Skulla Part Three: Playing with Power

Count Skulla began Nightmare Act II at clvl 45 with the following:

Base Stats
Strength 34
Dexterity 25
Vitality 121
Energy 125

Raise Skeleton @3+2
Raise Mage @8+2
Mastery @15+4
Summon Resist @2+2
Clay Golem, Blood Golem, Iron Golem, Fire Golem, Golem Mastery @1+2

Iron Maiden @4+2
Dim Vision @4+2
Lower Resist @2+2
Decrepify @1+2
Amplify Damage, Weaken, Terror, Life Tap, Confuse @1+2

Necromancer's Bone Wand: +2 necro skills
Rare Studded Leather: +15 life, 28% fire resist, 19% cold resist, 8% lightning resist, -2 MD
Preserved Head of the Jackal: +2 Mastery, +1 life
Scintillating Circlet of the Colossus: +56 life, 12% resist all
Coral Heavy Gloves of Thawing: 29% lightning resist, half freeze duration
Ruby Chain Boots of Speed: 30% faster run, 34% fire resist
Rare Belt: 24% faster hit recovery, +15 AR, +14 life
Rare Ring: +48 AR, +1 max damage, +5 energy, 13% lightning resist, 15% poison resist
Coral Ring of Greed: 25% lightning resist, 25% extra gold
Scintillating Amulet of Regrowth: 12% resist all, +8 life regen

Javelin of Vileness: Prevent Monster Heal
Three Socket Large Shield (2 Perfect Diamonds)
"Stealth" Studded Leather: 25% faster run, 25% faster cast, 25% faster hit recovery, +6 dexterity, 15% faster mana regen, 30% poison resist, -3 MD
Sander's Riprap (Set Boots): 40% faster run, +100 AR, +5 strength, +10 dexterity
Duskdeep unique helm: +8 max damage, 35% enhanced defense, 15% resist all, -7 dam
Venom Grip unique demonhide gloves: +60 poison damage, 5% life steal, 5% crushing blow, 138% enhanced defense, 30% poison resist, +5% max poison resist
Assorted rings and amulets with resists

The very first thing that Skulla did upon entering Act II was check all the merchants in town, as always. To my delight and surprise, Drognan was selling a Necromancer's wand: +2 to all skills! That was easily preferable to Skulla's old wand, and I happily made the switch. Another level of Mastery, another point towards more skeleton warriors and mages, and another level for every single curse. There are no character builds for whom +skills items mean more than the summoning necro. Since this was the very first item Skulla picked up, I included the additional skill points in the totals listed above.

Unlike in Normal, there was no need to push on to the Halls of the Dead for a Horadric Cube, so it was down into the Sewers as usual. Here's a quick demonstration of the two most common battles that Skulla tends to face in his travels:

Against hard-hitting melee foes like these Marauders, Iron Maiden was the curse of choice. This boss of course was CEB/Conviction aura, falling in the average range in terms of danger. For these fights, Skulla's modus operandi was to establish a clear front line and then keep refreshing Golly and/or raising skeleton warriors as needed. So long as the front line remained intact, Skulla ran little chance of even taking a hit, much less getting killed. This was pretty close to ideal here, with the enemies forced through a narrow passage which could be easily blocked by a few minions.

Now for the other common battle type, against ranged foes:

Dim Vision is always the curse of choice against skeleton archers. This fight actually took place just around the corner from the previous picture, although fortunately the two bosses were fought one at a time. And against pure ranged foes, just as against pure melee foes, the fighting is pretty easy (as seen here). The problem comes when you get a mixture of both types, or multiple threats arriving from different sides, or several bosses at once - or all of the above at once! It's not quite as simple as casting DV and then sitting back and waiting for them all to die.

Sewers 1 was mostly burning dead archers, requiring lots of DV use. At the very end of the level, Skulla turned up an uber piece of gear:

Summoner's gargoyle head: another +1 to all necro skills! That meant giving up one level of Mastery (from his previous preserved head), but it was MORE than worth it. For the loss of a single level of Mastery, Skulla gained an extra point in every summoning skill and stronger curses too! Golly now slvl 4, with slvl 4 Golem Mastery - over 1100 life! Wow. Sure beats the Clay Golem with 180 life he had here in Normal. Dim Vision now slvl 4+3, with a substantially increased duration and area of effect. Gaining an additional two points in all skills right at the start of the act just made a huge difference across the board. Now Skulla was playing with power!

As such, Sewers 2 was incredibly easy. There were no bosses, and Skulla's army was stronger than ever, frankly mopping the floor with his opponents. On Sewers 3 Skulla found Radament's lair right away, luring out most of the enemies and raising them as warriors with no problems. I then went and cleared the rest of the level (to let the game clean up any bodies I might have missed), before returning to finish the quest. Radament was pathetic, just standing around waiting to be killed by the mages. I snapped his picture, but deemed it unworthy of inclusion in the report (his bonus trait was Extra Strong). Skulla leveled up on the fight (to 46), so it was like getting TWO skill points with the quest reward! I put them both in Raise Mage, now at 10+3.

Skulla's Raise Skeletal Warrior level was now up to 3+3. Since the game award additional skeletons at slvl 6, 9, and 12, Skulla now had enough skill points to control a fourth warrior and a sixth mage! It was nice to see the army growing larger, even if the additional warrior didn't achieve too much. Outside the gates of Lut Gholein, the Rocky Waste had a spear cat champ pack and two bosses right at the start. The worse of the two was Extra Fast/Extra Strong, the other one Extra Fast/FEB. This was a difficult fight at times, but Skulla thrilled to the extra power of have more skeletons at his command, and got it done OK. There were only two monster types in this area, vultures and spear cats. They were pathetically easy, and Skulla chewed up this area in no time. It didn't hurt that all of the boss/champ encounter groups had been right at the start.

Stony Tomb had lots and lots of LEBs, three different ones just on the first floor. I wondered if this was luck or the game getting buggy again? Could be either one just as easily. Skulla's extra mage firepower came in handy against these foes, since the warriors were hopeless and would always die right away. Creepy drew the useless Teleportation ability; I kept him busy with Golly while the rest of the foes in the boss room were DVed and shot down by the mages. The picture above demonstrates this in action; even though IM is the ideal curse against the beetles, the only safe way to handle these mixed mobs is constant use of DV. Minimal danger from a crowded room.

The Dry Hills featured the more dangerous potion-tossing cats, leapers, and more vultures. A CEB/Cursed potion cat greeted Skulla's army at the entrance. More dangerous was a mixed Extra Strong/Magic Resistant leaper with a Stone Skin/Teleportation cat:

These two were fought together, the boss packs literally intertwined as one. Skulla had to curse everything with DV, and cast Golly up in the face of the cat boss. The leapers are tough to control, with their erratic movements, fortunately not hitting all that hard here in Normal. The non-bosses by now were a total joke, unable most of the time even to kill warriors. The boss and champ packs are when things get interesting.

There was a Cursed/Multishot Hollow One boss in the opening room of Halls of the Dead (pictured above). Skulla was mighty glad he could keep his distance and just keep raising more warriors from his minions as they hit the floor. I wasn't able to take this shot until most of the danger was over, the original mob being about three times what you see. The other bosses on the first floor were uneventful, and there was nothing worth mentioning on Halls 2 either. Skulla never saw Bloodwitch's third ability on Halls 3; he was staying well away from the giant mob and kept casting IM/Golly through an extremely busy doorway. Sander's Taboo (set gloves) dropped on the bottom floor, marginally useful for the +40 life on them - Skulla decided to hold on to them for use against Duriel, if nowhere else.

I kept checking Drognan on each visit to town, hoping to get a wand with Necromancer prefix plus other goodies. There had been a couple on sale, nothing good enough to purchase though. On this trip to town, however, Skulla found Drognan selling a Necromancer's Wand of Enlightenment: +2 skill levels, +29 energy. Wow! That was another 60 mana! Talk about a keeper item. I would keep checking for something else, hoping to get such a wand with the same affixes plus points in Mastery or Raise Mage, but Skulla could legitimately live with this wand for the rest of the game.

The Far Oasis featured crows, itchies, and maggots. What a tough draw - not! Hard to find a more feeble monster mix for the game to throw out. Even Beetleburst was laughable: Magic Resistant/Stone Skin. Yawn.

In contrast, the Lost City gave Skulla a bear of a fight for the second time. Dark Elder was right by the entrance (again!), along with a Cursed second zombie pack and plenty of rancid gas tossing cats. Very difficult fight, with Skulla's army getting smashed again and again, and Skulla himself even taking a few hits. The Lost City is actually a really tough area for the necro; those cats are difficult to see in the darkness, and hard to target with DV through the buildings. Their poison kills lots and lots of skeletons, unfortunately. This was the hardest area Skulla had faced in quite some time.

The Ancient Tunnels featured more zombies, mummies, and horror mages. This is generally one of the easier side areas in the game, since it never serves up a stairs trap and doesn't have any unravelers inside. Most of the boss packs here were zombies, fortunately; there was a fun battle against an Extra Fast/Cursed zombie which featured brutal decimation by both front lines! Skulla kept raising more warriors and refreshing IM to keep pace with the horrendous casualties.

Claw Viper Temple was mostly snakes, with a few mummies thrown in. Surprisingly no bosses on the first floor, just a single champ pack of vipers. This was pretty easy. On Viper 2, Skulla committed to the north side of the chamber, which was surprisingly empty. At the back end, Fangy and crew roared out - extra ability Cursed, oh no!

That's a terrible draw for the fight, only thing worse would probably be Fanaticism aura. Skulla kept spamming DV to keep as many minions frozen as possible, and kept casting Golly right in Fangy's face. I circled Golly in purple, since it's a little hard to see with all the curse graphics going off. It was a very tense twenty seconds, but Fangy never broke free. From there, it was a easy to clean up the remaining vipers and hollow ones + skeletons. Whew! That could have been really bad. Skulla's nice and safe back there so long as the front lines hold... but if the warriors are all smashed before I can raise more golems... let's just say that a lot of fights where Skulla never takes a point of damage are very nerve-wracking indeed!

Finished the Black Sun quest (the single most useless one in the whole game), on to the Palace cellars. This area was loaded with skeleton archers and mages end to end. DV all the way. (I can't even imagine how Sirian played through here in Nightmare without using DV. Oh wait, he didn't - Skeletorr skipped this area and came back later!) A Might aura/CEB archer boss on Palace 1 was pretty dangerous. Palace 2 was all poison mages, including a Cursed/Extra Fast boss. In contrast, Palace 3 featured a Might/Extra Strong blunderbore in the same room as a Magic Resistant/LEB archer boss. Yikes!

Oh dear Lord, just LOOK at the pounding that the front lines are taking! Two seconds after the initial engagement, all the warriors are dead and Golly is on his last legs. (Don't forget, this is the new beefy Golly with more than 1000 life!) The archer boss is just around the corner to the left, where you can see broken skeleton bones on the ground. Skulla retreated back around the corner to his position above, writing off all his warriors, and used Golly + IM to do in the first boss. Then DV and LR with aggressive golem placement managed to get the kill on the second archer mob. Perfectly executed tactically, if I do say so. Fire Eye's third ability was Cursed, yeouch! Been seeing that extra ability too much for Skulla's liking. He was downed very carefully with IM.

Sureshrill Frost, the unique flanged mace, dropped on Palace 3. Another very nice, very USELESS UNIQUE!

The Arcane Sanctuary saw Skulla's minions frequently getting trapped on the narrow walkways, forcing town portal usage to gather them together. Kind of a pain at times. Skulla would often make use of the Sanctuary architecture to get kills, casting Golly across open space and then refreshing IM on the goats until they all beat themselves to death. Dim Vision was the answer to vampires, and also saw extensive use. The spectres were most vulnerable to Lower Resist, so Skulla was juggling a lot of different curses as the situation demanded. The Summoner was pretty much a joke, even with low cold resist (20%). He was humiliated by Skulla's mages and I deemed his screenshot unfitting of inclusion in this report.

Skulla hit level 50 near the end of the Sanctuary; by this point he had pretty much maxed out on all the mana he would needs (400+) and could focus future stat points on Vitality. Skulla's not a fast-cast sorcie or druid, and his mana costs will not be increasing much with more skill points added into his curses/minions. And while you can have too much mana, you can never have too much life, especially in Hardcore! Skulla had been investing his skill points into Mastery for much of this act; upon reaching slvl 18+3, I decided to hold off on the last two points for now and add the remaining skill points in this act to Iron Maiden. The Duriel fight was lurking in the back of my mind, and that's not something to mess around with.

There was a double crusher boss to open the Canyon: Spectral Hit/CEB and Mana Burn/Magic Resistant. The line managed to hold, if just barely - Skulla was down to one warrior before more bodies dropped and they were replenished. Shortly thereafter, Skulla faced an Extra Fast/LEB crusher (pic above), then an Extra Fast/Multishot spearcat boss. These were both tough fights, with many casualties on both sides. All four bosses were in the first 10% of the area, after that it was entirely uneventful. This seems to happen more often than not, so I wonder if it's merely the result of randomness, or if the bosses sometimes get "clumped" together by the map generator. Nothing would really surprise me in this game, which has some pretty incredibly holes in its programming.

On to the False Tombs, and endless waves of burning dead. Although Skulla can manage these fights by raising the enemy skeletons as his own minions, he still prefers to avoid the unravelers as much as possible. They increased the workload in each area by an order of magnitude. I hoped not to draw a lot of unravelers, but expected to get plenty. I was right.

The first False Tomb had a crazy entrance room: first a Spectral Hit/LEB unraveler boss, fought at the same time as a FEB/Stone Skin vampire boss, immediately followed by a second unraveler boss mixed with unraveler champs. Talk about tough fighting. Skulla had to raise every single corpse that hit the ground to make any progress, and that didn't leave any excess bodies for use against tough bosses. There was another brutal fight at the chest in Tomb 1, with about a dozen unravelers and their attending burning dead all in the same room. Crazy. Tomb 2 had another open entrance, with an attendant large mob - thankfully no bosses this time though. Tomb 2 further had three different Stone Skin beetle bosses at various points, plus unraveler champs. There was unbelievable carnage at one doorway:

There were close to a dozen unravelers in this room, which contained the treasure chest, and easily 30-40 burning dead. Skulla could not raise the bodies fast enough, consuming three straight mana potions doing nothing but refreshing IM, recasting Golly, and raising more and more warriors from the bodies that dropped. After the enemy skeletons were all dead, Skulla could move into the room and start going after the unravelers:

Unlike the IM used against the warriors, against the unravelers the desirable curse was DV. Skulla had five different unravelers and a vampire blinded here, while only the boss remained loose. Note also the heaping pile of gore off to the right side, the remains from the fight at the doorway. With a whole lot of practice, Skulla became very good at handling these engagements. Establish a front line, IM until all the warriors are dead, then DV everywhere and let the mages shoot down the unravelers. This made for slow progress at times, but was the safest way to do things.

Tomb 3 had Cursed/CEB and Cursed/LEB gorebelly bosses in the treasure room, and also two different groups of vampire champs. Plenty more burning dead/unraveler duos as well. Tomb 4 had no unravelers (just beetles, apparitions, and mummies) and was thus vastly easier, despite some huge mobs at times and four bosses + two champ packs. Tomb 5 was Kaa's Tomb, however, and was predictably full end to end with burning dead/unravelers. Here he is, the most dangerous enemy in Act II outside Duriel:

Surprisingly, the Kaa fight was easier than a random double boss pack, against an Extra Strong/CEB unraveler mixed with a Cursed/something vampire boss. Skulla was down to two mages at one point, but managed to rebuild using IM once the vampire boss was down. There were so many bosses in this area (about eight, I'd guess) that Skulla gained 3/4 of a level just in Kaa's Tomb alone! Tomb 6 had a ghoul lord champ pack and ghoul lord boss (Conviction/Spectral Hit) in the same narrow corridor together, which was tough due to the impotence of DV. There was then another double vampire boss pack, FEB/Mana Burn and Conviction/Spectral Hit. Pretty rough going here; any ranged attacker that can't be Dimmed raises the threat level considerably. It's even worse when facing two of them, since Golly can only cover one foe at a time.

The Maggot Lair is a horrifying experience for a summoning necro. The less said about this area, the better. (Skulla had to do this area now because he was still missing the Horadric Staff. I didn't want to have to hold it in stash any longer than necessary!) Coldworm was Extra Strong on the third ability, pretty useless since she doesn't actually attack you. Skulla did turn up Ichorsting, the unique crossbow down there - yet another useless unique!

The True Tomb was long and fairly uneventful, actually. Burning dead/unravelers, vampires, and apparitions. There were a couple bosses, but not nearly as many as in Kaa's tomb. Not sure why that was, dumb luck I guess. In preparation for the Duriel fight, I loaded up Skulla with the max amount of life on his gear and hired a sacrificial rube, err mercenary, to take the first hit:

Almost 650 life in total there. Skulla was some 30 levels higher than he had been in Normal for the Duriel fight, with vastly more powerful curses, a larger army, and a golem with something like 5x the life of his old Clay Golem. Skulla was as prepared as he could be for this fight, so let's do this thing.

Duriel was an exercise in refreshing IM as needed and spamming the Golems as fast as he could eat them. He killed the merc first (although poor Ahsab did manage to take about three hits, making him worth the 10k gold I spent), then started consuming the warriors one at a time. Duriel was down to about half life by the time all the warriors were dead, and then I really had to get aggressive with recastings of Golly. Since Fire Golly could take about 3 hits before perishing, this wasn't all that difficult. Skulla drank all three blues on belt, and then resorted to more blues in his inventory, but that was all part of the plen. Duriel never managed to break free:

All six mages survived, see? While IM did most of the damage, they made a valuable contribution to the fight as well. Duriel never did hit Skulla, all of the damage he took coming from the Holy Freeze aura. I hope I can manage the fight as well again, should Skulla make it back here in Hell!

Overall, Act II was noticeably easier than Act I had been. I think that was partly due to Skulla's increased power with +skill items... but had more to do with the fact that Act II is just easier overall than Act I. Skulla hopes to keep things rolling in the next act to come.