Play On Hardcore Difficulty
Neverwinter Nights 2 defaults to a "normal" difficulty setting. This is probably a good difficulty setting if you just want to experience the storyline without too many problems, but if you want to reap the fruit of the game’s combat system, or if you’re used to the traditional D&D pen and paper rules, then bumping the difficulty up to Hardcore is a good idea.
Hardcore difficulty initiates three major changes to combat. First off, your characters will be vulnerable to attacks of opportunity. That means that your enemies will get free attacks on you if they’re within melee range when a character casts a spell or attempts to use a scroll or drink a potion. (Your own characters can always use attacks of opportunity on your enemies, even on normal difficulty.) This makes it much more important to protect your spellcasters by keeping them away from enemies.
Secondly, enemies are allowed to score critical hits on you; they can’t do so on normal difficulty. You’ll take more damage, and thus will have to be more on the ball with things like healing spells and defensive buffs.
Lastly, your area-of-effect spells, like Fireball, will hit your teammates when they’re caught in the radius of effect. This is going to change the way you play quite a bit. On normal difficulty, you can feel free to throw down area of effect spells willy-nilly, since they won’t hit your teammates, but you’ll have to be a lot more cautious on Hardcore.
All in all, in our opinion, Hardcore difficulty is the way Neverwinter Nights 2 was meant to be played, and we suggest that you at least give it a try. While the bevy of defensive buffs will make most fights in this game fairly easy, even on Hardcore difficulty, the hardest encounters will at least be more challenging to you than they would be on normal difficulty.
We've Come To Buff - YOU UP!
Buffing - the act of casting spells that enhance your character's abilities or offensive or defensive capabilities - is a long-standing tradition in RPGs, and in D&D games especially. While you can probably beat the game without ever casting Stoneskin or Bull's Strength, knowing what spells to cast and on which characters is a big, big help.
Most of the spells listed below are arcane spells, which means that you'll need to have a sorcerer or wizard in your party to cast them. Some of them can be cast by divine spellcasters, as well, so bringing along a priest or druid may be helpful. Some are castable by any class. Most well-balanced parties, though, will have at least one divine and one arcane spellcaster in them, so it shouldn't be too difficult to cover all the bases.
Important Buff Spells
This list of important buff spells is ranked in the order that you're likely to acquire them in. We're not going to list every buff spell in the game; just those you'd likely want to use fairly often. If a spell's not on this list, that usually means that its duration is too short when compared to the effect it lends; there are plenty of spells that offer a nice buff, but which only last for six seconds per level of the caster, which is good enough for only one fight, on average.
Endure Elements/Resist Elements/Protection from Energy: Endure and resist elements will protect the target from a certain amount of elemental damage before fading away. Good against most caster enemies, since it works against Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells and all other types of elemental damage.
Mage Armor/Improved Mage Armor: Along with Magic Missiles, Mage Armor is undoubtedly the first-level arcane spell with the most application throughout the length of the game. It adds a large +4 AC bonus to the target, and can be cast on anyone in the party, not just the caster. This is a standard magical effect, so this won’t stack with most equipment-based magical AC deflection bonuses, such as Rings of Protection, but is still going to be the largest AC bonus you can cast onto a character most of the time.
Improved Mage Armor is available at the third level of spells and lets the AC bonus go even higher, but it’ll be a bit more difficult to fit it into your spellbook since the important Fireball and Flame Arrow spells are there as well. Best to save that only for your frontline fighters and use regular Mage Armor for everyone else.
Second Level Buffs: Bear’s Endurance, Bull’s Strength, Eagle’s Splendor, Fox’s Cunning, Owl’s Wisdom, and Cat’s Grace are all excellent spells, since they add a whopping four points to a character’s ability score. Although they don’t last quite as long as they used to, at 10 rounds per caster level they’re unlikely to fade away before you’ve gone through a number of fights. These can either be used to shore up a character’s weaknesses (a low-HP wizard or sorcerer can make use of the extra health afforded by Bear’s Endurance), but are more commonly used to emphasize a strength. All of your melee characters will want to have Bull’s Strength applied to them, while ranged attackers and characters with light armor will benefit from Cat’s Grace. These are available at the second level of spells for clerics, druids, and wizards/sorcerers (not all classes can cast all of the spells listed, though), so they’ll come in handy fairly early on in the game and will remain so until the end.
Note that these bonuses don’t stack with magical bonuses from equipment, so if you get a Belt of Storm Giant Strength that adds +4 Strength to your character, casting a Bull’s Strength on that character wouldn’t do anything.
Barkskin: One of the only reasons you probably want a druid in your party, Barkskin will add anywhere from +2 to +5 AC to the target, depending on the level of the caster (it maxes out at caster level 12). This is a bonus to the target’s natural armor rating, which very few other magical effects can boost, so this will rarely overlap with other magical AC bonuses, such as Mage Armor. If you don’t want to bother with keeping a druid around, though, you can let a player-created Cleric earn the ability to cast this spell by giving him or her the Plant domain at character creation.
Stoneskin/Greater Stoneskin: When you gain a character that’s capable of casting Stoneskin on everyone in your party, you’ve effectively switched on easy mode for the bulk of the game: it’s that damn good. Stoneskin gives your party the ability to ignore the first 10 points of damage that come their way from every physical attack unless the weapon that’s being used against them is fused with adamantium, up to the point where it absorbs 100 points of damage, when it then fades away. Greater Stoneskin ups the resistance to the first 20 points of damage, up to 150 damage total.
Put bluntly, these skills make your characters all but immune to physical damage until they run out of juice, which in most cases won’t happen until you need to rest anyway. Enemies that can bust out large critical hits (which only occur on the Hardcore difficulty anyway) will be able to get up and over the damage resistance, and it won’t affect magical damage at all, so you’ll still take normal spell damage. That said, the bulk of the enemies you’ll face will be the regular joes with swords, so these spells are great ways to extend the length of gameplay before you have to rest. As with Mage Armor, save the Greater Stoneskins for your frontline melee characters and use regular Stoneskin for your archers and spellcasters.
Haste: Haste is a fantastic spell to cast just before entering into a tough battle, assuming that you can see it coming and don’t have to deal with any kind of lengthy conversation beforehand. When cast, the target and all nearby allies will be granted with haste, which confers a +1 bonus to attack rolls and AC, a 50% movement speed bonus, and, most importantly, one extra attack per round at full attack bonus. With the powerful weapons that you’ll be getting in the course of the game, an extra attack is going to make quick work of most enemies.
Note that the 50% movement speed bonus makes this a great spell for getting around town quicker, as well.
Improved Invisibility: Improved Invisibility renders the subject invisible for one round per level of the caster. Unlike normal invisibility, though, the improved version doesn’t wear off if the subject attacks. Thus, if you cast this on a melee warrior, they’ll gain all the benefits of invisibility until the spell wears off. This is especially valuable to melee characters, since becoming invisible will give all attacks thrown their way a full 50% chance to miss, and they’ll also be immune to attacks of opportunity. They may also be untargetable by spells. This confers an obvious advantage upon the subject in battle. The lower-level Invisibility spell has its uses, but Improved Invisibility is the better choice if you intend to fight while under the influence.