Four Against Darkness
Review by David Lent
I always liked SPI’s DeathMaze from 1979. It’s a dungeon delve for 1-5 players that has counters, a rulebook and nothing else. The lack of components was made up for by the fact that the rules had all the basics that every dungeon delve needs. I seriously considered creating a dungeon delve that was heavily influenced by DeathMaze, but with better components, more character classes and new monsters. It looks like Four Against Darkness has done most of that but with NO components whatsoever! It’s just a rulebook and you provide the dice, pencil and graph paper to play it.
In Four Against Darkness, you setup the game by rolling up four characters. The choices are warrior, cleric, rogue, wizard, elf, barbarian, dwarf and Halfling. All of the characters start at level 1 and you need to choose spells, weapons and armor for them. Characters may not multi-class, so it is imperative that you choose a diverse cast of characters. I like to use clerics for healing, warriors for melee, rogues for disarming traps and wizards for spells. It feels like an old school D&D party of adventurers.
The game begins with you rolling to see what the starting entrance is. You look it up on the starting entrance table and draw it on graph paper. Next, you determine what door or corridor you are going through and roll to see what the next room or corridor is and draw it so it connects to your previous room. There is a flow chart in the back of the book you roll on that tells you what you encounter in the room.
Room encounters can be with vermin, minions, weird monsters, bosses, dragons, special events and traps. After resolving those, there may be additional treasure in the room in addition to what you got for resolving the event. That’s the basic flow of the game. Roll for a random room and resolve the encounter inside of it. You continue doing this until you defeat the final boss, lose your party or exit the dungeon. If you enter a previous room, you roll a dice and on a “1” you encounter wandering monsters, just like in DeathMaze.
Leveling up in Four Against Darkness is unique. It occurs whenever you have defeated 10 parties of minions or a boss or weird monster. You have to roll to see if you level up and you may not level up the same character twice in a row. The roll has to be higher than the characters current level to succeed. It’s easy for a level 1 character to level up and very hard for a level 5 to level up. The maximum character level is 6. Leveling up adds hit points and some classes can add their level to attack, defense or disarming traps.
When encountering monsters, you may either attack first or wait to see what they do. If you wait, you roll on a small table in the monster’s stats to see what happens. They may flee, accept a bribe, fight, fight to the death or send you on a quest. I always waited to see what the monsters were going to do, because there is a lot of combat in this game and avoiding it whenever possible will help you survive. Vermin don’t give XP, so fighting them doesn’t benefit your party except some of them have treasure. In addition, quests can get you an epic reward if you complete them.
The player does all attacking and defending in Four Against Darkness. For attacking, you add your modifiers (sometimes adding your characters level depending on the character class) and attempt to roll higher than the monsters level. If you succeed, you do one point of damage per multiple of the monster’s level. Each time you roll a “6” it explodes and you roll again. E.G. if your exploding dice eventually add up to 24 and you were attacking a level 4 monster, you just did 6 damage to it. Vermin and minions only have one hit point, but vermin do not count towards leveling up. Bosses and weird monsters have multiple hit points. Monsters automatically attack and do not roll for it. You just defend by adding you defense modifiers from armor and possibly class traits to your die roll and if the modified die roll is either a “6” or higher than the attacking monster’s level your characters takes no damage. Otherwise, your character loses a hit point.
If you enter an empty room, you may roll on the empty room search table. This can cause either wandering monsters to appear, nothing to happen or a clue, secret door or hidden treasure appears. It’s a gamble. It may get you something good or the wandering monsters can pummel your party.
Normally, the game continues until you defeat the final boss. Each time you meet a boss, you roll a D6 and add +1 for each previous boss you encountered. If it equals a 6 it’s the final boss. If you manage to defeat him, you then have to exit the dungeon to win the game.
Even though this is a solitaire adventure, it can be played cooperatively. Each player just controls his own character.
Playing Four Against Darkness feels just like playing DeathMaze. It’s challenging and has a ton of combat. In addition, if you have the courage to search a lot of empty rooms interesting things will happen. Also, the game is most interesting when you let the monsters act first so you can sometimes get a quest. Much of the fun, is playing the game in campaign mode and leveling up your characters and building a better party.
There are a couple downsides to this game though. The information in the rulebook is all over the place. Attacking is on page 20 and defending is on page 52. In addition, the book doesn’t cover marching order until page 51. The entrance and random room section should be at the back of the book with the other charts. There is too much flipping back and forth through the rulebook because of this.
Overall, this is a good dungeon delve and it’s certainly worth the paltry $13.99 I paid for it at my FLGS. It’s a lot of game in a really small package. In addition, it gives the newer generations a taste of what old school dungeon delving was like in the Golden Era of adventure gaming.
Buy your own copy here.