Four Against Darkness comes from Ganesha Games, who are best known for their wargame rules A Song of Blades and Heroes. Four Against Darkness describes itself as “an old-school dungeonbashing solo game that can be played with minimum space and equipment.” It requires two six-sided dice, a pen or pencil, and some paper (preferably graph paper).
The player begins by choosing classes for a party of exactly four characters. There are eight classes, which are almost the same as the seven found in 80s Basic D&D (barbarian, warrior, wizard, cleric, rogue, dwarf, elf, and halfling). Characters are much simpler than in D&D. For example they have no attributes. This means that you can create a new party very quickly.
The game is similar to the procedures for randomly generating a dungeon that are found in many versions of D&D. The player first rolls to generate the shape of the room or corridor, then rolls for what’s in there (a minor nitpick: the pictures of rooms and corridors have grid lines, but they’re so hard to see that I didn’t notice them for a few days). The result is often a group of monsters. The player usually has the option to attack the monsters immediately, gaining a small advantage, or wait to see what they do, often giving a chance that they will run away or demand a bribe. Traps are quite rare, only coming up if a roll of 2d6 totals 3 (on average, 1 room or corridor in 18). There are also ‘special features’ such as an encounter with a wandering alchemist who offers to sell the party healing potions and/or poison.
The game is very easy to learn, especially since most people who play it will already be familiar with the general idea. There were some areas where I found the rules unclear. I would also have preferred it if the rules were mentioned where they’re used. For example, the class description for dwarves mentions that trolls hate them. It would have been good to have this, and its game effect, on the random monster table entry for trolls as well. However the ‘after-sales service’ is very good: I posted to the Ganesha Games Yahoo group, and got an answer the next time I was on the internet.
I would have preferred it if the game had more frequent decisions. For example, in many cases the decision whether to attack monsters or wait wasn’t a real decision, because the monster type in question always attacks (or always attacks your party–trolls, for example, will always fight dwarves). I would like to see both more options–for example parleying aggressively with the monsters, parleying humbly with them, pretending to have come with orders from their master, and so on–and more possible outcomes–for example the monsters might demand a hostage, or agree to join your party for a certain amount of money.
It seems like it would be easy to expand or tweak the game, for example by adding or replacing monster types, or altering the probabilities of various outcomes.
The game certainly succeeds in its apparent aim: to be a cheap, one-player, simpler, no-preparation version of a dungeon crawl. The downside is that it also reproduces what can be a flaw in such games: a lack of meaningful decision-making. Whether you like this game or not will depend very much on how you feel about randomly-generated dungeon crawls as a whole.
The game is available here.