I can't believe this, but I found a fifth roster of builds to keep doing this with.
For reference, here are the rules again. Again in the order that drew me to playing each character:
As usual, there's not that much interesting in the early acts, and the first time character builds are worth talking about is generally somewhere around act 3.
Bowazon: With her minimum life total, she got hit to below half health at least five times in act one alone. But then she got all the life charms from the team, and a socketed armor and helm with rubies, plus shopped a Wolf belt, so for act two went up from 86 to 186 life, a big difference. And then to start act 3, she actually had the highest life total on the entire team besides the barbarian! The entire team's supply of life charms and socketed rubies added up to over 300 life total, actually about the same as what a character with regular vitality might have. But really, the piece she needed to kick in was the Decoy skill, that's what really succeeded in keeping monsters off of her.
For offense, the skill she got to play with was Magic Arrow. This skill has the same somewhat-unknown property as Blade Fury and a few others: the added damage works like weapon base damage, and goes through your percentage multipliers, even though the lying character screen gets it wrong and doesn't say it that way. So it turned out that Magic Arrow at skill level 10, times +100% from dexterity, is actually indeed pretty solid offense for the first two acts. For act three then she shopped a heavy crossbow with a good damage prefix, and that made Magic Arrow's skill damage somewhat marginal, but it was still the best skill to use compared to Strafe and Guided Arrow costing too much mana.
I'm not yet sure where to go with her skill build long term. She has 10 in Magic Arrow now, since she'll need that at max for physical immunes in hell, but other than that she hasn't committed more than one point to anything yet. Many skills are attractive but none stand out as musts. The concern is that her desired skill build interacts with and depends on her choice of endgame bows. A bowazon's best skill investment for damage is Critical Strike, but that becomes moot if you have deadly strike on a weapon, such as Witchwild String. Her best skill to use for damage is likely Guided Arrow for its auto-hit property, but if the bow has ITD or big enough AR, then that's not so important and Strafe becomes better dps. Or on the other hand, the skills she needs for defense are Decoy and Valkyrie, but I'm not quite sure how to balance between those and offense.
Druid: How many druids ever put their first ten skill points in Poison Creeper? This one did. I love how these teams get to use certain skills this way, when a skill is for synergy later but can also be used for offense early on. Poison Creeper boosted so high so soon singlehandedly wiped every fallen camp in act 1! And then Rabies kicked in, which was also really strong right away with that much synergy already in place, up to 900 damage by act 3 and more than enough to one-hit-kill everything. In fact I got disappointed when it would kill its targets too quickly before they could spread more Rabies.
Assassin: She was the fastest through acts 1 and 2. With Burst of Speed obviously. But also because Claw Mastery ramps up well on damage: between itself and its synergy to Dragon Claw, it's 9% damage per skill point, plus crit chance; that's the most weapon damage per skill point among early skills other than Sacrifice. Claw items also beat other weapon types for damage early on; base items Cestus, Claws, and Blade Talons deal more damage at their qlvls than any axes or swords. But besides that, she was fast thanks to having a smooth play style: Dragon Claw can be driven continuously with the simple right-click-hold method for melee, it doesn't have to deal with any knockback or chargeups or any other interruptions or an aura occupying the right-click slot.
Barbarian: Hey, finally I get to do a barb who can go big with a two-handed weapon, after my last three (Frenzy, Berserk, singer) all went one-handed. Which was the Savage Polearm recipe for act two, then someone found a rare maul with good (60%) damage multiplier.
Sorceress: She's pretty weak until level 30; Enchant doesn't ramp up much at all until Fire Mastery kicks in, with its multiplier that applies twice. She had to make do with low-level Fire Bolt early, and actually mostly her rogue merc carried her through act one. For acts two and three, she made a Leaf staff with +Fire Ball, which wasn't exceptional but would be good enough to get up to act four and level 30.
Poisonmancer: Like the sorceress, he was better off using +skills items for an alternate attack for a while. I shopped a +3 Bone Spear wand and used that for act two and most of act three. Then around Upper Kurast in act 3, the low-level Bone Spear started becoming too little damage to work (couldn't outrace the zakarum zealots healing), and so I switched instead to now-near-maxed Poison Dagger. His skill focus besides poison is Dim Vision; I put 3 points in that for now, but hardly used it so far, but I do intend to add the Izual skill points up to 5 in anticipation that I'll need it in Chaos Sanctuary.
Paladin: Like the sorc and poisonmancer, he also used an alternative attack, shopped a +3 Blessed Hammer scepter and has used that so far through act 3. More generally, though, here's how I'm specifying his skill build. He must max the full Smite package (Holy Shield, Smite, Fanaticism) before raising anything else. If I let him do any hammer skills first, he's just going to be a hammerdin, except gimped whenever I stop raising the hammer skills.
I considered building him with max Concentration, since that works for both BH and Smite; the damage is about the same as Fanaticism and it only gives up the speed, and that leaves 20 more skill points to go into hammer synergy. But the more I thought about that, the more I decided I really didn't want to do that; that's just a gimped hammerdin. And the speed is significant. A real smiter needs to max the Smite package including Fanaticism, so only after that will this paladin do anything else. And that will result in just about the right power level of BH (max plus a few points of synergy by hell difficulty, with 1-point Conc aura) to be a useful accent but not a main driver of his play style for the late game.
And of course, as always for everyone, the town guard mercenaries easily carried them through acts two and three. With the Savage Polearm cube recipe, they easily get up to 200 or 300 melee damage, which just way outguns anything that these (or most any other) character builds could put together so far. (I've considered doing some version of this team concept without mercenaries allowed, but it really does become difficult; several classes need to deflect monster attention somehow but just have no way at all to do that besides a merc.)
Notable items from the first few acts:
The paladin found a Knell Striker scepter early on, 25% crushing blow, perfect for smiting down act bosses, a nice portent for him.
The Countess runes from act one resulted in three Stealth armors, for the paladin, sorc, and necro.
Blood Crescent scimitar, actually a very good Enchant melee weapon - fast base with 15 IAS, also 15 resist all and 15 life.
Sigon's belt + gloves combo, both from Mephisto (on separate kills), actually the very first plated belt base item that ever dropped was Sigon's. This is a great combo as always, with 30% IAS and 10% life steal. This went to the bowazon for act four; using a heavy crossbow, she badly needs the IAS, and also needs the fire resist and life on the belt itself.
Vidala's amulet - actually a pretty good fit for the bowazon's amulet slot for act three, 15 life and 20% cold resist. And then I also got Vidala's boots during the act, which also make a very good early set combo, granting 8% resist all, 30% run speed on the boots, 75 AR which helps too, and 50% magic find for funsies.
The biggest prize so far was an Amn rune from the Travincal council, plus enough gems to make a perfect sapphire. That's the recipe to upgrade a normal-tier rare weapon to exceptional, and just like the previous team, I did that with a rare maul for the barbarian, getting up to some really chunky damage. The other characters who would want this upgrade are the bowazon and claw-sin, but I went for the barb's weapon now because I already had a suitable rare, rather than needing to gamble for a rare bow or claw, and also an assassin claw is only half as valuable since it's only half of her dual-wielding damage.
A small procedural change from the other teams: I decided to full-clear this act, to keep the characters matched for experience better. Act 4 has a lot of variability in experience. The first three areas have no geometric cues to find the exits as most other maps do, so there's a lot of variability in how much you have to clear before exiting. And the short act means there's not enough of a sample size for variability to even out, as usually happens throughout a longer act.
The star of the show was the druid. Rabies is way stronger than I ever realized this early, thanks to having its synergy start at level 1 and so now nearly maxed already. A single hit would usually clear out an entire pack or even screen of monsters. I often listen to a particular podcast while playing, which runs about an hour... and this druid playing act 4 was the first time I ever finished an act ahead of the podcast!
The other interesting character was the sorceress. Enchant still wasn't enough damage to want to use yet. Her low-level Fireball could barely dent all the fire resistant monsters in this act. Her answer was to use 1-point Static Field (remember no cap on its damage in normal difficulty), and the merc could clean up everything from there in just a hit or two. That's going to be a preview for dealing with fire immunes later on.
Everyone else proceeded uneventfully. The barb has a rare maul, the amazon and assassin used good-enough vendor-shopped weapons, and the paladin did well enough with low-level Blessed Hammer. But as usual for all of them the merc was doing more than half the work. The necromancer was the less-smooth one at first, having to use laborious Poison Dagger stabs on every monster, but then Poison Nova kicked in at level 30.
For items, there wasn't much notable from the act. Just several typical low-level uniques, like Diggler, Bloodrise, Blacktongue, Treads of Cthon, Hellplague. I got a Chance Guards and used it, although it's an anti-perfect roll of 25% magic find. The one good weapon drop was a Bloodletter gladius, excellent damage for this point in the game; but I really didn't have any way to use it, there is no character on this team built around a one-handed melee weapon, and it's not quite better than the barb's upgraded maul.
Well, I got that, an excellent belt. I started using it for nightmare difficulty once I had the inputs to upgrade it to exceptional (for four potion rows), for the bowazon, and she might keep it all through end game.
I also got an Arctic set gloves and belt combo, for 40% magic-find and some IAS and life and strength. I had the barb use this for act 5. He could live with a 2-row belt - he never needs any potions, between mana steal on his Gorefoot boot and life steal on his rare maul.
After the act, it was time to rework the sorceress's loadout to be fully built for Enchant, rather than the low-level Fireball with a Leaf staff that she had used so far. Enchant gets a big boost at level 30, because of how Fire Mastery's multiplication actually applies twice (multiplying Enchant's skill damage when you cast it, and again multiplying the delivered damage for a melee attack), giving quadratic results.
The big piece was shopping a staff with +3 Enchant for another Leaf, which took about two hours. And I almost got a perfect extra result on this one - it happens to have Frozen Armor too, almost-but-not-quite the extra boon of Shiver Armor that I would have wanted to also prebuff from the switch slot. Frozen Armor is still worth using this way too, particularly in normal difficulty before the freeze length gets cut.
She also needed a weapon to deliver the Enchant damage in melee. I gave her the Diggler dirk for this. It was the same speed as several other options (average speed base item, but the dagger-class thrusting animation is slightly faster), and so Ignore Target Defense would make this choice the best, plus it also adds resists. Using a one-hand weapon also opens her shield slot, and I had exactly three perfect diamonds for that to cover her resists, so that in turn freed up all the rest of her slots for +life items (socketed ruby helm) and magic find; she took the Vidala's amulet+boots combo for 50% there.
As always, the last act of normal difficulty is when characters all have their top tier skills developing and the builds coming together for real.
Druid: Rabies is still wiping most packs in one hit. Unlike Poison Nova, Rabies with its longer duration deals enough damage in one hit to do that, and that was a thrill against Shenk and Eldritch's entire screenfuls of monsters! And one particular fun incident: I had an experience shrine, and popped an evil urn in the caverns which spawned a witch boss pack; I was able to run in and wipe them with one hit of Rabies faster than they could curse me to cancel the exp shrine. And one other good thing about Rabies is that its invisible missiles can travel through out-of-bounds space and keep hitting monsters there, like witches in the icy cellar areas; pretty much no other druid skill works to do that.
Although his big problem was Lister's pack, who are 95% poison immune in all difficulties, even normal. The best way I could handle this was to make a Strength runeword polearm for the merc, for the crushing blow. At least Rabies does still stop monster regen for a whole pack, and that was enough to let the merc get the job done here.
Enchantress: The downside of her Diggler dagger was its low durability, needing to repair often. Or maybe not - actually Enchant still works just by punching if your weapon is broken! Anyway, she blew up in power the most during this act; Enchant increases cubically at this time, from raising itself and Fire Mastery which applies twice, going from 250 damage at the start to over 1000 by the end. Although I did have to remind myself what this character was doing: attacking things with the dagger continually felt like I was using Poison Dagger, but this wasn't that - I had to remember that just stabbing a monster green (with a poison charm) wasn't enough, got to keep attacking.
Paladin: He gradually transitioned from mostly Blessed Hammer to almost all Smite throughout the act, as Fanaticism and Holy Shield now ramped up. One downside was that Smite consumes weapon durability, and he was using an expensive weapon with +3 BH - repairing that wasn't pleasant on the wallet!
Bowazon: I'm not sure how I want to build her offensive skills depending on what bow she gets later, but I do know that she can raise defensive ones, and she went to 10 each in Decoy and Valkyrie by the end of the act. What surprised me was how good the valkyrie is at killing things! She gets a Lance base item at skill level 8, which is quite a bit sooner than they become available for player characters. She was killing monsters in just a few hits, almost as fast as the merc. This won't last for hell difficulty, but it's yet another example of the fun angles that you see in playing all the way through the game with these various classes.
Barb: Here's something about Concentrate that I didn't know: its uninterruptibility overrides stun attacks, from the fluffy-pillow yeti types and notably Lister's pack. (Against players, it's not really stun, it's knockback and hit recovery. But Concentrate's uninterruptibility overrides those, I never knew that.)
Necro: Poison Nova continued to lay waste to everything, as it does through nightmare difficulty and I've done here for the third time now. He didn't need to use Dim Vision at all except for Baal's minion waves, where it did help significantly. I'm going to finish maxing Poison Nova first, then bring Dim Vision to 10 points for nightmare difficulty.
Assassin: She's somewhat lacking in the weapon department, still using two Brutal Blade Talons shopped from Asheara, but those held up surprisingly well through this act, including the Ancients, though petered out against Lister's pack and Baal. But I've got more coming for her in the item roundup.
I didn't get much of anything big of relevance. The most significant drop was a Kelpie Snare spear, very conveniently found by the bowazon in the Throne, to give to her merc for Baal. (As necromancers know, Baal gets completely shut down by enough monster-slowing; his AI becomes broken, he interrupts his own animations before they finish and never does anything.)
I also found a Hellcast unique crossbow, and wanted to upgrade that to exceptional for the bowazon to use, but I somehow lost it in shuffling around equipment somewhere or forgot it in town, oh well.
The one other decent weapon was a Warlord's Trust military axe, but it's not quite better than the barb's rare maul, and now the druid is going to switch to a one-hander since he'll need a shield for resists in nightmare.
Well, the best item by far was this charm, that's a spectacular endgame-worthy piece, and will be permanently fixated in the bowazon's inventory.
The biggest missing piece at the moment was weapons for the bowazon and assassin. I fixed that, by upgrading these decent rares to exceptionals. The bow came from a drop. The claws I got by gambling; I wasn't thrilled about spending the team's gambling money for the benefit of only one character, particularly on equipment that will be temporary and not endgame; but she did need them, and it didn't cost that much, roughly 1 million gold for about 80 gamble attempts to turn up these two decent rares.
The druid also changed weapons, taking the Bloodletter gladius, it's fast enough (after shopping for 20% IAS gloves) and can somewhat deal physical damage along with the Rabies poison. And the paladin upgraded a decent rare rondache shield to exceptional, for smite damage.
Besides that, I also spent money gambling on boots; this is the best time for it, with the top resist affixes and 30% run speed all available, while the cost (escalates quadratically with character level) is still low at 12k per shot. I got several rares like this, with a great combination of resists and magic-find... and 10% run speed. The problem there is that everybody on this team needs fast boots! I have five meleers who always need to be able to run out of combat, a paper-thin bowazon, and the poisonmancer who always puts himself in the middle of the ring.
Once I realized that, I stopped gambling boots for now; I'll aim to shop for them later, when 40% run speed is available on magic items. I then gambled circlets instead...
... and solved two run-speed problems with circlets, hah. And so they could take 10% speed boots for now.
Minor tweaks: swapped the Sigon's gloves+belt combo to the assassin; she can make more use of the 10% leech than the bowazon, and the bowazon doesn't need the 30% IAS so badly after swapping off her old heavy crossbow, and she wants to free up her belt slot for that great rare (now upgraded) from earlier. The enchantress got a Rhyme shield - for once its Cannot Be Frozen will matter for a sorceress. The werewolf took her 3-diamond shield; she didn't need it with good resists on a circlet, and I didn't have a second Shael to make him another Rhyme, and he can live without CBF for now since it doesn't matter if Rabies attacks slowly.
The bowazon selected a Nokozan Relic for her amulet - she needs resists there and 50% fire is actually the most I can get in the slot, plus it comes with hit recovery too. The assassin and barb got Lore helms. The barb took the Hsaru's boots+belt combo, for big AR, along with some decent resists and defense. I made more Stealth armors, now a total of five, for all except the barb (who has a defense armor shopped from Anya) and the bowazon (a Squid armor for life.)
And, because six characters on this team need IAS (all but the necromancer), I shopped four pairs of 20% IAS gloves, for all of the barb, amazon, druid, and paladin (and the sorceress has Sander's and the assassin has Sigon's.) The necro will keep the Chance Guards, as the only one who doesn't need IAS in the glove slot.
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