Deathlock Tactics

Pacts formed with supernatural patrons tend not to have escape clauses, and the penalties for breaking them can be unpleasant. Did you make a pact with an archfiend to do its bidding in exchange for occult powers and fail to live up to the terms? No “till death do us part” in this vow—that archfiend owns you after death, as well. You’re a deathlock, Harry! Free will? No longer an issue. You’re undead now, and your compulsion is to serve your patron—and to do a better job of it than you did when you were alive.

I got my first request to look at the deathlock a fairly long time ago, but just yesterday a reader noticed that it was finally coming up in the queue and asked: “The deathlock only gets two spell slots. What does it do afterward? [Player character] warlocks are built around recharging with a short rest every battle, but enemies rarely survive to return for a second battle, and with its pathetic stats, the only way it’s going to survive is by casting invisibility—and if it saves a spell slot for that, it’s down to one spell slot.”

Well, first of all, let’s look at whether the premises of this question are true. The deathlock’s ability contour peaks in Charisma and Dexterity, which is exactly what you’d expect of a spellslinger in general and a warlock in particular; its Intelligence is also above average. Its 36 average hit points (which you can nudge up, incidentally, if you feel like it needs more staying power) aren’t out of line for a challenge rating 4 foe. Plus, it has resistance to physical damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons, so unless you’re handing out magic items like candy, there’s a decent chance that your mid-level adventurers will do only half damage to it. (It’s also resistant to necrotic damage and immune to poison damage and the poisoned condition, but these are less significant.)

Now, about those two spell slots: Yes, warlocks’ Pact Magic dramatically limits how many leveled spells they can cast between rests. But this is a drawback only by comparison with Spellcasting as practiced by other classes, which budget their spell slots by the day rather than by the encounter. A monster with lots of spell slots, whose only encounter of the day is likely to be its first run-in with the PCs, can pull out all the stops—if it has time. But combat is assumed to last only three rounds, on average; sometimes it runs as many as five, and occasionally, it’s over in two. Having spell slots isn’t the same as getting to use spell slots, so warlocks are less handicapped by this restriction than it may seem at first glance. Finally, while I’m not privy to the designers’ intention, I think warlocks are meant to lean very heavily on cantrips in general and eldritch blast in particular, and they can use those as many times as they like.

But let’s look specifically at what the deathlock brings to the table:

  • At will: detect magic, disguise self, mage armor. Note that while these don’t cost spell slots, they do take time. That being said, all of these are preventive measures that a deathlock is smart enough to cast in advance of any possible altercation, and detect magic is the only one of them that requires concentration.
  • Cantrips: chill touch, eldritch blast, mage hand. Since the deathlock is a level 5 caster, its eldritch blast shoots two beams, not just one, for a possible 2d10 damage, while chill touch deals 2d8 necrotic along with temporarily suppressing healing.
  • Leveled spells: arms of Hadar, dispel magic, hold person, hunger of Hadar, invisibility, spider climb. All of these are cast at 3rd level, because warlock, and arms of Hadar and hold person scale. In any given combat encounter, the deathlock gets to choose two of these spells to use once each, or one to use twice. This is the key situational decision.

In contrast, whether to use Deathly Claw vs. chill touch is a standing decision, and the decision is easy: always use chill touch rather than Deathly Claw, except at melee range and/or against a target paralyzed by hold person. Chill touch does the same damage on average as Deathly Claw, of the same type, but has a 5 percentage point higher chance to hit and carries the no-heals-for-you rider.

OK, so let’s look at those leveled spells and try to figure out what situations each one is right for.

  • Arms of Hadar is an instantaneous, area-effect spell with a 10-foot radius, which emanates outward from the caster to deal (in this case) 4d6 necrotic damage to each target; it also momentarily suppresses reactions. Being a spellslinger, the deathlock would prefer to keep its distance from foes if it can. Per the Targets in Area of Effect table in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a spell effect with a 10-foot radius generally affects two targets. Thus, the purpose of arms of Hadar is to try to escape being engaged in melee by two or more opponents. However, the deathlock’s odds of succeeding at this aren’t necessarily great: arms of Hadar calls for a Strength saving throw, an ability that melee attackers are usually well-endowed in, and a save DC of 13 is fairly easy to beat. So let’s stipulate that the deathlock casts arms of Hadar when it’s trying to escape being engaged in melee by two or more opponents and no more than one of these opponents is a front-liner wielding a Strength-based melee weapon. It’s better for escaping finesse fighters and rogues.
  • Dispel magic shuts down persistent magical effects of 3rd level or lower. How many of these is a deathlock likely to need to worry about—like, really worry about? The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are protection from evil and good, slow and maybe faerie fire.
  • Hold person may actually be better for the deathlock when it comes to escaping a double-teaming situation than arms of Hadar, because it targets Wisdom instead of Strength and always affects two targets, thanks to Pact Magic. But it’s also very good against pesky spellslingers, as well as shock attackers with magic or silvered weapons. Anyone with a magic or silvered weapon, really, unless they’re a cleric, druid, monk or paladin—those classes are likely to beat the Wisdom save.
  • Hunger of Hadar is like a darkness spell that’s harder to walk out of and that also deals damage—not a lot of it, but a nonnegligible amount. Primarily, it’s a control spell, to be used against four or more foes in an area with a 20-foot radius that doesn’t include the deathlock itself. This is the deathlock’s “Leave me alone, I’m working” spell.
  • Invisibility, as my reader noted, offers limited utility, especially when it comes to escape. So let’s think of it not as a contingency spell but as one that has to fit into the deathlock’s overall mission plan, whatever that is. Invisbility requires concentration, so the deathlock won’t use it when it also needs detect magic. It’s very good for a single ambush attack against a target it can take down in this way; however, the deathlock is no shock attacker, and it’s not going to kill a mid-level adventurer by dealing 11 damage in one turn. My conclusion is that invisibility is a spell that the deathlock uses before combat to try to get its work done without being seen, in situations where it’s better not to be seen at all (invisibility) than simply to be mistaken for someone else (disguise self).
  • Spider climb offers some interesting possibilities in the realm of being able to attack from range with eldritch blast and chill touch while remaining out of reach of melee attacks, but these possibilities are more interesting when the deathlock is on offense rather than on defense. In the latter case, being an unboostable 2nd-level spell that requires concentration, it feels like a waste of a spell slot.

I won’t delve into the strategies underlying all the patron-specific spell lists—you can figure them out yourself by looking at them the way I do above—except to note that each one has not just a different overall flavor but a different approach to combat. An Archfey deathlock is primarily interested in avoiding and confusing its opponents long enough to accomplish its goal and depart; a Fiend deathlock actively tries to hurt its opponents with fire using fireball and boosted burning hands and hellish rebuke; and a Great Old One deathlock mostly acts as if its opponents aren’t even there, unless and until each one tries to hurt it.

Being compelled to serve their patrons, deathlocks have a short-circuited self-preservation instinct and make no attempt to save themselves no matter how badly injured they are, unless their patrons are actively observing and consider them more useful undead than dead. Somehow, though, I don’t get the sense that there’s any shortage of warlocks who’ve disappointed their patrons.

The much tougher deathlock mastermind (a bit of a misnomer, since its Intelligence is high but not exceptional—just one point higher than the deathlock’s, with no difference in ability modifier) replaces its eldritch blast cantrip with Grave Bolts, which deal 4d8 damage—more than twice as much as eldritch blast, on average. They also have a chance of restraining a target on a hit, requiring a DC 16 Strength save to resist. This save DC probably still isn’t high enough to restrain a mid-level front-line warrior, but it’s decent against everyone else. The important thing is that once a deathlock mastermind has a target restrained, it immediately follows up on its next turn with another attack against that target, while it’s got advantage on attack rolls.

The deathlock mastermind’s chill touch is no better than the basic deathlock’s, but its Deathly Claw does another die’s worth of damage. Is that one die worth giving up healing suppression? Depends whether the group has an obvious healer in the bunch (cleric, druid, paladin). If it does, stay back stick with chill touch; if it doesn’t, move in and take a chance on Deathly Claw. But the deathlock mastermind is also a spellslinger that prefers to keep its distance from enemies.

Looking at the deathlock mastermind’s spell list, hunger of Hadar is replaced by garden-variety darkness; hold person is replaced by hold monster, which is a ripoff, because now it affects only one target (which can be the ranger’s wolf buddy or the wizard’s earth elemental—big whoop); spider climb is replaced by fly, a modest improvement; and blight, counterspell, crown of madness, dimension door and poison spray are new additions.

The basic deathlock has a functional enough spell list that it can be used by default, but the deathlock mastermind’s list is so full of trap choices, I don’t see anything for it but to go with one of the patron-specific spell lists instead. Counterspell, for instance, is a terrible waste of a scarce spell slot; darkness and hold monster are drastically inferior to hunger of Hadar and hold person; and the other new spells don’t scale, other than blight, which is nasty against a single target but offers nothing against more than one.

The thing about warlocks in general is that they really depend on the scaling effect of upcasting—otherwise, what’s the point of casting a 2nd-level spell using a 5th-level slot? Thus, a spell like crown of madness, which is no better if cast at 5th level than at 2nd level, has too high an opportunity cost to even consider. Even invisibility becomes kind of stupid, because by the time you’re casting 5th-level spells, you really ought to be casting greater invisibility instead. If you stick with the default spell list, a deathlock mastermind’s spellcasting comes down to nothing but arms of Hadar, blight, fly and, when it’s time to go, dimension door. The one and only time to use counterspell is against another counterspell when the deathlock mastermind is trying to cast dimension door—and that’s assuming the slot is available.

The patron-specific spell lists, on the other hand, pack some real punch. The Archfey list does include greater invisibility, along with dominate beast, dominate person, hunger of Hadar (which doesn’t scale but is still better than darkness) and sleep. (This last spell doesn’t scale as well as some do, but 13d8 will drop a whole mess of NPC bystanders—or every guard in a noble’s summer cottage in the country.) The Fiend list—which includes burning hands (7d6 fire damage), command (five targets), fireball (10d6), flame strike, hellish rebuke (5d10), scorching ray (six rays) and wall of fire (7d8)—is so strong, it almost merits promoting the deathlock mastermind to CR 9. The Great Old One list includes dissonant whispers (7d6), dominate person, Evard’s black tentacles (potential to restrain), hunger of Hadar and telekinesis. Every one of these beats the default list, hands down.

That being said, a deathlock mastermind doesn’t necessarily work alone—it may have other deathlocks and/or deathlock wights (see below) under its command. Since deathlocks’ default spell list is better than the deathlock mastermind’s, it may let them pull the spellcasting weight instead and spend spell juice only when it absolutely must.

Deathlock masterminds use their magic to avoid detection while carrying out their schemes. If they can do this with just their innate spells and cantrips, they do, but they may occasionally need to use invisibility (or greater invisibility), phantasmal force, seeming or, as mentioned above, sleep to accomplish a certain task. If they’re encountered in the middle of one of these schemes, they may be a spell slot down, in which case they’ll cast dimension door and skedaddle as soon as they can no longer stall for time using innate spells, cantrips and nonmagical attacks. It’s not because they have any more agency or any stronger a sense of self-preservation. It’s because they represent a greater investment on the part of their patrons and are more useful to them. You don’t just let people come along and wreck your mastermind.

A deathlock wight has the ability contour of a spellslinger, but it lacks Pact Magic. Instead, it has Multiattack (Grave Bolt × 2), Life Drain and three additional innate spells that it can cast just once per day: fear, hold person and misty step. Deathlock wights—unlike regular wights—still try to keep their distance from their enemies, but when the right opportunity presents itself, they close in and use Life Drain.

This opportunity will usually arise when a deathlock wight isn’t encountered on its own but with other deathlock wights or, even better, other deathlock wights and a deathlock mastermind. For one thing, more deathlock wights means more chances to cast fear, since each one can cast the spell only once. For another, a deathlock mastermind’s Grave Bolts can restrain targets, giving deathlock wights an opening to rush them with a misty step/Life Drain combo.

Once a deathlock wight begins Life Draining a target, others join in, if they’re present. In any given round, if the target escapes being restrained by Grave Bolts, one of a group of deathlock wights will spend its use of hold person to keep them from getting free, while another casts fear to keep three or more would-be rescuers at bay. Any others join in the Life Draining fun.

At the start of combat, the deathlock wight relies on its movement to try to stay as far from its enemies as it can and its Multiattack to plink them down, starting with clerics, paladins and the squishy types in the back. If it’s on its own, once three or more enemies approach to within 30 feet of it, it switches on fear. Partly, this is to make its enemies keep their distance; partly, it’s a test to see who fails their Wisdom saving throws. Foes who succeed on the first save and keep coming, if they look at all hale, are ones to avoid!

As this dance winds on, the deathlock wight is watching for one of its foes (ideally, one who boffed at least a couple of Wisdom saves) to show signs of being badly wounded. When this happens, it switches gears and casts hold person on that foe, then rushes toward them. When it reaches its target’s side, it begins using Life Drain.

It seems like misty step would be a spell for the deathlock wight to cast when it’s ready to vamoose, but deathlock wights don’t vamoose (no self-preservation impulse, just the compulsion to serve), so there’s no need for them to use misty step that way. Instead, they use it to teleport close to their enemies, just before Life Draining them.

Deathlocks and deathlock masterminds can go about during the day, though they prefer to work—and fight—in the dark. Deathlock wights, on the other hand, have Sunlight Sensitivity: They must work and fight in the dark, along with everything else they do. Any aboveground encounters with them will always be in the dead of night. (“Did you have to say [gulp] ‘dead’?”)

Next: frost salamanders.

9 thoughts on “Deathlock Tactics

  1. Why would deathly claw be better against a paralyzed target? Chill touch benefits more from the auto-crit if you go near (unless there’s a non-incapacitated enemy near you).

    1. Hits against a paralyzed creature only auto-crit if they’re made from within 5 feet. Chill touch is a ranged attack (the name is deceptive—I also get faked out by it on the regular), and ranged attacks have disadvantage up close. Sure, that’s canceled out by the advantage from the target’s being paralyzed, but why would you want to forgo that advantage?

      1. I think the ranged attack disadvantage only applies to enemies who are not incapacitated, and paralyzed includes incapacitated, so a ranged attack roll from within 5 feet of a paralyzed opponent benefits from both the advantage and the auto-crit.

  2. I feel like you’re not giving *Invisibility* a fair shake compared to *Greater Invisibility*. Lesser has a duration of 1 hour and can be upcast to target multiple creatures. Greater has a duration of 1 minute and no upcasting.

    OG Invis isn’t a combat spell, it’s a pregame spell. Set the stage with some invisible buddies and lie in wait for an hour.

    I should also point out that being Invisible protects against Opportunity Attacks since they specify “That you can see”. This improves its’ escape merits somewhat.

  3. Thanks for addressing my points.

    If it’s not too late to ask- you stated that Eldritch Blast would deal 2d10 damage when cast by the Deathlock. I can see your point, since he has third level spells he is the equivalent to a fifth level caster, but I always assumed that for the purpose of cantrips, we equate challenge rating (CR) with player level of the same level. Proficiency bonus does work that way. It’s written explicitly in the introduction to the Monster Manuel.
    (Even though it doesn’t make sense in terms of the monster’s ability level, the logic would be to equate the monster’s cantrips with those of the PC’s they are most likely to face.)
    I’m mostly wondering if you have a source to have the Deathlock’s cantrip do 2d10. Having it do 2d10 instead of 1d10 would change the encounter quite a bit.

    Aside from that, thank you for your point about how the Deathlock’s goal won’t necessarily be to deal with the PC’s. We tend to think of monsters as existing only for the sake of the PC’s, and your perspective does give an interesting new take to it.

    Thank you for all your articles.

  4. Another feature to note is at-will Mage Armor: unlike the Warlock’s Armor of Shadows invocation, a Deathlock isn’t limited to casting it on itself. Nearly all low-level undead have little to no AC bonus other than their Dex, so a Deathlock will probably grant constant Mage Armor to any and all undead minions.

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