Welcome back to the Introspective, where I tear apart years-old homebrew in the pursuit of game design understanding. It’s also all my own work, so don’t feel bad about the poor creator of the work – he’s the same one doing the tearing-down in the first place.
Today we’ll be looking at the Council Warlock, one of my more contentious homebrews. Narratively there was the whole “mortal creatures as a Patron” thing, while mechanically it ran afoul of the age-old “INT vs. CHA” argument for the warlock class.
And I think there’s interesting points to make about both. So let’s begin, shall we?
Spellcasting By Committee
The idea behind the Council warlock is simple. A powerful group of spellcasters exists in the world, and it needs an agent to help enact its will or report on the status of the world. The flavor is drawn primarily from World of Warcraft, where archmages would empower a single spellcaster to serve as a foil to invading demons.
Many things have changed since I first made this. For one, WoW is dead to me now. Look forward to blatantly Final Fantasy-esque homebrew coming soon (not really). Another change is that, as the game has grown and matured, some of the assumptions of this subclass no longer work – such as the assumption that D&D won’t be driven into the ground by petty greed.
Pet peeves aside, there’s a lot to say about this. But first, the issues.
Issue #1: “Why can a council of mortals equal a Fiend or Great Old One?”
Some people balked at the idea of a mortal group being capable of doing something that, previously, only immortal individuals had done. Most seemed able to accept the idea of multiple entities pooling their magic to empower a warlock (my Hag Coven Warlock didn’t get complaints on this, for instance). The sticking point was on the mortal part.
And this remains a valid concern with the flavor of this subclass.
Issue #2: “Intelligence-based warlocks are heresy! Altered spellcasting stats are broken!”
That first point used to be a bigger deal. I feel like that conversation has mostly died down now, but back in the beginning there was quite a lot of argument over whether warlocks should be Charisma-based or Intelligence-based. I think I understand why, but I’ll get into that more later.
As for the second part… it’s a fair critique, and one I’ve agreed with more and more over time.
There’s also an unofficial “issue #2a” which concerns two of the included Invocations, and “issue #2b“ which concerns the subclass’s capstone feature.
Issue 2a covers the awkwardness of the “Companion to the Archdruids” and “Servant to the Archpriests” invocations. They essentially worked to alter the subclass to become druid or cleric-based instead of being themed around wizards. There were balance concerns in both directions here.
Issue 2b concerns the capstone “Focused Will” feature. It allowed you to effectively maintain two concentration spells at once. The idea was that the Council itself was maintaining one of the spells, which had to be available on the wizard spell list, while you concentrated on the other. It had a limited duration as well. And it was, to be fair, quite strong.
“How do mortals equal a Fiend or Great Old One?”
The simple answer is “because the DM says they can.”
While established settings like the Forgotten Realms or Eberron are popular, they aren’t the only settings in use. Many DMs use their own personal worlds. Thus in that world, perhaps a council of sufficiently powerful mortals can equal a Fiend or Great Old One when working in concert.
Or perhaps DMs could re-flavor this subclass. Instead of mortal wizards, maybe it’s a council of formerly-mortal wizards who have ascended into beings of pure magic. Or maybe it’s a “council of wizards” composed of every single wizard a given culture has ever produced. Anything’s possible.
I know this answer isn’t satisfying to everyone, but I feel it’s enough for most cases. Like with any homebrew, your ability to use it in a game is entirely based on the DM’s approval. If the subclass doesn’t make sense with the world, the DM shouldn’t allow it. Simple.
Now for the longer answer, which deals with game design, settings, and systems.
Due to recent indiscretions by WotC’s legal/corporate team, my group has been looking at alternate systems. Our current Pathfinder game is going well, of course, and we’ll likely continue to play 5e too. But still, it doesn’t hurt to have backups. The issue we quickly came across was that most of the systems had attached settings which we didn’t particularly like.
Every system has an attached setting and makes assumption based on that. The issue is the degree to which the setting influences the system. Both D&D and Pathfinder are relatively unaffected by their respective “default” settings. This is, in my opinion, a great strength of both systems. Many smaller systems are not divorced from their settings, which I feel is a natural consequence of their niche in tabletop gaming.
This “setting and system divide” becomes particularly difficult in a few specific cases, though. As an example – you can, for the most part, freely switch Pathfinder things to D&D and vice versa with only mechanical changes. No lore needs to be adapted. But when it comes to a class like the warlock… that becomes a lot more difficult.
Warlock patrons either work in your setting or they don’t. A “Great Old One” warlock works just fine in the Forgotten Realms, but in Eberron you’d need to specify between the multiple Lovecraftian entities available. Meanwhile, certain artificer subclasses don’t work in high-fantasy settings like Forgotten Realms. I actually wrote an entire article on why psionics aren’t perceived as being usable in all settings. And then there’s the Hexblade warlock, which makes sense in practically no setting.
And so for warlocks, I tend to downplay “setting disparity” issues. If it works, it’ll get used. If it doesn’t, it won’t.
INT on Warlocks is Wrong
Honestly, this whole argument sort of passed me by. I believe the “warlocks should use Intelligence” claim mostly stemmed from either 3.5e or 4e – neither of which I played. As far as I was concerned, warlock was no different than all of the other newfangled weirdos… things like tieflings, functional druids, and sorcerers were all equally mystifying to me.
Nonetheless, it was a conversation that definitely seemed prevalent for a while. And now, years after the fact, I think that I understand where the fundamental misunderstanding is.
Someone will, of course, prove me wrong. But here we go!
Whether the warlock is a Charisma or Intelligence-based concept relies entirely on what your view of a “warlock” looks like. Essentially it boils down to one question – is Saruman a warlock?
The answer, of course, is that he isn’t mortal, much less a warlock. But that’s irrelevant – he is definitely a quintessential “evil spellcaster” character. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say he’s the template for nearly all evil spellcasters in fantasy. Even Sauron (technically the exact same class/category of being as Saruman) isn’t as iconic in the “evil spellcaster” field – he’s a Dark Lord, which has a martial aspect to it that “evil spellcaster” tends to lack.
Saruman the Warlock presents a character who is evil, cunning, and charismatic. But he is also, above all else, a researcher. Saruman is well-versed in “ring lore” and other secrets. He also gains his power from his own nature as
an angelic entity a wizard with knowledge of how magic works. No one “gives” him magical power. He just knows how to use magic, that’s it.
The modern 5e warlock, meanwhile, seems to have more in common with the Witch King of Angmar. He’s a powerful sorcerer, but he derives his power from a greater, supernatural being – the Dark Lord, Sauron. He doesn’t pour over books for obscure lore, he goes out and uses an absolutely ridiculous-sized flail to smash people, riding on a magical beast gifted to him by his supernatural Patron. He doesn’t do much to suggest him as a “charismatic” character, but we’ll chalk that one up to the fact that a) he’s been basically dead for a hundred years, and b) it’s hard to be a smooth talker when your voice is as smooth as nails on a chalkboard.
And ultimately, I think the Witch King is the better example of what a warlock should be. Saruman is just an evil wizard. I would define “wizard” as “spellcaster who knows the secrets of the world” – Gandalf and Saruman both know “secrets” which allow them to cause magical effects. A “warlock” is a “spellcaster who bargains with supernatural entities” – the Witch King lost his humanity in service to the Lord of the Ring, Sauron, and received magical power and a cool dragon mount in return.
Now, that doesn’t mean warlocks can’t be intellectuals. Fiction has a lot to say about the complications of demon summoning. A warlock might need to research a demon’s true name in order to summon it – that’s an Intelligence check. But also think of how demons generally work. If you summon one and make a pact, they’ll screw you over if you don’t have good negotiating skills. Plenty of people can summon a demon, but only the charismatic ones become warlocks because the others all mess up the wording of their pacts.
There’s also one last point I want to make, and it concerns the venerable Faust. In many ways, Faust is the perfect poster child for the warlock as a concept. He literally sells his soul to the Devil for magical power, and gains a demonic servant (Mephistopheles) as well. The only warlock thing he doesn’t do is cast eldritch blast forty times before lunch every day.
Faust also offers an answer on the Intelligence versus Charisma question. While he begins as a scholar, it isn’t his scholarly knowledge or ability that gets him power. I don’t even think he researches or studies up the proper “lore” to summon Mephistopheles either. He just sort of “calls out” and is then offered a deal with the devil.
What I want to point out, though, is that Faust isn’t a warlock. He’s referred to as a sorcerer, a demonologist, a magician, an alchemist… the only things I think he isn’t called is a warlock or a wizard. And this reflects a basic problem with spellcasters in fantasy – the differences between various types of spellcaster are, for the most part, completely arbitrary and meaningless. Each work ascribes their own definitions, but at the end of the day we still use adjectives (sorcerous) and titles (Witch-King) that don’t always match up with the character’s true nature (an undead wraith).
The reason for bringing this up is simple. If you want a “dark scholar, knowledgeable in forbidden lore and toying with evil power” that uses Intelligence… just make a wizard. Seriously. You can easily just call the wizard a “warlock” or “dark sorcerer” or whatever. That’s the lore – the mechanics don’t have to always match exactly.
Now maybe what you want is warlock mechanical features on an INT-based character. In which case I have no answer for you except “ask your DM.” I’d probably allow it for any of my group. It isn’t a big deal as long as you aren’t actively trying to break the game with it.
INT on Warlocks is Broken
And that, of course, brings us to the second ability score issue – the idea that “INT scaling on a warlock would break the balance.” This was originally going to be part of the last section, but I went off on a little bit of a tangent about Faust and it was running a bit long. So here we are.
What ability score a class uses as their primary is an important consideration when making a homebrew character option. The biggest part of this is whether the class is SAD or MAD – that is, if it’s “Single Ability Dependent” or “Multi-Ability Dependent.” This matters because it affects how easily a class can max out its abilities.
Now, no class is truly “Single Ability Dependent” thanks to the existence of Hit Points (CON), AC (DEX), and initiative (also DEX). A class is “Single Ability Dependent” when it has only a single ability governing its class abilities, rather than the whole character. So rogues are a single-ability class because all of their class features are based on Dexterity. Sure, they want Constitution too, but not for class ability. Many rogues also have good Charisma to go along with the myriad of skill proficiencies they get – but again, those are character-based concepts and don’t innately relate back to the class. A rogue can max out their class stats just by pumping Dexterity and nothing else.
A “Multi-Ability Dependent” class is something like paladin or monk. Both are martial classes and thus want a physical attack stat (STR or DEX), but they also both have class features which have a different attack bonus and/or saving throw DC based on a mental stat (CHA or WIS). A paladin cannot max out their class abilities without raising two stats – usually Strength and Charisma.
Finally, a player can effectively make any class “single” or “multi” ability dependent based on their choices. A paladin could consciously choose not to use spells and to instead just smite things. A rogue could take the eldritch trickster subclass, adding Intelligence to their primary stats. Or a player could multi-class, which will always make the character MAD (ha) unless the two classes have identical primary stats. A bard/sorcerer doesn’t have to worry, since both their classes use Charisma. But a warlock/wizard would become MAD as it would now need both Charisma and Intelligence.
And that’s how this long aside relates back to the topic at hand. Anything that would change a class’s primary stat – like the Council Warlock subclass – makes it easier for a character to multi-class. And Council Warlocks could effectively switch their primary stat to Intelligence by taking the Guardian’s Lore invocation and then only choosing to learn spells off the wizard spell list.
Said warlock would then be able to multiclass into wizard fairly easily. They would still have to have at least some Charisma (many people forget that to multiclass, you have to meet the stat minimums on both the new class and your original class), but they would be safely able to ignore Charisma after that breakpoint. A normal warlock/wizard who ignored Charisma would severely weaken all their warlock spells, but a Council Warlock can just choose nothing but wizard spells and avoid that entirely. And that is a strong option.
As I said at the very start, this is a legitimate concern. If I do an update to the class, I would definitely remove the Guardian’s Lore invocation entirely. If a DM has a player who wants to run the currently published version of the Council Warlock, they should definitely consider excluding the Guardian’s Lore invocation. It isn’t an unreasonable thing to do.
I’m not yet completely sold on the idea that spellcasting ability scores can never be changed, though. Since every stat uses the same modifiers, it should be possible to have any stat be used in spellcasting. There’s a minor concern where things like Dexterity and Constitution have bonus combat benefits that stats like Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma don’t. But I just don’t know if that’s a major concern.
A CON-based spellcaster would be much beefier than an INT or WIS based one, but I feel like the very nature of having “Constitution-based spellcasting” would suggest that such a character should be beefy.
So while I likely wouldn’t try switching a spellcasting stat on an existing class, I can still see the hypothetical case in which doing so was both necessary and balanced. To put it another way: INT on warlocks isn’t always broken.
Just usually broken.
And finally, let’s talk about the two more specific mechanical problems.
The first is the “cleric and druid invocations” – Companion to the Archdruids and Servant of the Archpriests. These essentially read:
You replace every instance of the word "wizard" in your class features with the word "[druid/cleric]", and substitute Wisdom whenever a feature mentions Intelligence.
As far as execution goes, I actually really like these invocations. They have a very large gameplay effect and yet take up barely any space. It’s very efficient.
But as actual invocations, they fall a bit flat. The Cleric Council and Druid Council warlocks both feel like valid character concepts, but the invocations don’t really do them justice. I feel like a true “Companion to the Archdruids” warlock should really have some sort of feature related to animals. And a “Servant of the Archpriests” warlock feels like it should have something resembling Channel Divinity. But this invocation-based approach doesn’t allow either.
There’s also the problem of healing – I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with short-rest Pact Magic spell slots being used to cast healing spells, but there’s definitely some consideration that needs to go into that. And as much as I love the efficiency of these invocations and how short they are, there are some edge cases that sort of have to be considered (such as animate dead being balanced on long-rest spell slots and having some weirdness if translated to Pact Magic, something that was pointed out to me on a different homebrew).
The second mechanical concern is the Focused Will feature. It’s the capstone of the subclass, and it allows the warlock to maintain two concentration spells simultaneously for up to 1 minute once per long rest.
And this is a very powerful effect. The entire concentration mechanic exists solely to limit how many super-impactful buffs or debuffs you can have active at a time. Allowing two at once risks upsetting that careful balance.
I had originally thought that the other restrictions here did enough to balance it out. The feature could only be used if one of the concentration spells was on the wizard spell list (after all, why would wizard councilmembers be able to concentrate on a warlock spell?). You also had to continue making concentration checks for both spells, so it wasn’t like one became immune to being broken.
But, at the same time… that’s just a really strong ability, having two concentration spells active at once. I feel like you could still put enough restrictions on there to make it playable, but the question then is whether or not it would be worth the effort to ever use it.
At this point, I think what I’d replace this with is as follows:
When a spell you are concentrating on would end due to a failed concentration check or you falling unconscious, you can choose to ask for help. If you do so, you no longer make concentration checks and the spell doesn't end until you die, you choose to end it, its natural duration lapses, or 1 minute passes from when you first used this ability. The spell can still be affected by dispel magic as normal. Even if the spell would continue longer, it ends after 1 minute regardless. You may use this feature only once per long rest.
It still has problems, of course. For one, I’m hesitant to make it absolutely impossible for a creature to force your spell to end by simply attacking you, rather than killing you. The bit about “continuing even if you fall unconscious” might be pushing it too far.
What this alternate version does, however, is ensure you can’t find some gamebreaking loophole involving two concentration spells. Especially as more spells get added to the game (including homebrew, if the DM allows it), the chances of there being some sort of “exploit” with dual-concentration only gets higher. And I think that’s ultimately my major problem with it.
Again, I think there is a theoretical point at which you have enough restrictions that dual-concentration is fine. The question then is whether or not such a feature would be worth using. And I’m just not sure.
Maybe if I could concentrate on it a bit more I would be able to figure it out. But not right now – I’m concentrating on some other stuff at the moment.
I quite like doing these introspective looks because they allow me to think about things more holistically. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
The Council Warlock is the perfect example of that. Most of the problems in the subclass come from context, rather than the text itself. Whether or not a mortal group could mimic an immortal Patron is a matter of setting context – does it work in the setting of the current game. The idea of Intelligence versus Charisma is different depending on the context as well. And the two problematic features, the class-switching Invocations and the dual-concentration capstone, are mostly troublesome when taken together with other things, such as abusable concentration spells.
It’s important to try to think of these things at the time when making a homebrew option. And I feel I generally do a fairly good job of it – I always said from the very start that the dual-concentration capstone was pushing things. But there’s some things that you really can’t see except in hindsight. And knowing how to look at those things and fix them is just as important as being able to write the thing in the first place.
Look for more of these coming soon. I have a short list of homebrews of mine that I want to look back at, each for some reason or another. I even have one planned that should allow me to discuss my dissatisfaction with the official Hexblade subclass as well, so that should be fun.
Here’s a sneak peek – why the hell did I sell my soul to a sword, and if that isn’t what I did, why do I have to read another three paragraphs explaining what I did do?
Anyway, that’s it for this time! As always, let me know what you think!