Publisher: Ganesha Games
Marketplace : Amazon, DrivethruRPG
Engine: Four Against Darkness (vers. 4.0)
Four Against Darkness is a solo dungeon crawling game that borrows its aesthetics and tropes from Old-School Dungeons & Dragons, and in a pinch it can serve as an extremely rules-light OSR TTRPG.
I have never played a solo game before, and as my modules are popular with solo RPG players, I wanted to try them for myself. I've grabbed solo games of varying vintages and levels of complexity from the highly sophisticated Ironsworn, to the essentially rules-free Alone Among the Stars, to the venerable Barbarian Prince to understand the experience.
Four Against Darkness is by far my favorite of the solo games so far.
4AD is an unpretentious stomp through a randomly generated dungeon with a group of four low-level adventurers seeking treasures and to defeat the evil master of the Dungeon. It does a good job of simulating the experience of playing a hack-n-slash / kick-in-the-door style game of B/X D&D.
Each time the PCs pass through a door or passage, roll a d66 to determine what the next dungeon section looks like, although you may need to rotate, flip, or truncate the section. You then use a 2d6 table to determine what features, treasures, or monsters are in a given room or corridor. This may require a couple of extra table rolls to complete, but they generally come together in a couple of minutes,
If the PCs encounter monsters, they can choose to attack right away, or give up the initiative to roll a D6 on a monster-specific NPC reaction table. Monsters might be indifferent, hostile, ask for a bribe, or even offer a quest to the PCs.
Task resolution from attack rolls to saving throws to defense rolls when monsters have a turn to attack are handled by rolling a D6 adding modifiers from gear or class features, and trying to meet or beat a challenge's level. So, if the PCs run into a Level 3 gas trap, they will need to beat a 3 on 1d6 to disarm it, or the whole party will lose hp.
Characters are simple, having a class level, hit points, a gear list, and one or two class features. Most of their class features dictate which D6 rolls they get to add their level to. So, for example, warriors add their full level to attacks, while rogues add their level to defense rolls and chances to find and traps. There are the seven classes from B/X Dungeons & Dragons: Warrior,Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling, plus a Barbarian class that feels like the original AD&D Barbarian from Unearthed Arcana. Spellcasting and Halfling luck abilities are very simple and well-designed.
Four Against Darkness glosses over a lot of the resource tracking elements of Dungeons & Dragons, but makes a point of making sure players know where the latern is and has mechanics to cover the danger of roaming a dungeon in the dark. Ranged weapons can be used first, even if the monsters have initiative, but in a room the battle then turns to pure Melee, and the ranged fighter loses a round to changing weapons. It makes tracking arrows a lot less relevant. On the other hand, it offers very detailed rules for splitting the party stuck and locked doors, wandering monsters, attacks from behind, and negotiating with monsters after bribing them. It can feel in many ways like a game of B/X in all the right ways.
It also offers a pretty solid set of resources for a low- or no-prep OSR game.
What I Loved
Tight Play Times
Once I got the hang of playing it, Four Against Darkness moved fast. Dungeons are considered complete when you kill the master of the Dungeon. Each time players encounter a "Boss" monster (a monster that can absorb multiple wounds and is a threat to the PCs on its own, a die is rolled to determine if it is the "Final Boss." This monster gets more hit points and extra attacks. The odds of running into a Boss are 1 in 6, and the chances of a Boss being the Final Boss increase from 17% on the first boss to 100% on the sixth. It is possible to finish a dungeon in two rooms, but the odds are good that the PCs will complete the dungeon in less than 20 turns that take 2 1/2 to 3 minutes each.
Simple and Effective Dungeon Generator
The tools for creating a labyrinthine dungeon in Four Against Darkness is fast, easy, and effective. It takes less than a minute to generate a room., and uses the dimensions of the page to create limits to the branches of the Dungeon. If I were to use a pen-and-paper tool to a system like Donjon, I'd much prefer this method to the tool in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide.
The random table for stocking the dungeon tends to place more weak monsters than anything else, but includes empty rooms, mysterious events, hidden treasures and friendly encounters enough to make a dungeon feel complete, if random and strange.
OSR Friendly Design
The monsters, magic items, spells, etc. described in the core Four Against Darkness game book are taken straight out of Dungeons & Dragons. Goblins, kobolds, swarms of vicious giant or undead rats, etc., trolls, and in numbers appropriate for a group of OSR chatacters of levels 3-6. Using an existing B/X or AD&D stat block is all that you would need to run a 4AD session as an OSR adventure... Or improvise an OSR session on the fly.
Four Against Darkness is a heavily supported game. Adventures for higher level characters, themed expansions, books of monster table, etc. are available at very affordable prices. I suspect this is a thoroughly affordable game to keep fresh.
The Four Against Darkness engine is simple, but sufficient to handle most things player characters might attempt in the game without straying from the simple 1d6 mechanic. In the section on using 4AD as a rules - light role-playing game, the book suggests additional modifiers of +1' +one-half character level or +level, based on their character class. It provides enough guidance to turn the game into a simple but robust TTRPG.
Because Four Against Darkness is not designed as a role-playing game, but rather as a game that simulates the same experience as a classic game of Dungeons & Dragons, they are not afraid to borrow ideas from video games and board games to stand in for more complex elements of TTRPGs. One I particularly like in 4AD is the system of clues. These represent bits of lore found in the empty rooms of dungeons. Once a character collects three clues, they may rol tlo possibly gain a level and may choose one of several discoveries, from a guaranteed success at negotiating with one enemy, to a special party-wide bonus on attacks against the Final Boss, to the location of a powerful artifact.
As my players love collecting lost lore and strange Arcana about my game world, a system other than just XP to reward their engagement with the game world would be very valuable.
One of the places where Four Against Darkness shows the limitations of its format is in its combat focus. Much like WoTC-era Dungeons & Dragons treats combat as a sport rather than a last resort. In my playthroughs, fighters and dwarves could just wade through groups of vermin and minion monsters with superheroic ease. And they'd better be able to, as very few monsters will back down until a battle is going against them; most will never be indifferent to the party, and the bribes they demand are too high for characters on their first few forays to possibly avoid anything except by fighting. Attacking first and killing enemies ruthlessly from surprise is the default way of handling encounters in this game,
The only real challenge the game offers is the possibility that the players might run out of bandages before they finish the dungeon and need to take a single trip home. Making combat scarier and less common is one of the ways older editions of D&D created a sense of reward for playing the game and kept it from being a dull grind as Dungeon! has the potential to be.
Mathematically, most areas in the dungeon will be filled with minions and vermin that will never back down. In my first playthrough, I rode a red tide through the first seven rooms, crushing Orcs, goblins, giant Rats, and vampire bats constantly. Having additional optional ways to clear a room, such as an option to try to pass through a room by stealth would be welcome, or minion-grade monster that might accept just a few gold to pass or offer a quest might be worth adding.
Quests are a Edge Case
There are several more complex elements of play, such as agreeing to do a quest for a monster, that are buried by the dice in Four Against Darkness. I have played the game five times and never received a quest option. Nor have I accumulated enough clues to get a major discovery yet. They are incredibly rare to the point of being vanishing, even while Quests and Clue-based discoveries are some of the most theoretically unusual and interesting parts of the game.
Four Against Darkness is not trying to immerse you in a virtual world like Dungeons & Dragons or GURPS might try to do. It is trying to let you enjoy the trappings of those games while a group is not available. I described it to my wife as "Diablo on paper." Like Diablo (or more apropos, Legend of Grimrock) it's not D&D, but sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking it is well enough to get your fix.
However, this is really impeded by the amount of metagaming you do. 4AD demands you look at tables like how a monster responds and measure risks and rewards based on them constantly. Especially when deciding whether to give up initiative to see if a monster might be friendly. This sort of metagame thinking is actively discouraged at the D&D table because it kills immersion. Here, instead, it is a necessary task, which often makes it hard to fool yourself into thinking you're playing D&D,
I have used 4AD as a rules-light RPG with my wife and son, and enjoyed it, but I found that because the game was designed to metagame, I had to hint at things like probable monster behavior to be fair.
Editing and FAQ
Four Against Darkness is version 4.0 of its ruleset; there are places where it feels extremely polished. It's presentation, however, is very rough. There are terms, like "save" that are undefined until the end of the book; sidebars that point at other rules, but give no page reference; class features that change names; and awkwardly phrased rules that detract from the sense of quality and ease of learning the game.
Near the end of the book there is a conversationally-toned FAQ that restates existing rules, discusses ambiguous rules, covers suggestions for mapping, etc. that all could have easily be written into the rules where they are first presented. On the one hand, it gives great insight into how the game was tested and developed; on the other it puts a huge chunk of rules and even errata at the end of the book instead of where they are easily found.
I had the most fun with Four Against Darkness as a rules light role-playing game, rather than as a dungeon crawl simulator. Ultimately the dungeon crawl works in context of TTRPGs because it is presented as a rich narrative that enables and rewards creativity. It works in video games thanks to the intensity of the experience. When you strip those out in favour of an automated rules set, the absurdity of the dungeon crawl as a concept starts to show. l find myself wondering on occasion why I find dungeon advantures fun. This lack of immersion is a problem that is not unique to 4AD, however, I am discovering it is structural to solo RPGs that require a lot of metagaming. This complaint may also be strongly based in my preference for the social elements of playing TTRPGs.
As a role-playing game it gives Tiny Dungeon 2e or Tunnel Goons a run for their money as a light and robust system, It lacks TD2e's flexibility or Tunnel Goons' simplicity, as it is built solely with classic dungeon crawling in mind. Certainly, my son has mastered the rules fairly quickly.
As an adventure planning tool set, Four Against Darkness is pretty solid. Following it's rules you build a medium-sized single-floor dungeon perfectly compatible with an OSR at for low-level play. With only a few tweaks it can build several floors of dungeon swiftly. Played alongside a game like OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord, you can improvise a dungeon on the fly almost invisibly for your players.
Overall, I've had a fair amount of fun with Four Against Darkness. Solo gaming is not my cup of tea, but I definitely will be keeping this book on hand for other purposes.