Winnie Part Two: Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail

Act III proceeded in much the same way as Act II. Winnie continued to rely on his Dire Wolf trio of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail to do all of the killing, backed by Oak Sage for extra life and Carrion Vine to dispose of the corpses. The only change of note was swapping over to Solar Creeper (which does the same thing as Carrion Vine, only restores mana instead of life) when Winnie hit clvl 24 early in the Act. I found that this provided a noticeable boost in terms of mana consumption, and decided to devote more stat points to Vitality as a result. More life, less need for more mana.

In a word, the jungles were uneventful. So long as the monsters couldn't get through the wolfy front line, Winnie was in no danger, and I don't recall a single situation where the front lines were broken. Nasty opponents like Sszark and Stormtree would kill individual wolves, only to see Winnie summon more of them immediately. Here on Normal, the enemies just didn't hit hard enough to pose a serious threat to Winnie's minions, especially not with Oak Sage buffing their life and more skill points steadily going into Summon Dire Wolf. The fact that Amplisa, the free quest mercenary from Blood Raven, was still alive and going strong should indicate the generally easy time that Winnie was having!

I did all of Act III up to Lower Kurast in one sitting, as is my preference - assuming I can find enough time for it! Remember, I explore every last inch of the jungles, plus clear out all of the optional dungeons that many players skip. Then another lengthy session that full-cleared everything else up to the end of Act III. Winnie came across this amusing scene in the Kurast Bazaar:

The zealots will flee when injured, only I had cast a wolf behind this champ to prevent that from happening. With the building wall cutting off the only other method of escape, the zealot kept jerking back and forth between the three wolves in a bizarre frenzied dance. And then he died, he he. Another little indicator that the AI programming in this game is rather simple.

The Council bosses don't gain any extra abilities in Normal, and were thus pretty standard. The melee attack of the Dire Wolves was enough to take them down without breaking a sweat. I suspect things will be a little more difficult in Nightmare... Durance 3 was practically deserted, I always forget how empty some of these areas are without getting additional monsters thrown in. There were maybe five blood lords down there total. After slaying the second half of the Council, Winnie took on Mephisto:

...who turned out to be a giant wimp! Durial took quite a long time to wear down, thanks to his Unholy Freeze aura, but Mephy was just a chump. He was totally locked up by Flopsy and Mopsy, unable to move or do much of anything, and couldn't even manage to kill the wolves properly. I think I had to summon ONE replacement wolf in the whole fight. Pathetic. The only interesting part of the battle was when Mephisto let loose a cold shot that annihilated the Oak Sage spirit in one hit. Of course, Winnie summoned another one. This fight was a little too easy.

Skill Tree through Act III
lvl 24 Solar Creeper @1
lvl 25 Summon Dire Wolf @7
lvl 26 Summon Dire Wolf @8

Winnie came across a lot of the breeding mothers in Act IV. I kept summoning wolves in their faces when they appeared on the screen, however some spawning of pups was inevitable, and sometimes the carnage could get pretty extensive. None of the normal foes in this act posed a problem, not exactly anyway, and yet I could already feel monster life beginning to ramp up faster than the damage from Winnie's Dire Wolves was increasing. Enemies were dying in maybe four or five hits instead of two or three. Although Summon Grizzly would boost damage and ease things a bit, the message was clear: the game was starting to get harder.

None of the fights in the initial three areas were particularly noteworthy, nor did Winnie turn up any new gear of note. (Not from trying though; I gambled a ton of circlets and clubs looking for items with +druid summoning skills, and was unable to turn up anything useful.) Izual just about put me to sleep, and showed his pathetic-ness by failing to kill even so much as a single wolf. That's sad.

Heffer drew Spectral Hit/Holy Fire for his trait combo, which made him a total pushover as well. I am so glad that they toned him down from the old pre-expansion days, when he was a walking death trap. Hephasto used to be instant death for any melee character in Hell, now at least you stand a pretty good chance if he doesn't draw Might or Fanaticism for his aura. Otherwise, the River of Flame was pretty routine.

On the higher difficulties you get a ton of bosses in the Chaos Sanctuary, not so much for Normal. As with so many of my other characters, the oblivion knights were far and away the most dangerous threat in there, and probably the most dangerous non-boss monsters in the whole game. Winnie's usual tactic for ranged opponents is summoning minions right in their face, but this didn't work too well with the oblivions, who would cast Decrepify and then flee in the other direction. Even when the oblivions were the only opponents left, their Decrep curse cut down Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail's damage drastically, to the point where they were inflicting paper cuts that barely overcame the regen rate. Winnie broke out his Prevent Monster Heal (PMH) javelins in response, and got excellent use out of them for the first time. A quick "tag" on each oblivion made the battles much faster and safer.

The Vizier and his minions were handled first; what initially looked like a hopeless battle against boss life regen was turned into slow and steady progress by Winnie's PMH javelins. I had to summon a LOT of wolves to get the fight done, but so be it. A pretty interesting fight, although I don't intend to stand and tank the boss on the next difficulty! De Seis is just a joke now that his minions are knights instead of oblivions, and he was quickly cleaned up. The Infector was dealt with by retreating back to the first lava pool, to string out his minions, and then mug then in groups of two and three on the return trip. Perfectly handled if I do say so, with virtually no danger at all.

That brought Winnie and crew to Big Red. Mephisto had been so easy that I took this fight rather lightly, and that was almost a BIG mistake! Although I loaded up on extra blue and red potions, I didn't put any extra full rejuvs in my inventory, which was pretty stupid. While I was trying to take a nice picture of Diablo right at the outset of the battle, he fried all three wolves AND the Oak Sage spirit with his Lightning Breath of Doom, then charged right at Winnie! I was NOT expecting that, and meanwhile I'm fooling with the PrintScreen key, and all of a sudden Winnie has taken some hits and dropped down to less than half life! What are you doing, fool - this character is Hardcore!!!

The saving grace here was the fact that I've played this game so much. I've trained myself to drink a full rejuv instantly when a character takes a big hit. It's like jerking your hand away from a hot stove; you don't even think about it, your body reacts immediately without being told. So I reached up and hit the potion key instantaneously, backed off and summoned some replacement wolves, then recast the Oak Sage spirit and started breathing again. Whew. Diablo was genuinely dangerous, becaus he could kill the wolves off extremely fast and then charge free all over the place. Plus, his Fire Nova would kill Oak Sage off in one hit, thus depriving Winnie and his minions of one of their greatest advantages: a hefty +50% to life.

Diablo never came close to killing Winnie again, but it was a very lively fight, with lots of potion drinking, including a few more purples when I didn't have time to open the inventory and drink a red and blue. To add insult to injury, Amplisa lived throughout the entire fight, only to catch a full lightning breath when Diablo had something like 5% of his health left and perish. Poor girl! She survived all the way to Diablo from the beginning of Act I. Darned impressive. I did go ahead and revive her; as I said before, Amplisa is now a permanent part of the team. Diablo dropped junk, plus the Hellforge reward was extremely underwhelming: a perfect Topaz, flawless Amethyst, and Eth rune? Umm, thanks.

Things will go better in Act V, right?

Skill Tree through Act IV
lvl 27 Summon Dire Wolf @9
Izual (both saved)

Act V was back to the normal way of things again. I relied on the wolfy trio to take out the enemies, with my faithful Rogue companion Amplisa pinking away at a safe distance, while Winnie stayed safely out of reach. Oak Sage continued to run in the background, giving all of us a healthy 55% boost to life. Winnie had 600+ life with Oak Sage in play, which meant it would be all but impossible for me to die in Normal difficulty. Just don't do anything egregiously stupid, and the wolves will keep you alive all by themselves.

There was really very little of interest to report as Winnie passed through the opening three areas. Frankly, these places pretty much bore me to tears until the "guest monsters" from the other Acts show up in Nightmare and Hell. Winnie fought huge numbers of enslaved, overseers, imps, and crush beasts - and that was it. Just not enough variation in the monster draw possibilities in these areas. Bosses were not overly threatening with only one ability present. The Act IV mini-dungeons were slightly more interesting, adding frenzytaurs to the mix, but only slightly.

When Winnie reached level 30, I invested saved skill points into both Summon Grizzly and Spirit of Barbs, and would continue to do so for the next three levels. Then lots of points into Summon Grizzly for a while, as it was the best skill at the moment for a summoning druid build. Summon Grizzly boosts the damage of all minions, not just the bear, so there's really no reason not to spend a lot of points there. I continued to use the Dire Wolves for the moment, as three wolves at slvl 10 beat the damage from a single bear at slvl 1.

I did get some use out of Spirit of Barbs, however:

The Abominables down in the icy caves had the ability to stunlock Winnie's poor minions, when they showed up in large numbers. When that happened, the best option was to swap over to my "Iron Maiden" curse substitute, and let the enemies damage themselves via Spirit of Barbs. Unfortunately this spirit only starts at 50% damage reflected, and goes up by 20% with each skill point invested; Iron Maiden starts at 200% and goes up by 25% with each point, so the Necromancer definitely has the more powerful skill. (Of course, the Paladin's Thorns aura is better than both!) Nevertheless, Spirit of Barbs was still a powerful option, and I intended to invest a lot of points in it as time passed, as it would scale up in effectiveness with monster damage on higher difficulties. The one downside: Winnie had to give up Oak Sage in order to use Spirit of Barbs - eep!

I had full-cleared up to the start of the Crystalline Passage with Winnie, then ended up taking a break of about six weeks from character and Diablo 2 in general. When I decided to go back and continue playing again, I went back to the beginning of the Bloody Foothills and played through most of the initial three areas again. I wanted to get in some practice to shake off the rust, and Winnie had been falling off the low end of the leveling curve anyway. After repeating these areas, he was slightly ahead of the curve, but pretty much back to normal overall. Aside from a couple of charms, Winnie didn't find any items of note during this rerun, so it really was about getting in some practice.

Anya told Winnie that she had personalized a druid pelt just for him. Really? What have ya got?

Ummm... look, if you didn't want Winnie to help out, why didn't you just say so? Darned barbarians and their practical jokes...

Upon reaching clvl 32, Winnie made a permanent swap over to Summon Grizzly as his attack skill of choice. Yes, time for the belated arrival of Pooh Bear onto the scene! The damage output for the single bear is simply too much greater than that the of three wolves. For a character who is using the minions as his primary offense, as opposed to blocking dummies while casting elemental spells, there's really no choice to be made. Even when the damage output was relatively equal between Pooh Bear and Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, as it was at this point in time, it was MUCH better to have Pooh dealing all of that damage at once than to see it spread out over three targets. Think about how monster regeneration works, and the advantage of killing individual monsters quicker, and you should understand why that is.

Now the greatest drawback of the grizzly bear in this game is that it is a single target; only one mob of opponents can be "posted up" at a time by the minion. While that was true, I found that I didn't mind this handicap much at all. In fact, I rather liked the greater precision of having to deal with only Pooh Bear for a change. In each encounter, there were only three targets that I had to keep in mind: Winnie's position, Amplisa's position, and Pooh Bear's location. The enormous advantage of the summoning druid, his ace in the hole technique, is the fact that he can place his minions anywhere on the map, at any point in time. I would cast and recast Pooh constantly, deftly maneuvering the monsters where I wanted them to go through his location on the battlefield. Amplisa was pretty good at moving out of the way herself, and when she got in trouble, I could usually recast Pooh Bear to save her behind. Winnie's own movements dictated much of how the enemies reacted too, so it was an ever-evolving, intricate three-way dance that we performed across the frozen landscape. The foes were still slow and feeble, but I was relishing the challenge already, and looking forward to greater tests yet to come.

One thing I didn't enjoy was the endless procession of walking dead for opponents. These guys were present in the Glacial Trail, Halls of Anguish, and Halls of Pain - enough already! Winnie was able to keep them from rising again by using Solar Creeper to consume their corpses, but it was a slow and tedious process. The vines get the job done rather slowly. At least you can direct them to clean specific corpses by summoning the vine directly onto the desired target, and Winnie made use of this many, many times. I am too paranoid from playing the higher difficulties to leave any potential foes behind me, even when it probably would be fine to run on ahead without bothering.

Nihlathak put up a fairly entertaing fight. Winnie was far enough away to avoid getting hit by most of the Corpse Explosions, so the danger was minor, and yet the fight dragged out for a while because Pooh Bear got chilled over and over again. It was often best to re-summon Pooh over and over, since he would re-appear in unchilled state! Amplisa also did good work in this battle, although I was horrified to see her damage leap from 16-20 up to 40-70 just by fooling around and testing with giving her a normal exceptional bow. (I discarded it immediately afterwards, of course.) Makes you realize how you're really playing a variant by not giving the merc any weapons or armor. I still feel like I'm making the game too easy by having her along at all!

The Ancients were pretty easy. Korlic got caught up on Pooh Bear, and thus was the first to go down. Madawc just threw his axes uselessly from a distance, not achieving much of anything. Talic's whirlwind kept him from focusing on anything in particular, and he was mostly a non-factor, although Winnie did take one full blast of his skill and took about 150 damage. We'll see how things go in Nightmare, should Winnie make it back again.

After three uneventful levels of the Worldstone Keep, Winnie and his entourage reached the Throne of Destruction. I cleared out the area as usual, then prepared for the boss crews. Winnie had a little more trouble than really should have been necessary with Colenzo and Achmel, as Pooh Bear and Amplisa didn't get the word to retreat back away from Baal to eliminate them. They were scolded for that, and it won't happen again in Nightmare! I had more success in splitting up the Bartuc and Ventar groups, or maybe their own melee attacks just did them in faster thanks to Spirit of Barbs. Lister and crew were somewhat interesting:

They attack very fast and very hard, one of the few genuine threats in Normal difficulty thanks to their insane mlvl (over 60!) I pulled three of the minions away from Lister and eliminated them, then the last two and Lister came out together in a group. Well, Winnie was in no danger, but Amplisa picked this moment to get caught up on the Throne of Destruction architecture, got stunlocked and shortly died. Sigh, silly girl! Only her second death so far, and it would be the last one on Normal. I left her dead for the moment, and maneuvered the enemies until they had Pooh Bear stuck against the wall. Poor Pooh took a royal pasting while stunlocked, only to see Lister and the minions do themselves in thanks to Spirit of Barbs. It was fun to see Winnie stand mere yards away from nasty opponents in complete safety!

So only one fight left to do:

Winnie focused on casting Pooh Bear right up into Baal's face, which is made easier by the fact that Baal's AI likes to keep distance from the player. Wherever possible, Winnie would place Pooh on the opposite side of Baal from himself, so that his spells would fly off in the other direction. The only real issue was recasting Pooh when his health got low, recasting Spirit of Barbs (which frequently got killed by some flying spell effect), and drinking the random red or blue potion to refill life/mana. The fact that Amplisa lived through this battle and was not threatened in the least should tell you it wasn't that bad.

I think I'm starting to get a handle on these act-end bosses too. Pooh Bear plus Spirit of Barbs should work quite well against all of the ending opponents. No duh, since it's essentially identical to Golly + Iron Maiden!

Skill Tree through Act V
lvl 28 Summon Dire Wolf @10
lvl 29 (saved)
lvl 30 Summon Grizzly @1, Spirit of Barbs @1
lvl 31 Summon Grizzly @2, Spirit of Barbs @2
lvl 32 Summon Grizzly @3, Spirit of Barbs @3
lvl 33 Summon Grizzly @4
lvl 34 Summon Grizzly @5
lvl 35 Summon Grizzly @6
lvl 36 Summon Grizzly @7
lvl 37 Summon Grizzly @8

Winnie full-cleared Normal with no deaths, no monsters skipped, no Save and Exits. I repeated the first three areas of Act V, otherwise it was a one-shot pass all the way through.

Well, enough said about Normal difficulty. Destroyer Count Winnie moves on to Nightmare. The real game is about to begin.