.
- Fiendish Patrons. There’s endless possibilities here. You could have a connection to an Overlord, or one of the powerful Lords of Dust; bear in mind that based on the nature of the Prophecy, a Lord of Dust may want to accomplish things that are actually benevolent in the short term in pursuit of the release of their Overlord. You could have a bargain with a powerful spirit of the outer planes – a fiend of Fernia or Shavarath. Or you could drop the fiendish aspect and say that your patron is an epic dragon; your flames aren’t hellfire, they’re dragon-fire.
- The Great Old One. The Daelkyr are the easy choice here, but not the only one. The powers of a GOO Warlock are tied to telepathy and madness, and a powerful Quori could serve this role. Perhaps they claim to be a rebel, like those who formed the Kalashtar… do you believe them?
- The Celestial. The Silver Flame is an easy option, but also a very abstract one. The Silver Flame is a radiant power source, but it’s not generally something you bargain with. If you want to keep that aspect, you could choose a powerful outsider from one of the planes of light. As an elf or even a half-elf, your patron could be a powerful member of the Undying Court – perhaps even a personal ancestor. As a half-elf on this path, it could be interesting to say that you are one of the last of your bloodline; thin as the connection is, you are the only living descendant of this councilor, and this is the foundation of your bond.
- The Undying. This is an equally valid path for a Deathless Councilor. A stranger option would be Erandis Vol, or an ancient Qabalrin lich entombed in Xen’drik and not yet known in the wider world.
- Hexblades. If you embrace the idea of a weapon as your patron, Eberron doesn’t have a lot of established options, but it’s easy enough to come up with some. A blade forged in the Age of Demons, infused with the power of a bound fiend. A weapon crafted in the Age of Giants that still holds the soul of an ancient titan. A dagger crafted by Sora Kell that holds a fragment of her spirit. A sword you found in Cyre, infused with the spirits of hundreds who died in the Mourning. The main questions are who created it and what it wants.
Many of these are dark powers. How could you be working for an Overlord or a Daelkyr? In the following sections I’ll talk about the possibility of opposing your patron. But the other point is that you could serve an evil patron with the understanding between you that there are lines you won’t cross. In particular, you could be a weapon in a war between two equally evil forces… a feud between Daelkyr or different prakhutu within the Lords of Dust. I had just such a warlock as a PC in one of my campaigns; he served an Overlord, but with the understanding that give gave him the power to protect the world from the other Overlords… and if one of them was going to end up being released, at least his one would just enslave everyone instead of killing them or driving them mad. Justifying an alliance with an evil force – whether to fight something even worse or because you believe you can use the power for good – can be a very interesting foundation for a character.
The Mysterious Patron
In the 5E Eberron game I’ve just launched, Emmett is a scion of a merchant family with a minor talent for magic (as reflected by the Magic Initiate feat). Bored with his family’s life, he stole a heirloom wand from the vault. Using the wand he found he had access to greater power. When he was injured in a friendly (nonlethal) duel, the wand lashed out and killed his opponent… the first manifestation of his Hellish Rebuke spell. Emmett was forced to flee. He disposed of the wand… and it returned to him. He doesn’t know why the wand has chosen him. He doesn’t know what it wants. But he has begun to master its powers, and he’s going to see where this path leads.
Mechanically, Emmett is a hexblade warlock. His “patron” is the Ebon Wand that he carries. But as the campaign begins, Emmett knows nothing about the wand. So far it hasn’t communicated with him. He doesn’t know what powers he might unlock; he just knows he’s become a better duelist, with a knack for spotting a weakness in his foes (as represented by Hex and Hexblade’s Curse). One thing Emmett’s player and I have agreed upon is that I can choose to trigger his powers involuntarily… that the wand might choose to perform another Hellish Rebuke on someone who harms Emmett, or Hex someone who for some reason vexes the wand, even if Emmett doesn’t choose this action. And the understanding between us is that over time, Emmett will learn more about the wand and what it wants. Maybe it will some day speak to him; maybe not. It could be that he will simply learn it’s purpose, and that things will go better for him if he makes that purpose his own. What we have established is that the wand can’t be stolen from him, that if it is lost it will always return. He knows he can’t lose his powers (even if he wants to); it’s simply that he also doesn’t completely control them.
This is an easy option for a hexblade, but it can work with any patron idea. A warlock may have always had mystical gifts, never knowing their source. Now those powers are growing… and now they may learn that these powers come with a price. Perhaps the warlock’s parents bargained with an archfey or fiend; the PC possesses powers because of this deal, but doesn’t know what their parents promised in exchange. Perhaps the warlock survived the Mourning and now seems to be channeling its power… but what does that mean? In such a campaign, uncovering the identity of the patron and the details of the bargain provide the same sort of story hooks you’d normally get from serving the patron.
The Enemy Patron
Normally a warlock’s abilities are gifts freely given by the patron. But what if this power has been stolen from the patron? As a fiendish warlock you could have found a way to tap the powers of an imprisoned Overlord… and it could even be that by using its power in this way you are delaying its release. Or a Great Old One warlock could have an involuntary connection to a Daelkyr. Belashyrra is using you as one of its eyes in this world, but that connection gives you the ability to draw on its power and visions of other schemes it has afoot. Instead of the Patron giving you tasks to perform, your connection to the patron gives you glimpses of schemes you could foil, if you’re willing to take the time.
DITCHING THE PATRON
The idea of a warlock gaining their powers from an ongoing partnership with a powerful being is an option… but you can keep the mechanical abilities of the Warlock and reflavor them in other ways. The point here is that you will pick a patron and pact… but work with your DM to agree on changes to how these cosmetically manifest. In theory you have a Book of Shadows that grants you access to additional cantrips. But in your case it could be a wand, or a charm, or a special toolkit. Consider the following “patrons”.
- Dragonmarks. Typically, the powers of a Dragonmark are largely constructive instead of destructive. A warlock could have learned to tap this power in a deeper and more aggressive way. Storm is an easy option for this, and you could take the Fiendish patron and shift anything tied to fire to inflict lightning or thunder damage instead as a way to reflect this. There’s many warlock abilities that work well with the Mark of Shadows… deception, illusion, consuming darkness. This could be reflected with a Fey patron, simply reflavored so your abilities to teleport and charm are tied your manipulation of shadow and enchantment. A question is whether you’re an elite agent of your house, or if you’re a rogue who’s discovered ways to tap the mark the House love to unravel.
- Aberrant Dragonmarks. Even simpler and applicable for almost any “Patron,” as aberrant dragonmarks are generally destructive and don’t follow a particular theme… and it’s beleived that powerful aberrant marks are beginning to appear. You are the heir of Tarkanan and the Lady of the Plague… will you use your powers to help other aberrants, or solely for your own good?
- Artificer. As a final version of the artificer is still being worked out, in the interim you can actually make an offense-oriented artificer using the warlock. Cosmetically, all of your spells and incantations come from magic items that you create; it’s simply that if it comes to it, you can jury-rig an eldritch blast wand from a piece of wire and some lint. I played a warlock artificer who had a Hawkeye-style hand crossbow with different bolts representing his different cantrips and offensive spells. You’ll want to be proficient in Arcana, and taking the incantation that lets you detect magic at will can help with this
- Spy. A Fey Warlock is an excellent model for an elite member of the Royal Eyes of Aundair – a spy who uses arcane magic to accomplish their goals. The right invocations can let you disguise self at will and disappear into shadows, and between backgrounds and invocations you can get an excellent set of skills for subterfuge. Between your cantrips and limited spell slots, you can follow the path of the assassin (powerful but limited use offensive magic) or rely more on illusion and enchantment. A Hexblade can be a good model for an Aundairian duelist.
- Vessel. This is a twist on the enemy patron, with the idea that a spirit has been unwillingly bound to you – that you are a living prison for a powerful rakshasa or Fey. Your powers are a manifestation of the spirit inside you, and the more you use them the more they will grow… but is there the risk that the spirit could escape? Meanwhile, allies of the prisoner could seek you out and try to kill you in order to release the spirit within.
I’m out of time, so I’ll stop here for now. But there are many more ways you could take a ronin warlock. Perhaps you were born in a manifest zone and your powers are tied to your plane. Perhaps they are connected to the Mourning. Maybe you’re a follower of the Blood of Vol, and your powers are the manifestation of your own divine spark (an interesting way to deal with Celestial or Undying). The critical point is not to let the concept hold you back. The patron is a tool for creating a compelling story. But you can always follow a different path!
Does it seem reasonable, along the vein of the enemy patron, to form a pact against the will of a patron?
Certainly, and that’s exactly what I was suggesting with the idea of the enemy Overlord. It could be that you are stealing the power; in that case, a question is whether the “Patron” is aware of it, or if you’re doing it covertly and could be in trouble if they figure it out. I also just added a “Vessel” option to the No-Patron section that could work for this.
For those forces like the Undying Court who are capable of “creating” warlocks is the process difficult/draining or does the candidate need to be exceptional in some way?
To me, it’s simply logic; if it’s easy and free, there should be Warlocks everywhere. The fact that there aren’t – at least in my Eberron – means that there are limitations. Personally, I’d be inclined to say that the answer is “both.” There needs to be something exceptional about the candidate, whether it’s bloodline or talent; and there’s a limit to what the patron can support. But that likely depends on the patron.
Sort of a cross question with the sorcerer, would a casting class skinned to a dragonmark represent a stronger or more developed mark?
When I use an expanded dragonmark as an explanation for sorcerer or warlock powers, I say that it reflects a deeper connection to the mark than most people ever develop — not necessarily a larger mark. They have found a way to use the mark as a lens for arcane energy, and most heirs can’t manage it. So if I was using a system that had a concrete progression system I wouldn’t require a Dragonmarked warlock to have a larger mark. However, if I’m using a system that DOESN’T have a clear progression for dragonmarks – such as 4E – then I might say that the dragonmark grows a bit with every level the character gains.
How would you use the Daughters of Sora Kell as a patron, either collectively or individually?
I suggested Sora Kell as a patron; I’m not sure I’d want to use her daughters. Sora Maenya is too bound to the physical world; I could see her training martial adepts, but I don’t see her granting arcane power. Sora Katra… I could see her doing it, but in my campaign I don’t see her empowering an agent like that and then just letting them roam free; she’s got so many concrete schemes in the works, and I would expect that being her warlock would be a full-time job, not a casual thing you’d do on top of a career as an adventure. On the other hand, Sora Teraza could definitely work. No one knows the extent of her powers. Her motives are mysterious and her actions don’t always benefit Droaam. She could definitely pick an agent and give them occasional directives with no clear explanation for her actions. Personally, I’d make her a Great Old One patron who provides the Book pact.
Given the name of the game, could you see a dragon as a proper patron for a warlock? What would it take for a dragon to empower a humanoid in such a way?
Sure; I suggest this at the end of the “Fiendish Patrons” section above. This isn’t something a normal dragon could do, but if you posit an ancient, epic level dragon from Argonnessen – a deep student of the Prophecy with access to eldritch machines – I think they could definitely serve as a patron. The question is whether the warlock’s power is actually coming directly from the dragon, or whether — and this is the approach I would take — the dragon is simply showing the warlock how to connect to a source of arcane power. This could even be a way to double up on your explanations. Looking to the “Vessel” idea I suggest for “No Patrons”, I could see the idea of an epic dragon binding a demon into a mortal’s body and then teaching the mortal how to tap into its powers. So the dragon is the PC’s patron and mentor, but the POWER comes from within them.
What might be some motivations for an epic level dragon to empower a warlock like that?
Off the top of my head…
- The Draconic Prophecy is a matrix of if-then statements that can set the path of the future. This dragon could be working to lock in a particular prophetic path – which involves particular actions on the part of the PC.
- The dragon doesn’t have a specific agenda, but they are concerned about the actions of the Lords of Dust in Khorvaire; they want a human agent who isn’t on the radar of the fiends to investigate and foil their plans.
- It’s an experiment. Perhaps they just have a fiend they need to bind SOMEWHERE and they want to try their bind-it-to-a-human ritual… and once it’s done, they are curious to watch the warlock and see what happens. or perhaps it’s literally a lab rabbit situation; they ultimately want to use this ritual on dragons, but they’re trying it on humans first to make sure it’s not dangerous.
Are warlocks accepted in the magical colleges like Arcanix and Morgrave, or are they outside of arcane academia?
That would entirely depend on the warlock’s personal story. A warlock doesn’t need magical training. They don’t have to have proficiency/training arcana or spellcraft. If you take the Fiendish Vessel warlock I present above and set them alongside a Fey-bargain warlock, they literally have nothing in common… so it’s not like you’d have a generic “Warlock” class. On the other hand, I’m sure that there are people who study the science of pact magic, and if a warlock has Arcana training they could have worked in such an environment. And taking the idea of the warlock-as-spy as I suggest above, that could definitely be a concrete path of arcane training that you could learn at Arcanix. So in short; could there be warlocks at Arcanix? Sure. Is there a place for EVERY warlock at Arcanix? No.
Do you see the Dhakaani as having a warlock tradition?
No. We’ve established that arcane magic wasn’t a strength of the empire and that their main traditions were bards and a form of artificer. However, the fact that there wasn’t a tradition doesn’t prevent there from being warlocks, because to my mind warlocks are highly individualistic. If you are using patrons, then the fact that person A can become a warlock doesn’t mean that warlock B could as well. For example: Dhakaani can create artifacts. Perhaps the great dirge singer Jhazaal Dhakaan bound the spirit of the greatest hero of the empire to a greatsword (or spiked chain) and whoever bears the sword can channel his power. This is a foundation for a hexblade warlock… but there can only ever be one at a time because there’s only one sword. So: there’s an example of a Dhakaani warlock – but that doesn’t mean they have an established tradition within the culture.
What about the dwarves of the Mror Holds?
Same thing. I don’t see an established tradition of warlocks as part of their culture. But I can imagine a hexblade warrior carrying a blade forged in the Lost Kingdom, or a Aurum Concordian willing to pay any price for power who makes deals with fiends.
How about warlocks among the Valenar? …I can envision a case where you have a Valenar warlock whose “patron” is the ancestral spirit.
It’s certainly an idea a character could explore, but it’s not the direction I’d personally encourage… for the same reason I’d have a Celestial warlock tied to the Sovereign Host have an angel as their patron instead of a Sovereign. I see the relationship between the ancestors and the Valenar as being very similar to the Kalashtar and their quori. The spirit is connected to (and sustained by) multiple hosts. It provides subtle, almost instinctual guidance, but the Valenar has to find their own path towards it; they can’t have a direct conversation and be told what to do. And two Valenar with the same patron can argue about who has done a better job of emulating their ancestor. So I wouldn’t have the warlock’s patron be the ancestor; I’d make the patron be in some way tied to emulating the ancestor. For example…
- A Hexblade warlock carries the sentient blade once wielded by their ancestor. Can they fully master its power and unlock its secrets?
- A Fey warlock serves the same Archfey their ancestor served. In the course of this service, will they learn secrets about their ancestor that have been lost to history? Or might they discover that the Archfey was responsible for the death of their ancestor – and if so, will they find a way to destroy their patron to avenge their ancestor, even if they risk losing their power?
If you have additional questions or ideas about warlocks, post them below!