Lernie: Normal Difficulty

I'm going to try and keep this first part of the report brief since Lernie's real journey wouldn't begin until Nightmare difficulty. (I'm infamously terrible at writing anything short but I'm going to give it my best shot here.) Lernie began in the same fashion as innumerable other Sorceresses, smacking monsters to death with her starting staff in the Blood Moor. There wasn't much to say about the opening stages of Act One which are completely routine for experienced players of Diablo 2. I was mostly saving skill points to ensure that I could unlock everything at each new tier (CLVL 6, CLVL 12, etc.) and even a sorcie with SLVL 1 Fire Bolt didn't have any trouble making it through the early stages of the gameplay. Coldcrow was about the only fight that forced some dodging of arrows, thanks to Lernie having all of 50 HP at the time and basically nothing in terms of equipment. I was following my normal pattern for Sorceress characters and splitting stat points equally between Strength, Vitality, and Energy. I planned to respec those stat points at the start of Nightmare and I needed at least some points into Energy to have enough mana for spellcasting.

I was hoping to find a staff with +3 Firebolt or something similar but without any luck. Act One Normal wasn't difficult enough to spend a few minutes refreshing the shops and instead Lernie made do with whatever she could find. She spent a little while with a staff that had +2 to Ice Blast and the freezing was pretty useful against the masses of carvers that seem to be everywhere around the halfway point of the act. However, I was reminded of the weakness of Ice Blast when each shot only hit a single target despite the graphics looking like the skill had area of effect properties. Eventually Lernie reached CLVL 12 around the start of the monastery and switched over to Fire Ball as her full time spell of choice for the remainder of Normal difficulty. Fire Ball is a fantastic skill and one of my favorites to base a character around. My Elemental Strike Team sorcie FlameThrower was built around the Fire Ball skill with lots of fast cast gear and I wish that I'd taken the time back then to write up the team's trip. Fire Ball was mana-intensive to use as a primary skill at the moment but tore right through everything in the Catacombs. That very much included Andariel who wilted immediately thanks to her well-known weakness to fire element:

The most noteworthy change in Act Two was the introduction of Lernie's desert mercenary companion, Kasim. He was the standard Defensive spearman bringing a Defiance aura but this gameplay was new to me since I've so rarely used the hirelings with my past characters. I ran one gamble for the most expensive armor that could be found with Elzix (Chain Mail, which wasn't available for purchase in the store yet) and that was enough to get Kasim's defensive rating up to something around 300 points, plenty for the moment. Out in the wilderness, I was surprised to find how the desert mercenary AI worked in practice which proved to be nothing like what I expected. I thought that those guys would race off to stab the nearest monsters with their big pikes. Nope! Kasim proved to have a lethargic form of pathfinding that often saw him lagging far behind Lernie unless I took pains to keep them grouped together. Kasim also liked to wander off in random directions and frequently wound up more than a full screen's length away from the sorcie that he was supposed to be protecting. I had always heard that Teleport is needed to control the movement of your mercenaries and that dictum suddenly made more sense than ever before.

Most of Act Two was spent leveling up Fire Ball using whenever skill points were available while saving enough points to unlock each prerequisite as it became available. Teleport activated at CLVL 18 and it was a pleasure to have the skill on hand once again, with no silly casting delays or cooldowns limiting its use as in Diablo 3. Lernie didn't really Teleport that much since I was methodically full clearing each region and it was safer not to blink over walls into unexplored regions. I certainly enjoyed having it in her back pocket for emergencies though. In terms of equipment, I wasn't having much luck finding runes and was forced to continue to make due with whatever random nonsense had turned up along the way. It was bad enough not having a Ral rune yet for the back half of the Leaf runeword, but massing the Tir rune as well this late into the game? Lernie wasn't even able to create her Stealth armor until the very end of the False Tombs when a Tal rune finally appeared. It was slim pickings on the runes, let me tell you. Nothing particularly useful had appeared in terms of uniques either, with the Snakecord unique light belt probably the most interesting. There was no way that Lernie would ever need that much poison resistance though so it was sold for its minimal gold value.

Duriel was the one boss in this act that concerned me, and in fact had me more worried than any of the other act end bosses. The other Prime Evils would all be fought in more open spaces where there was room to shoot fireballs and dodge attacks while the next time around with Duriel would occur once Hydra had unlocked as Lernie's primary skill. There wasn't much that I could do to prepare for this fight other than load up on potions and hope for the best. Lernie and Kasim headed into the orifice chamber and the big bug came roaring out at them. Kasim bought enough time for Lernie to take out about half of Duriel's life bar and then it was a matter of Teleporting away to cast Fire Balls and then repeating the same move again. My reflexes could have been better here but this was Normal difficulty and Lernie survived without any real trouble:

Duriel dropped the Gorefoot unique heavy boots which would have been nice for some Barbarian characters, not so much on her though. It was on to the jungles of Act Three where most of the enemies continued dying in a single casting of Fire Ball. The fetishes and flayers certainly fell in a single explosion and the bramble husks with their lack of fire resistance rarely fared much better. This was quite a bit easier than the False Tombs where beetles and burning dead skeletons had forced some real mousework at times. One opponent who had an excess of fire resistance was Witch Doctor Endugu who rolled as Fire Immune (as he always does), the second opponent to appear as such after Bishibosh in the Cold Plains. Lernie had used her staff to smack Bishibosh to death but this time she relied on Kasim's physical damage and the modest damage contributed by Thunderstorm which had unlocked at CLVL 24. Lernie only had one point in the skill and that meant that the lightning bolts showed up infrequently and didn't deal much damage when they did show up. Thunderstorm was going to need a lot of skill point investment to become useful against the much more dangerous Fire Immune targets eventually coming down the road.

Lernie's equipment luck took a turn for the better around the time that she made it through the jungles and reached the entrance to Kurast. For starters, Ormus gave her maybe the best ring that I've ever received from the Gidbinn quest: 10% faster cast, +1 Energy, +28 mana, 29% fire resist, 19% poison resist, and -2 damage! Everything on there aside from the minimal damage reduction was useful and with the faster cast this was easily a ring that she could wear for the remainder of her days. It was downright unreal for something appearing in Act Three Normal! Then Stormtree's mob dropped a rare poleax which had 57% enhanced damage, a major upgrade for Kasim over the basic polearm that I'd found for him back in Act Two. Finally, somewhere in Kurast Lernie kicked over an urn and belatedly discovered a Ral rune which allowed her to make a very late Leaf runeword. I'd been worried that she'd have to go all the way to the guaranteed Ral drop in Act Five before she could finally find one of the blasted things.

I had been saving a two socket staff with +1 Fire Ball for the Leaf runeword which was the best that I'd managed to find without refreshing the shops a gazillion times looking for the perfect base item. Lernie had previously been using a staff with +3 Fire Ball and therefore switching over to Leaf didn't have that much of a noticeable effect on her damage output. The real increase would come at CLVL 30 when she instantly jumped up to SLVL 4 Fire Mastery for a huge buff to all fire element damage. Readers might think that Leaf adding 6 additional skill points to Warmth (going from SLVL 1 to SLVL 7) would make a big difference but nope, not really. I have to echo T-Hawk's writings here on his website when he's talked about Warmth: the increased mana regen rate doesn't seem to make that much of a difference. You still need to drink mana potions in any big fight and what happens in between fights doesn't do anything to improve survivability. I think that the one base skill point in Warmth is plenty with help from +skills gear and points are better spent elsewhere. That's especially true with the synergies since they only offer benefits from base skill points invested, not +skills gear. (It was different in non-expansion Diablo when mana potions weren't sold in stores but that was, uh, 20 years ago at this point!)

Anyway, the ending parts of Act Three represented the only truly challenging part of the act. Sharp eyes may notice that Lernie was making use of the Energy Shield skill, which I hadn't thought about ahead of time but then realized that there was no reason not to use it since Lernie had already skilled all of its prerequisites. Energy Shield added a small amount of extra safety by converting some damage taken into lost mana instead of lost HP. The skill is also finally back to being useful again now that Patch 2.4 has fixed the Mana Burn bug that plagued the game for the previous decade. (Mana Burn enemies were unintentionally draining all mana when they hit players due to a bug that exponentially increased the amount of mana lost; it lasted so long that most people assumed it was an intended part of the gameplay.) Energy Shield certainly helped out against the Council, who had to be pulled out of the Durance entrance since there were too many enemy Hydras to fight them in a group on the stairs. This was where Kasim suffered one of his first deaths with many more to come. Down at the bottom of the Durance, he gave a good effort against Mephisto and lasted for most of the fight before dropping with about a quarter of the demon's life remaining. I took care to clear out both of the two side wings ahead of time and Durance 3 went very smoothly with no serious danger. The mercenary resurrection bill was an expected part of the act's completion.

I'm afraid that I don't have any pictures from Act Four due to Lernie being played on three different computers during this period while my main gaming laptop was in the repair shop. I hit the PrintScreen key a bunch of times while playing but I guess they didn't save for whatever reason. Lernie found Act Four to be significantly harder than what she had encountered thus far. The monster types were inherently more dangerous and everything was packing lots of fire resistance to reduce the damage from her Fire Ball spells. Abyss Knights would take 2-3 fireballs apiece, Venom Lords would usually require 3 casts and sometimes 4 spells, that sort of thing. This drained a lot of mana and sent Lernie racing back to the Pandemonium Fortress frequently for more blue potions. I had capped Lernie at 70 Energy which gave her about 200 total mana, enough to be playable while saving the remaining stat points for Vitality after stopping at 40 Strength. At least Act Four is the shortest act in the game given all of that fire resistance.

Lernie was never in any particular danger of getting killed since this remained Normal difficulty, each area simply took longer to complete thanks to the extra health and fire resistance on her opponents. Izual and Hephasto were non-events, both of them dying quickly and without any danger. (Her horrible rune luck continued as the Hellforge dropped an Eth rune - seriously?!) The first two seal bosses in the Chaos Sanctuary were similarly easy right up until the Infector's mob ran over Kasim and Lernie had to beat a retreat backwards while kiting them with fireballs. This is an opponent that theoretically should be easier with Hydra available as a skill; in a worst case scenario, the Infector and crew could be brought back to the River of Flame and shot down in safety across the lava. I knew that Kasim wouldn't last long against Diablo and then it was down to Lernie and her Fire Ball skill against Big D. The fight went a bit better than I expected with Diablo mostly staying at range and trying to shoot his flame nova and Lightning Breath of Doom from a distance. Lernie had maxed lightning resistance along with 70% fire resistance, and that combination along with Teleport was plenty to handle this opponent. She went back to town once for more potions and otherwise had no issues.

All of that fire resistance in Act Four had been enough to keep me on my toes with Lernie. By contrast, Act Five was largely a joke right from the start with the challenge level falling precipitously in the outdoor areas. The monsters in the Bloody Foothills and Frigid Highlands had little in the way of fire resistance and their base monster types were non-dangerous stuff like imps and enslaved. These were far easier to defeat than venom lords and oblivion knights, bringing Lernie back to "one shot, one kill" territory again with Fire Ball. Lernie hit CLVL 30 early in Act Five and finally could drop skill points into the Hydra, Fire Mastery, and Lightning Mastery skills. You might think that this was time to switch over to using Hydra as the primary skill but I had planned all along to wait until the beginning of Nightmare for that. SLVL 4 Hydra couldn't really compare with SLVL 20 Fire Ball in terms of damage output and even reskilling Lernie wouldn't fix that. There could only be one base skill point dropped into Hydra at CLVL 30 which meant that Lernie needed to continue increasing her character level further. I figured that the rest of Normal difficulty would add another five or six levels and then I could do the big respec into Hydra at the start of a fresh difficulty.

Thus the biggest change that took place at CLVL 30 was gaining access to Fire Mastery for the first time. It went to SLVL 4 right away thanks to Lernie's Leaf staff which translated into 51% additional damage for all fire-based skills (and then going up by an additional 7% for each skill point added thereafter). As mentioned above, Fire Ball was sitting around SLVL 16+4 and dealing about 200 points of base damage which was enhanced by Fire Mastery and a couple of synergy skill points left over from Fire Bolt in early Normal difficulty. The damage of the skill just exploded (pun intended) here at the tail end of Act Five and pretty much everything was dying instantly when hit. It was enormously fun to one-shot even tanky monsters like the minotaurs in a single cast. I took a picture of Fire Ball's damage when Lernie hit a skill shrine which I'll paste into the next image below:

628-705 damage in Normal difficulty, on a skill that had area of effect properties and no casting delay whatosever? Yeah, that would do the trick pretty nicely. By way of comparison, Catapults have about 500 HP in Normal difficulty, minotaurs have somewhere in the 500-600 HP range, and imps have a mere 100 HP! Very few opponents had any fire resistance at all and Lernie simply tore through these areas without breaking a sweat. Act Five kind of sucks without the guest monsters from the earlier areas and they don't show up until Nightmare difficulty, making this a boring set of regions to pass through. Lernie rescued Anya, tracked down Nihlathak (playing through his temple in a choppy framerate slideshow before I realized that my repaired lapstop hadn't had its graphics drivers reinstalled - whoops!) and eventually made it to the Ancients. Talic and Korlic actually do have heavy fire resistance at 70% apiece which made them feel much tankier to Lernie. I brought plenty of health and mana potions for this fight and tried to get some practice in feeding potions to Kasim while he stood and tanked against the Ancients. The fast command is Shift + right click to have the mercenary drink the highlighted potion which is something that I'm still getting used to doing. (You can also drag the potion to the little portrait at the top of the interface but that's much slower.) A couple of Super Healing potions were enough to bring Kasim through the whole encounter without dying thanks to his heavy physical defenses.

The mercenary's armor increased substantially afterwards as I went back to town and did a little shopping to find him an Ancient Armor. That item type only unlocks after completing the Ancients quest and a couple of refreshes of Larzuk's inventory turned up a Glorious Ancient Armor with 332 defense rating. That brought Kasim up to 1800-something with his Defiance aura which would be plenty against anything other than major bosses. Immediately thereafter, Lernie found a Shimmering Grand Charm on Worldstone 1 with 13% resist all - wow! I almost never mention charms when writing about characters because they tend to be pretty pedestrian but this was downright amazing. It was practically like getting another perfect Diamond to stick in a shield; now where was this luck when it came to finding runes? Lernie was collecting perfect Diamonds of course for use in a three socket Large shield which would be needed come Nightmare difficulty when she faced the increased -40% resistances penalty. The Worldstone Keep lacked any guest monsters here in Normal difficulty and instead had lots of witches, imps, and the weak enslaved monster type. The minotaurs on Worldstone 3 were the only opponents even remotely dangerous and Kasim tanked them like a champ with his shiny new armor.

The one place that he did not tank like a champ was against the Throne of Destruction bosses. The first few waves of opponents were handled readily enough, with Colenzo in particular dying almost instantly, but Ventar and Lister's mobs both bowled over the poor desert mercenary. With Ventar it was the sheer weight of numbers from having so many venom lords appear and overwhelm Kasim's defensive rating with their melee strikes and Inferno breath. Against Lister, Kasim was on the wrong end of the level differential with him being CLVL 34 against Lister's ridiculous MLVL 58 which allowed the grotesque creatures to punch through his defensive rating. Despite my best efforts to feed Kasim potions, he perished in both of these fights. And while there wasn't much left of Ventar by the time that Kasim bit the dust, Lister forced a retreat backwards to establish more distance for pelting the monsters with fireballs. Ventar and Lister both have 70% fire resistance which was a major reason why they survived long enough for Kasim to take such a pounding.

Kasim didn't have much luck against Baal either thanks to the big damage bonus that act end bosses get against mercenaries. Lernie's companion wasn't smart enough to dodge Baal's frost wave and orange shot and therefore expired almost immediately. Baal isn't really dangerous to an experienced player but he does have an awful lot of health (26k HP on Normal difficulty) which meant that Lernie had to shoot him with fireballs for a little while until he croaked. Baal split off his clone and the easiest solution was killing the darn thing which Lernie achieved in short order. Shoot, shoot, shoot, back to town once to fill up on potions again, then more Fire Ball casts until it was over:

That was Normal difficulty full cleared from start to finish and not particularly difficult overall. Like I said, Fire Ball is an awesome skill and I highly encourage newcomer players to Diablo 2 to give it a try. Max out Fire Ball along with Fire Mastery, pick up Teleport from the Lightning skill tree, and then dump some skill points into Frozen Orb / Cold Mastery for Fire Immunes in Hell difficulty. It's a common build but a ton of fun if you've never played it before, blinking around and blasting monsters with fiery death. Much more fun than using Meteor or Fire Wall with their annoying casting delays if you ask me. In any case, Lernie did take the time to full clear the Secret Cow Level as well though without anything of interest turning up inside. Fire Ball was much better at dealing with the cows than Hydra would have been and it had enough damage to one-shot the walking bovines for a fast clear. (MOO!)

So now with Normal difficulty out of the way, the real game could begin.