Skulla Part Four: O Rathma, Where Art Thou?
I continued Skulla's journey as he entered into Torment VII difficulty for the first time. This was the point in time where the Torment difficulties started to become significantly more challenging, with the monster health and damage scaling up to a greater extent than ever before. If you take a look at this chart of the various difficulty levels, each of the first six Torments equates to three Greater Rift levels. Monster health goes up by 60% and monster damage increases by 45% with each of these Torments. But starting at Torment VII difficulty, the scaling changes so that each new difficulty rating equates to five Greater Rift levels. Monster health starts going up by 120% although monster damage actually scales up slightly lower (about 40% per difficulty level) in one small gesture of mercy. Make no mistake though, each new Torment rating gets notably harder after hitting Torment VII. This difficulty therefore marks a notable hurdle in each character's progression as opposed to a purely arbitrary number.
Naturally, the first thing to do at this heightened difficulty level was to set out on a new round of bounty collecting. Unlike the previous Torment difficulties that Skulla had largely breezed through, here the monsters were all sporting lifebars in the hundreds of millions of HP and the going was quite a bit slower. Winning fights required deploying the full assortment of curses and raising significant numbers of skeletal archers as opposed to sprinting forward at full speed while the skeletal warriors smashed everything in sight. I found it taking close to an hour to clear out an Act's worth of bounties as opposed to as little as ten minutes in some of the previous difficulties. The most notable item find was the Golden Gorget of Leoric in the amulet slot, an item with good rolls for a non-legendary piece of gear that finally allowed Mara's Kaleidoscope to be retired into Kanai's Cube. The unique property of granting half a dozen skeletons after earning a massacre bonus wasn't terribly useful but was nice for thematic purposes.
Here's what Skulla was working with in terms of his gear setup:
His official damage rating was sitting at almost exactly 1 million points, although that number isn't always very reliable since it doesn't count extra damage from unique item properties and set bonuses. Skulla was wielding a rather nice pair of ancient legendary items in his two hands, and that along with a socketed Flawless Royal Emerald was responsible for his DPS rating. The problem here was the fact that neither of these two items carried any kind of unique properties that synergized with his Necromancer build, making them inherently inferior to the stuff that would buff up Skulla's minions with extra damage and attack speed. I was looking for the scythe and shield combination known as the Jesseth Arms for Skulla's weapon setup, a two-item set that forms the standard gear for a summoning Necromancer. There are very few unique scythes so I thought I had good odds to turn up the weapon portion of the set by upgrading a rare scythe via Kanai's Cube.
The other major item goal for Skulla at the moment was finding the remaining pieces of the Bones of Rathma set. He had already turned up Rathma items in the shoulders, arms, and feet slots to unlock half of the set. Those three items along with the Ring of Royal Grandeur was allowing Skulla to get the four item set bonus that granted up to 50% damage reduction, much needed against the harder-hitting monsters here in Torment VII. Still, the real benefit from the Bones of Rathma set would arrive when Skulla was able to complete the whole collection and unlock an insane 4000% damage bonus for his minions. It's almost impossible to make it to the higher Torment difficulties without building your character around one of these set bonuses, and Skulla would be limited in how far he could go before he managed to find the remaining missing pieces of the Rathma set.
In the meantime, there was more bounty hunting to be done. I generally wanted to keep collecting bounties because I anticipated the need to reroll some of Skulla's legendary items in Kanai's Cube. That particular cube recipe requires two things: 5 apiece of the Horadric Cache crafting materials along with 50 Forgotten Souls. The latter requirement is what normally prevents widespread use of this recipe, and yet I found that Snowbelle accumulated hundreds of unneeded Forgotten Souls by the end of her character run, with the former requirement holding her back. This felt like a good time for Skulla to bank some of those Horadric Cache crafting materials with bounty hunting for use later on when more legendary items dropped on higher difficulties and could be salvaged into Forgotten Souls.
The most dangerous elite opponents for Skulla were those that had some kind of crowd control abilities. I had deliberately avoided giving him any mobility skills in order to replicate the gameplay of the D2 Necromancer more closely, and would happily have taken Blood Rush if this were a non-variant game. That caused problems against the Waller and Jailer and Vortex opponents who could lock Skulla in place or suck him into parts of the battlefield where he didn't want to be. I was still equipping Countess Julia's Cameo via Kanai's Cube specifically to protect against Arcane Enchanted opponents like the one pictured above, enemies who could stick those rotating purple beams on top of Skulla for immense damage. I wouldn't say that Skulla was in any kind of mortal peril here but the fights were lively and keep me on my toes.
Skulla was in the process of chasing bounties in Act IV when he hit on a tremendous stroke of luck: the Jesseth Skullshield dropped from an opponent and it rolled as an ancient legendary item! This was excellent news and it locked in half of the set bonus that Skulla needed for his two hands. I decided to try and find the corresponding scythe to go along with it, crafting an inexpensive rare scythe at the Blacksmith and then using the Hope of Cain recipe in Kanai's Cube to upgrade it into a legendary item. Sure enough, this produced the Jesseth Skullscythe and just like that Skulla had one of his most important item pairs ready for use. I rerolled a socket into the weapon at the Enchantress for the necessary Flawless Royal Emerald and ended up with the following result:
Nominal damage actually dropped on the character screen from 1012k to 709k since the new Jesseth Skullscythe had notably lower base damage as compared to Skulla's previous ancient legendary "Nutcracker" mace. This was a good example of why the raw numbers on the character screen don't always tell the full picture, however, since they did not incorporate the set bonus from the two Jesseth items. The Command Skeletons skill gained two extremely helpful benefits from these items: first, the melee skeletons would automatically move to another nearby target as soon as the initial one died. It's hard to put into words just how big of a benefit this was for Skulla; instead of needing to recast the skill over and over again at 50 Essence cost apiece, he could cast the skill once and let the skeletal warriors move from target to target without needing to lift a finger. The net effect was that Command Skeletons was in effect at all times instead of being something broken out occasionally against bosses. Then there was the second property from the Jesseth Arms set: while Command Skeletons was in effect, all minion damage went up by 400%. I likely would have used this equipment even without the damage bonus, having it as well was almost too good to ask for.
As a result, Skulla's real damage output went up significantly despite the base numbers on the character sheet declining by about a third. I knew that I could fix the numerical issue if I could find an ancient version of the Jesseth Skullscythe, and one of Skulla's top goals moving forward would be turning up the superior version of this same item. If I could find a second copy of the Jesseth Skullscythe, I could use the alternate version of the item to reroll its stats in Kanai's Cube in the hopes of it popping up as ancient. Either that or I could keep looking for new versions of the item via upgrading rare scythes. One way or the other, I'd find it eventually with enough searching.
Finally, I also used this weapon to switch over to a new passive skill, replacing the Overwhelming Essence skill with the pictured Dark Reaping. The new passive ability was something that I wanted to run previously, but couldn't enable due to a lack of a scythe weapon for Skulla. Gaining 2% of maximum Essence and life for every kill (fortunately including ones gained by the minions) was far more useful at this stage of the game than the +40 maximum Essence granted from Skulla's previous passive skill. I soon found that Skulla was restoring lots of Essence via this passive skill, enough that Devour wasn't needed as much as it had been previously. I started thinking about whether there were any other possibilities to run in that final active skill slot.
I decided to test out the Jesseth Arms set by running some Nephalem Rifts, first the standard kind to pick up additional keystones and then the Greater Rifts afterwards to upgrade legendary gems. I still needed to get the Enforcer gem up to Rank 25 to unlock the secondary bonus of 90% damage reduction for Skulla's minions. The new set bonus was fantastic for the melee skeletons, with Skulla able to sit back and watch them as they dashed from target to target as their initial opponent fell. I still found that I needed to cast Command Skeletons fairly frequently when the melee warriors would scurry off to some distant enemy while leaving Skulla himself unprotected. It was also now important to keep the skill active at all times, as otherwise the 400% damage bonus wouldn't be in play and that would slow down the clear progress drastically. There were a number of different points in time when I would be standing around wondering why it was taking forever to kill one enemy, only to realize that the Command Skeletons bonus damage was no longer in effect. Whoops! Sometimes it was hard to tell when the melee warriors had been Commanded and when they hadn't. Even the red glow surrounding them could be tough to pick up during the chaotic battles commonplace in Diablo 3.
For the Greater Nephalem Rifts, I started out this sequence on Rift 29 and cleared it with a healthy 8:20 remaining on the clock. Rift 29 was a bit easier than Torment VII difficulty and I knew that Skulla could do something a bit harder without any real need to worry about the time running out. Next up was Rift 33 for the difficulty setting, one that was a clear step upwards in danger while still moving briskly enough to avoid facing a time crunch. The Rift Guardian at the end was named Hamelin, a giant version of the Rat King enemy that spawns lots of little rat minions to attack the player. While each one of those minions was individually weak, Skulla didn't have a great answer for dealing with them since he lacked anything in the way of area of effect damage. Just individual attacks from the skeletal warriors and the archers, nothing that would hit everything on screen at once. I also discovered to my surprise that Hamelin emitted a large green circle around his location, and it was impossible to move outside that area whenever it was in effect. Skulla was effectively trapped inside with the Rift Guardian whenever it was present. I noted that this could be dangerous without thinking too much of it, as Skulla mowed down his opponent and collected the resulting rewards.
I increased the difficulty again for the next rift attempt, this time to Rift 37. This was higher than Torment VIII difficulty and represented another major leap upwards, but Skulla had been handling his opposition quite well since picking up the Jesseth Arms and I wanted to push his limits a bit. Right away it was clear that his damage capacity was running up against the obstacle of greater monster health. I was struggling to stay ahead of the target line in this rift, with the progress bar accelerating whenever Skulla could defeat an elite and pick up the resulting orbs, then falling back again during long stretches of clearing normal enemies. It looked like I would be able to finish in time, but not with much left to spare. The Rift Guardian at the end was Hamelin again and the extra health on the boss seemed to have crossed some kind of tipping point because Skulla's minions were having a lot trouble defeating the little rats. The annoying things were also swarming Skulla himself and I discovered to my horror that he couldn't escape outside of that green circle. It reminded me of a Camille ultimate in League of Legends, with Skulla simply unable to exit the little arena. There was nothing that I could do here: I drank Skulla's Potion, then his Final Service passive triggered, and then it was all over:
Argh, Skulla's first death! He wasn't a Hardcore character so this wasn't the finishing point for his journey, but I was still kicking myself for suffering this preventable death. I simply hadn't been fully aware of that boss ability on Hamelin and how dangerous it could be for an immobile character like Skulla. If I had been smart enough to stay well out of range of the boss himself, letting the skeletal minions do the dirty work while staying safely off in the distance, this situation definitely could have been avoided. Ah well, I suppose it was a harsh learning experience in terms of playing this character. I did manage to revive, defeat Hamelin, and finish the rift with 0:23 remaining on the clock to finally get the Enforcer gem up to Rank 26. At least this would mean that Skulla's minions were safe from being destroyed going forward thanks to that 90% damage reduction property. Still, this had been a massive failure on my part and I resolved to do better moving forward.
I realized after this fiasco that a huge problem had been the single-target nature of Skulla's damage output. If I'd been able to clear out those rat minions when they swarmed Skulla, he probably could have survived even while trapped in the green circle with Hamelin. With the Dark Reaping passive skill feeding back 2% of maximum Essence per kill, I realized that Devour had become a bit superfluous. After looking at different skill options, I settled on bringing back an old friend:
Skulla greeted the Lovecraftian horror that was his golem back into the fold, replacing Devour with the Command Golem skill in his sixth and final spot. While the golem didn't bring a ton of damage onto the team, it would still gain the 400% damage bonus from the Jesseth Arms set and the future 4000% damage bonus from completing the full Rathma set of equipment. That was enough to make it one of the best available skills for Skulla while still remaining true to the original Diablo 2 incarnation of this character. I looked at the different runes for Command Golem before settling on the Bone Golem option that I had been using previously. This provided a spinning bone tornado area of effect ability on a longish (45 seconds) cooldown, one which Skulla could break out whenever he was swarmed or if a particularly large collection of monsters clumped up together. I quickly found that this was useful for getting Skulla out of jams as a defensive ability, about the best that I could do within the variant rules that I was playing. The 2 seconds of stunning was also quite nice, deployed against Maghda as pictured above to give the rest of the skeleton army time to wail on her. It felt good to have the golem back again filling out the rest of the team.
One opponent that I hadn't seen up to this point in time was Urzael, one of the other bosses that appears as a bounty in Act Five. I had skipped out on running through Act Five in Campaign mode and Urzael hadn't shown up as a bounty target thus far due to sheer chance. I wasn't too certain how Skulla would handle this challenge, given that Urzael will eventually fill up the entire room with fire if given enough time, but it turned out that I needn't have worried. Skulla himself was able to dodge Urzael's telegraphed attacks without any problem and the skeletal minions swarmed all over the enemy. I actually picked up an achievement for defeating Urzael after this fight, I think it was the one associated with winning a very fast victory. The complete rout of Urzael confirmed to me that Skulla was finished at this point with Torment VII difficulty. If he could wipe out this boss without even breaking a sweat, it was time to move up to the next difficulty of Torment VIII. Finding the Jesseth Arms set had tilted things decisively in Skulla's favor for the moment.
I usually will run a new set of bounties upon beginning each difficulty and Skulla followed the typical pattern here. Torment VIII more than doubled the health of the monsters in comparison to the previous difficulty and I quickly found that this was an appropriate spot for Skulla to be. His clear pace was steady without being speedy and the fights tended to be entertaining. I had no desire to try and hop up further to Torment IX difficulty, where Skulla still could have made progress but only at a snail's pace. Not worth it. At least I did get to assign another 50 Paragon levels, this time placing them into the Core tree for the +25% movement speed bonus. That came in handy when moving through Greater Nephalem Rifts on the 15 minute time limit. The most noteworthy item to appear on this initial clear of the bounties was an ancient legendary version of the Golden Gorget of Leoric amulet. Skulla was already wearing a non-ancient version of that item and he happily switched over to the upgraded version of the same gear with its superior stats.
After doing the full initial set of bounties, I tried some Nephalem Rifts for a chance of pace. I was still in the process of upgrading the Enforcer gem and getting the additional 0.3% minion damage per rank of the item; while each rank had a modest benefit, they did add up over time. There was a limit to how far Skulla could go at the moment, however: another try at Rift 38 difficulty finished with 3:14 remaining on the clock. It was clear that Skulla was approaching the edge of what his character could accomplish with his current gear setup. Greater Rift 40 is roughly equivalent to Torment IX difficulty, and that was more or less as far as Skulla could push things at the moment.
What Skulla most needed was finding the remaining pieces of the Rathma set. If he could get up to five items in the six item set, that would unlock the full bonus via the Ring of Royal Grandeur and allow him to increase the difficulty level by a good bit, with the 4000% Rathma damage bonus likely equal to two or three Torments. I had several different ways of finding these items: via standard monster drops, of course, but also through gambling with blood shards or upgrading rare items in Kanai's Cube. I could also reroll set items into other set items in the Cube if I found any duplicates (i.e. if I had two Rathma helmets, I could reroll one of them into another item in the Rathma set). That was a weaker choice though since that particular Cube recipe cannot turn up ancient items. Thus far I had found no Rathma duplicates at all, instead getting exactly one copy of the shoulders, gloves, and boots. Now two of those three items had rolled as ancient and that was fantastic but at some point I did need to get the rest of them too.
From the picture above, you can tell that eventually Skulla found a fourth item in the Rathma's set, the chest armor known as Rathma's Ribcage Plate. Best of all, this was another ancient version of the set gear, woohoo! I used the Enchantress to reroll the Command Skeletons damage bonus into 650 Vitality (a better deal even for someone with Skulla's character build) and things were looking up. Unfortunately the fourth item in the Rathma set didn't have any direct benefit for Skulla, as he'd already been getting the four item set bonus from the Ring of Royal Grandeur. I would need to find a fifth item to see real gains and that was proving elusive.
So it was back to more bounty hunting and more searching through Nephalem Rifts for Skulla, lots and lots of both. This is one of those places where reading the written report doesn't do a great job of conveying how long the whole searching process took. It was something like three or four days and maybe ten hours of playing D3 to turn up that Rathma chest armor, with innumerable failed blood shard gambles in the process. And remember, the whole search for individual key items is random. It's not like the player is guaranteed to get what they're looking for after a certain number of pulls on the slot machine lever. Given enough time the probabilities become very good to find the legendary and set items that your character needs but it's never a certainty. Skulla was more or less stuck here in Torment VIII difficulty for many long hours on end. He could not increase the difficulty level until he found the rest of the Rathma set and those last two items (the pants and the helmet) were continuing to prove elusive. I remembered that Spyderman had also spent lengthy periods of time searching for the items in his Arachyr set, with Snowbelle largely managing to avoid that due to some fortunate item luck. Just up to the whims of Fortuna at this point.
The other option to increase his damage in a big way would be to find an ancient version of his weapon, the Jesseth Skullscythe. I did manage to turn up a second version of the weapon via upgrading another rare scythe in Kanai's Cube, thus opening up the possibility of rerolling the stats on that spare weapon without affecting the one that Skulla was using for combat. Law of Kulle is the name of the recipe used for this process and it's an insanely expensive option: 5 apiece of the Horadric Cache crafting materials plus 50 Forgotten Souls as mentioned previously. I couldn't afford to use this very often and the two times that I had tried it turned out to be failures. That was hardly surprising since the odds of getting an ancient version of the weapon were only 10% per attempt but it was still disappointing. The odds would be better if Skulla could complete the Rathma set first, get to a higher Torment difficulty level (where more legendary items would drop for salvaging into Forgotten Souls), and then get more cracks at the roulette wheel.
Finally, after nearly a week's worth of total searching, Skulla cleared a Greater Rift at Rift 40 difficulty and spotted a green set of pants on the ground. Suddenly, he had his fifth Rathma item:
There it was, Rathma's Skeletal Legplates, appearing from a completely random item drop and not from any of the various crafting methods that I'd been attempting. At this point, I was more than happy to take it; I'd found the entirety of the Inarius' Will set of items, all six of them, while searching for the remaining Rathma gear. I rerolled the life regeneration on the item at the Enchantress and replaced it with 483 points of Vitality, then put the whole set on for the first time:
Behold the power of Rathma! Well technically this wasn't the full set since Skulla was still missing the head gear, but the Ring of Royal Grandeur unlocked the entire set bonus and that was what counted. The new functionality increased the damage of all minions by 1000% per skeletal mage on the battlefield, up to a cap of 4000% additional damage with four mages. This created a major incentive to have four skeletal mages (or archers in Skulla's case) available at all times to unlock the full damage bonus, something which would be much easier if Skulla could ever find that Circle of Nailuj's Evol which had remained teasingly out of sight thus far. By a stroke of pure luck, I'd also turned up another highly useful item from this same Greater Rift: an ancient version of the Nemesis Bracers. This was the same item that Snowbelle had used in the bracers slot and it's an extremely useful item to get extra enemy elites to appear in the Nephalem Rifts. I was able to reroll a perfect 6% greater crit chance at the Enchantress and wind up with an item that might very well be a permanent keeper for Skulla.
With Rathma finally in play, it was time to take the new equipment out for a test spin. I increased the difficulty level two notches up to Torment X and then went out into Act One for a quick round of bounty hunting. The results were just what I expected:
It was a complete slaughter of everything in Skulla's path, even with the monsters having five times the HP that they'd previously possessed on Torment VIII difficulty. I would start out each little encounter by activating Command Skeletons to get the melee warriors to charge towards the enemies, then drop Skulla's two curses and start raising the skeletal archers. The melee skeletons would be tickling the monsters for no damage at first, then suddenly start ripping through them as one archer quickly became four archers and the 4000% damage bonus came roaring into effect. Normal enemies had roughly one or two billion HP now in Torment X difficulty and I found that a crit from one of the skeletal archers could do as much as 5 billion damage. The power to easily one-shot opponents from any of the archers turned into a tidal wave of destruction breaking across the fields of Act One. The final bounty goal was killing the Butcher and he died so fast that I barely managed to capture the screenshot above. I didn't even get the Frailty curse off in this image, as otherwise the boss would have dropped when it hit 15% on the healthbar. Wow, I knew that bringing the full Rathma bonus into play would be powerful, but even I understimated how dramatic it proved to be.
Skulla was therefore finished with his stay in the middle Torment difficulties and could start moving closer towards endgame scenarios. He still had a long way to go before he could be able to complete his mission of clearing the bounties on Torment XVI difficulty, with a need to upgrade his weapon and find better jewelry options, let alone rank up three different legendary gems. He was getting closer though, and finding the full Rathma set of equipment (well, almost all of the Rathma set!) was one of the major barriers that his character needed to overcome. On to the next set of challenges in the increasingly dangerous Torment levels still to be overcome.