Friday 25 August 2023

Review: Four Against Darkness

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

In 2023, we are truly spoiled when it comes to dungeon crawling. A plethora of games focus on or have a robust system dedicated to delving the deeps, from computer games to board games and RPGs. There have been many solo options, but the pandemic really helped developers new and old to find a market starved for the strange alchemy of killing monsters, avoiding traps, and finding treasure — like the subject of today's review, Four Against Darkness.

Four Against Darkness (or 4AD) is a solitaire pen-and-paper dungeon crawler. Some people charmingly refer to their 4AD campaigns as solo RPGing, and while you can embellish your games with details that would almost push it into role-playing territory, it is first and foremost a board game (but do note that the barrier can be pretty fuzzy, see OD&D, Boot Hill, or Car Wars).

The basic premise of 4AD is very straightforward. You are playing a group of four adventurers (duh) delving into dungeons and trying to gain levels and loot. The dungeons themselves are procedurally generated as you explore them, so both the layout and the contents are largely at the mercy of the dice.

The available character types are lifted straight from classic D&D: warrior, cleric, rogue, wizard (with memorisation!), dwarf, elf (warrior-wizard hybrid), halfling, and barbarian. The characters themselves are mechanically simple (warriors can wield any weapon and wear any armour and add their level to attack rolls, and that's all), but you need to manage four of them, and the enemies, so it's actually not a bad thing. Solitaire games, in general, benefit more from being light on complexity simply because it all falls on one person at the table, whereas rules knowledge is naturally distributed in group play.

Once you determine the layout of the the next room or set of corridors, you roll for its contents. While for the layout you roll a d66, which gives you 36 possibilities, the content table needs 2d6, and the sub-tables are all 1d6 tables. The entries are of the very generic fantasy variety without any fluff, such as the following:

d6 hobgoblins. Level 4, Treasure +1. Reactions (d6): 1 flee if outnumbered, 2–3 bribe (10 gp per hobgoblin), 4–5 fight, 6 fight to the death.
Medusa. Level 4, 4 life points, treasure +1. All characters at the beginning of the battle must save versus a level 4 gaze attack or be turned to stone. Petrified characters are out of the game until a Blessing spell is cast on them. Rogues add half their level to this save. Reactions (d6): 1 bribe (6d6 gp), 2 quest, 3–5 fight, 6 fight to the death.

When you encounter something, you may either attack them and have the first strike or wait for their reaction (which is a d6 roll calibrated for each creature type, as seen above). Creatures have a level, which is their primary (and sometimes only) stat. When you attack, you roll 1d6 and add any modifiers the character has (usually from their class/level and items) and compare it to the creature's level. Equal or better scores hit. 1s always miss, and 6s explode. Your attack deals one wound if you score equal to or greater than the creature's level. If you score multiple times the target number, you deal multiple wounds (e.g. an attack score of 8 to 11 deals two wounds to hobgoblins). Each wound kills a vermin or minion (like hobgoblins), and each wound deals 1 life damage to bosses and weird monsters (like medusae).

Creatures attacking the characters don't make rolls. Instead, the characters need to make defence rolls. The procedure is virtually the same as for attacks: d6 + bonuses vs. level, but you need to roll greater than the creature's level (a detail that even the official QRS above gets wrong). 1s always fail, and 6s always succeed. If you're hit, you lose 1 life (or see the creature's description). In RPGs I don't quite like these super player-facing solutions, but for a solitaire game, it really doesn't matter whom you roll for.

Sometimes there are abilities, traps, or other obstacles that call for a saving throw. In these cases, difficulty is noted as a level, which you must roll equal to or higher on d6 + modifiers (all noted in the description of the roll, if any).

All in all, this is another thematic dice rolling game. The player has no control over the contents of the dungeon, and there is virtually no foreshadowing in the game. However, you still get to distribute hits among your party (although you have to try to do it as evenly as possible), and you may decide when to use spells and when to push your luck. When I restricted myself to material printed out and handwritten character sheets, playing the game also had a sort of soothing effect. It was almost meditative; the game presents just enough choices and structure to keep my attention on the process, which I quite liked.

I'm only properly reviewing the core game here, but at the very least I must mention that the game line has a literal fuckton of expansions, and it doesn't seem like the well of inspiration has dried up. The Twisted (something) supplements add or alter monsters, final bosses, and dungeon-specific rules in the game. Various supplements detail adventuring in fairy-infested forests, craggy mountains, the underworld, and even stranger places. There are premade adventures with story and cohesion and specific rules. There are way more classes than anyone would need (everything from druids and wandering alchemists through green trolls and dark elves to satyrs and flamingo creatures). Various supplements detail outside-the-dungeon activities and adventures (guilds, factions, patrons, and missions), and the long-awaited supplement, Treacheries of the Troublesome Towns, is to be released shortly in two parts. There are even references to mechanics and concepts to be introduced in forthcoming supplements, in a way future-proofing what is currently available. And there are spinoff games as well, taking the engine and changing the game into atomic age Martians invading Earth, divine Greek heroes questing, vikings fighting at Ragnarök, and even investigators against the Mythos — these should probably get their own dedicated reviews.

I must also add that as the game line grew, first the silly and later the lewd elements of the game took over. Most of the publications, especially those by Erick N. Bouchard, feature weird sexual content. It's quite easy to ignore this aspect in the early supplements, like the highly recommended The Crucible of Classic Critters and More Mountainous Mayhem, but it became more and more entrenched in the world-building and the mechanics with each new supplement.

With these in mind, it's time to rate the game (the rating scheme is virtually the same as seen on Little Wars TV, but for a quick summary, the five categories are weighted, contributing the noted percentage to the final score):

  • Presentation (10%) I don't care much for the cover, but the interior illustrations are nicely done black-and-white pieces, some definitely better than the others. The writing is casual and generally pretty clear. However, the organisation of the book is just horrible. A good number of specific and important rules are scattered throughout the 90-page rulebook. Of course, it doesn't have an index. It's especially disheartening because the publisher, Ganesha Games, is chiefly known for their miniature games, particularly Song of Blades & Heroes and Sellswords & Spellslingers, so I expected a lot more rigour from their books. 3 out of 10.
  • Playability (30%) Once you grok the system, it's super easy to run and extrapolate from to use custom content. However, getting there can be a little challenging, both because of the poorly edited book and the large number of supplements that evangelists of the game deem essential. Beside the cheap rulebook, you only need pen, paper, and dice. I give it 4 out of 10.
  • Mechanics (30%) The rules, if you catch them all, are really simple and easy to adjust to your liking. Simple, true, but the exception-based design allows for great variety, something that is explored thoroughly in the supplements. I give it 7 out of 10.
  • Flavour (20%) Standard fantasy stuff. EDO, if you will. The limited types of monsters and obstacles and loot just don't really grab my imagination, even though the supplements greatly expand upon these essentials. The core set alone, however? Only 4 out of 10.
  • Support (10%) This is entirely what saves this game. The amount of supplementary material, both official and fanmade, is just staggering. Mountainous dungeons, forest dungeons, guilds, the underworld; new monsters, classes, items, spells; premade adventures; spinoffs that take the system to strange new places... Everything is there and even more is on the way. At this point, the game is a toolkit that you can customise to your heart's content. I must warn you, though, that some of the books contain pretty explicit material. If you don't want it in your game, you can easily exclude it, but if you don't even want to have it, it's better to ask around which supplement is NSFW, either on BGG or the official Facebook group. Anyway, I cannot imagine anything more that a small indie publisher could do for their product. Well, except a better core product... which is hopefully on its way, as a new edition is in the works! As a sign of trust, I'm not gonna ding them for it, so 10 out of 10.

That gives Four Against Darkness a weighted score of 54, which is okay — it could be so much better with a well-organised rulebook... Either way, when I tried it last year, it didn't really grab me at first, and I moved on to D100 Dungeon (review forthcoming). When I played this year, though, I approached it as a low-effort print-and-play project: I printed out the reference tables (some from the book, some from fanmade files on BGG), cut out character sheets, and put everything down on paper by hand. Using this setup, I have so far played four-and-a-half hours like this spread around eight sittings, and it's been great.

Four Against Darkness is available on DriveThruRPG, PNP Arcade, and the publisher's website in PDF and Lulu and Amazon in paperback format.

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