Skulla Part Six: Cold Hands, Warm Heart

Count Skulla began Nightmare Act V at clvl 60 with the following:

Base Stats
Strength 38
Dexterity 25
Vitality 187
Energy 135

Raise Skeleton @3+4
Raise Mage @14+4
Mastery @20+4
Summon Resist @2+5
Clay Golem, Blood Golem, Iron Golem, Fire Golem, Golem Mastery @1+4

Iron Maiden @9+4
Dim Vision @6+4
Lower Resist @2+4
Decrepify @1+4
Amplify Damage, Weaken, Terror, Life Tap, Confuse @1+4

Necromancer's Wand of Enlightenment: +2 necro skills, +28 energy, +1 Summon Resist
The Spirit Shroud: 295 def, +1 skills, replenish life +10, -8 magic dam, cannot be frozen
Summoner's Gargoyle Head of Remedy: +1 necro skills, -25% poison resist
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 Sharkskin Belt: 17% faster hit recovery, +58 life, 22% cold resist, 25% fire resist
Rare Ring: +48 AR, +1 max damage, +5 energy, 13% lightning resist, 15% poison resist
Cobalt Ring of Strength: 25% cold resist, +2 strength
Prismatic Amulet of the Wolf: 16% resist all, +18 life

Javelin of Vileness: Prevent Monster Heal
Three Socket Large Shield (3 Perfect Diamonds)
Rare Studded Leather: +15 life, 28% fire resist, 19% cold resist, 8% lightning resist, -2 MD
Sureshrill Frost unique flanged mace: 43-68 dam, adds 63-112 cold damage, freezes target +3, cannot be frozen, slvl 9 Frozen Orb charges
Venom Grip unique demonhide gloves: +60 poison damage, 5% life steal, 5% crushing blow, 138% enhanced defense, 30% poison resist, +5% max poison resist
Summoner's Amulet: +1 necro skills
Assorted rings and amulets with resists

There had been no equipment changes in Act IV for Skulla. All of the stat points from his two level ups had gone into Vitality (as all stat points have been doing since mid-Act II). I had placed both Izual skill points into Dim Vision, and the other two skill points from leveling into Raise Mage and Iron Maiden. The focus for this act would be on raising Skulla's Dim Vision curse further, in preparation for decreased duration length in Act I of Hell... assuming he made it that far.

Time to get started. The Bloody Foothills were bloody easy! The monster draw was imps and quill rats, both foes with little life that were completely humbled by DV. Shenk and his boys were cleaned up with IM without breaking a sweat. The catapults in here did the most damage to Skulla, no joke. Easiest area in quite some time - which made the length that much more tedious. Skulla used the socket quest on his wand, adding a jewel with 28% cold resistance, as good as a Thul rune! Still have another slot open for later too. (Skulla's Normal difficulty socket quest was also still available.)

The enemies were a bit more varied in the Frigid Highlands: vile lancers, vile archers (two types of rogues), and lasher/slayer combos. IM against the two melee foes, DV for the archers. With no one here using elemental damage, Skulla could swap to his Summoner's amulet. Of course, I would be amiss if I didn't mention the other main foes in this region:

Those being the towers, barricades, and doors that made up the fortification lines, naturally! Skulla's minions target every "hostile" on the screen, regardless of the actual threat level. (They love to go after the trapped souls tied to a pillar in Act IV as well.) On Skulla's trip through Normal, I tried to rush through these areas quickly, with the result that half the army would frequently be attacking walls while dangerous monsters were roaming about. The only safe way to do these areas is make sure that all of the natural hazards are clear before advancing into uncharted territory. In other words, Skulla spent a lot of time watching his minions hack away at terrain obstacles. Rather than fight his army, Skulla let them have their fun, since they clearly enjoyed this quite a bit.

Towards the end of the Highlands, Skulla managed to gamble a new circlet:

Finally got one with +2 to the necro summoning tree, yay! Too bad the other two mods are completely useless. Skulla will do a lot of swapping between this circlet and his previous one (with resist all and a major life boost). This gave Skulla +7 to the whole summoning tree! Slvl 27 Mastery! Wow. He had to be careful though, because life dropped down to 670 and resists were only in the mid 40s-50s with this configuration. Still pretty awesome though. Skulla would start looking for a better amulet next.

Abaddon was in the absolute last corner possible of the Highlands. It was full end to end with horror archers, along with some frenzytaurs and witches. Skulla swapped gear around to get 67% lightning resistance while maintaining his +skills gear, and that seemed to work pretty well. There was only one boss, an Extra Strong/CEB frenzytaur (see below) that smacked the living daylights out of Golly - and Golly now has 1600 life! Glad Skulla wasn't on the front lines there!

Also note that Skulla's up to nine mages and five warriors now. The more, the merrier!

The Arreat Plateau was a return to Act V enemies, mostly. Death maulers, imps/crusher beasts, and lightning skeletal mages. This was definitely tougher than the previous two areas, especially when the imps would teleport into the architectural features of the fortress walls. Used a lot of DV and LR here, not much point in IM against this mostly casting crowd. Skulla hit clvl 62 here; the skill points for levels 61-64 all went into DV, which would take it to unmodified slvl 10, which should be enough to last the rest of the game. Hopefully.

Maulers, maw fiends, and witches inhabited the Pit of Acheron dungeon. Skulla wanted to use IM against these foes, but the witches forced DV use whenever they appeared. Stopping their blood stars was the top priority! Surprisingly there were no bosses, but there was one champ pack of witches. Skulla could deal with that, especially since they were fought in isolation. Overall, the fights were relatively routine.

The Crystalline Passage had a bizarre mix of enemies: ghosts, claw vipers, and cold skeletal mages. This was again an area with lots of DV and LR use, with little need for IM. The bone spirits tossed by the vipers were particularly bad news, since they would not be absorbed by the minions and pass through them to hit Skulla himself! Impossible to do anything in terms of resists either, since they are "magic" damage. Bah.

Here's one boss Skulla didn't mind seeing turn up Extra Strong/Cursed:

Pretty harmless on a skeletal mage with no melee attack! The one bad thing about these foes is that it gets tough to tell which skeletons are fighting on Skulla's side... Including the three evil urns, there were a LOT of bosses in the Crystalline Passage. None of them topped the danger threshold though; a lot of Spectral Hit, Mana Burn, and Teleportation abilities. Skulla is always happy to see those attributes, rather than the genuinely dangerous ones.

With the Passage cleared, that meant that the Anya quest was up next. The Frozen River opened up with an LEB/Holy Shock, Extra Strong/Cursed (!) double snow drifter boss pack. Wow, that was a nasty, nasty mess there. Unable to get any pictures, too much going on. That was one boss I definitely did NOT like seeing show up with the Extra Strong/Cursed combo! There were also witches and rouge spearwomen in this area, so IM was the featured curse yet again. Here's a shot of it in action:

When mobs like this one show up, it's nice to have an army to take the punch for Skulla! Frozenstein turned up with Fanaticism aura. Fun stuff for a hardcore character, even if Golly did handle the tanking perfectly. Skulla found the incredibly useless Arcanna's Head set helmet again at the tail end of the River. Man, that thing is just sad. "Attacker takes damage of 2" is really going to scare monsters with over 2000 hit points!

Skulla's continued gambling for amulets paid off here, as he found another summoner's ammy (+1 necro skills) but rare this time, with additional poison and lightning resistance. That was a nice little upgrade, and temporarily satisfied that aspect of his gear. Skulla's dream amulet is still one with +3 summoning tree ("golemlord's amulet"), along with a nice life or resist suffix to boot.

The Glacial Trail was full of frenzytaurs, cold skeleton mages, and more snow drifters. This melee-heavy area saw a lot of IM use. One of the frenzytaur bosses (shown above) was Physical Immune, and put up quite a nice fight, especially as more and more monsters kept pouring into the fight from the rear. Skulla ran IM until all the frenzytaur minions had killed themselves, then swapped to LR for the boss himself.

Surprisingly, the Drifter Cavern really wasn't that bad. No stairs trap, and even a comfortable start to what is usually a claustrophobically small level. Witches, abominables, and frozen terrors made up the enemy draw. The worst that Skulla had to face was witch and abominable champs, both separately. Piece of cake.

That was the end of one session of play. Since the Nihlathak quest is long and tedious, I usually like to start a new session with it and devote the entire playtime to knocking out that dungeon. Skulla began by recruiting a full army in Act I, then entering the glowing red portal. The only safe way to deal with the entrance to Nihlathak's temple is to revive every prowling dead the minute they hit the floor. Luckily, this is something the summoning necro can do pretty easily. Pindleskin was FEB/Blessed Aim aura, not that tough.

The Halls of Anguish were practically a monster draw from Kurast: tomb creepers (leapers), temple guard, and death maulers (the one Act V foe). Lots and lots of DV use here, to freeze up the tentacle attack of the maulers and stop the leapers in place. Only one champ pack and no bosses, so a very tame area. Now take a look at this screenshot:

See the gold text on those two items over on the right side of the screen? The unique gothic plate (Rattlecage) and the unique heavy crossbow (Hellcast) dropped in back-to-back battles down here. I did not move those items in any way to set up the screenie - they actually dropped in that exact spot. Two uniques in consecutive battles, you cannot make this stuff up! Both absolutely useless, of course, as any longtime readers of Skulla's journeys should know and expect by now.

The Halls of Pain was a mixture of blowdart fetishes, infidels, and zealot/hierophant combos. This forced more heavy use of DV, to stop the many ranged attacks (darts, blizzards) and prevent the zealots from fleeing when wounded. Take a look:

Some pretty typical fights shown above. Even with constant DV use, Skulla took many unavoidable hits here from the massive amounts of junk flying through the air. Love the ability of high-level DV to hit foes around corners, that's a lifesaver. An Extra Fast/Extra Strong and FEB/CEB hierophant pair were close enough to heal each other, which made for a more interesting fight than usual. IM on the first one, LR on the second got it done.

Halls of Vaught had skeleton archers, witches, and spiders. Thank goodness, no buggy poison-spear tossing vipers! (They would force an instant map reroll.) This heavily ranged draw forced more DV use, even though spiders are classic IM bait. The spiders were irritating because their poison was essentially a death sentence for any warrior hit (the darn stuff lasted forever!) Plenty of corpses to replace them though.

Nihlathak wasn't found until the final quadrant, and he was accompanied by a gigantic mob of minions. Skulla started getting hit by corpse explosions when Nihlathak wasn't even close to being on the screen - gee, thanks Blizzard. Nice programming there. Each corpse explosion hurt too, doing about 250 damage! Skulla backed out and committed to a new strategy: keeping extreme distance from the warriors on the front line, and raising each body the instant it hit the ground. This worked perfectly, and Skulla was not hit again. Nihlathak (FEB) wasn't engaged until all of the surrounding enemies were dead, and died extremely quickly to LR. Just look at all that gore - every single body was being consumed by one of the two of us, leaving bloody ruins strewn about everywhere.

I chose to personalize Skulla's wand, which read "Skulla's Necromancer's Wand of Enlightenment". Sounds like some of the bad writing my students turn in.

Anyway, enough with the Nihlathak side-quest. The Infernal Pit was right at the entrance of the Frozen Tundra, so Skulla did that area first. And what a dungeon it was!

Vampires, frenzytaurs, and oblivion/doom knight pairs. That's pretty close to the worst draw possible for Skulla. The vampires kept raining down meteors across the lava, while the oblivions hurled their curses around and the frenzytaurs did their nasty melee attacks. Ugh. There was a CEB/Stone Skin oblivion boss in here, which wasn't too bad in terms of boss traits. Skulla's poor minions took brutal losses again and again in here. Still, Skulla made it through without dying, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much.

The Frozen Tundra itself was long and rather tedious. Death berserkers, imps, and Act II kitties made for an easy draw, with DV quieting everything in sight. There were a couple of bosses, nothing even the least bit dangerous. Get me to the next area, please. I think I actually preferred the Infernal Pit: very dangerous, but at least interesting and short.

There was a frozen terror champ pack right at the entrance of the Ancient's Way, along with a half-dozen normal frozen terrors. Made for an interesting little fight, especially since those guys always shatter on death and can't provide bodies for additional minions. The other foes were cold skeleton mages and... carvers?!

Very strange. Skulla will never get used to carver shamans firing off Glacial Spikes (which hurt a lot!) Pretty much had to Dim everything to do this area safely, as demonstrated above. At least the guest monsters from the other acts keep things interesting!

The Icy Cellar is one of the worst deathtraps in the game, and it certainly lived up to its reputation this time. Skulla was immediately accosted by a witch champ pack, immediately overrunning into a fight with a Spectral Hit/Mana Burn witch boss:

In the picture above, the first group of witch champs are already down (note the full rejuv on the floor to the left) as the boss is engaged. At the same time, as a pit viper champ pack is showing up on the right, followed by another Mana Burn/Teleportation witch boss! Thank goodness the boss abilities here were on the weak side, and that I immediately recognized the map layout and knew which directly to move Skulla to minimize frontage. What a tough beginning. This place is going to be brutal in Hell, if Skulla can make it make here. Snapchip Shatter was Cursed/CEB/Stone Skin - obvious prey for LR.

With the last dungeon cleared, all that remained was the final ending run: the Ancients, Worldstone Keep, and Baal. Skulla first prepped the Ancients area with about 50 red and blue potions, as usual due to my excessive paranoia. Then he activated the statues and got the fight underway:

The trait draw wasn't all that great: Talic (Cursed), Madawc (Extra Fast), Korlic (Teleportation). Well, at least Korlic's ability was useless... The others were bad. Skulla's army held up MUCH better than I expected though, taking hits even while Cursed and hanging in there throughout the fight. It seemed to help that the Ancients went after Golly over the mages, time and time again. I'm sure slvl 27 Mastery helped a great deal too! There were 4 mages and 3 warriors left when the fight came to a close. An even better performance than in Normal! It probably won't be as easy in Hell though, since the warriors and mages are pretty much topped out in terms of Mastery, while the Ancients will only be that much stronger. Skulla added the level up (his expected final one in Nightmare) to IM, for use against Baal.

Worldstone 1 had invaders, rogue spearwomen, and vampires. This melee-heavy level had IM serving as the curse of choice once again, a nice break from the endless DV in previous places. The invaders and corrupted rogues could really move too, Skulla had to be careful waking up foes. Worldstone 2 had poison mages, horadrim ancients, and fiends (bats). Lots and lots of poison damage on this floor - Skulla's minions spent a lot of time looking green. Obviously this was back to the DV-fest of previous areas. Worldstone 3 served up lightning skeleton mages, imps, and apparitions: more DV use. One of the apparition bosses was Extra Dead enchanted, all I know was that Cursed was one of the two abilities. The unique executioner sword, Swordguard, also dropped here. A very fine weapon for some barb, wish that Skulla had some kind of use for it!

The Throne of Destruction was pretty tough: serpent mages and their bone spears, horadrim ancients, and oblivion/doom knight pairings. Apparently, the horadrim ancients can revive the oblivion and doom knights; that's always a fun surprise... having the hardest foes in the game suddenly coming back to life on you. Yeesh. Colenzo (FEB/Extra Fast) was easy. Achmel (Mana Burn/Poison Enchanted - yes, WildViking explained that he has a hidden "Poison Enchanted" ability that was never documented) had some brutal poison the one time Skulla got hit, otherwise easy too.

A combo of DV/LR worked surprisingly well against Bartuc (LEB/CEB), who only managed to kill 2 warriors with his whole mob. Wow, expected worse than that. With DV to shut down their hydras and high-level Mastery in place, the skeleton army was kicking some serious demon hindquarters. Ventar (Extra Fast/Spectral Hit - ha, Infector of Souls #2!) was an extremely lengthy battle fought under the protection of DV; however, Skulla's minions very slowly managed to fight the whole thing without need for retreat, and even came out of there with the full army intact! Lister (Spectral Hit/LEB) was the exact opposite: he and his minions hit so hard, they killed themselves in about 30 seconds, while decimating the army in the process. Golly had to be resummoned many, many times. Five mages limped out of that battle. Odd fact: the minion of destruction bodies cannot be raised as skeletons. Did not know that.


Time for the final showdown, at least in Nightmare. This was an easy fight in Normal, but I didn't want to take any chances with Skulla here. He swapped gear around to get 841 life (at the cost of +1 skills), which seemed like a good trade. Skulla's army got into a major fight with Baal's clone on the east side of the bridge, and actually managed to kill the clone before the army was wiped out! That was pretty cool.

Once the real Baal was engaged, Skulla kept his distance and kept spamming Golly and IM. Baal also kept his distance, which was good and fine with Skulla. This one poison mage survived about a third of the fight before Baal teleported next to him and cut things short. Not quite the successor to "the mage who lived." One trip to town was needed for more potions, but other than that, Skulla whipped this poor bastard and was barely scratched. Say hello to Duke Skulla:

Baal did drop a slightly improved pair of gloves... although mostly his stuff was garbage. That will be a small boost, although Skulla will have to give up his gargoyle totem with +1 skills in favor of a triple diamond shield upon entering Hell, so he'll actually be slightly weaker than before. And all the enemies will be juiced up with more boss abilities, greater damage, faster speed, physical resistance across the board (anti-Iron Maiden material), and elemental immunities everywhere. Sounds like one Hell of a challenge! We'll see how well Skulla can live up to it.

Skulla full-cleared all areas on one pass through Nightmare, no monsters parked, no Save and Exits. As I've mentioned several times, I hate the D2X titles, so we'll refer to him as "Duke Skulla" instead. This is now by far the furthest I've ever taken a Hardcore character. It gave me a nice warm feeling to complete Nightmare with Skulla, especially after the icy tundra regions of Act V. Cold hands, warm heart, as they say.

Wish me luck, for I will need it in the dark days ahead...