D&D 5e: Problems in the Warlock Design 8

In case you aren’t already reading it, I’m still writing a weekly column on Tribality.com exploring the history of D&D’s classes. Once I got to the end of the Druid, I took a vote on what I’d write next. It looked like the Paladin would score an easy win, but after I had started writing, the Warlock cut some kind of dark bargain and surged from behind. But, well, there were already words on the page, so I’m writing about Paladins first, then Warlocks. Anyway, the point is that I perceive some key problems in the design of the Warlock class, and I want to talk about them.

Now, I recognize that WotC’s designers are some sharp people, and I believe there might be gaming contexts where more of their decisions on the warlock work out well. In the patterns of the games I run, it’s rare that players take more than one short rest in a day, and three or four would be quite a surprise. Most combats take, at a rough estimate, six to ten rounds, with occasional much longer combats. A single session with more than three combats, unless it’s an all-day session, would be quite rare. Large parts of most sessions are social encounters or investigation scenes. In that context, then, Kainenchen is playing a fey-pact warlock, dedicated to Verenestra, and currently 4th level.


Eldritch Blast and the Agonizing Blast Invocation

It isn’t that the class doesn’t work; it’s that they often trade interesting options for effective options, and that’s sometimes too effective – so good that it’s not much of a choice, really. Eldritch blast is like this, and even more so once you receive your first invocation and (probably) pick up Agonizing Blast. Eldritch blast has a d10 damage die and the Force damage type going for it, which makes it the best damage-dealing cantrip in the Player’s Handbook, and the only one restricted to warlocks. Fire bolt is almost as good, but there are a lot more immunities or resistances to fire than there are to force – in fact, are there any force immunities or resistances?

The new spells of the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion only exacerbate this issue. The fact that at higher-level eldritch blast fires multiple separate blasts rather than a single bolt is a wash in terms of power – it normalizes damage toward an average, because you’re unlikely to hit or miss with all of them the way you might with a single bigger cantrip effect. It’s a huge deal when it comes to Agonizing Blast.

Unsurprisingly, eldritch blast has a lot of fans in the character-optimization crowd once you add in Agonizing Blast from a second level of Warlock: “When you cast Eldritch Blast, add your Charisma modifier to the damage it deals on a hit.” We can effectively treat that number as +5 for all single-classed warlocks, and probably +3 or so for others. One of the most common questions from this is, “Does this apply to every separate blast?” To which Jeremy Crawford says:

Does Agonizing Blast add damage per Eldritch Blast casting, or per beam? E.g. 5th level lock deals 2d10+2*Cha, or 2d10+Cha? I would rule that you add your Charisma modifier whenever a beam hits. But I have my eye on this feature. -J

Compared to classes that can’t add a stat bonus to their cantrips, and compared to cantrips to which warlocks can’t add their Charisma bonus, this is doubling the average damage – inasmuch as +5 is very close to the average of a second d10 (5.5) for every beam of the eldritch blast. Other classes gain an ability score bonus to damage for some of their cantrips (Draconic Sorcerer, Knowledge Cleric, Light Cleric, Evoker Wizard), but no one gets four times their ability score bonus to damage for cantrips.

The truth is, though, without some kind of damage bonus to cantrips, a lot of them are pretty underwhelming. A brief perusal of forums suggests that many people come to the wizard expecting pretty steady damage output, but from 1st to 4th level, there’s a real chance of even your fire bolt doing less damage than you would with a light crossbow and a modest Dexterity. The warlock has hex, and hex is really cool (I appreciate both the ways it is and is not 4e’s Warlock’s Curse), but if the game expects you to toss one of those out in every fight and you go a “standard” two combats per short rest, you’re never casting anything but that, and that’s pretty dull.

Agonizing Blast seems to solve this problem, but there are two serious problems with it as a solution.

  1. It makes one cantrip hugely better than all of the warlock’s other options. When one choice is obviously much better than all other options, the character’s combat round isn’t an interesting decision. It’s good for the warlock’s effectiveness, but bad for the overall interest of their gameplay.
    1. I talked before about a similar problem for weapon-wielding characters. This is the same, except that there’s less variation in the weapon type from warlock to warlock. (Blade Pact warlocks are excused from this comment.)
  2. If every build of warlock is well-advised to pick up the same invocation, even melee builds, that’s a sign that it’s much too good. It’s more like an invocation tax than a build choice at that point. If WotC (correctly) anticipates that every warlock is going to have this invocation, it needs to be a class feature instead of a false choice.
  3. There’s actually a third thing that gets into what happens when you have Agonizing Blast and Crossbow Expert: you have a one-handed weapon that deals 1d10+5 force damage out to quite a long range, and scales up to four times per round.


My Solution

I have a solution that will, I’m sure, be controversial among those who care about such things. I think Agonizing Blast needs to go away entirely, along with Lifedrinker and Thirsting Blade. Spending invocations on passive abilities that maintain your damage output on your baseline at-will abilities has to be the least interesting but most necessary of options. Fold Lifedrinker and Thirsting Blade into the core of the Pact of the Blade.

But Agonizing Blast stays gone, and instead every cantrip increases its damage value by +2. For eldritch blast, this bonus applies only to the first beam that deals damage in a round. This is pretty much entirely to help spellcasters of levels 1-4 feel like they’re contributing to the team. Granting the full ability score bonus is too good – it’s the equivalent of a weapon attack, and the character also has per-long-rest or per-short-rest powers lying around to really bring the pain. On the other hand, low-level spellcasters don’t have enough slots to balance the scales there, especially not if there are any utility spells needed of them.

Why all of this focus on low-level spellcasting, though? Probably a lot of it does even out at higher levels. There are a few connected reasons: first of all, low-level play is where you set the hook for new players. 5e’s low-level game loop is good, but if someone’s relatively experienced with games but not sure about this game, having a frustrating or underwhelming experience as one of the many spellcasting classes is not so good.

Secondly, my campaign advances glacially slowly, in part because of the shifting player roster and in part because I don’t hand out a lot of XP. Kainenchen’s warlock is 4th level, and finds everything in the game enjoyable except combat. If the answer is, “Buy Agonizing Blast and then you’ll have fun,” then that’s a design problem.

Alternately, I’d look at something to give the warlock more to do with their bonus action (other than casting or reassigning hex) that had the effect of increasing their damage. Classes like the Monk and Rogue get a lot of tactical interest out of their bonus action options, and I think giving the warlock could stand to get in on that.


Pact Magic

For my group, Pact Magic is so close to being really fun. Spell slots that come back after a short rest, and they’re always equal to your highest-level* spells (*: or 5th level, whichever is lower)? What’s not to like?

Well… it turns out that casting a non-cantrip spell just twice between short rests (because 11th level is a long way off) is not getting to be big and bad all that often. It’s a common refrain for me, but I’ll sing it again: what I care about is interesting choices, and while scarcity gives decisions heft, it also means you might go a long while without seeing a compelling choice. Oddly, when the scarcity goes away, it goes away from two different angles: warlocks get their third Pact Magic slot at the same level they get their one sixth-level spell for the day.

In addition to their spell slots, warlocks may also receive per-short-rest powers from their Patrons, some of which are useful damaging or crowd-control powers like Fey Presence. Over the course of the whole progression, everyone gets at least one new per-short-rest power. Really, the only problem with Fey Presence is that it costs an action for one round of crowd control, on a failed save, and a huge number of monsters are immune.

I’ve already mentioned the issue with hex – you may be able to keep it moving from target to target for the whole battle, and it does feel cool to make that work. On the other hand, it’s really not interesting if your whole combat routine is hex and eldritch blast, lather-rinse-repeat; that falls far short of the standard of interest established in 4e’s warlock, and that makes me sad.


My Solution

I think there are simply not enough Pact Magic spell slots, especially considering that several invocations allow you to cast an extra spell… at the cost of a Pact Magic slot, which looks a lot like paying twice for a single power. More specifically, I think they should get a third spell slot at 5th level, making the slot they receive at 11th level their fourth slot, and the slot they receive at 17th level their fifth.

I don’t know that all of those spell slots should be at the highest* spell level they can cast. Changing it so that one of their slots (once they have at least two) is always one level down might or might not add any computational burden on the player, but might also help with the balance issues.

Wait. This is ridiculous. I should just extend Mystic Arcanum downward. Getting a once-per-day casting of a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th level spell at 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th levels would be cool, and would give the warlock a panic-button currency to think about. Okay, I like that solution pretty well.

I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences with the 5e warlock, especially if you also played a 4e warlock for any length of time. For me, the 5e warlock is a really interesting class with variety and great story opportunities that just falls a little short on tactical variety, and my players and I care about that a lot.

For that matter, I’m also interested in how closely other groups keep to the schedule of one short rest per two combats or thereabouts, and how many combats you’re likely to see in a day.

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8 thoughts on “D&D 5e: Problems in the Warlock Design

  • Mike Head

    I think you are 100% correct on the boring nature of the warlock. The issue resides around short rest not being “encounter” abilities, which I think they where based on from 4e. I would feel better if you made all shor rest abilites once per encounter, not because of 4e but so they dont feel like long rest abilities. I would be ok droping Ag Blast for +2 damage on all cantrips but i think it needs to go to +2 damage per dice. I have a major issue with most to hit cantrps, casters do not have magic weapons to off set magic armor bonuses so that Anti-Paladin with +6 AC form sheild and armor enchants before buffs is very hard to hit with +11 maxed out warlock. where as an archer fighter for example could have +14 to hit at +8 damage per dice. I would like to see orbs and wands and other items added to help casters. In my games i design cantrip only items to allow other cantrips, often control or buff related. to be an option.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      There are actually rods and wands that add to spell attacks, though I’ll grant that those kinds of bonuses aren’t as universal across caster gear as they are across weapons.

      Even cutting Ag Blast down to +2 per die, it still comes out a whole lot stronger than Potent Spellcasting and features like it. I mean, do what you want and test all ideas, but it wouldn’t satisfy me.

      I’ve had fantastically good results, over the two and a half years since I first wrote this post, with adding Mystic Arcana at 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th levels, for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th level spells. Even one per-long-rest slot of each spell level comes out great for giving the warlock another dimension of choices to make.

  • LegendaryTeeth

    I don’t think agonizing blast is broken, but there are a lot of false choices with Warlocks. The nice thing about Warlocks is all you need to do is pick eldritch blast, agonizing blast, and hex, and you can spend basically every other class ability on what sounds interesting rather than picking more damage, if you really want. You trade combat versatility for lots of interesting versatility elsewhere.

    The real problem is the rest schedule. I don’t know how you can run a campaign were you are seeing like 6-8 combats in a day or whatever with short rests between them. The only scenario I can see that happening in is the “dungeon with different monsters locked in each room” scenario, which basically never comes up for us. We spend a lot of time moving overland from place to place, so it’s pretty rare to see more than 2-3 combats in a day.

    So when you are a warlock and only get two spells, one of which you spent on hex, while your other casters are able to throw down 4-5 if the want to, it feels a bit lame.

    I feel that just making short rest powers just refresh automatically out of combat, and filling that huge hole around level 5 with another spell slot would help a lot.

  • Todd Bender

    I think this is more a case of wanting a certain look and feel in your own campaigns or having a specific vision of what’s boring or not. And frankly, if the PC is enjoying it, it feels a bit high-handed for the DM to say they are wrong. Now if the DM doesn’t enjoy a class when they are a player, I could see this pitched as a homebrew OPTION making more sense. But when they are behind the screen, I would respect a DM that disliked Warlocks more if they simply banned Warlocks instead of strong-arming the RAW/RAI under the guise of for my own good.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      You do have to understand that 100% of this post’s content came from discussions with the players at the table, including the one playing the warlock in question. The PC wasn’t enjoying it, because Eldritch Blast spam was boring her to tears. She enjoyed the class outside of combat, but once combat started she found the class boring – particularly in contrast to other classes. The changes proposed in this post successfully improved her play experience. It’s unfortunate that the dozens and dozens of comments to this post didn’t migrate over from Blogger when we migrated all of the blog’s content, or you could see her talk about it at length.

  • Joshua Crofton

    Okay Brandes, I’m having a hard time following what you mean by extending mystic arcanum downward. I would need a bit of extended simple elaboration since I started within the past couple of years. I do understand and support the once per encounter topic. I would take this up to my dm and I bet he and the party would appreciate the idea. The whole party is around level 7 and yet in most encounters we barely saved our own skin.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      “Extending downward” – at 1st level, warlocks gain a 1st-level Mystic Arcanum. That is, they pick one 1st-level spell and can cast it once without expending a spell slot, and regain the ability to do so when they finish a long rest. Same for a 2nd-level spell at warlock 3, a 3rd-level spell at warlock 5, a 4th-level spell at warlock 7, and a 5th-level spell at warlock 9.

      My wife’s warlock just hit 7th level, and she’s still finding that the narrative and the character’s social interactions are fun, but this character isn’t that much fun for her in combat. We’re experimenting with further tweaks.

  • Anton Palikhov

    I think that Eldritch Blast is too powerful and other sides of warlock are underpowered. Also i thibk that hexblade has too powerful abilities on 1-2 levels but has problems later. So, I set max dmg of Blast to 1d8 and ban agonizing blast from hexblades. also I give invocation to hexblade which allows to cast Shield prof.mod tims per day (because hexblade can’t use his Shield spell), and also thirsting blade became Extra attack (as Artificer) and lifedrinker gives warlock Cha mod temp hp when hit. (stacking with temp hp from warlock armor of agathys or false life spells).And hexblade curse also become invocation with prereq. 5 lvl warlock.
    But my changes were for Hexblade mainly.

    p.s. thank you for your articles.