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I've played a bunch of DnD 5e, but my current campaign is my first time playing a Warlock outside of a one-shot; right now I'm almost to level 5. I'm playing more of a face/roleplay-focused role, so my invocations (Aspect of the Moon and Devil's Sight) are generally more useful out of combat, but I made sure to take several combat-oriented cantrips, as well as shatter, to have at least one good damage-focused spell.

In general, I'm having a lot of fun, but I'm having some trouble getting used to having only two spell slots to play with beyond the very early levels.

A couple of sessions ago, I eagerly fired off both my spell slots at what looked like pretty juicy targets. I did plenty of damage... but when enemy reinforcements showed up, I was out of ammo - and in hindsight, I would have had even better targets to use my spells on if I had kept them in reserve.

In response, the next session, I resolved to try to keep a shorter leash on my spells. I played through a combat encounter trying to keep my spell slots in reserve, but I felt like limiting myself to cantrips, weapon attacks, and "utility actions" like shoving kept me from pulling my weight. I then felt silly for being so cautious when we decided to take a short rest at the end of the encounter anyway. I felt especially silly when the same entire story repeated itself later in the session.

Of course, I can (and do) encourage my party to take short rests when we have the opportunity to do so (as long as people could use the HP and it's not just because I'm out of spell slots), but in general I feel like I'm doing a poor job of identifying the "right" times to pull from my limited resource pool.

Of course, this problem isn't limited to Warlock - every spellcasting class has to make these judgment calls - but with such a low number of slots to work with, playing Warlock is definitely testing my resource management. I recognize that adeptly managing my limited spell slots is just part of the game, but is there anything in particular I can do that would help to pick out the best times to bust out a spell?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh dear, where are my manners? I see that you joined a couple of months ago, but this is your first question. Welcome! (PS: Shatter is on the Warlock spell list). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 1 at 16:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ModelHX its important to remember that the spell level upscaling for warlock brings it a good way along in providing burst damage instead of sustained casting. Taking either Pact of the Tome for rituals or the Ritual Caster feat means that you can keep some out of combat casting without the use of slots. \$\endgroup\$ – IT Alex Sep 1 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 2 at 7:32
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This is a matter of perspective.

This is mostly my play experience, I love playing casters and have played each of these styles. In the end, pick a style that feels good and stick with it. Knowing what your allies are planning is sometimes just as useful. ("Uh oh, there are 4 enemies within 20 feet. Nuc Lear the Sorcerer is probably gonna just fireball them and doesn't care about "Danger Close" - The Annoyed, Singed Paladin)

Casting based on your character's "fighting style"

Are they more brash and likely to tend to use big spells a bit early? Or are they more reserved and waiting to see how the fight plays out?

Early spellcasting

Eliminating targets quickly is one of the better ways to avoid taking damage. You never know when reinforcements will arrive and sometimes its better to not have more targets on the board.

Pros

  • The early encounters are less risky and you can get information on the types of enemies in the area
  • You have less opportunity for the action economy to start to work against you

Cons

  • If there aren't many short/long rests in your future, you can be relegated to cantrip support quickly

Late spellcasting

Things starting to look bad or maybe things are already terrible? Time to drop some high level spells and hope for the best. You might turn it around.

Pros

  • You almost always have spells for that High CR encounter

  • Some neat "clutch hero" moments and/or opportunities for your allies to have cool moments in combat

Cons

  • You might never need to use them in encounters for a while and be on cantrip duty

  • The party might take more damage or get into a dangerous position easier

Flow-based spellcasting

Sometimes, the best way to use slots is anytime the battle seems to tip towards your party being at disadvantage. They are almost always impactful or needed.

Pros

  • Has that neat Tactician feel

  • Spells are generally aren't thrown away too quickly

Cons

  • Can be hard to determine those moments; you might miss out on good opportunities while waiting for the right time
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    \$\begingroup\$ Man, I can't believe I'd never thought of using spell-slot-expenditure as a way to define my character's "fighting style." I'm used to having my martial characters behave themselves in a distinct way during combat, but somehow I'd never realized that casting characters could do the exact same thing. Great idea! \$\endgroup\$ – ModelHX Sep 1 at 16:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer. Knowing what your allies are planning probably deserves its own section. It's easy to get caught up in "how am I going to handle this encounter" and lose sight of "how are we going to handle this encounter". The result is two casters going all out in Encounter 1 with nothing left for Encounter 2. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Sep 1 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca easy to get caught up in "how am I going to handle this encounter" and lose sight of "how are we going to handle this encounter Amen. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 1 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Flow-based spellcasting" is a good way of putting it. I think I've usually played my Fiend-patron Pact of the Tome warlock that way - I'll cast a good AoE spell if enemies are clumped together, or might cast a powerful debuff if there's an enemy that's particularly more powerful than the rest, but otherwise I can always fall back on eldritch blast. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 2 at 7:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast: This is the first mention of Eldritch Blast I see, and I think it should deserve its own answer. I do not think it is accidental that the 2 spell-slots Warlock class has access to the most damaging cantrip -- with upgrades in the form of invocations for more damage and versatility. And a result, I think the Warlock is not a typical spellcaster in that regard. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Sep 2 at 9:09
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There is no one way

There really isn't a best way for use of your resources. It's very much a personal set of choices — but it's also highly dependent on how often you can short or long rest.

If your DM allows for more often short resting, then you can be more loose with your resources and use them more often. If not, then you need to more aware of time in day, time to rest, difficulty of fight, etc.

But overall, it's going to be fairly random. There will be days where you bust early and feel less impactful, and others where you will have not expended the slots. But as long as you're having fun, then you're having fun!

Use your resources as you see fit. If it becomes an issue in either direction of overuse or underuse, talk with your DM. And look at your invocations, too. That's where warlocks have some more abilities.

How I'm doing it

I'm currently playing a hexblade warlock and generally use my spell slot for Hex. That means I've got even less available prior to a short rest so that I can have that up (and hopefully keep it up!) So I often just have one slot available and need to decide when and what to use it for. A lot of my decision making includes the difficulty of the fight, how party members are doing with their resources, and what I think my character might do.

Sometimes I make the right call, other times I don't. I've been left with my spell slot prior to a short rest which seems silly, and I've burned out early as well.

As a paladin, I had a similar issue with fewer slots over the course of a full day than full casters. Balance was a big issue, and I very often had spell slots left at the end of the day due to being conservative. With that character, I think I was focusing more on having and not needing then needing and not having.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do like hex because it can extend over a longer combat, especial if reinforcements show up. When I played a warlock, I generally would also always leave one spell slot in reserve for escaping critical situations, or helping the party in a critical moment. Which means I didn't use spells for one-off damage dealing because I had so few. I also focused on spells that lasted a longer, like Armor of Agathys(sp?). This also meant I often had unused over slots from easier combats. Which I thought was okay. Overall this increased my survivability and aided the group at the right moment. \$\endgroup\$ – Imaginary Sep 2 at 13:04
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Cast your spells when you want to

It's actually fairly simple. There are pros and cons to the timing of casting your spells, but you're a warlock and you're going to have to experiment to decide which timing you like and if timing matters at all to you.

The warlock's a unique casting style that's akin to a "stamina caster", getting all their spells back after a short rest. To this end, they need to be balanced by having a low limit of how many spells they can cast before resting.

However, there's a common phenomenon Too Awesome to Use that describes the hoarding of finite resources excessively that many casters (not just Warlocks) fall into. They save their spells in favor of casting cantrips or doing other utility actions and end up not spending all of their resources by the next time they regain spell slots.

Focusing on the limited quantity of spell slots will actually stop you from enjoying the bombastic nature of the warlock.

When you see a group of enemies that you can hit with Shatter to deal significant encounter damage? Cast a spell. When the party is facing a difficult problem that you can solve with a utility spell? Cast a spell. When you want to--? Cast a spell.

If you run out of spells, you have been doing your job as a Warlock

Your worries about your couple sessions prior where you saw there was a better way to use your spells if you had been more conservative is normal. Hindsight is 20/20 and there is always a perfect path that, if you didn't take, you could have taken.

Instead, reflect on the fact that you used your resources and contributed to ending an encounter. These resources were not wasted, they were used and you used them for what they are for.

Even if there was something better you could have done, you did well.

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This is a great question. Resource management can be troublesome for novice and seasoned players alike. Erring on the side of using resources too early generally means you have to take more frequent rests, or risk being less effective later on. Erring on the side of conserving resources can be catastrophic - a dead player's resources don't really matter.

Page 82 of the DMG implies a standard party should be able to handle several encounters before resting. According to the Angry GM, Hitting the Rest Button, it appears

the designers made Short Rests require one hour so that the players wouldn’t feel free to take one after every combat and to allow the GM to use things like random encounters and interruptions to prevent abusing Short Rests. And I can say all of this is in aid of the idea that an adventuring day should consist of – ON AVERAGE – two encounters, Short Rest, two encounters, Short Rest, two encounters, Long Rest. But I’ll also say I’m not actually convinced that a Short Rest after every encounter would break the game.

Resource management depends heavily on your DM's style and expectations. It's worth asking your DM how many encounters they expect you to handle between rests, at least on average.

If your DM is using standard resting rules, and your party is willing to take rests on your schedule, and your DM isn't fond of interrupting rests with wandering monsters, then I would recommend using your resources liberally, especially those you regain after a short rest, to overcome challenges, and only consider resource management for the encounter at hand, whether it be role play, exploration or combat.

If your DM is not expecting you to take a short rest between every encounter, you still need to consider overcoming the encounter at hand, but should otherwise consider saving some for the next encounter. Again, being limited to cantrips and aiding other players after expending all your resources is preferable to having resources in reserve and not overcoming an encounter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While 'gaming the DM' is sometimes scorned as metagaming, I think your advice on that score is spot on. Nice and have a +1. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 1 at 19:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: Is it gaming the DM, or is it the characters adapting to their experience of the world around them? Long-time adventurers rely on their experience -- moderated by pessimism/optimism -- and first-time adventurers would rely on anecdotes, stories, advices, etc... \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Sep 2 at 9:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, a short-rest after every encounter probably won't break the game. But, there's the caveat that, if you have a Warlock in the party, it's going to make them severely more powerful than anyone else in the party. \$\endgroup\$ – Theo Brinkman Sep 6 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheoBrinkman - Yes, Warlocks, Monks, Fighters and Moon Druids, as well as Rangers, Paladins, Wizards and Land Druids to some extent. Really, clerics, barbarians and sorcerers would probably gain the least, if any besides healing dice. But that was just Angry's claim, though I find it noteworthy. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Sep 8 at 2:43
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If the dungeon master is responsible for your success and adjusts on the fly

If you are playing so that the DM balances encounters on the fly, fudges, adjusts hit points or number of encountered enemies, makes sure that you survive unless you do something very stupid, etc., then it does not really matter; do whatever you find amusing. Maybe have one spell slot in reserve in case there is a nasty surprise.

Also pay special attention if the game master is feeling frustrated over how much or how little some use their magic. They might try to intervene by allowing fewer or more rests in the future.

If there is a pre-determined chains of encounters

The only option is to learn to read the source; how often are there opportunities for short rests? Note that the encounters might come from a published adventure or from the game master, and if the source changes, so might the frequency of rests.

If you have strategic freedom to act

If you get to make choices about how hard to press and how many encounters to have and how often to rest, the game becomes deeper and more interesting. Typically what you have is a balancing act: if you rest and proceed with caution, it causes random encounters or some other consequences, or maybe you just progress slower and game is less interesting due to that.

  • If you are in a circumstance where resting is difficult or undesirable, conserve your power, but do use it if you believe it will allow others to retain more valuable resources. You will typically want to make this call at the beginning of an encounter, or as early as possible in any case.
  • If resting is easily accomplished, fire away.
  • If you have a spell that is a useful emergency escape, you might want to keep one slot for that in case your rest is interrupted or you just get one random encounter too much, or misjudge how dangerous an enemy is.
  • But in general this is something you learn by experience.
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Warlocks should mostly use spell slots for non-instant spells, especially Hex, not one-time damage.

(As a general rule; everything is situational and there are always exceptions. Depending on your build, there might be more exceptions than I'm picturing. This answer describes my understanding of how warlocks are typically built around boosting the per-hit damage of Eldritch Blast to get lots of damage from one spell slot, or leave them free for utility. Or for Hexblades, boosting just your melee and ignoring cantrips is an option if you want to save your invocations for other things but still use a spell slot on Hex.)

Of course, this problem isn't limited to Warlock

But at levels 5 and above, especially 5 through 9, it becomes almost fundamentally different for Warlock's pact magic vs. normal "spellcasting" classes. They get more and more spell slots per day at higher levels, and can afford to use a few single-target damage spells per combat, like Guiding Bolt, especially if your DM doesn't throw a lot of combats at you per adventuring day.

Warlocks at higher levels (11 and higher) get more pact-magic spell slots, and some 1/rest casts of higher level spells from their mystic arcanum. Managing these is I assume somewhat like managing your high-level slots as other caster classes, but I haven't seen a high-level warlock played or thought much about it.

Your description of how you want to spend your spell slots makes me think that you're mostly looking to use them for instant-damage spells like Shatter. This is often not what you want to do unless there are a huge number of enemies you can hit with one AoE, except maybe at higher level with Fireball or Cone of Cold (depending on warlock subclass).

Warlocks are balanced around casting Eldritch Blast every round (or taking the Attack action as Hexblade / pact of the blade). They can layer enough buffs on EB to make it competitive with the sustained damage output of melee classes: 1d10 + Cha + 1d6 (hex) per beam. Unlike other cantrips that only scale the damage of their single hit at 5th, 11th, and 17th character level, higher level Eldritch Blast gives you more beams so effects that activate per attack (like hex and adding your Cha modifier) scale with level.

Compare to a Barbarian for example: at low to mid levels they're mostly just doing 1 attack per turn (or 2 at 5th level with Extra Attack), for greatsword 2d6+Str + 2(rage) damage, and have to be in melee to do it. Or less damage if they use a 1h + shield for higher AC (like you can if you're a hexblade). Some barbarian subclasses get extra damage or more attacks, of course.

Your Eldritch Blast damage normally(?) includes Hex, which costs 1 of your 2 spell slots, but lasts 1 hour if you can maintain concentration. (Or 8 hours with a 3rd or 4th level spell slot, so you can still easily have a Hex already active and 2 spell slots after a short rest once you hit 5th level.) At lower levels Hex can easily end if you're traveling or doing something other than resting for 1 hour between fights, but unless the fight looks like a pushover, or you have something else tactical / situational to do with your spell slots, Hex is a very strong use of 1 spell slot + your bonus action this turn and maybe future turns to move it to new targets. Put it on the target you want the party to burn down first, not the biggest threat.

Unlike other caster classes, you should still do respectable damage without spell slots (especially if you have Hex up, and/or Hexblade's Curse if you're a hexblade subclass, also adding your proficiency bonus to each hit. Normally save that for the main enemy of a fight, or don't use it at all if there is no one main enemy (yet / at all), especially if you expect there will be another harder fight before the next rest. Of course there are situational uses...)

As a warlock you still only get 2 spell slots until lvl 11. They increase in level up to 5th, keeping pace with the top spell slots of other caster classes.

Using a spell slot on something potentially game-changing like Hold Person is often worth it, saving the rest of the party a lot of damage and resources if it lands. Or Armor of Agathys to reflect damage to people that hit you is nice, and amazing if there are multiple small hits. Also nice if you're low on HP; gaining temp HP is as good as a heal in many cases.

You also have limited spells-known. Spending a lot of those on instant-damage spells limits your utility to the party for anything else, and puts more pressure on you to min-max how you use your spell slots for damage if that's most of what you can do with them. Fireball is very good damage return per spell slot investment. Shatter like other 2nd-level budget fireball alternatives is a lot more questionable due to the much lower damage output (3d8 vs. 8d6) and much smaller area, but perhaps still worth it at low level if nobody else in the party has good AoE damage capability but you still fight clumps of many weak enemies. You can swap it out as you level up. Shatter does have tactical uses for destroying stuff like balconies or platforms an enemy is standing on.


Buffing Eldritch Blast

It's basically essential for every combat warlock to have some way of doing good damage without a spell slot.

One of the few ways to do this that doesn't involve Eldritch Blast is Pact of the Blade so you can take the Thirsting Blade eldritch invocation at 5th level (attack twice with the Attack action, like Extra Attack for martial classes.) Plus other stuff to let you use Cha instead of Str or Dex, if you don't want to boost those stats or multi-class with something like paladin.

But otherwise your class is really built around Eldritch Blast. It does Force damage, the least-resisted damage type, so you can use it against basically everything. You only get a few cantrip slots so you probably want utility cantrips, rather than any other damage cantrips. A saving-throw cantrip like Toll the Dead is tempting for high-AC targets, but won't scale as well as EB at lvl5 and higher, and you can't add your Cha to the damage. And it's not an Attack so it can't trigger Hex. AoE or multi-target cantrips are situational and hard to use. burning down one target fast means it can't hurt anyone on its next turn, and if you have multiple weak targets you can attack in sequence with multiple beams of Eldritch blast.

The key features for Eldritch Blast:

(eldritch invocation): Agonizing Blast. Prerequisite: Eldritch Blast cantrip
When you cast Eldritch Blast, add your Charisma modifier to the damage it deals on a hit.

There are several other invocations that buff Eldritch Blast: letting it push or pull 10 ft (once / turn), giving it 300ft range, making it reduce the target's movement speed.

(spell) Hex
1st-level enchantment
Casting Time: 1 bonus action
You place a curse on a creature that you can see within range. Until the spell ends, you deal an extra 1d6 necrotic damage to the target whenever you hit it with an attack. [...]

The eldritch invocation Agonizing Blast is also essentially mandatory for good sustained warlock damage output, unless you're a melee warlock and you only want a cantrip as a fallback while closing to melee range. The flexibility to shoot from range is really powerful, though, even if you do slightly more damage in melee (e.g. with a 2h weapon, or a 1d8+1 magic weapon.)


TL:DR:

Doing solid Eldritch Blast damage means you're always a threat even without your spell slots. And it means you can save them for tactical usage, like Thunder Step to rescue an ally from the front line, or for control. Or just for Hex for more damage.

If you feel like you need your spell slots to do useful damage, make sure you're doing 1d10 + Cha damage with your Eldritch Blasts even without Hex. That will take a big jump at 5th level when you get 2 beams per cast.

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This is probably a better, and broader question than you realized when you asked it.

The short version of the answer is "experience". But, as you're probably about to point out, that's not terribly helpful until you already have the experience.

Fortunately, in 5e, spellcasters are significantly less bound by their spell slots than they were in the 3.x editions, where damage cantrips would be so underwhelming that it was standard practice for a wizard to haul a crossbow around until about 5th level (and frequently longer).

All spellcasters at low levels have to worry about expending their limited spell slots so they can maintain their effectiveness, both in and out of combat, throughout an adventuring day, but Warlocks stay that way a lot longer than the other casters, since they have so few spell slots to work with, even at higher levels.

RESTING

The two main factors you'll absolutely need to get a feel for as a caster in an extended campaign are:

  1. How often do you get to take a short rest?
  2. How often do you get to take a long rest?

Both of these are measured in encounters. For most casters, the second question is far more important, but for the warlock, you'll need the answer to the first.

ENCOUNTER STYLE

Of secondary concern, but more important from a character's perspective are:

  1. How often do reinforcements arrive mid-fight?
  2. How often are you fighting tougher stuff right after an earlier fight, without a chance to rest?
  3. Do you frequently find yourself facing encounters at 'unplanned' intervals?

If you frequently find yourself taking care of a bunch of minions, only to find yourself fighting their (much tougher) boss, or a fresh batch of their elite friends, you'll need to hold back a bit, and keep your bigger, but more limited, resources available.

If you frequently find yourself fighting a big-bad as the first thing after a rest, or without ablative layer of minions first, you'll find yourself more able to unleash without worry.

If you find yourself, as a warlock, in a position where you very seldom take short rests between long rests? You're pretty much always going to be short on spell slots, and you might want to talk with your GM about pacing.

If you frequently run into random encounters, you might be considered well-prepared to ensure you're never traveling or camping without at least some leveled spell slots in reserve. (This is less of an issue for Warlocks, who will almost always be able to short rest during travel, and will have their spell slots replenished very early in the process of camping for the night.) In fact, many healing casters find themselves trying to keep a slot or two available for last-minute heals.

Note: If you're playing as any other caster class, and you find yourself going through dozens of encounters between long rests (regardless of short rest frequency), you might want to have the same conversation with your GM, but that's usually less of a concern because everyone has severe limitations based on too-seldom long rests.

If that sounds like metagaming? It might be. Or it might just be your brand new adventurer learning how the world around them works once they're out of their 'safe' bubble of their previously mundane life.

PERSONAL STYLE

Of course, regardless of anything else I've written above, you might simply decide that the character's personal style is a bigger influence on how/when they use their limited resources.

Are they brash & flashy? They might go all out in every fight, and then find themselves working with limited resources later on, until they have a chance to recover.

Are they reserved & cautious? They might wait until the situation is practically screaming for them to step it up a notch, and frequently end their 'day' with those resources unspent, just in case.

Want to frequently feel like a hero? Save your big stuff for late in a fight to mop up, and feel like a bad-ass as you let loose on the enemies your companions have been battling, and cut them down like a hot knife through butter.

NOTE!!! If your GM is using one of those stupid, 'old-school' house rules like divvying up XP to the character who actually gets the kill? DO NOT DO THIS. You will only attract the annoyance that should be directed at the GM in question.

Regardless, as you gain experience playing under a specific GM, or playing in Adventure League games where the rests are generally written into the modules, you'll find yourself with a better feel for how often you should be using your spell slots, and how often you should be making sure you have something big left in reserve.

But, like I said, above. That's experience for you.

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