The Ultimate Warlock 5e Guide to Dungeons and Dragons
Face the Facts, and Make Some Pacts
Dungeons and Dragons is about doing the things you can't do otherwise -- whether that involves adventuring through the mountains, fighting bugbears, or making pacts with otherworldly beings. You know, the stuff we dream about. Warlocks are one of the more versatile classes, perfect for players who want to boost their combat skills with magic or focus on their skills as a spellcaster.
There’re some things you have to know before waltzing into your deal with the devil -- or a god, you have options. However, if you're going to sell your soul, you should do it right. Here's a 5e warlock guide, so you can get your money's worth.
What Are Warlocks?
Sorcerers are lucky enough to be born magical, and wizards spend a lifetime studying the arcane, warlocks instead take the “easy path” of making a pact and sell their souls to an eldritch being in exchange for cosmic power! Whether it’s a literal devil, an arch fey, or even a god, warlocks are bound to their patrons and their magic only keeps flowing so long as they keep them happy. Warlocks often get typecast as evil or at least edgy (and many are) but they’re not stuck in that box. Every piece of the alignment chart has some powerful beings in it willing to make a deal. Mechanically, warlocks are very unusual spellcasters that can be built for wildly different play styles. With so many options within the class no two warlocks will be exactly alike. Broadly though, they’re often built as powerful DPS spellcasters or as martial spellcasters, combining both sword and spell prowess.
Some of the most iconic characters that would probably be warlocks in D&D include Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, Faust from the classical German legend (from which we get Faustian deal), John Constantine from the DC universe, and strangely enough all the magical girls from Madoka Magica.
Building a Better Warlock
Warlocks can really fill most roles if you build them carefully. The simplest builds tend to form around a lot of eldritch blasts and easily fill the ranged DPS role for the party. With just a few selections you could also create a decent melee tank, a healer, a face of the party, a stealthy scout, a utility caster, and practically anything else. However you decide to build up your warlock, you’ll need to start with your ability scores.
Warlock Ability Scores
Charisma is your spellcasting ability and other than some particularly strange builds you’ll be needing to prioritize it. Charisma is also conveniently the ability score responsible for all the social skills, making it easy for your warlock to become the party face.
As a d8 hit die class, you’re a bit beefier than most arcane spellcasters and have solid armor and weapon proficiencies, which means you can build yourself up for melee combat, or stick to ranged play styles.
For melee builds you’ll need to worry about making melee attacks, which usually means making Dexterity your second highest score to make hitting with finesse weapons feasible and establish a decent AC.
For ranged builds I recommend making Constitution your second highest score to keep you alive after you’ve taken a few hits, and to help you concentrate on some key spells.
Whichever one you pick; the remaining ability should be your third highest score.
Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom are all far less important for a warlock, though there are some Strength based warlock builds out there that are worth consideration. Unless you’re doing one of those odd builds, these three abilities should all be dump stats for you.
Any race can be a warlock, but if you want to make the most optimal use of your abilities you’ll want to maximize your Charisma and one of the abilities that increase your survivability. Which means you need Charisma, then either Constitution or Dexterity. The following races have a +2 bonus to Charisma, and at least +1 in either Constitution or Dexterity, making them optimal choices for a warlock character:
Base aasimar gain +2 Cha and the scourge variant gains +1 Con. The free damage resistances to both radiant and necrotic are strong enough but with the Aasimar the scourge’s Radiant Consumption ability this becomes one of the stronger melee warlock options. I find this works particularly well with the celestial patron which can heal back the damage you take from your own abilities using their Healing Light.
Changelings gain +2 Cha and +1 to any other ability of their choice, which you can make Dex or Con. Changelings are technically setting locked into Eberron, so it may take some convincing for your DM to allow them elsewhere. Much like they do for any class, picking changeling goes a long way for making your character sneaky. Consider it strongly if you’re trying to be the party scout as a warlock.
Half Elves gain +2 Cha and +1 in two other ability scores of your choice, which you can make both Dex and Con. Half elf often gets pulled out for min-max builds but even outside of maximizing your ability scores it’s a strong option. Consider half-elf if you’re trying to max out all your relevant abilities, or just if you want a bit of flexibility.
Satyrs gain +2 Cha and +1 Dex. Technically setting locked as a playable race to the world of Theros, satyrs are still prevalent in the forgotten realms and a lot of DMs will allow them elsewhere. The big-ticket item here is Magic Resistance, a 35-foot movement speed, and some proficiencies that feel like dipping your hooves into bard. Consider this if you’re trying for a face of the party warlock or if you’re trying out a melee build that could benefit from some extra speed.
Tiefling (Dispater, Glaysa, Levistus)
Dispater, Glaysa and Levistus variants of Tiefling each gain +2 Cha and +1 in either Dex or Con. Every type of tiefling is a good fit for warlocks overall, it’s just a matter of selecting that +1 bonus and the set of racial spells you like the most. Tieflings warlocks are a generally strong flavor win, and mechanically I really appreciate getting those extra spells in such a low spell slot class. Take a look through the tiefling variants if you’re looking for some bonus utility spells for your build.
The Verdan gain +2 Cha and +1 Con. These weird telepathic goblinoids come to us from the acquisitions incorporated book and since they’re so powerful you’ll have a hard time with most DMs allowing them outside of that setting. With straight advantage on any Wisdom and Charisma saves and some free telepathy it’ll be hard to argue their fairness. If you do manage to get permission, they’ll make damn fine warlocks though.
At first level you’ll be selecting your patron, the powerful being that has deemed you worthy of some of their power in exchange for favors/bloodshed/your soul. While warlocks have more options than most, this main archetype selection is still vitally important to your character and how they’ll play. Many DMs will also take the opportunity and turn your patron into a tangible roleplaying force in your campaign, so consider how that may impact your story and behavior. Take your time and consider carefully what kind of warlock you want to be.
Bound to a powerful lord or lady from the feywild, you get a few decent utility spells, the ability to charm or frighten people, and a solid “bamf” teleport ability that can get you well out of harm’s way. The invisibility + teleportation combo of Misty Escape makes this a very strong option if you’re trying to act as the party scout or if you’re getting up to no good.
Cleric by way of warlock, your patron is a deity or other powerful “good guy”. Rather than prayer, you directly made a pact with some celestial being for your healing powers. It also sneakily gains some nice damage boosts to radiant and fire spells, give it a go if your party needs a healer but you really wanted to play a warlock.
Your patron is either literal Cthulhu, some similarly betentacled horror from the deep, or potentially just a big water elemental. Mechanically your big feature is Tentacle of the Deeps, which works like a really good spiritual weapon spell, except it can even block hits like a parry. You also gain the retinue of aquatic features like water breathing and cold resistance. I really like this patron for damage dealing and battlefield control, between you and your tentacle you can really dish out some damage and keep your enemies where you want them.
Your patron is a literal devil or some other power from the lower planes. This is usually the go-to for melee builds if you aren’t going for hexblade. The Dark One’s Blessing feature rewards you for killing enemies with temporary hit points, though sadly this usually means you’ll shine in horde combats but will falter against single boss enemies. It’s hard to recommend this over hexblade for melee builds, but it has its place as the more survivable but less damaging option.
Your patron is a literal genie and you get a magic lamp and everything. Mechanically it’s very unique, as you have a tiny object that you can pop in and out of, and eventually you can even bring your friends inside. You’ll also be getting bonus damage to attacks specifically, so make sure your damaging spells are attack spells rather than saving throw effects. Overall, it has a lot of janky utility with the Genie’s Vessel and from the flight gained from the Elemental Gift. This patron is perfect if you’re looking for DPS with some utility on the side.
Your patron is a shadow entity with a propensity for sentient weapons. Hexblades are nasty. Essentially once per short rest, your melee geared warlock can mark an enemy out for DOOM, get a massive bonus against them, kill them, and RAISE THEIR SOUL AS A GHOST SLAVE. 9 times out of 10 the best option for a melee warlock is going to be this.
Your patron is somebody very dark, powerful, and down with zombies. This one is still in “unearthed arcana” and is sadly probably stuck there at this point. Mechanically its built around your Form of Dread ability that transforms you into something strong and terrifying for a while. Mechanically I find it actually works best for ranged attack warlocks as it inflicts the frightened condition and can keep aggressors away from you.
Your patron is likely a lich or somebody else who has cheated death. Mechanically this patron is all about, well, not dying. You gain a bunch of ways to keep yourself and take less damage from effects. It also functions oddly well if you focus on healing, as you’ll be rewarded with temporary hit points for saving others.
"Desert Fortress" by Dominick Critelli
At level three, your character will come to another crossroads that will further shape them as a warlock & warrior. Here’s the four types of pacts, and how they might affect your character.
- Pact of the Chain. By becoming a warlock of the Chain, you’ve gained the ability to summon familiars and have them do your bidding. Your familiars can be otherworldly and give you massive advantages during adventures and battles.
- Pact of the Blade. You gain the ability to summon your pact weapon at will, regardless of its size or location. Using a ritual, you can change your pact weapon to any magical and non-sentient melee weapon of your choice.
- Pact of the Tome. Your patron has given you a grimoire, which contains three cantrips from any spell list. These are cantrips you can’t get from the warlock list, and don’t take up spell slots. As long as you have your tome, you have these spells.
- Pact of the Talisman. Your patron gives you a talisman that allows you to add a d4 to failed ability checks, potentially turning them into successful checks. This is oddly limited, as pure ability checks are few and far between, and this essentially functions like the bless spell. The invocations that build from it are quite strong though, so I would only take this pact if I planned on utilizing its unique invocations.
Optional Warlock Features
In Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything every class got a set of optional features that act like a sort of upgrade patch to fix issues and improve things that needed improving. These features are technically optional, but assuming your DM allows them, make sure to include these class features with your warlock character:
Using the optional features, the following spells have been added to the warlock spell list:
Cantrip (0 Level)
Pact Boon and Invocation Options
The warlock’s optional class features include a new pact (which we talk about in the warlock pacts section) that you can choose at 3rd level.
You also gain a slew of new invocations to play around with. Most of them are linked to the new pact boon, but some of them work for the existing pacts as well. I particularly like the Investment of the Chain Master that can turn your pact of the chain familiar into a serious threat.
Most of the spellcasters got a similar ability in Tasha’s, basically this lets you trade out a cantrip or your pact boon whenever you gain an ability score improvement. You also have the option to trade out a spell from your Mystic Arcanum once you hit 12th level. It’s a convenient and easy way to retrain this stuff if you decide you want a change sometime down the line.
Warlock Builds and Styles
Now that you’re a bit more familiar with all the choices that go into making your warlock, let’s put everything together into some builds! The following builds and play styles are common ways to put your warlock together and can be good starting points for your own build, be creative!
The objective is to stay alive and keep your party members alive too. Depending on your patron, you might be good or bad at this. If you’re determined to be a strong ally for your party, you’ve got to offer protection. There are two ways to do this:
- Choose a life-based patron. The Archfey, Undying, and Celestial patrons are powerful patrons for helpful characters. Their spell-list can include spells for healing, protection, and even revival.
- Or kill the enemies before they kill you. On the flip side, you can also hone your skills as a warrior and protector. Hexblade, Fiend, and the Old One are strong, and can help you protect squishier members of your party.
The second objective of D&D is to kick ass, and here's how to do it best.
- Choose your spells (and invocations) wisely. This goes double if you’re a warlock of the Tome. Take your DM’s campaign into account while choosing spells and try to choose spells that will weaken/harm your enemies.
For direct damage, the most popular combo for warlocks is Hex followed by spam of eldritch blast. Remember that Hex allows you to move the target of hex as a bonus action. While many read the Hex description as needing to be moved the following turn, it can be any future turn.
With the proper invocations, you can really level up the Eldritch Blast, but you’ll lose the utility of other invocations that only warlocks can get.
One of the key areas where warlocks shine is that they get all of their slots back on a short rest, and they cast their spells at the highest level every time. With Eldritch Blast *always* being a solid damage option, it’s not as important to keep those spells slots in reserve like it might be for other spell casters. While you may not be initiating an ambush, you may want to start combat with your highest casualty producing spell.
Area of Effect- Warlocks don’t have tons of AOE options, but Spells like Create Bonfire, and Hunger of Hadar, when combined with repelling blast, can make it so that foes spend their rounds running out of difficult terrain only to be pushed back in. Remember, you can hold your action until a foe leaves the area of effect of spells like this. You can also call on your allies to SHOVE them back in as well.
All of this ignores the bladelock/hexblade,and their direct damage options. If you choose to do more melee style’d warlock remember that you’ll need to be making concentration checks frequently, so war caster or resilient feats really shine here. Armor of Agathys will give you additional hit points while doing damage to those who hit you. Hellish rebuke is a great way to make others pay for hitting you as well.
- Fight smart. While it might be tempting to choose a spell that will inflict damage, you might be better choosing one that weakens, disorients, or scares them. Minor Illusion and Fear are good examples of this.
A great warlock combo here is the ability to see through your own magical darkness. This can cause havoc among your allies as well, but might be necessary to escape or to hit the high AC foe with Eldritch Blast (since you’ll be rolling with advantage on those attacks)
- Make use of your weapon. All players get a weapon, so don’t be afraid to use it. You’re not just a spellcaster, you’re a warrior. Use that weapon! If you've got a round to prep, True Strike may help too (but it's usually suboptimal).
Outside of combat, how well does a warlock fare? That depends on your character -- and your stats. With a high Charisma, it’s not inconceivable that your character could end up being the face of the party. If you plan for this through the right background you might prove additional utility outside of combat. Dexterity can also be an integral part of your character’s utility. Don’t be afraid to step forward and sweet-talk people, or stealth your way around to eavesdrop.
To start, you shouldn’t be afraid to choose non-combat spells. While your book of spells is low on space, you shouldn’t feel obligated to stuff it with offensive spells. The ability to scry, charm people, and turn invisible can be pretty darn handy. Combined with Mask of Many Faces it’s possible you can avoid a lot of combat through clever usage.
Now that we've gone over what warlocks can do, we can start thinking about what they're like.
If you’re interested in seeing one in action, a notable warlock is the character Fjord from Critical Role. The half-orc is a strong, quiet, and charismatic character, with his own set of morals. He is a Blade warlock sworn to a Hexblade patron and uses a number of offensive and illusion spells.
If you’re interested in seeing more warlock characters, try taking inspiration from other people’s builds. The warlock is one of the most versatile classes, so there’s no limit to the originality.
We hope this D&D 5e warlock guide helped you begin crafting your character. If you already have a warlock or have started building your own, tell us what they’re like in the comments below!
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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