The Necromancer was always my favorite class in Diablo 2, and one of the things that always struck me was how unique he was compared to all the other characters. His entire design paradigm was completely different. This uniqueness changed slightly in the expansion with the arrival of the Assassin and the Druid, but this is primarily because those two classes cribbed some of their design from the Necromancer.
(I analyzed the unique and intriguing design of the Necromancer in a post long ago, but that analysis was obfuscated by me also trying to do other weird gonzo, humor things; in early posts on this blog I did a lot of experimental things that didn’t pan out.)
This has also been on my mind recently because I am designing a coop dungeon crawler board game and some of the character classes are inspired by my revelations about D2’s Necromancer design.
So, let’s get into what makes the D2 Necromancer so unique and different from the rest of the D2 classes (I’m not really going to talk about Diablo 3 at all, fyi).
CONFLICT BY PROXY AND INDIRECT DAMAGE: POISON AND SUMMONING
I’ll start with the less intriguing, but more obvious way that the Necromancer is unique from other character classes: the way his Skill Palette revolves around avoiding direct conflict and leaning on dealing indirect damage.
Curses are sort of part of this design, but most notable are the Poison and Summoning skills.
Every other class in D2, even ranged classes, have Skill Palettes that revolve around dealing immediate and direct damage to the enemies. This changed a little in the expansion with the Druid, who also had summoning, and the Assassin, who had traps (which are another type of summoning ability). However, the effect of this design is most dramatic with the Necromancer since his entire Skill Palette is devoted to indirect combat, while the Druid and Assassin have entire skill trees dedicated to dealing direct damage like any other class.
Indirect Damage: Poison Skills
With poison spells the Necromancer isn’t directly damaging anything. He’s attacking the enemies and then waiting several seconds for the results to take effect. This always has a weird effect on gameplay. Some people might find it frustrating, but I love it. There is something viscerally satisfying about ensuring a kill and then sitting back watching it unfold. It is really satisfying to watch your enemy move around like normal unaware that it is already dead.
I talked about this effect a little bit with my Fun Gun Award posts for Halo’s Needler and for Unreal Tournament’s Biogun. With both those guns you can basically set up a situation where your opponent can’t do anything to avoid his fate, but still has control of his character.
I think this type of gameplay always creates a greater feeling of power and control than dealing direct damage. It feels more rewarding and I’m not sure exactly why. I could probably unpack that idea, but I’m going to let it rest for now.
Conflict by Proxy (gameplay/conflict displacement): Summoning Monsters
The aspect of the Necromancer that I think draws the most attention is the ability to summon skeletons, golems, and revived monsters.
In terms of gameplay, summoning monsters has the effect of moving the conflict away from the player. It let’s the players observe what’s happening one step removed. It’s almost like the players get to create their own in-game cinematics.
This is similar to what I said about the Mutator in the Resistance series: the player can sit back and enjoy the show and not have to engage in the action directly. It can create slightly calmer, less hectic gameplay, allowing the player to relax a little, and in doing so I think it also makes the player feel more powerful. (I’m thinking of calling this device/mechanic, “focus displacement” or “conflict displacement” or “gameplay displacement” from now on.)
This ability also captures the imagination because, narratively and mechanically, the Necromancer the character class most similar to the bad guys. Diablo and his brothers are basically sitting back and sending their minions to fight the players, and the Necromancer is also sending his minions to fight the monsters. Through game mechanics the Necromancer takes on a role similar to the villains, underscoring his darker and more morally ambiguous nature.
(Although it’s worth noting that in terms of actual gameplay, the bosses are still strong without their minions, but a Minion-mancer is garbage without his minions and the minions are garbage against the bosses.)
SIDE NOTE: NECROMANCERS USES ALTERNATE AND UNIQUE RESOURCES: CORPSES
So, this is a small thing, but it also dramatically differentiates the Necromancer from other player classes.
Back in Starcraft, the Protoss were unique to the Terrans and the Zerg because they could create Archons out of Templars and thus had a third resource they could use: their own units (a mechanic that did not get explored or elaborated on enough, in my opinion).
Similarly, the Necromancer has an extra resource (besides potions and items) that he uses, which is corpses. This changes the way you look at a battlefield and how you approach combat. Fighting enemies is a way to gather resources, such as experience and items. However, experience takes some time to gather before it’s useful, and items are random. A corpse isn’t randomized, it’s guaranteed, and it is immediately useful if you’re a Necromancer. (I guess the Barbarian also has Find Potion, Find Item, and Grim Ward, but meh.)
This also has the consequence that Necromancer’s hate cold spells because a frozen enemy shatters and doesn’t leave behind a corpse.
All this isn’t a very dramatic shift in game design, but it does fall into the idea of using the monsters against themselves which gets elaborated on in the next section.
ALTERING MONSTERS AND MONSTER AI: CURSES (and Bone Wall)
This is what makes the Necromancer the most significantly and dramatically different character class of Diablo 2 (even with the expansion classes) as far as I’m consider.
One of the Necromancer’s primary gameplay strategies involves altering altering monster AI/behavior (and altering monster stats). No other class is really devoted to this type of gameplay style.
The only other classes that even have skills that alter enemy AI/behavior are the Barbarian and the Assassin, but there’s not a focus on those skills and they don’t really work in concert with their core gameplay and other skills.
The Barbarian has Howl (makes monsters run away), Taunt (makes monsters run towards him), and Grim War (makes monsters run away). So, two of those skills basically do the same thing, and ALL those skills aren’t really useful to the Barbarian whose focus is on fast, direct, melee combat. And chasing after monsters or getting away from monsters can be done much more effectively with Leap Attack and Whirlwind. So, the skills that modify AI don’t really benefit the Barbarian.
The Assassin has one skill that alters AI and that’s Mindblast (stuns monsters and makes them attack each other, like the Necromancer’s Confuse Skill). And that works well in conjunction with Traps, but most of the Assassin’s abilities revolve around direct combat anyway so she’ll probably still be getting into melee.
All the other classes have skills that alter what they themselves can do. The Necromancer has skills that alter what the monsters can do. This ability to alter AI is changes the game in such a fundamental way that these AI altering skills do not affect unique monsters and bosses.
It is an ability that is literally and figuratively a game changer.
Altering AI, changing enemy behavior: Curses
This is the most significant aspect to the Necromancer’s design. This is what, for me, makes him the most different.
Dim Vision: Monsters no longer target the players unless standing right next to them.
Terror: Monsters run away.
Confuse: Monsters attack each other instead of players.
Attract: Makes one monster the target for all the other monsters near it.
Dim Vision and Confuse are really the most useful of these skills and by themselves they will change how the players approach a battlefield.
For example: Take two battlefields. One has a group of monsters. The second has a group of monsters plus a healer who resurrects the monsters. In each case, the mental shape of these battlefields is different. Primarily this is because the priorities are different. In the first situation, players don’t really need to prioritize monsters; they can fight any of them in any order. In the second situation, the mobs are irrelevant until players can kill the healer; the healer gets prioritized.
Similarly, the Necromancer’s ability to change AI dramatically changes the shape of battlefields. With Dim Vision, monsters can be separated and taken down one by one, melee attackers stop chasing players, and ranged attackers are taken out of the battle completely. With Confuse, large groups of monsters are no longer intimidating, they are rewarding because you can turn them all against each other.
I could give more examples, but I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about here.
In addition to changing the way you play the game, the Necromancer’s Ai-altering skills also work in concert with his other skill trees (unlike the Barbarian and the Assassin).
For example, just look at combining Poison Nova and Terror. With these two skills the Necromancer can poison the enemies and make them run away so the poison has time to take effect. Then the curse wears off, the monsters attack the player, then the player poisons and curses them again. And so forth and so on.
Altering geography, altering pathfinding: Bone Wall
This is also a really unique skill that the other classes do not possess (in a way it is part of altering enemy AI because it alters pathfinding, but it also stands alone).
The Necromancer has one skill that creates a wall of bone in front of him. The more skillpoints the longer and stronger the wall happens to be. If monsters can’t get to players they will attack the wall.
With other classes, when you enter a space, what you see is what you get. With the Necromancer, you can change that space. With the Necromancer, you can alter the shape of a room or a hallway and thus alter the playspace.
The Necromancer is the only class that can alter the geography in Diablo 2.
Now, I don’t think that Bone Wall is a particularly useful or effective skill (especially with stronger monsters), but it is nevertheless one of the most, if not THE most, unique skills in the game.
You may be looking at all that and thinking, “whatever,” but when I realized how Curses and Bone Wall fundamentally change the way the game WORKS for the Necromancer, my mind was blown.
Being able to alter geography and alter enemy AI as a battle tactic is just such a different paradigm shift from the other classes. It comes as no surprise that the uniqueness of the Necromancer became appropriated for the two new Expansion classes, the Assassin and the Druid. And as a side note, the Assassin even got her own completely unique mechanics with the Charge-ups and Finishing Moves (which in my mind makes her the second most unique character class next to the Necromancer).
I haven’t played Diablo 3, though. Have no idea what’s going on with their classes, but I am willing to bet that they are designed to be very mechanically unique to each other.