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This Necromancer report was written in December 1999, after Diabloii.net's visit to Blizzard North. It was the most comprehensive Amazon coverage ever, to that point. It's hopelessly outdated at this point, of course, but can still be read for archival value.
Probably the most unique character in Diablo II, the Necromancer can be played in a variety of styles, all of which will require more attention and strategy than the average character. Not especially skilled at direct attack with either weapons or spells, the Necromancer must use his wits and guile to control his minions, and pick his moments to attack. Our comments on him are based on playing him through most of Act One; a reasonable introduction to the character, but far from enough experience to give him a full evaluation.
The biggest question right off the bat, "Is he fun?" That is affirmative, the Necromancer is fun, but it's not the same instant gratification that you get chopping things up with a melee character, or blasting them with a Sorceress. The Necromancer is more of a perverse thrill to watch your pack of skeletons and a golem run around the wide open wilderness, cutting down anything they encounter, mainlining you experience, while you need not lift a finger to assist for minutes at a time.
While that easy stuff is enjoyable, the game is more fun when the action gets intense. And it gets that with for the Necromancer when he faces some very powerful monsters, or a whole bunch of them at once. Early on he can't take on more than one monster at a time, and he doesn't have any good attack spells, so if a mob comes at you, you'd better have an escape plan, or a bunch of minions to battle for you.
One thing to clarify at the start: we will be using "minions" as the generic term for the Necromancer's summoned creatures. So Raise Skeleton, Raise Skeletal Mage, all four types of Golem, and Revive all produce creatures that can (and will) be refered to as "minions." The potential confusion is that there are unique boss monsters in Diablo II, and most of them have other monsters of their kind that travel with them in a pack, and these monsters are called "minions". Like "Fallen Minions" or "Burning Dead Archer Minions" or "Hollow One Minions." So two meanings to the word, but on this page, when we say "minion" we mean whatever the Necromancer has summoned up to fight for him at the moment, and not a boss monster's pack, unless that is specifically stated.
The Necromancer starts off with no armor, and a newbie weapon, a wand that gives you +1 to Raise Skeleton. Since that skill, and all others on the top row of the skill trees, are Clvl zero, I.E. available right from the start, you can use it if you have the wand equipped. The +1 works in addition to skill points, so if you had Slvl 3 Raise Skeleton, with the wand equipped you'd have Slvl 4, and could raise four skeletons. But if you dropped the wand, one of the skeletons would crumble to the ground.
Like most of the characters, the Necromancer doesn't seem to start off with enough in any attribute. He has very low strength, and not very much mana either, so running in circles around the monsters while you wait for some mana return is not an uncommon occurence. That was an issue all the way through Act One, with him unable to just go toe to toe and melee monsters to death while he built up some mana. It seemed like he always was waiting for enough to do another Golem or Corpse Explosion, or Raise another skeleton. He doesn't have to use mana constantly, like the Sorceress, but he doesn't have as much mana either. The Necromancer would truly love a skill like Warmth; something to regenerate mana more rapidly than usual.
Another issue for the Necromancer the way we were playing him is that he needs a lot of corpses around. Corpses are not saved forever, as they were in in Diablo. You could go back through a dungeon level hours after you cleared it out in the first game, and every corpse would still be there, just as they fell. In Diablo II, they vanish after a few minutes once they are off screen, so running back over areas you've already cleared can be a very empty jog. This is actually a strategic issue for the Necromancer, since for him corpses are essential, not just eye-candy. And since there is no monster repopulation, you don't happen upon solo Fallen or zombies or other monsters that you can quickly kill and raise a skeleton from either.
The lack of corpses is also a problem if you go through a Waypoint alone. Usually there are monsters near a Waypoint or your town portal, unless you were sure to have the area totally clear before you left. And the Necromancer needs corpses to raise minions or blow them up, and has trouble killing the monsters otherwise, so it's somewhat of a Catch-22.
Golems and skeletons will follow you through Waypoints or town portals, so if taking a Waypoint or portal to an area that you know is hot, it's a good idea to go with some minions in tow.
To be honest, we weren't playing the Necromancer in the most intelligent fashion. Our purpose was to experiment with a lot of skills, and we had a limited time to play him, so we spread our skill points around more widely than is recommended, thus running right into the "Jack of all trades, master of none." state. Teeth, at about level five.
We chose to concentrate in Summoning, and then add a bit of everything else. The Necromancer has the wand that gives him +1 to Raise Skeleton right from the start, so we used that, and then when we leveled up, we put a point into Amplify Damage, to have a curse to try out. It did make a difference, but the beginning monsters are pretty weak, so Amplify Damage was mostly of use on bosses, or champions, since the other monsters were going down in two or three hits anyway.
Curses work in a pretty logical fashion. You can see a typical information display of a curse here. Each curse has a mana cost (which is generally pretty low. Around 5 or 6 at Slvl one.), a duration of effect (how long the monsters stay "cursed"), and a radius (how large is the area of effect when cast). Then there are specific things that each curse does. We have full information on all the Curses in our Necromancer Section. Amplify Damage is a relatively powerful curse: it has a small radius and a short duration, but while it's working it causes everything it effects to take 60-100% bonus damage from any attack. Higher Slvls of Amplify Damage only increase the radius and duration, not the damage inflicted. (It did go up in damage in early builds, but that was too powerful, so it was altered.)
We also put a point in Teeth pretty quickly also, and it was not bad. Teeth has been changed since E3, since you now get two "teeth" at Clvl One, and they don't spread out as widely. You can hit the same target with both teeth from well across the screen, and if a monster is close and you have a few points in the skill, you can get a lot of teeth to hit at once. The shotgun is less sawed-off now, if you get the metaphor. Of course the damage is quite low, but monsters don't have many hit points early on either, and you should be combining most of your attacks with Amplify Damage.
The real problem is that you just do not have enough mana to keep raising monsters and shooting off curses and offensive spells at the same time. The Necromancer needs to use his skills sparingly, since he doesn't get the mana back as rapidly as the Sorceress, and he doesn't do as much damage with his attacks, so has to repeat them more.
A basic strategy we found useful was to let the minions go first and let them engage the monsters. Monsters go for you or the minion; they don't care, they pick the closer target, and then once engaged they keep attacking the same target as long as it is in range. The way you can use this to your advantage is to let the monsters begin fighting your Minions, and then run in and attack them melee style as well. The monster will keep on targeting your minion, rather than switching to you, and you can get essentially free hits.
The movement of your minions is somewhat hard to describe, but it feels very intuitive when you are actually playing. Your minions stay close to you, but not right on top of you, and they can be controlled, though not with pin point accuracy. They like to stay within a set radius of you, around half a screen or so, and if you stop they will not go any farther away than that, unless there are monsters just ahead of them.
Your minions show up on the overhead map as aqua colored "+" signs, so you can keep track of them, and it's fun to run off a few screens, and watch them following you, and eventually catching up. They have only one speed, and it's the same as your walking speed, so you need to not run too much unless you want to leave them far behind. They are smart enough to pathfind some, so while trailing you they don't get stuck in the first corner they run into, and they can catch up from quite a distance, if your trail is not around too many tight corners.
Minions will occasionally stray off the edges of the screen. Especially in the heat of battle, when they might be pursuing a monster, or moving to the next-closest target, they can get farther away from the Necromancer than normal. In these cases, if the Necromancer runs a screen or two away, and stands still for a few seconds, the minions can be seen on the overlay map breaking off their skirmishes, and dutifully following their master.
Movement and tracking gets more complicated indoors. We didn't get to try it ourselves, but were told that skeletons were having a lot of problems staying out of the way, or keeping up with, a Necromancer in any area with very narrow hallways, like the Sand Maggot Lair, or the Sewers of Act Two. This is understandable, these sorts of areas are hard to walk through with just players, much less AI minions. There are many hallways in Diablo II that are just two spaces wide, and others that are only one, where you can only walk in single file. And there is no way to pass or push through another player or monster, so whoever is in front is staying there, barring the use of skills such as Teleport or Jump.
Help is on the way though, since while we were there word came that new ws AI being worked on, and that in the testing the programmer of the improved AI had gone through the Sewers with twenty skeletons, which would be an amazing sight indeed.
So obviously if the Diablo II Design team wanted to make minions smarter, they could do so. Make them like your troops in a real-time strategy game, where you could tell them to patrol, or which target to attack, or tell them to stand ground. Or the development team could make them faster, or give them multiple behavior options. So why aren't minions full-controllable?
We are not on the D2 Design Team, but our guess would be that it's all for gameplay and balance reasons. Brilliant, point and click sort of minions would be too useful or powerful a tool for the Necromancer. They way they are now requires skill and positioning and doesn't allow surgical strikes. If the minions were much smarter, then their attack damage or hit points or something else would have to be lowered to keep them from being too powerful. So they aren't the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree, but their limitations require the Necromancer to keep a closer eye on them, and get more involved himself.
A step up the intelligence ladder are NPC mercenaries. Hireable in each act, you get rogues in Act One, and they don't do much damage with their bows, but as a comparison to the minions, the NPC mercs can run to keep up with you, they can be told exactly where on the screen to stand (this may or may not change), and are just generally all around smarter. But then again, they aren't reanimated corpses, so they *should* be smarter, right?
Skeletons vs. Golems
In addition to the skeletons that all beginning Necromancers will be using, we were able to test Clay Golem as well. Also Blood, Iron, and Fire Golems, but these just for a few minutes when playing with a pumped up character. It would take extensive experimentation to see if any particular type of golem was smarter or faster than the rest, or if more skill points improved their behaviour or AI at all. AI improvements seem unlikely, since a Golem is a Golem in terms of intellect.
So how was Clay Golem? At level one, surprisingly weak. With a point in Skeleton Mastery, the Raised Skeletons seemed to be regularly outlasting the Golem, had a faster attack, and cost less mana to cast. However they do of course require a body to summon then, while Clay Golems require only mana. Clay Golems look very muscular, but they generally walk up to monsters, and then stand there for a moment before attacking, while skeletons get near their target and are swinging already. This results in the Golem taking more damage, since just about every monster gets in a hit on them before they strike.
The damage once the Clay Golem finally does get off an attack wasn't anything special either. They attack with their fists, in double-handed overhead strikes, and while that is a formidable weapon, the Raised Skeletons have various weapons, axes or swords or maces, and that does seem to make a difference in the damage they deal. Blizzard North has talked about implementing more variety in the Raised Skeletons, where armored monsters you raised from would yield armored skeletons, or the monster's weapon would have a closer parallel to the weapon the raised skeleton wielded. This is still being debated though.
So Clay Golem was far from overwhelming, but our experiment was far from a controlled and balancd test. We had a couple of points in Skeleton Mastery, which raised the hit points and damage of our skeletons, and only one point in Clay Golem. More skill points = better golem, though the exact benefits are not disclosed, and each type of golem gains different things from more skill points. These sorts of things are highly subject to change, but some gain hit points, some damage, some increased health regeneration, etc. But something different for each golem, and we don't know which is for which, and again, like many skills, they can and probably will change between now and the final game.
Skeleton Mastery is the only way to improve the quality of skeletons, since adding more points to Raise Skeleton (or Raise Skeletal Mage) just increases the number of skeletons you can have active at the same time. And no, we don't know what more points in Revive does, nor do we know if Skeleton Mastery improves Revived monsters.
Raised Skeletons and a Clay Golem fight pretty well, and they have about as much to/hit and damage as the Necromancer does at the early stage in the game that we tested them at, but they have a very slow attack, and don't pick out a target well. If they get surrounded, they are in trouble, since they swing so slowly that a few monsters can just rip them up, hitting your minion so fast that it can't even get off a counter attack.
There aren't any displayed stats on your Raised Skeletons or Golems. No listed hit points, strength, damage, etc. So it's impossible to determine if they are stronger than the monsters they are battling, except by trial and error and observation. Skeleton Mastery does add to their hit points and damage, so it's a good idea.
As for AI, Golems are probably going to be slightly smarter than skeletons, but not by much. It will need to be tested more. Golems do get one bonus, they have a hit point bar shown over their picture, while skeletons and Revived monsters do not, so you never know if they are still half alive, or nearly dead. You know how close your Golem is to death, not that you can do a whole lot about it early on.
So over all, golems will be better at higher skill levels, especially golems like Iron or Fire, and they will improve much in quality once they have a few skill points in them. What you get with Clvl one Raise Skeleton is about what you'll get with Clvl 4 or 6. You just have more skeletons at a time them. Which is defintely a benefit, but you have to put points into Skeleton Mastery to improve their strength and hit points, and with skill points so rare, that might be a luxury you can not afford. So skeletons were more useful in our playing, but we were only up to around Clvl 10, so it's far from a thorough test.
Dealing with Large Groups of Monsters
Playing the Necro is a strange experience, since you spend a lot of time just standing around. When at about Clvl 7 or 8, we had two or three skeletons at all times, and a Golem, and it's quite easy to wander around the wilderness, and let the minion mob cut down anything we encountered. The monsters are no threat at all in small numbers, so any individuals, or groups of two or three, are just slaughtered by your servants. It's actually sort of boring then, as your minions are doing all the work, and you are just following them along and watching your experience increase, and occasionally shooting off some Teeth or a curse, since you have full mana anyway, and might as well. The interesting part comes when you run into larger groups of monsters, like a boss and his minion pack, which will give you half a dozen monsters at once, all of them much tougher than the rest. Or a Fallen encampment, where there can be twenty-five or thirty monsters on the screen at once.
Big groups can swarm your minions. You need to try and get your troops all attacking the same monster or two, and keep there from being several monsters on one of yours at once, since they'll hit too fast for your monster to get off a swing in retaliation. You should use the curses, like Amplify Damage here, and pitch in, get up there next to your skeletons and beat on a monster. Try to avoid getting surrounded. This isn't so hard against Fallen, since they scatter for a moment when you kill one.
The trouble with them is that there are always a couple of Shamans in the middle of the pack, and if you are just nibbling around the outside they will raise 90% of the Fallen you kill. You also don't get experience for killing resurrected monsters. Fallen Shamans can resurrect from slightly off the screen, but need to be much closer to throw firebolts at you. So you aren't really in danger, but you aren't making any progress either, since they are raising most everything you kill as soon as it hits the ground. And as more targets get close, your minions will tend to get separated, and pretty soon you have several monsters on each of your minions, and they'll die.
What works pretty well is to kill a couple of Fallen at the edge of camp, and then when the others around you scatter, you can run in and kill a nearby Shaman, and then run back out again. The Shaman aren't as cowardly (or smart) as the other Fallen, so they don't run for it when one of their fellows dies. This makes them easier to kill, since they are standing still while the Fallen Warriors are all scurrying about. Shamans don't have a lot of hit point, and they seemed to have a very low Defensive Rating also. One big advantage in Diablo II is that you can run, and there isn't a rigid square system for where you can stand on the ground. So you can dash into and out of much tighter spaces than you could ever do in Diablo.
Another slower and less-bold way to do it is to keep at the edge of the pack, and when you bag a Fallen, the others nearby will scatter, and you can chase down the ones that run away from the camp, and kill them out of range of the Shamans. It takes a while, but once you pick off a dozen or so of the Warriors like this, you'll be able to go right in and take on the rest, since you aren't so badly outnumbered.
Corpse Explosion is a great damaging spell for the Necromancer, but the problem with using it in this sort of situation is that it doesn't have a very large blast radius. (The radius of damage increases with added skill points.) So you need to have other monsters right next to the one you are blowing up. And since you are mostly killing things at the edge of the pack, that's hard. Also, the Shamans are raising most everything that dies, so you don't have any corpses to detonate anyway. Fallen Shamans do not resurrect each other (except for some unique boss packs of them), so it's not a perpetual motion battle. One useful thing for this sort of fight are cold skills, since monsters that die while cold or frozen shatter into small pieces that then melt. This deprives the Necromancer of corpses, but at the same time, shattered pieces of ice can not be resurrected. However the Necromancer doesn't have any cold skills, so it's sort of a moot point, if he's playing solo. The Sorceress, on the other hand has a very easy time with large packs of Fallen. She can just run in and bang a couple of Frost Novas, killing a few monsters, and slowing the rest. And nothing that dies from it will be resurrected.
A boss monster and a pack of minions can be nastier than a Fallen Encampment, since they are faster, and don't get scattered when one of them dies. And they will have more hitpoints and deal more damage, since Fallen are pretty wimpy. We spent a memorable ten minutes taking on Treehead Woodfist, an "extra fast extra strong" Brute (formerly known as Gargantuan Beasts) Boss who we found near the Act One quest spot, the Tree of Inifuss. He and his pack went through our two skeletons and a Clay Golem like a flood over some pebbles; barely even slowing down to kill them, and sent our Necromancer running like a little bunny. Of course since the boss and his minions were all extra fast and extra strong, they could keep up with the running Necromancer. Fortunately not too far away was an area with some fences and ruined houses, and we had killed a bunch of Fallen there, so we were able to wander through the ruins for several minutes, alternately cursing with Amplify Damage and using Corpse Explosion, and there were enough corpses there to kill off most of the pack, and the others got hung up on all the tight corners, where we could raise skeletons and golem again, and take them out one at a time. But if not for that terrain feature, there would simply have been no way for the Necromancer at that level to kill off the boss pack. And yes it was a lot of fun. ;)
Long Term Projections
So the Necromancer is pretty difficult at lower levels. How will he fare higher up? Well, that remains to be tested, but his skills definitely improve. More skill points in them works wonders, and of course Iron and Fire Golems will be far more powerful than mere Clay Golems. Also, his starting equipment and weapon attack damage is pitiful. Your starting weapon is the +1 Raise Skeleton wand, which is very useful, but it's not much of a weapon. The Necromancer is not bad at hand to hand. Certainly far better than the mage in Diablo was. So by the time he's getting into the Clvl 20-30 range, if you put some attribute points into strength and dexterity, and got him some decent equipment, he could be quite useful pitching in on the battles his minions were fighting.
His higher level curses can do some very cool things, from healing him, to slowing monsters, to lowering their resistance, and he has some good powerful attack spells, like Poison Nova, Bone Spear, and Bone Spirit. It seems likely that the Necromancer at mid to high levels will be easier than the other characters much of the time, since he can just lead his minions around and cut down most monsters he meets. But then he requires a lot more concentration and precision when faced with larger groups of creatures, or tougher monsters, since he doesn't deal the massive damage that some other characters can. So his game play sort of goes in fits and starts, easier much of the time, then suddenly much more difficult.
That's not to say that he's boring or easy to play though. He needs to stay more on his toes, since he has to manage his minions, keep curses at the ready, watch his mana level, avoid taking much damage (since he doesn't have very many hit points), know when to attack and when to stay back, alternate physical with magical attacks, etc. He will definitely be using all of his hotkeys a lot of the time.
And this is just assuming the most obvious style of play for a Necromancer, which is mostly Summoning, with some Curses and Poison and Bone attack spells. Everyone will have somewhat different skills, and it will certainly be possible to play him with just a couple of points in Summoning, and lots in attack spells, or lots in curses and summoning and not much in attack spells, or other ways. Eventually in Diablo II there will likely be lots of odd variants, like the naked mages and others of Diablo, and likely people will choose to try playing Necromancers with just attack spells, or do a skeleton master, with all of their points in those skills. There will be so many options of how to distribute your attribute points and skill points that huge variety in all characters will be common in Diablo II.