There’s this phrase you’ll hear: “The only difference between paladins and warlocks is that one’s got an employer and the other’s got a sugar daddy.” This is a funny tweet that went around, and like many funny tweets, it’s useful for interrogating an idea, presenting a useful handle and it starts an argument.
What’s the difference between Warlocks and Paladins, it asks? According to this, almost nothing. Except for the way one of them is physically powerful and heavily armoured, and the other smell like cloves, but you know, we’re being needlessly reductive here, right?
The Warlock’s power source, in the broadest, top-down sense, is arcane, the type of magic that is typically used to represent amoral entity-agnostic energy that exists to react and to be reacted to. Arcane magic is a classically ‘sciencey’ magic, where there’s no agent or intentionality behind the way the powers work. Back in earlier editions of D&D, arcane magic was the magic that did things without caring about who it was doing them to – it could control minds or blow up areas, but it had a hard time with say, controlling everyone who wasn’t a particular type of character or whatnot.
It’s part of the symbolism of arcane magic, really, the way that arcane is y’know, wizards with pointed hats and not clerics with their pointed comments. It’s kind of Western European Idea of Science as applied to magic. Arcane spells just do what they do and their ability to affect people is very similar to chemical reactions, with a lot of technical rules and specific reactions; this many meters of iron wall, sleeping up to this many hit dice, summoning a thing from this table of potential entities with matching traits. This also means that, coincidentally, if there’s a spell with a rules loophole in it, in almost any given edition of D&D, it’s going to be an arcane spell.
I propose in this context that Arcane magic is to be viewed as interfacing with latent, present, background magic. It’s the air, it’s the radio, it’s the wifi, it’s the substance all over everywhere, and it can be affected by things around you but by default, it’s so high volume and so present everywhere that you can’t really run it out or disturb it itself, in the same way that any one person’s farts are meaningless for impacting the ecology of a rainforest. It is a natural, renewing, replenishing resource, and it can be treated as omnipresent, but also, much like radio waves and radioactivity you aren’t going to be able to interact with it meaningfully on your own.
Well, Wizards can, but those are some nerds, and they’re doing nerd stuff to do it.
Bards do it, but it’s a trick, something picked up from Someplace, little techniques that connect in some ways to the magic of music and community spirit but may also just derive from ‘I saw a wizard do something like this.’ Artificers are doing magic through machinery, making devices to handle and divine that universal magical force. Swordmages, they’re doing nerd stuff but jockishly, so they’re on a college scholarship.
What if you wanted to jump past all that?
What if you wanted to control and access all that arcane power without all the messing around with nerd stuff?
You’re smart enough, after all.
Thus into this space we get the Warlock, an arcane character who opts to skip the whole ‘nerd stuff’ stage of arcane magic and instead deal with an intercessory agent who can make magic easier for them. That is, the arcane magic is there already; what the Patron is letting you do is control and manipulate the magic that’s already around you in an easier way than learning years of study. The Warlock’s patron provides access, not power; the Arcane power of the world around them is something they can’t naturally control, and the Patron permits that control in a way that is not easily or immediately revoked. You’re not sending a request to the sysadmin to blow something up for you, you’re doing it in an immediate sense.
The character of this agent varies, as does their capacity to act in this world, and from there we introduce the Warlock’s definitive lore characteristic, their Patron.
You don’t need to be able to name a Patron or anything like that. What’s important about Warlocks in the context of the universe is that Warlock Patrons aren’t significant on a global scale. A Warlock doesn’t appeal to one of the gods, one of a small handful of major powers concentrated at the top of a hierarchy. The infrastructure of a Warlock is not international and global in the same way. Warlock patrons are instead powerful and obscure at the same time. Power that has an influence well above the individual but not power that puts them at the level of the Gods.
Because the Warlock Patron rules are very ambiguous. They’re there, and they may sometimes make reference to types of patronage you may have, but the scale and scope of power of the Warlock Patrons are uncertain. In the context of my setting, a Warlock Patron is usually something orthogonal to the normal power structures people expect; things like a Fey Prince, a Cursed Constellation, or a Demon Prince, something that’s obviously very powerful and very dangerous (and threatening to mess up with) but not something that can burst out through you and destroy the world.
As a roleplayer, a patron has a lot of different ways they can be treated, but the biggest question I’d forward is how like a person is your patron?
In the existing space of the 4e Warlock, the rules contain a bunch of pacts with different degrees of Being Bothered feat support. This list is Dark Pact, Elemental Pact, Fey Pact , Infernal Pact, Sorcerer-King Pact, Star Pact and Vestige Pact. Setting aside the Elemental Pact (which is extremely malnourished and relates to Dark Sun mostly) and the Dark Pact (which is just ‘drow shit’ as a Pact), you have this list as reaches from ‘most like a person’ to ‘least like a person:’
Vestige Pact: The Vestiges are essentially, ghosts. Oh sure they say ‘they’re like the last memory of a blah blah blah’ but they’re ghosts. They’re ghosts who have had all but the single most driving thing about their life faded away and leave you with a single drive or motivation, some aspect of who they are that lingers after you use them to access magic. This pact has a lot of humanish things with humanish motivations, but there’s a lot of them. This means you’re essentially constructing a contract for interaction with a committee. Imagine then, what it’s like to negotiate a contract with an entire business, and how every individual appeal is like contacting a whole arrangement of people to try and see who in this building can print.
Could this Eldritch Blast have been an email.
Sorcerer-King Pact: This pact is from the Dark Sun setting, too, and it’s a bit malnourished and I don’t really care. Mechanically, this pact cares about having a stored resource you can spend, but also, this is primarily about building on the history of Dark Sun, in the name of like, seven powers, none of which stand out as being that good. Point is, this pact… exists. It is barely more than the Elemental Pact, but at least it has an idea.
Infernal Pact: The Infernal Pact is where we first get a thing that looks like what a ‘pact’ with a higher power is. Infernal Pacts are about making deals with supernatural, evil powers, demons or devils or what, yugoloths, if that’s your bag. This is a great space to start as a Warlock thematically, because demons are great asshole bosses, people who can always be determined to have ends at odds with yours but can range from being angry at what you’re doing against their ends or trying to manipulate around you. Note that if you’re going this route, you need to think in terms of the contract forbidding you and them from doing things.
Also this is a fun pact to use because you can tell your friends in the party oh yeah sorry, I can’t do those chores. Pact. Gotta. You understand. I mean, hey, I gotta demon I do deals with, I gotta make sure I’m doing some small evils so they don’t mind the big goods, right? Haha, and of course that’s a lie, but that lie is also a small evil, so you know, it all works out.
Fey Pact: The Fey Pact is the next step beyond Infernal Pacts, and this is where you start dealing with an individual in charge of your power access, but whose power access is tied to someone who isn’t as simple or coherent as ‘evil.’ Fey powers are human-ish in that they care about stories and history and have some way of engaging with people like they’re people, but they don’t necessarily recognise the way that humans care about things like ‘keeping all their blood.’
See, an Infernal Pact? They’re just evil bastards. They are against a major force, and against one another, and they’re all pretty consistent with a coherent ideology. The Fey Pact, however, may have a completely ethically unstructured vision of everything.
Star Pact: And then there’s the next big step, the Star Pact. Star Pacts are full on Lovecraftian horror. You can interpret stars as a lot of different things, they might be the beautiful glimmering lights, constellations with a heroic imposition. They might be wonderful travellers, seats or thrones of the gods. They might be an audience to every living soul! But also, and this is important, they might also be the vast, yawning hungriness of space that circles around our world of warmth and light like an ocean trying to warm itself around a candle.
When concepting your Star Pact, bear in mind they are inhuman. Contracts with the Star Pact aren’t negotiations with people, they’re containment procedures. They’re about a connection to something so alien and wrong and distant that it doesn’t even hate properly. It’s a thing where the nature of your contract is about giving this power defined channels to slosh through, because the magic is itself inherently unlike life where you are.
What is important, however, to the Warlock is the contract. The relationship that Warlock has to their contract is a topic I’ve considered in the past, but setting that motivation aside, the contract has certain traits that are necessary for it as a contract, and it gives you a control interface for arcane magic. That interface could be completely unique (and hey, it probably is), but it is defined around the pact. We don’t get a lot of information about the contract we call a pact, but we can, objectivist style, do some very preliminary logical demands.
First things first, the contract is a contract. That is to say, a contract is a mutually agreed-upon set of rules for interface between two or more parties, which is known to both parties. To agree upon it, you have to know what’s in it, which means that in my opinion, a Warlock should have been involved in the negotiation of their contract (to some extent). Maybe you can have a contract with some odd demands in it which were made under pressure or duress, but those present opportunities for a story – a patron appearing at an opportune moment to make something happen, for their own reasons but with the excuse of negotiating the contract.
Second, the contract contains the contract. What’s not in the contract isn’t part of the contract. Your patron can’t just turn up and make immediate demands of you (unless that’s something you’ve defined as acceptable, under the terms of the contract).
That’s all you can really get that’s definitely true about the pact.
Now you may notice that nothing in here, nothing in the rules, covers ‘how Warlocks lose their powers.’ What the contract looks like when it’s violated. In the game rules as they exist, that implies that there’s no way for that to happen. If that’s the case, then that implies that the player should be seen as capable of successfully navigating around this contract.
Think of your players as people capable of doing good and cool things. Think about these stories not as opportunities to mete out as punishments for using power to change the world but instead what it means to confrontationally use power that tries to resist you.
And that’s different to how Paladins work…