Mad Prophecies #2: Defensive Skills

Here’s the second installment of Brother Laz’s new column. In Mad Prophecies #2, Laz continues illuminating D3 design issues by comparisons to his popular D2 Mod, Median XL. Last time Laz talked about the difficulty of using skill design to spur character variety and balance. This time he goes deeper into skill discussion and examines why defensive skills are so hard to make useful, without making them mandatory.  Here’s the start; click through to continue reading:

Mad Prophecies #2: Defensive Skills

Defensive skills. D3 has a lot of those. Horrify, that stun slam and the famous Time Stop, announced a few months after the Median version of it. Gah.

Anyway, many people excitedly exclaim that this means Diablo 3 will surely be hard and therefore you will need all those defensive skills! Maybe the game will finally be a challenge. Maybe parties will be more than parties, but companies of brothers who will take a grenade to save a party member’s life.

Or not. Forget it, most defensive skills will be useless and this is why:

Defensive overkill

You don’t hit the maximum level and neither do you have the best items when you first kill the end boss. That’s when you go into farming mode and start becoming stronger while the monsters don’t. The difficulty curve hits a noticeable peak when you beat Hell for the first time, after which you will probably spend a lot more time farming in an environment that gradually gets easier, thanks to your character’s improvements.

If you put your points into defensive skills to get over this crest, when the game will become easier afterwards those skills become useless. On the contrary, piling on more DMGZ remains useful (at least until you can one-hit kill everything). If you don’t die, you simply don’t need more protection, and not dying gets easier and easier with time.

Even simply getting better at the game can have this effect. Maybe your very first character did need Frozen Armor but now you don’t because you know how to use Teleport.

In Median, I attempted to fix this by implementing a lot of very tough uberquests (currently 28), challenging even the most advanced builds with the most powarful itamses in the game. It worked, but this caused another problem. See below. Respecs would also help, but then all you are doing is working around the problem by allowing people to respec out of their defensive skills…

Oh, and you just don’t need them

We already went over this last time. If you don’t need defensive skills to survive, you should indeed skip them and put your points into offense instead because you’ll still survive and now also kill faster.

In Median, people are just unwilling to invest more than 1 point into any defensive skill that doesn’t explicitly gain a bonus from hard points (only), even if the skill is overpowered when you do max it. The sorceress’ Inner Fire spell is an instant full heal with a cool down timer that goes down with skill level to the point where you can almost spam it at level 30+. This makes you a living goddess. Everyone knows that. Yet nobody maxes it, because you can survive without it and dedicate those points to glassing monsters faster so you can farm faster and get more items and rule the planet.

And this skill does not even directly slow down your kill speed. Skills like Terror, Bone Prison and Howl in LoD and Horrify in D3 are useless because you can play reasonably well without them and they really slow down your kill speed.

But the game will be hard!

Maybe the game will really be hard (like, really hard) without those defensive skills, so you have to use them. At least, that is what the Time Stop sycophants at think.

Firstly, Blizzard said the difficulty in Diablo 3 will be similar to LoD, which means nonexistent. The other thing is that if people need defensive skills to survive, they will literally need defensive skills, forcing them to get those specific skills or die a painful death. Bye bye build variety. Bye bye newbie who attempts the same strategy as in LoD and gets his face torn off.

Median ended up in this situation, big time. The sorceress in Median only allows you to put points into two elements (+ the general tree, out of five skill trees), and each tree has a noticable tactical bias. Fire is the wtfpwn damage tree. Lightning is more defense oriented, having the powerful Warp Armor and three short ranged attack skills in it. Cold is a tactical crowd control tree due to AoE freeze, Cold Fear which makes monsters run and Ice Elemental minions. Poison is about tactical skill use, but it is also defensive due to some damage reduction in the tree.

The idea was to make different elemental sorceresses actually play differently – fire/cold would be the glass cannon, lightning/poison would be the tank, and hybrids would sit in between. What actually happens is that every viable caster sorc gets either poison or lightning due to the protective spells in it, because the uberquests are too hard to survive without any sort of passive defensive skill. So they pick either tree, max the defensive skill and then spec into fire for the ‘million plus’ Flamestrike or into poison for Diseased Cattle.


It is often said that certain skill builds in classic LoD are useless because they don’t do enough damage. By making defensive skills more important, I managed to create the opposite situation: skill builds that are useless because they aren’t defensive enough.

What have we learned today?

Defensive skills are useless for two reasons. One is that they get obsoleted by higher character levels and items, forcing you to either respec out of them or skip them in the first place. The other reason is that if the game is easy, you don’t need them, and if the game is hard, every build is forced to get them, creating a major balance issue.

Either of these issues prevents the other from being fixed. Increasing the difficulty of farming to fix the difficulty drop will probably force people to get defensive skills. Any attempt to make both glass cannons and tank builds viable farmers with different strengths and weaknesses will fail because the difficulty drop after beating the end boss benefits glass cannons more than tanks who will end up with overkill defense, meaning they will either be weaker at farming or overpowered during the normal game.

I doubt there is a solution within the constraints of what is essentially a ‘90s game with a graphical update. The best approach is probably a very hard endgame farming area balanced to require at least one defensive skill, but not all of them. Good luck keeping this balanced while the player keeps finding better items, though…

Mad Prophecies are written by Brother Laz. Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily

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