The Price of a Pact

Table of Contents

The dark side of the warlock class

If classic literature has taught us anything it is that pride always comes before a fall, shortcuts always come with a price and the cliffnotes version is usually enough to pass the class. These first two lessons are deeply ingrained into the core of the warlock class. Well, at any rate they should be, after all warlock section of the PHB reads like an infernal thesaurus. The trouble is that for all the flowery language in actual game mechanics the warlock’s shortcuts and dark dealings have no more drawback than his more industrious cousin, the wizard. A dedicated roleplayer can really play up the dark side of his character even if the rules don’t back him up, luckily there are also some things you can do as a DM to keep that evil mojo flowing.

1 – Side effects may vary

A surefire way to keep the price of his pact fresh in his mind is to have him carry them around with him. A few cosmetic changes can go a long way towards giving the warlock that unique “I crave forbidden arts” feel. Starting small an infernal warlock could be unusually warm to the touch, a fey follower could have a floral scent and a star pact could come with a distant, blank stare. As the character levels so too does this taint of eldritch power, at higher levels he could breathe smoke, bear incomprehensible astrological sigils that run up his arm, hear the whispered giggles of the fey watching the adventure through his eyes. By the end of his career the warlock could have rams horns, vestigial wings, autumn leaves constantly falling in his wake and the swirl of galaxies in his eyes. These powers should be cosmetic but as the warlock increases in power they should clearly mark him as something otherworldly and leave the player with a mix of fear and intrigue to see how his powers will next manifest.

2 – Fear and loathing

Now that our warlock is clearly marked how will people react to him? Will those passing in the street avert their eyes from his gaze? Will the commoners staying at the same put lines of salt in front of their door at night to ward off the evil spirit? Perhaps farmers with bring gifts of produce to the warlock to curry favor the fey. Adventurers are always treated differently by the common folk, but if the warlock is a particularly uncomfortable and polarizing figure it can make the full weight of the pact clear to the player and the character.

3 – The flavor of dark arts

Most characters benefit from fleshing out the flavor of their powers but the warlock in particular has rich sources to draw from. The player should be given some free reign over how his powers work. Perhaps he regains his daily powers every morning by drawing a symbol for each on his skin in his own blood or every full moon the player must map the stars. Maybe the lights dim for a moment or there is a cold breeze when he curses a foe. Or those slain by the warlocks power cry tears of blood after death. As long as the flavor does not change the mechanical abilities of the power or provide a great advantage there is a lot of room for the player to customize.

4 – The dark bait

Any one of the above three makes for a great story hook for the above warlock when taken to the extreme. It could be that as the warlock is increasing in level his hands are becoming wretched and useless claws and he must find a way to reverse the process. The warlock could find himself the quarry of an avenger who wants to stamp out those or practice the forbidden arts, even for good ends. Equally likely he found find himself the target of another warlock who wants to use him for study or to demonstrate superiority to their shared master. The warlock could be passing through town when some of the village’s children go missing, he had best rescue them and clear his name before those accusing glances become something more. Perhaps the warlock’s master has altered their deal and demands some lost artifact or other tribute the warlock and his friends must obtain or else the warlock will be stripped of his powers.

Flawed characters are more fun

It is important that these measures are not intended to punish the player for choosing the warlock nor is it intended to make him the star of the party at the expense of everyone else. Hopefully the warlock should be an exciting and dangerous class, a player and DM working together to live up to that potential will make for a roleplaying experience you talk about at the table for years to come. Be sure however that your player wants any part of this, if he wants to play an arcane striker with no consequences than the rules as written suit him just fine. If he wants to be something more than a wizard variation than I hope the above suggestions work out.

Good luck and good rolling (I’m sure there’s some dark powers that could help you out with that).

17 thoughts on “The Price of a Pact”

  1. I’ve always been a fan of doing this kind of stuff. I once ran a drow Darkpact Warlock who’d ended up exiled (kind of a cliché, but hey, I tried to put a twist on it.) because, well. She pretty much abandoned her race and Lolth’s teachings when she considered them as.. well they were no longer of use the her, in her opinion. What ensued was a VERY interesting character sidearc of her on the run from Lolth and her followers while also siphoning the power of the darkness pact against the source’s will. Eventually. though complex schemes, we managed to reverse the pact. That is to say, rather than break it, make the holder of the contract, so to say, be the warlock rather than reverse. She was the master now. And it showed. It was a long, grueling trial and one hell of a ride. But DAMN was it fun. Nothing like making a pact with a grand power and patron of darkness only to pull a fast one on them and steal their power. I would’ve made the whole cosmetic thing, but I generally just went with the whole idea that darkness sort of lacks that. Because darkness isn’t really a visual sort of power of medium (though she did sort of exhume dark smoke at the end and lights dimmed in her presence)

    I generally like all the ideas here, great ways to enhance your class (though I do find the whole mapping the stars bit kind of silly. What would a cosmic power care if you drew a map? I’d rather make it some sort of full moon ritual and other more tanglible things that hint more at the nature of the power you’re pacted with)

    I see some people in the comment doubting how to put this onto other types of classes. Now I can see why martial would seem like the hard ones. But I don’t think so. Yes, it’s kind of limited how to make the power of a martial warrior visually noticable. But I LIKE that. It’s kind of a thing. You can’t tell easily how good a warrior is. But with a keen eye there’s hints. Scars (not too many, a skilled warrior has a good defense). The way they hold their weapons or carry themselves. A cool head. Automaticly noticing others carrying weapons and sizing them up. Theese are notes I make. When a high level fighter or other martial class enters a tavern and looks around the people, I tell him all the details his Keen eye notices. And in fights I make people be surprised or even astonished by their amazing skill and describe their preformance as more skillfull. If an attack misses, for example, instead of saying that the enemy misses or that the character dodges or whatever, you can leave it up to them or give them some credit “As the enraged man swings his sword at you blindly, you easily spot the flaws in his assault and almost casually bat his attack away with your shield” or something like that. You know, to a certain degree. You don’t want to tell THEM what their characters do. Just.. add hints and let people react to their skill. A martial class is more humble and far harder to spot. But that can be used to be a bit of the thing with it.

  2. @ Steve-o: You had me at “Lovecraftian”.

    @ Nicholas: Hi there, colleague! Great article. My only complaint is that I *was* planning to play a tiefling rogue in our next campaign. Now a warlock of any stripe is sounding pretty good. Decisions, decisions. ;) Keep up the great work!

  3. Hi, thanks for all the nice comments guys.

    I don’t know if Yax had more formal introductions in mind but I’m Nicholas. My job is something of an internship I guess, once I finish cleaning up after Expy and polishing Mr. Yax’s dice to mirror shine I get to do some writing.

    I’ve seen all your comments and fear not guys, I intend to do articles like this to cover all the classes. Never one to duck away from a challenge I’m going to start with the martial characters.

    Hope you guys like what you see in the coming weeks.

  4. This is really great! I don’t have a PC Warlock to do this with, but I’m definitely applying the idea of my NPC Infernal Pact warlock’s eyes being like coals and his skin being very hot to the touch. Character quirks!

    I too, would love to see this type of cosmetic stuff applied to the other classes; Paladin is the obvious one(it’s already kind of in the books that paladins glow with divine light etc…) but you could have your warrior or rogue gain scars for every major injury inflicted on him or her, or perhaps warriors and rangers would take trophies from major kills(who wouldn’t be scared shitless by the sight of a warrior with behemoth horns on his helmet, a ranger who’s braided his gauntlets out of battlebriar, etc…).

  5. Very cool. I’d really love to see a similar article for the other classes, in this same vein of “cool but cosmetic, scales-over-time” content. Admittedly it might be harder to write in for the non-Arcane classes, but it’s worth a shot.

  6. @Av:

    Can’t take credit for that one. The writer is Nicholas. I’ll have to introduce all my new collaborators because they are all awesome.


    I like the idea of using the tiers of play to deepen characters.

  7. wow! storng stuff there, Yax! I’m totally gonna put some of that into my 4e campaign!

    you should think of fluff ideas for all the classes, because anyone in my game playing a warrior/rogue/ranger will get very pissed at the warlock. XD

  8. I was thinking of some things and while reading this they crystallised. With 3 tiers of play the second tier is a great time for characters and in this case Warlocks to confront their inner demons or in this case the outer demons. Upto that point its all piper and no pay. Also between 10 and 20 there are more and better devils, fey, and weird lovecraftian horrors.

  9. Great stuff here. 4E by-the-book is pretty lite on roleplay fluff, so it’s up to the players and GM to invent stuff.

    Flawed characters are hella-fun, and the suggestions here add a great deal of cosmetic flair. I especially liked the warm to the touch aspect.

  10. Loved the article! Lots of great ideas for role-playing the downside of characters. I have to admit its one of the things about 4E that really irks me is that there are no penalties. Its like the game got very PC. Now if your proficient you get a bonus, now all races give bonuses to abilities and no penalties.

    Its a major point that a Warlock can do what a Wizard can (but so can a fighter for that matter, its just got a different name; but that’s a different argument) but it is implied that they took a shortcut to get to that power, but there is no downside. Many peoples most favorite wizard is Raistlin who took a short cut and had severe penalties for it. But, I have known one person in every campaign that would love to play him.

  11. Up until 4e came out, I was never really too thrilled with the warlock class. Now I can’t wait to play a star pact warlock and slowly have him descend into darkness and madness while raging against it at the same time. The Lovecraftian mythos and D&D, what a combination. Awesome article by the way.

Leave a Comment