Four Against Darkness Review

Four Against Darkness is a solo dungeon crawling pencil & paper game written by Andrea Sfiligoi and published by Ganesha Games.  It’s available in PDF format from Wargames Vault (which is where I got my copy) and also in printed or PDF format directly from Ganesha Games and from Amazon.

I picked this up when it first came out but hadn’t found the opportunity to play it.  A quiet Sunday afternoon with wild winds outside finally provided an ideal time to read through the rules and give them a go.

The digital download includes a 90-page black & white game booklet with a colour cover.  Some of the most frequently used play aids are also reproduced in a mini booklet format with eight pages on a single A4 sheet.  I printed the full booklet (except the cover) on 4 pages per sheet of A4 and it came out perfectly readable.  While it’s certainly possible to play just using the PDF, I think that given the need to flick back and forth around the text, that wouldn’t be ideal.  As well as the rules, you need something to write with, some grid paper and two ordinary six-sided dice to play.

In this book are the core rules and a system for generating random dungeon crawling adventures so there is no narrative play in this book (such as you would find in a traditional paragraph based solo gamebook), although additional paid-for expansions do include narrative scenarios.  You create a party of four characters chosen from the available character classes (Warrior, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, Barbarian, Elf, Dwarf & Halfling), roll for a random dungeon entrance, select a door or corridor leading off from the entrance and begin your adventure…

Characters have a level (stats at 1 and capped at 5 in these rules), Life (based on class and level), Attack roll (based on class, level and weapon), Defence Roll (based on equipment), various class-specific traits and some starting gold – which is the only random element of character creation.  You also must select a marching order which determines who fights in rooms, corridors and when subject to an ambush.

As you exit each section of map, you generate the next from one of 36 possibilities (a mixture of corridors and rooms) and then randomly determine the contents which can be one of treasure, trapped treasure, special events, special features, vermin, minions (the most common), nothing (although you can still search the area), weird monsters, a boss or a small dragon’s lair – each of which have further sub-tables to define them.  If you back track through the dungeon, you have a small chance of being ambushed by random monsters.  As you encounter bosses and small dragons, there is an increasingly likelihood that they will be the final boss which has slightly higher stats and other effects.  If you ever run out doors and corridors to explore, the last available room includes the final boss.

When you encounter monsters you can either pile in and attack them or wait and see what they do.  If you wait and see, each monster has it’s own reaction table and they can occasionally be helpful or at least open to bribery if you’re not in a fit state to fight.  Combat is pretty straightforward with (usually) the party acting first to make melee and missile attacks, cast spells, etc. with powerful attacks eliminating multiple minions or doing significant damage to bosses.  Usually minions or bosses will take a morale test when reduced to half strength or run away.  Bosses who don’t flee after a morale test will fight on at a reduced capacity.  Rather than rolling for monsters to attack, each character will instead make defence rolls based on the level of the monster attacking, the character’s equipment and any relevant modifiers.  Bosses can have special attacks and other effects unique to them.  There are a lot of special rules covering all sorts of situations – including dragging around a character who has been turned to stone!

The game I played took about an hour and a quarter as I although I read the rules before playing, there was still a bit of effort to look things up while I was getting the hang of it.  I explored a total of 15 locations before stumbling into the final boss (a small dragon), defeating it and retracing my steps to the start of the dungeon.  All four of my characters survived but a couple of them were pretty beaten up and all but one character increased to level 2.  I didn’t encounter any special events, special features or weird monsters so I think there will be a decent amount of replayability as I explore additional dungeons and my characters level-up further.  Most of the encounter tables only have six options so there will obviously come a point where the games get a little bit repetitive even if you experiment with using different character classes but there are a lot of supplements containing stand-alone narrative campaigns and expanded rules, with the game designers promising the game will continue to grow and be supported.

For playing the games, I used the excellent A5 Gamer’s Notebook from SquareHex in the UK.  These card covered notebooks have 6mm grid paper (22 squares by 34 squares) on one side of each page and ruled lines on the other side, which makes them perfect for RPGs and solo gamebooks where you need to draw maps and keep notes.  I picked these up from a Kickstarter years ago on the basis that they were bound to be useful for something so I was really pleased to find a purpose they are so well suited to.

The game was really enjoyable and I’m definitely keen to play again, either as a solo game or as a lightweight fantasy RPG with a group.

The only faults I could find with the rules were a couple of minor typos and the fact that while the contents page include hyperlinks, none of the rest of the document does so if you’re playing with the PDF you have to manually navigate back and forth a lot and the organisation of the sections isn’t necessarily the most logical.

There are now quite a few additional supplements to add further content to the game, most priced at only a few dollars each:

  • Caves of the Kobold Slave-Masters – Three session solo adventure
  • Dark Waters – Solo adventure, new aquatic monsters and Swashbuckler character class
  • Knight of Destiny – Solo Arthurian adventure for a single character of the new Paladin character class
  • Fiendish Foes – Micro supplement which adds new encounter tables for character levels 3-4
  • The Three Rings – Solo adventure for character levels 3-4
  • Four Against the Abyss – Expanded rules for character levels 5-9
  • Treasure Hunters of Charlemagne – Narrative historical adventure (requires Four Against the Abyss)
  • Buried Secrets – Narrative solo adventure for a single Cleric character, first of the five-part Gathering of the Four campaign coming in 2018

There is also discussion of a horror themed version of Four Against Darkness being released at some point in the future…

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