Let's Play...A Low Charisma Warlock
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! We're continuing in our Let's Play series by looking at the low Charisma warlock, a caster that already stands apart from the dedicated spellcasters of the game, and this build stands out from all of those.
As always, we begin with the character's high concept, looking at why we would opt to take this penalty on ourselves, and then look at the mechanics to see how we can take this build and use it to aid the party in its quest.
I. Character Concept
The warlock class represents a person who made a pact with a powerful patron. Do you know what that does not specify? That the person is a high Charisma person. So you can literally play anyone in the universe who is not socially affable who then meets and embraces the opportunity to gain power from another entity, and you've got this build.
This could be a person who lost their beloved and is trying to get her back. This could be a person who was beaten up as a child and made a deal at a young age to gain the power to do some payback. This could be a heavily depressed individual who seeks to aid their patron, but lacks the emotional strength that typically accompanies such a pact.
So the options for your background are quite varied. The trick will be taking this option and making it useful, and that's where we head next.
II. Character Build
We will start by looking at the stat versatility, and that affects a lot of your other decisions with how to play this character. For starters, most warlocks are valuing Charisma, followed by Constitution, followed by Dexterity. This build really opens us up to new options because we can definitely favor Constitution and Dexterity to give us the best possible defense, though, since we have proficiency with all simple weapons and may gain proficiency with some martial weapons from our race, you could also go with Strength and Constitution if you wanted a bit more melee punch.
The big thing about this build, though, is that we can go the ranged character route since Eldritch Blast is still good, but not nearly as good as it is on a high Charisma character (as we are not spending an invocation to add our Charisma modifier to our damage rolls). So this opens us up to a very different style of play.
We are probably still preparing Eldritch Blast because it is our best attack cantrip, but on a given turn we may not use it. So think through what you want to do for damage (as you are still playing an offense class, not a support class), and then build out that stat accordingly.
Related, you'll probably want to spend your invocations on things that will either give utility to your Eldritch Blast (as you're not doing as much damage, so pushing or pulling people will increase the value of the cantrip even if the damage is subpar) or assist you in other ways. I always recommend Devil Sight because I don't like not being able to see things, and if you have a good Dexterity score, Armor of Shadows is a really good invocation (as you ignore most of the issues with Mage Armor). Eldritch Sight is also overall useful, as is any other invocation that allows you to cast a spell at will that doesn't require you to make a check or roll for anything using your Charisma.
So with this in mind, let's look at spell choices. As a quick aside, this is the only class I believe that gets a preset number of spells known: most classes have an algorithm involving your casting stat + your level, but the warlock always knows a certain number of spells. So good news: you don't lose spells known with this build!
Cantrips: So to start, since you don't get a lot of spell slots, if you're going to cast spells in combat you're going to need an attack spell. A lot of your spells either require a melee spell attack or a saving throw, and we won't do well with either of those. So toward that end, I am still recommending Eldritch Blast just because your damage is better than you could probably do otherwise with a spell.
I also recommend utility spells like Prestidigitation and Mage Hand as they will prove useful at any level of play.
1st Level Spells: Remember that with warlock spells we are usually looking at two things: spells that we can only use a few times each day (thanks to our number of spell slots) and spells that will grow in value or maintain their value as the spell slot level increases (thanks to how warlock spell slots work). In addition to this, we have a third consideration now: we don't have a good Charisma stat.
So spells like Armor of Agathys and Hex will still be useful, even with the Charisma penalty. In addition spells like Expeditious Retreat will remain useful even though it doesn't boost with higher spell levels, purely because it gives us the mobility that we like with a bonus action (which we may or may not be using on a given turn).
2nd Level Spells: 2nd level spells are generally better for utility than for damage, and yet, if you can make a 5ft square space strategically necessary for targets to remain in, Cloud of Daggers could be a good inclusion. The fact that it does 1) automatic damage to targets that enter/start their turn in the square, 2) doesn't require our Charisma at all, and 3) increases by roughly 5 points of damage for each additional spell slot level, this is one of those spells I wouldn't generally take but would be tempted to take here because we don't have an Agonizing Blast.
Other great spells are the typical warlock choices: Darkness, Invisibility, Mirror Image, Misty Step, and Spider Climb, as they hold their value pretty well over time. And for Mirror Image in particular, you have a better chance of having a higher Dexterity score thanks to not having a high Charisma score, so your chances at a better AC for your mirror images are better than your average warlock.
3rd Level Spells: This is typically one of the strongest spell levels in the game in terms of value, and it's not surprising that you get access to some really good spells at this level. Of course, most classes will have far larger numbers of spell slots to cast them with, so you lose some value purely off of a loss of opportunity, but as far as tools in your belt go, these are all great spells.
Some of these spells are good because their effects just happen, but even more so since you are always casting them with your highest level slot available. So Dispel Magic, Counterspell, and Remove Curse are always good choices, especially if you are missing a cleric or wizard in the party who would typically cover these bases for you.
There are other spells that are useful but not as useful because you have such a small number of spell slots, including Fly, Gaseous Form, and Tongues. I recommend not taking these on the whole, purely because of your limited number of slots.
There are other really good spells at this level too (Hunger of Hadar and the summon spells stand out to me), but keep in mind that your lower Charisma score means you will not be nearly as effective with these as you'd think. So if you'd like to take them you can, but keep in mind that they will be less effective than you are used to if you have used them before with a warlock.
4th Level Spells: I'll be honest: with the penalty we're getting to our Charisma there are not a lot of good choices at 4th level for warlock. Unlike the paladin who can just use spell slots for smites (and lose zero effectiveness based on his/her Charisma), the warlock runs into an issue with a lot of Constitution and Wisdom saving throw spells and summons that are okay but not great.
There's one that will be useful, and that is Dimension Door. Fantastic spell, very useful at any points level, and arguably worth using one of your very small number of spell slots to cast. Having access to this and Misty Step gives you lots of options for evasion, though you probably don't need access to both (considering how limited your spell slots are).
But honestly, not having great spells at this level isn't bad; if you're taking spells that scale up nicely, you can probably just stick with those and add Dimension Door.
Now there's one more spell I should probably talk about, and that's Banishment. This could be a good choice, in that it's a Charisma saving throw and a lot of monsters are weak in the Charisma area (not entirely sure why, as Charisma includes the ability to intimidate people, and I feel like brown bears, manticores, etc. should be better at that than they are, but oh well), so even though you have a lower spell save DC than your average character at this level, they might still fail it. So it may be worth taking.
5th Level Spells: Once again, our lack of a good spell save is going to bite us here, but there are still a few really good choices. Far Step is a good spell (as it's basically a Misty Step each turn for a minute, which saves us a ton of spell slots), though it is a concentration spell, so it will be competing with Darkness and other concentration spells we have.
The other spell you should consider looking at is Synaptic Static. It requires a saving throw, but it's 1) an Intelligence saving throw, which is a weaker save on average, and 2) it does 8d6 Psychic damage (which is rarely resisted or immune), and does half of the damage on a successful save, so you are at least doing something with the spell even if the targets pass. And if they don't pass, they also subtract 1d6 from their attacks, saving throws, and concentration checks for 1 minute, so the reward is quite nice if it works. And since it affects multiple creatures within a 20ft radius sphere, you can catch a lot of targets in it, so the chances that someone fails is quite high.
Mystic Arcanum: So as you know, warlocks get access to one spell at 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th level, which they can cast once per day without spending a spell slot (which is good because you finally get your 3rd spell slot at 11th level, and you never get more than 4 spell slots until you hit 20th level when you can replenish them with your capstone ability). Having a low Charisma score, though, lowers our choices even more if we want to be effective in helping the party.
For your 6th level Mystic Arcanum, I recommend either Tasha's Otherworldly Guise or Truesight, depending on whether you think you're going to have a lot of illusions or invisible stuff in-game. Tasha's Otherworldly Guise is just a nice spell all around, and since the wording on using your spellcasting modifier for melee or ranged attacks uses the word "can" you are not required to, so you can give yourself Extra Attack basically with this ability. It comes kind of late in the build, so that's not great, but at least you get the option.
I also like Conjure Fey, but keep in mind that if you lose concentration on it, the fey will attack you. So...just keep that in mind.
For your 7th level Mystic Arcanum, I recommend Forcecage. Crown of Stars is also a useful spell, and if you hit you deal good radiant damage up to seven times. The issue is that 1) it's a ranged spell attack, so you have a lower chance of hitting, but 2) and more than that, since it sheds light as a 7th level spell, it also dispels your Darkness spell if you have that up, so you'd be picking and choosing which strategy to use. I'm not a huge fan of that, though I am generally a fan of the spell.
For your 8th level Mystic Arcanum, I recommend Demiplane and Glibness (if you think you will have a lot of opportunity for Charisma ability checks in your game) without reserve, as both are good utility spells. I also offer with some reservation the spell Feeblemind, as it's good for reasons we explained in our post on low-Charisma bards, offering automatic psychic damage, and a high risk, high reward chance of reducing a caster's stats to nothingness off of an Intelligence saving throw. So if you know that you are up against a Wisdom-based or Charisma-based caster, this can be a good option.
And for your 9th level Mystic Arcanum, I recommend either Foresight or Psychic Scream, as the latter does offer at least half damage on 14d6 Psychic damage on up to ten targets, which is a lot to start with, and at most offers 14d6 Psychic damage plus the Stunned condition if they fail the Intelligence saving throw (which, again, is a harder difficulty to pass). The other advantage to Psychic Scream is that if the target dies, its head explodes, so no amount of Revivify will fix it, and arguably regeneration would take a lot time to fix too, if it can fix it at all.
Warlocks are probably my second favorite type of caster in the game (behind clerics) because there is so much for you to do with them. The mere thought that you could build a low Charisma warlock who just strives to serve their patron even though they are socially and emotionally inept is incredible, and I love the flexibility that it gives you to build a ranged focused or melee focused non-Hexblade warlock. If you like this kind of feel, give it a go.
In our next post in the series we will be taking a look at a low Intelligence Artificer, and how you can use your gadgets and gizmos more effectively without a masterful mind behind it.
Until next time,