I've been playing the Baldur's Gate trilogy for the better part of 13 years now and, like many of you, take great delight in coming up with creative ways to keep my gaming experience challenging and fun. In particular, I enjoy the feeling of being the underdog, of testing my mettle against high-level encounters with an underleveled party of limited resources. Some years ago, I finished Watcher's Keep in late Chapter 3, with a party of six characters in their mid-teens. While it was a formidable challenge, it left me wondering whether I could have done it even sooner, as one of my first quests in Chapter 2. Now, having just started my first playthrough of BG2:EE, I decided that time was ripe to make my plan a reality.
Oh, and I also decided to install SCS (along with Rogue Rebalancing) to make things a little bit more interesting. I don't usually run with mods and have never tried SCS before, so I guess this marks my first play-through of both BG2:EE AND SCS.
Anyway, down to business.
Like many of you no doubt know, you can travel to Watcher's Keep right after speaking to Gaelan Bayle. In fact, you don't even have to go through the city gates. My original plan was to do exactly this: hit the keep right after Waukeen's Promenade, in practice limiting my choice of party members and resources to those found in Chapter 1. Upon closer examination, I decided to cut myself some slack and do the Bard stronghold quest first so that my Blade charname could get hold of some usable armor and weapons. I also made a quick swoop on Trademeet and the Grove to pick up Cernd, Rasaad and the Belm scimitar. I did not bother with the quest itself and made special care not to accumulate too much experience on the way.
I eventually made it to Watcher's Keep at day 11 with a party consisting of my Blade charname, Keldorn, Aerie, Yoshimo, Cernd and Rasaad. With the exception of my charname and Yoshimo, who were both level 10, the average level of my party was somewhere between 8 and 9. Apart from the items I had gleaned during my excursion to Mekrath's quarters and the Planar Prison, my troupe was still very much in their starting gear - though I did pick up some potions and scrolls from one of the Bridge district merchants. Upon talking to Odren, I promised myself to not leave the keep for more resources unless I absolutely had to. I also vowed to refrain from cheating and excessive cheese such as fake-talk and luck-based tactics involving reloading until all the planets are lined up. I would, however, do everything in my power to outsmart the AI; often this meant employing roguish, crafty and non-violent strategies to survive the coming challenges. What follows is the account of my endeavors so far. Enjoy and feel free to comment and offer your input.
ENTERING THE KEEP
Even during ordinary playthroughs I often raid the first level of Watcher's Keep in early SoA for all the nifty, easily obtainable treasures. In hindsight it is easy to see that my entrance was tainted with overconfidence; without giving it much thought, I barged into the main hall with (figurative) guns blazing and... BAM! VAMPIRIC WRAITH TO THE FACE. After a quick and humbling defeat, I opted for a more careful approach, scouting the western corridor and rooms with Yoshimo, disabling traps and picking up items on the way. Apart from a lone Stone Golem (which I left alone) and a pack of mephits and a bunch of slimes, this part of the temple did not pose too many problems and yielded me the Golem manual and a bunch of welcome ammunition, potions, wands and scrolls.
The upper (eastern part) proved a bit trickier. The large room next to the priest's tomb had a host of devil shades who, seeing through Yoshimo's invisibility, quickly chewed the poor thief to bits. On my second try, however, the shades were gone and I instead encountered a much more benign spawn of sword and phase spiders. I thought this was strange, given that SCS is supposed to provide you with the toughest spawns. Anyway, I chose not to mind it too much and proceeded with my looting and detrapping business. Apart from a single Spellhaunt, which Yoshimo was able to dispatch with ease, I did not encounter any more monsters.
Next came the task of dispatching those troublesome Vampiric Wraiths in the main hall. Between their permanent haste, level draining, invisibility spamming and regeneration abilities, they proved fairly manageable. Using my newfound manual, I conjured up a flesh golem and had Aerie animate a couple of skeleton warriors. Using these as a (meat?) shield I had Keldorn cast True Sight and then just focused all my firepower on one wraith at a time. Despite their high regeneration rate, they fell relatively quickly. There were some more mists further down the hall, but they posed no challenge to my hasted and buffed vanguard of fleshy and bony summons.
After lighting the fireplace, entering the tomb and giving the lich-priest his slippers, it was time to perform the ritual. I had already noticed that SCS had increased number of statues in the hallway. I counted four mages, five fighters, an archer, a thief and a golem. After placing the needed items on the altar, four of these, two of the fighters (one of which had a weird AoE fear ability) and two of the mages, came to life. Since the mages were low-mid-level and would mostly cast enchantment spells like greater malison, chaos, domination and the like, I figured that casting immunity: enchantment on Aerie and then countering them with their own medicine might be an effective prescription. Sure enough, it was quite easy to disable them with malison + confusion/hold person and pummel them to death while having a second, fear-protected character distract the fighters, who were quite easy to handle without the magic support.
The next batch of statues proved significantly harder. The two high-level mages were the main threats as I had no way of getting around their simulacrum-spell trap-absolutely immunity-based protections, not to mention their time stops and other arcane nasties. Even without the mages, there was no way I could take on the rest of the statues at once, especially the big-ass golem which could easily decimate Keldorn, my main front liner, with one elbow drop.
In the end, I resorted to the less-than-honorable strategy of trap setting and divide and conquer. I had Yoshimo place his two alchemic snares next to the mages, hoping that the resulting poison would keep their spellcasting at bay. My Blade and Keldorn would then pull the lower batch of warriors and the golem down to the library in the western wing, go invisible using potions and trap the (literally) dumb-as-bricks creatures behind two sets of doors. Meanwhile, Cernd would cast insect plague on the mages while Aerie would do her best to land an enchantment or two on the remaining fighters. It took me a few tries, but after I finally got the mages, the rest of the statues went down rather easily, especially after Aerie landed a slow spell on one of the toughest fighters. As for the golem, the dumb bastard got stuck in one of the doorways, allowing Keldorn to pelt him with infinite bolts +1. Cheesy, but oh so satisfying. The statues left behind some good gear, including the Purifier+3 and Usuno's Blade+4, my first weapons with higher than +2 enhancements. The experience yield I received for completing the ritual was also a welcome blessing, and everyone except Keldorn had gained a level or, in Aerie's case, two.
THE ELEMENTAL LEVEL
In comparison to its predecessor, the Elemental level turned out to be an easy one, almost like a freebie in terms of loot and experience. I managed to complete it with a fatigued, spell-depleted party without any rests and too many reloads.
After making the pact with the Chromatic Demon, I headed for the fire library to speak with the imp. I was surprised to find it empty of critters; however, when I came back a little while later, two Fire Giants had popped out of the nowhere to greet me! Ouch. After a little empirical research, I discovered that the libraries only have monsters if you take time entering them - it is as if the spawn needs a heads-up to pull up its pants or something. I used this to my advantage: by giving Yoshimo the Boots of Speed, I managed to loot the air and slime libraries without fighting a single creature. I then had Aerie cast sanctuary on herself and lure the air elementals from the fan room simply by getting them into her line of sight, then walking back to the air library. As soon as the sanctuary expired, the elementals came floating out, one by one, with convenient six-second intervals. I suppose it is part of the improved AI that SCS comes with, but all it did was make my day easier since I did not have to figure out how to deal with the two fire giants along the way. After obtaining the Air Scepter and turning up the fan, I had the gas blow out of the slime laboratory into the library below, conveniently dispatching a belated spawn of mutated spiders on the side. The creatures in the slime lab were nothing to write home about, though I did lose Rasaad due to careless positioning. Thankfully, all it took was one charge from Mekrath's rod of resurrection to bring him back up again.
The rest of the labs were not that hard either, though the critters in the ice room seemed to require weapons of +3 or greater to hit. Luckily I had a found a stack of +3 bolts on the previous floor. I had Keldorn equip his crossbow, positioned him in one of the doorways and then just sniped the ice golem and his fellow mists to death. They never seemed to come too far out of the room either; using hit and run tactics, Keldorn could easily dispatch them all without seriously risking his hide. The same strategy worked for the fire room; after luring the fire elementals from the ice room, the fire giant soon fell to Keldorn and his bolts.
I was initially a little worried about the Chromatic Demon, but he did not turn out to be fairly easy in the end. I waited him to shapeshift into his ice form before inserting the scepter keys, then promptly hurled every fiery spell or projectile I had at him. I had my Blade, stoneskinned and mirror imaged, tank him while having Rasaad pummel him with his flaming fists, Yoshimo shoot fire arrows and Aerie and Cernd chain-discharge their Wands of Heavens. Whenever he shapechanged into one of his other forms (the air one was particularly nasty), I would pull back, wait it out, then rinse and repeat. He was dead in no time.
After the battle, I decided to rest up but was rudely awakened by two devil shades, which I was both unwilling and ill-equipped to fight. Luckily I managed to flee through the portal before they could do too much damage.
(To be continued...)