Today I would like to review something a bit different. It’s Four Against Darkness, and it’s a neat little thing which is unlike anything else out there.
Here is an excerpt from Ganesha Games‘ (the people who published Flying Lead, Song of Blades and Heroes and so on) website:
So, I hear you ask, what is this exotic beast?
I was intrigued and decided that USD 8.00 for the PDF is not an investment I would regret too much, even if the game would turn out to be not that great. Put bluntly, this game is a quick, light solo or co-operative dungeon crawler game in a dungeon which is created up as you go along. The player(s) take control of four heroes who delve down into the dungeon, with the ultimate goal of slaying the evil Final Boss, grabbing the loot and getting out in one piece.
What do I need to play?
All you will need to play Four Against Darkness (4AD) is a few six-sided dice (three or four will suffice), a pencil, a rubber/ an eraser, and two sheets of paper.
The test game this review is based on was very much a spur of the moment kind of affair on a Sunday afternoon. I just grabbed a notebook, a pencil, some dice and opened the rulebook PDF, so excuse if the level of flash, jazz and pazaz is a bit lower than usual. It’s also a matter of the subject. 😉
Four Against Darkness: Getting the Band together
First you start by creating your warband of four characters. There are optional rules for smaller warbands as well if you like, but the game will be harder. For your characters you can choose from the following types which are included in the 63-pages black and white rulebook: Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, Barbarian, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling.
Thus I ended up with a party of four, consisting of:
Everything is kept deliberately simple and fast to get into. Each character has a character level, Attack Value, a Defense Value, a certain number of Life points, maybe a special ability or two, a few items of starting equipment (some types of character can choose between loadouts at creation, such as ‘choose between shield and hand weapon or bow’) and a certain number of starting gold.
Let’s take Breaz the Barbarian as an example, starting at Level 1. He starts with a two-handed weapon (Attack Value bonus) and light armour (Defense Value bonus).
For most of his starting gold pieces he bought a piece of rope before entering the dungeon, because ropes are alyways useful. His special ability is Rage, which means that once per game(!) he may carry out a mighty strike. He starts with a set number of Life points plus 1 for each character level.
In combat he may add his level to his Attack Value. This is the thing that sets combat oriented characters apart from say wizards, who never gain any bonus to their regular attacks, unless they are using some kind of magic equipment.
Speaking of which, barbarians are a superstitious bunch and won’t touch a magic item (they won’t even carry them without using them) or use magic scrolls.
Not much dice-rolling required, no need to allocate attribute points, it’s all very fast to set up and straightforward so you can dive right in. Reading these paragraphs probably took longer than assembling a hero party for Four Against Darkness.
Now let’s get to the meat of the game – the dungeon. Because without that it would just be a crawler.
Other than most games of this genre you don’t need a game master or a ‘bad guy’ player. A game turn plays out as such: You sit in a room or a corridor and choose which way to go.
To find out what the next room looks like you roll a D66 (= 2 dice, one for each digit to get a result between 11 and 66), look up the corresponding dungeon floor plan part from the rulebook and draw it onto your dungeon floorplan.
This is a picture of my dungeon floor plan at the end of the game:
To make things a bit clearer I’ll go through the first few rooms of the dungeon I explored yesterday and explain the core mechanics as we go along. In-game happenings are written in italics, rules explanations in regular type:
The Crypt of the Stonefaces
You start by drawing your starting room at the bottom centre and then go on from there.
At the start there are some things you have to decide.
First: Who holds the lantern? A dungeon is a dark place, you need some light. So one of the characters has to hold the compulsory lantern in one hand. In my case Sigur the Cleric got the job of holding it, so he had to put his shield on his back, losing the defensive bonus it grants otherwise.
The other thing you have to decide is the order in which your characters walk around, the marching order. For this you can use miniatures on the side, chits or just write numbers on the character sheets. Any room which is only one square wide counts as a corridor and doing combat in cramped spaces is tricky as a party of four, so in these cases the marching order comes into play, i.e. only the two characters to the front may fight in close combat.
This works both ways though, so monsters will have a harder time swarming you in corridors.
So we start at the room marked with the big red 1. It’s empty, so my group hastened on through the door on the left, entered room #2 and had to find out that it was swarming with 10 giant rats!
In Four against Darkness there is a rather neat little mechanic called reaction: The player(s) may choose to attack enemy encounters right away OR wait a bit and try to see what they’re doing. In this case the player(s) forfeit their first round of combat (usually the heroes always attack first), and roll for an enemy reaction. Each of the enemy encounters comes with a list of reaction.
In the case of the rats for example it’s not unlikely that they just disperse and flee into various shady corners as the characters roll along. On the other hand there is a possibility that they won’t. In this case they get to attack first.
So there is a little poker element to the whole thing, but it may be worth it, especially later into the dungeon when the party is pretty beaten up and/or the reward doesn’t justify the danger of the fight.
Each of the monster encounters got their own reactions to roll up. While certain undead will always fight to the death ironically, Goblins are likely to flee when outnumbered by the heroes, and many of the monsters will accept a simple bribe in the shape of gold coins for letting you pass.
There are three classes of enemies in Four Against Darkness – Vermin, Minions and Bosses (and the fourth, weird sort!). The first rarely yield any treasures if you slay them and don’t grant any experience either. Well worth considering not engaging them first, but wait and see if they flee.
It was the first fight in the game, there was no option to bribe them, and it’s just giant rats, so the party attacked. In the ensuing fight Zordan, who as a wizard starts with very few Life points to begin with, got a wound. A further roll decided that luckily the bite wasn’t infectious, which would have cost him another Life point.
The rats are just level 1 vermin, so each of the characters will automatically kill one on their turn. As mentioned above, combat is kept rather quick and simple. Each character got their Attack value of 1d6, combat oriented characters add their level to that as a bonus. Equipment such as a two handed weapon will add another point to that, light hand weapons such as a dagger will have you deduct a point off the result.
There are other boni as well such as Dwarfs getting another +1 attack bonus when fighting goblins and such. When it’s the player’s turn each of the characters gets to do one attack (this can include casting a spell), rolls 1d6 and adds their attack boni. If the result beats the enemy’s level one enemy vermin or minion is slain. Bosses and other big nasties have multiple Life points.
After the characters are all done hacking it’s the enemy’s turn. Each vermin/minion/boss gets to attack once (some bosses have multiple or special attacks), the attacks get allocated to the heroes who in turn have to do defensive rolls. These work just like attack rolls: 1d6 + defensive bonus points from things such as armour, being small/swift, magic protection and so on.
The twist is that on a defensive roll a 1 always means failure and a 6 always is a success. So even these level1 vermin have a chance to wound our characters.
Once the number of enemies falls below half of their initial number they have to pass a morale roll or flee (unless they choose to/are stupid enough to Fight to the Death), in which case they count as slain as well.
After a few rounds of hacking away the remaining two rats decided it was best to flee. Victory, but no treasure or experience points. The groups proceeded to #3, a narrow room of just one square width and thus a corridor where they were met with the sound of tiny clicks and clacks and claws scratching along the stone floors – a swarm of 10 Skeletal Rats!
As mentioned above the marching order comes into play in corridors.
It means that only the first two characters in the marching order (Breaz the Barbarian and Gargo the Dwarf) may fight in close combat, characters behind them may only use ranged weapons or spells.
The same goes for enemies, meaning that in this fight they were only able to attack the tough close combateers of the group, and only two rats at a time were able to attack, turning the corridor into a bone grinder.
Breaz the Barbarian gets a light wound, skeletal rats get powdered down to four who decide to flee (interestingly skeletal rats, other than most undead, are clever enough to retreat). Again, no treasure and no experience gained; Skeletal rats are classified as vermin. Ignoring the door to their left the party pressed on down the corridor, getting to a junction (#4) which seems to be empty.
Empty rooms or corridors can be searched for treasure/secret doors and the like. This takes some time though, and especially in corridors (other than in rooms), chances for secret treasure are slimmer while chances of getting caught by a Wandering Monster are increased.
Wandering Monsters represent the ‘police force’ of the dungeon or simply wandering roamers who use secret passageways, teleportations or plain sneakiness to ambush the party. This means that they will always attack first and, especially in corridors, from behind, keeping the more capable close combat characters (Gargo and Breaz) out of the combat and attacking the more vulnerable Zordan and Sigur.
Wisely the group decides not to spend much more time searching for things which aren’t there and turn left to the next room #5. A spacious room, seemingly empty room. At closer inspections it revealed a small box on a little round table, right in the middle of the room. It’s a puzzle box.
Despite the fact that Zordan would have been allowed to add his level as a bonus on his roll on solving puzzles, this was a very hard one and likely to kill him. Without even searching the rest of the room the party left through the door on the right to enter room #6. Turned out it’s an Ogre’s living room! The first boss monster! Gargo tries to catch the scent of gold or gemstones, but only gets a noseful of Ogre funk.
One of the special traits of the Dwarf is that they are able to ‘smell gold’, meaning that if he passes a check you can roll up the treasure for an encounter before you actually slew the monster, which can be handy in deciding whether or not the fight is worth it at all. In this case there Gargo failed the roll and the fight started without any further ado.
Being a boss monster the Ogre does extra damage when attacking and has multiple Life points. As those dwindle, so does his level though, making him easier and easier to wound and to evade his attacks. Each time you encounter a boss monster you roll for whether or not it’s the Final Boss.
As mentioned before, slaying the Final Boss and getting out of the dungeon in one piece is the goal of the game. As you encounter more boss monsters chances of them being the Final Boss get better and better.
After some back and forth, and Gargo – whose job it was to keep the Ogre at bay so the others could dance around him and hit him with their pointy sticks – taking some damage, the Ogre was slain. Zordan gained Level 2 and finds a magic item – The Ring of Teleportation.
Slaying a boss monster will allow for one character in the group to roll if he or she gains a level. For combat oriented characters this of course means an additional attack roll bonus, for wizards such as Zordan this means an additional spell to cast. All characters also increase their Life points. There are maximum levels which vary for each character type.
After taking a breather and inspecting the magic ring they found the party turned to the door to their right (#7), only to find out that it’s just the Ogre’s privy and declared, with respect to our collective imagination, empty.
Dead Ends, Architectural Quandries and Backtracking
Sometimes a room you roll up won’t fit on the sheet of paper or would overlap with an existing room. In this case it gets cut off, sometimes resulting in a dead end. In this case the party may have to move back through rooms they already crossed. This goes along with the chance of running into a Wandering Monster.
After having entered room #8, a corridor, the party encountered 6 Goblins. The corridor working to the advantage of our heroes again the Goblins were soundly beaten and Gargo scored 3 gold coins. Room #9 appeared to be empty.
This time the party took the time to search it for hidden treasure – and while doing so barely noticed that they were being looted themselves! Invisible Gremlins (obviously!) stole Zordan’s writing implements, Breaz’ rope, Oblivious Sigur’s shield and 10 GP off Zordan. They didn’t even leave a Thank You note.
My Search roll resulted in a Wandering Monster. It turned out to be a Weird Monster, which are basically boss monsters, but usually come with a slight twist. In this case it wasn’t a real monster to fight at all, but Invisible Gremlins who take a random number of items off the group.
Later I realized that I had played them wrong (my first game involved a lot of looking up of tables and skimming the rules back and forth). I thought that the Gremlins would take a random number of items of the player’s choice, but in fact they got their own nasty order of preference, preferring valuable and important items (such as weapons) over gold or ropes.
Slightly disgruntled the party proceeded to room #10. Turned out to be the lair of Fungi People! Fed up with critters in general, Zordan cast a fireball, roasting several of them. The rest swiftly got chopped up or fled. No treasure was found though.
Zordan the Wizard saved his spells for most of the game for later, given how limited the number is. Spellcasting is rather straightforward in Four Against Darkness. There are six different spells to choose from (Blessing, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Escape, Protect, Sleep), at the start of the dungeon a spellcasting character (Wizard or Elf) has to memorize spells not unlike in Dungeon&Dragons.
He/she can choose from any spell in the game, but may only memorize three spells (or multiples of the same pell) at level 1, adding one spell per adventure per level they acquire.
So far the whole thing played out rather straightforward with lots of fighting. Later on just storming into any fight got a bit more of a tricky question as my party got more and more beaten up and worn down over time. Halfway through my brother joined me in the game, which made the game more fun and easier to manage. It can be hard to stay focussed at times when doing test games of new rules all solo.
The game actually went on for quite a while longer as you can see on the dungeon map:
The dungeon went on and on and on without us finding any bosses until we finally ran into a medusa which turned out to be the Final Boss. We killed her, grabbed the loot (just a piece of jewelry really), and ran out of the dungeon again.
This is what my makeshift character sheet looked like at the end of the game:
Four Against Darkness: Verdict
So what is Four Against Darkness?
It’s a solo or co-operative light dungeon crawling game which easily can be played within a short time span once you’re familiar with the rules. In regards to comparisons I think it reminded me the most of Warhammer Quest, but quicker and… well, lighter.
Apart from the fact that maybe it lacks a bit in the visual department, I think that this game would work very well for people to introduce their kids to pen&paper role-playing and similar games. Or non-gamer friends.
Although those MIGHT find the game a bit lacking in terms of stuff you can actually do. Strategic choices are slightly limited, but do begin to matter greatly as soon as the Life points start to dwindle, heal spells are used up, and you have to consider fleeing fights or bribing monsters.
I think that the main enjoyment of 4AD is a weird blend of what you enjoy about Warhammer Quest, Fighting Fantasy books and Heroquest/Descend/SuperDungeonExplore. In half the time. And all you need is a notepad, three dice and a pencil. It actually is a very good travel game.
Alternatively you can cut out all the dungeon modules in the book, laminate them and make it a bit of a more visual experience, with miniatures and the likes.
Either way, it will always be a quick, fun one. I doubt it will ever be anyone’s go-to game, but it’s a great game to whip out if you don’t have much time any nothing better to do. And for USD 8.00 (plus printing cost if you wish so) that’s perfectly fine. In fact, Ganesha Games seem to be dedicated to keep content coming for this one, as they already released the first adventure book, Caves of the Kobold Slave-Masters, a 3-sessions adventure for USD2.00. There’s also a supplement in the making for multi-level dungeons.
In my test game, which lasted very long for this game from what I can tell, I ran into a ton of different encounters. A bunch repeatedly so (those fungi people made several appearances), but it never got boring and there is still so much more left to encounter in more games. The core rules alone should last you for at least 10 sessions or so I think.
Either way, I strongly recommend printing at least the dungeon tiles and encounter tables if not the whole rule book, because this one requires a lot of going back and forth through the rule book. This should speed up your game quite a bit.
So yeah, it’s a bit of an odd fish, that 4AD. I like it, because I like odd fish. The fact that you can play it pretty much any time, anywhere makes it very suitable for anyone to play. I’m sure not everybody will love it.
It’s quick, simple, cheerful, old-school and oh so co-op. It’s not a competitive game, it’s not a very strategic game and somewhat bare-bones, but anybody who ever played any sort of role-playing game will be able to add some meat if they wish so.
Speaking of which – the dungeon generator at the heart of this game actually makes for a very useful tool for any Game Master of other roleplaying games if he/she needs a dungeon quickly.
I like this kind of simple, elegant game which gives you a bunch of mechanics to work with and just a good time without much faffing about. I’ve got more than enough sets of rules with 300 different special abilities, weapons, spells and such, but really in the end most of them boil down to what 4AD delivers, just in much, much longer time spans.
So yeah, if you think that you’d enjoy this game I believe you will. I hope I could shed some light on what this game is and help you make your mind up about this one. It’s a bit different, but certainly worth a try. Possibly BECAUSE it’s different to what many people play usually.