Weird and Wonderful Warlock Otherworldly Patrons of 5E D&D
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted talk about splashing some levels in warlock to gain the Gift of the Ever-Living Ones Eldritch Invocation from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A warlock in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons makes pacts with beings more powerful and ancient than the mind can fathom. Rivaling the power of the gods warlock Otherworldly Patrons in 5E D&D are wily, wonderful and sometimes downright weird. Seeing this conversation got me thinking about the nature of splashing classes by taking only a few levels in a class to gain access to a particular feature and what that might look like in roleplay.
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Embracing the Otherworldly Patron
As I followed this rabbit hole of thought I continued thinking about how warlock Otherworldly Patrons are either a key part of a campaign or they’re basically ignored. I tend to favor campaigns entertaining the former. So let’s talk about how to make your warlock player feel the presence of their Otherworldly Patron.
“Darkness from beyond your vision encroaches. Misty tendrils curl at your feet. Pressure muffles your hearing as though you are underwater, the acrid stench of sulfur imposing your nostrils. Almost audibly, you hear a dissonant voice, ‘Serve… power… exchange…’”
Warlocks vs. clerics in 5E D&D
Before we go too far let’s discuss the source of a warlock’s power: their Otherworldly Patron. On paper warlocks aren’t so dissimilar from clerics. Both classes channel the powers of a supernatural being and serve said being’s interests.
Where these two classes differ is in their approach. A cleric’s power comes from the divine — a deity who usually has a wealth of followers even if only a small cult following. Conversely a warlock Otherworldly Patron is more often feared, reviled or at the very least respected for their alien nature and ancient power.
Clerics use Wisdom as their spellcasting ability. This is because a cleric’s power is based on faith. While scholars still debate the meaning of faith itself we know in 5E D&D terms Wisdom is awareness. I view clerics’ awareness as a combination of enlightenments. The cleric is aware of themselves and their life’s purpose, their deity’s existence in the multiverse and how those two truths interact on a cosmic scale. In essence a cleric acts on faith with no complete certainty their god acts on their behalf. It is this acting as if their magical desire has already happened that evidences their faith in the deity.
Before I get into a philosophical dissertation on faith in 5E D&D let’s ground things by contrasting the cleric’s spellcasting with warlock Pact Magic. Warlocks cast with Charisma — force of presence. Essentially a warlock enacts their willpower over reality not in a dissimilar way to sorcerers or bards. However, while a sorcerer’s willpower tames the wellspring of power from within and bards literally perform magic the warlock enacts their willpower upon reality as the result of a contract. The warlock knows their magic will happen because the contract with their patron dictates as much.
Otherworldly Patron presence
I often view warlock Otherworldly Patrons as bound away or otherwise constrained from interacting with the material plane. This is why the Otherworldly Patron needs the warlock. Without the warlock to enact their influence the Otherworldly Patron is completely cut off from the material realm. While a cleric may be simply granted their initial powers by a god as one of the deity’s chosen a warlock plays an active role in acquiring their powers. Even in the case of someone else making a deal on a person’s behalf someone somewhere decided the warlock should be bound to the will of the Otherworldly Patron and vice versa. This is how the warlock comes about their gifts.
What’s more I believe it’s the very aspect of Otherworldly Patron service allowing the player to essentially build their own warlock by way of Eldritch Invocations. Warlock is a deceptively powerful and versatile class even beyond its apparent power, which is quite substantial.
The ability to simply choose certain magical effects to remain in effect for your warlock regardless of subclass is massive! And these Eldritch Invocations frequently break the conventions of magic such as Devil’s Sight. Until Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and the release of the Way of Astral Self monk a warlock was the only class capable of seeing in magical darkness cast by others.
The fundamentally weird nature of warlock Pact Magic can be flavorful in itself but when you introduce your warlock’s Otherworldly Patron into the narrative things get really interesting! I love how Matt Mercer portrays Fjord’s Otherworldly Patron on Critical Role. The entity speaks through dreams and whispers and no one is ever quite clear on exactly what it wants yet crystal clear on its immediate goals. An example in media of warlock portrayals I think really shines is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix.
Without spoiling anything I love how the show explores the nature of a warlock’s pact, what breaking this pact might look like and how one might form new pacts. Especially with the onset of the latest season we get a glimpse into a slough of different ways to portray warlock patrons, especially in a modern setting.
Get weird, get wonderful
One idea I recently had regarding warlock Otherworldly Patron portrayal is tying the warlock’s appearances and communications to a theme. Maybe The Archfey representing your warlock’s Otherworldly Patron appears in reflective surfaces to remind you of her watchful eye. Perhaps something The Great Old One Otherworldly Patron wants you to take for later appears coated in a thin film of slime. Maybe you get thirsty when The Fathomless Otherworldly Patron wants you to go for a swim and chat with them.
These are only a handful of literally infinite possibilities for portraying your warlock Otherworldly Patron’s will. I tend to favor weird flavor things like these because they pointedly tie the Otherworldly Patron to the world and to your character’s experience.
Imagine if your Undying warlock sees those who have committed murder as if they themselves were a rotting corpse? Things like this elevate your campaign and make it something truly wonderful and special. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: I’ll be playing an Undying warlock who’s also a Hollow One for Nerdarchist Ted’s upcoming campaign for our Tuesday night group over at Nerdarchy Live and this sort of thing sounds amazing!]