Recently—and with a whirlwind passion—I have gotten interested in solo RPGs. Not video games, but tabletop, pen-and-paper, cards-and-dice affairs. Most of what I’ve done is itch.io browsing and theorizing about what mechanics I’d like to put in my own games.
Until now: yesterday I did my first run of Four Against Darkness (and today I will do another). In the niche world of solo games, this one is quite popular, with multitudes of players and expansions.
If you’re already familiar with the game, you can click here to skip my first impressions and get to my actual play of it (and “actual play,” for the uninitiated, is a play-by-play of a tabletop RPG).
It advertises itself as relentlessly old-school. I don’t 100% know what that means, but I know this game hearkens back hard to Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons. It’s about four adventurers delving into randomly generated dungeons, hacking through bosses, and unearthing treasure. Each dungeon is random—and drawn out, by you, on a piece of graph paper. And what you find in each dungeon is random too. You might run into three medusas, fifty hobgoblins, and a tidal wave of rats all in the same dungeon, getting killed long before the end. Or you might find nothing but secret doors to gold-filled chambers. Everything is determined by a roll of the dice.
I’m not sure how I feel about that randomness. Having a 1/6 chance of failure on virtually every roll—and a 1/6 chance of ridiculous success—is a bit much for me. I like the idea of having to think on my feet, but I am, for one thing, so new to these types of games that it often makes me afraid to take risks. (The only TTRPGs I’ve played before this one have been a few sessions of high-school D&D (hated the system, too many rules for me) and Mystic Punks (fun setting and characters, but ten times more hardcore than 4AD).)
One good thing about 4AD and solo roleplaying in general is that, like…if you cheat, no one can stop you. The top post on the solo roleplaying Reddit boldly-or-not-so-boldly declares that when you play solo, there are no rules. In fact, 4AD players are encouraged and perhaps even expected to homebrew their own modifications, fudging rules as they see fit.
Great! Complicated TTRPG rules are my nemesis anyway. I have bile-tinged memories of wargaming club, which was entirely me staring listlessly as dudes grabbed their rulers and meticulously aligned their pieces for a single turn of slow combat. I’m too impatient for it.
4AD is a speedy game, light on both mechanics and story. You are in a dungeon; go beat it; you can make the story yourself. Fine with me.
Before I get to showing you some play, there’s another thing I feel I should mention, but feel kind of awkward about mentioning: aspects of the game’s flavor that strike me as sexist and racist. I don’t come to much of a conclusion about it, I just kinda mention it, so I understand if you’re not interested in reading that. Click here to skip to the gameplay.
Sexism is nonexistent…in the core rules. There are tons of official expansions published through Ganesha Games, and my sources tell me that they introduce many weird things, including the option to play as a succubus or dominatrix…and all the new rules you’d imagine those entail. Why? I dunno. (And darn, there’s not even an option to play as an incubus or a…dominator. Come on.)
Meanwhile, racism. While it’s well attested that Tolkien based his depictions of fantasy races on real ethnic groups, modern media tends to subvert this. For instance, people love heroic orcs!
Having never read much Tolkien (sorry, I will turn in my SF card now), my impression of dwarves was that they’re short, they mine, they have fortresses, they have huge beards, and they’re industrious. But in 4AD, they don’t just love jewels, they love gold, meaning they are a race of greedy bastards. They can even smell it. This plus my recent, first-time read-through of Harry Potter have certainly helped me spot antisemitic stereotypes.
Plus, 4AD’s elves are always heroes and its orcs are always villains. Elves and orcs hate each other, so elves get a bonus against them. Maybe that’s just supposed to be a funny nod? Maybe it implies that elves are so racist against orcs that they get a whole the-power-of-racism bonus for it? I don’t really know.
Lastly, it’s a bit weird that “elf” is as much a class as “warrior,” but…I understand how giving players the option to be, say, an elf warrior versus a human warrior adds a wrinkle of complication to the simple game mechanics. I’m fine with that.
There may be a larger discussion here about the extent to which old-school aesthetics must end up falling into old stereotypes, but I am unprepared to start it. (Wait…I don’t even think the staff at Ganesha Games are Hindu…)
My First Game
Last night, I established a four-member party:
Reed the warrior, kind and stalwart, whose two-handed sword pretty much decimated everything;
Bayce the wizard, chatty and insecure, who, with only 3 Life (compare that to Reed’s 7, sheesh) and limited spell ammunition, actually warped herself out of the dungeon 3/4 of the way through;
Chora the elf, serious and irritable, who came in clutch with her magic bow and curse-healing Blessing;
Taipha the halfling, cheerful and impetuous, whose special luck-altering abilities I kept forgetting to use, so…she ended up kinda useless.
Their goal was to kill the first dungeon’s final boss, but they ran with their tails between their legs. Bayce did a great job solving puzzle boxes, but she had less than half the Life points of warrior Reed, so ultimately she had to use an Escape spell to leave the rest behind. This took her all the way back to the entrance, waiting and wondering whether to return to the city or linger to help her teammates carry out their gold…
Reed, Chora, and Taipha decided to keep going, despite the fact that they were all level 1 and lacking their aggro wizard. When they found a wandering healer who would heal anyone for the right price, they decided to try and bring him back toward the dungeon entrance to heal Bayce so they could all keep going together. It didn’t work out…and, worse, their path back to that entrance was blocked by a wandering ogre.
As Taipha took heavier injuries, she threw all their gold at the healer to milk him for all the healing spells he was worth, but it wasn’t enough. Luckily, she had a Ring of Transportation to warp her away.
Chora scored the last hit on the ogre. She thought she should have been the member of the party allowed to roll for a level-up, but Reed and Taipha overruled her and gave it to their most vulnerable member Bayce.
After leaving together, the party bought some bandages and a potion, stored most of their gold in the bank, and headed out to a new dungeon.
Today we enter…
My Second Game: The Fungal Fortress of the Damned and Dead
Room 1: An empty entrance. Taipha insisted on searching this foyer, and she found a clue. (Clues are sort of a wild-card mechanic we’ll return to later.) Together with the clue she found in the previous dungeon, that made two. A fork in the road; they moved left.
Corridor 2: A troll! The group felt confident and sprang right into battle. Chora was ready with her magic bow, and she fired! …only to roll a 1, which is an instant failure no matter what. Her first of many failures this dungeon. Reed (who was uber-confident) and Taipha (who had zero reason to be confident, but always is anyway) thought they could do better, but they both blew it.
But Bayce, high on power thanks to her level-up, expected to succeed. For some reason, instead of casting a spell, she attacked with her shitty single nunchuck and still won. Because she rolled a 6, she got to roll again and add the two numbers for her total. She rolled an additional 5, and that ended up being enough. The troll went down. Reed smiled. Taipha applauded. Chora groaned.
The next level-up went to…not Chora, but Taipha. Then Taipha failed the level-up roll. This caused Chora to frown really hard.
The rookie adventurers forgot that trolls have a chance of regenerating after they die! Fortunately this one stayed dead.
Room 3: A third clue for Taipha! Between the dungeon stones was a piece of parchment containing the secret weakness of its boss…provided they could find the boss, that is. Finding three clues allowed Taipha to not only learn this secret, but also level up for real this time. Pure ecstasy.
Corridor 4: Eight vampire bats…but they fled from the party.
Room 5: Fungi folk, and the first of many. Five mushroom people lurched toward the party. In the first round, Reed and Chora’s attacks were stunning, roll-one failures, yet the level 2 wimpmasters successfully took out three. Reed redoubled her determination and wiped the rest out next turn. The party escaped with only minor scuffs.
The fungi folk dropped a scroll containing a Lightning spell, which Bayce eagerly snapped up and added to her magic arsenal. Sensible or paranoid?
Room 6: As Taipha was searching this empty room, she disturbed some wandering enemies…more fungi folk, rising from the dungeon floor’s cracks. No problem except that there were nearly twice as many as before. The party started to fear for their lives. Would they give up their first-turn advantage and wait for the fungi to react—and possibly leave the party be? The party decided, yes they would. Then the fungi folk balled up their fists and prepared to punch them.
Chora had the advantage of range on her side, so she tried to hit them with her bow and arrow. Rolled another 1. Ugh.
The fungi scored attacks on the whole squad. Bayce and Taipha took particularly hard hits, with Bayce reaching her last Life point.
Reed used up her turn tossing Bayce the team’s only Potion of Healing, and Bayce used her turn on drinking it. So, great: Consistently Failing Chora and Consistently Inconsistent Taipha had to attack alone. Actually, only Taipha could strike; the fungi folk were so close that Chora had to waste her turn putting her now-useless bow away and re-arming herself with a mace.
Taipha, instead, expended all 3 of her Luck points on helping the party flee. She, Bayce, and Chora dashed out of there thanks to her halfling skill…but it was a skill she couldn’t use again.
Reed fled behind them, but she had to take the brunt of the fungi’s blows and fell to 2 Life. Using a bandage brought her back up to 3—still under half. The party, panting and frantic, ran through a doorway to…
Room 7: Eew, a bushel of six zombies. Crushing weapons are their weakness—which nobody was prepared to exploit. Except Bayce with her pathetic nunchuck (which admittedly worked last time?).
She went for a Sleep spell instead, to beat all six at once. Clever! But it failed.
Both sides struggled to make headway until Reed cleaved through three zombies in a single shot. Bayce, shivering with fright, whipped her nunchuck blindly and whacked a zombie’s head off.
The zombies nibbled Taipha’s Life down to 1. She got her revenge. With her crushing, stone-throwing sling, she nailed the last two zombies.
The party could not glory in this victory. Their first dungeon had showered them with gold and treasure. Zombies gave them nothing! They patched Taipha up to 2 Life and carried on…
What now? They could either go forward and hope that they loop back around to the entrance—they started with a fork in the road, after all—or move backward and fight through the fungal folk. Either way was treacherous…
They decided to go into the unknown.
Room 8: Oh no. They found more fungi.
At least six was fewer than nine. They decided not to leap into battle—to cross their fingers and hope they weren’t vicious.
Turns out they weren’t! The party worried that they wouldn’t have enough gold to pay the fungi folk’s toll, but Taipha had a lump of fool’s gold on her, which they accepted. The party uttered a collective sigh of relief and dragged themselves onward.
Room 9: A depressing dead end.
A depressing profusion of seven more fungi folk.
Chora, of all people, gave the party a pep talk. Both fleeing and hoping for a chance to bribe had a big risk of failure. Either they would stay here and fight, or they might just regret it forever. Reed was the first to begrudgingly agree. With the lowest health, she and Taipha felt they had the most at stake.
Bayce immediately Lightning Bolt-ed, and rolled so critically that she took out a total of four! (Note: the rules are unclear on whether Lightning Bolt is allowed to hit multiple minions, but I’m the GM here and what I say goes.)
Chora launched her bow and actually hit something for once! Not outstanding, but not bad either.
Next, Taipha tried with her dagger. She fell on her face! Good job.
Reed ran in with a war cry and plunged her skewering sword straight through the rest.
Wow…they killed them all in a single turn.
Bayce found another spell scroll on them and added the Fireball to her repertoire. She was newly determined not to let any of them get hurt again.
They backtracked through the rooms, circling back to the start. Revenge against the nine fungi folk…
Return to Room 6: Back to the nine fungi folk again. This time with the advantage of surprise on their side!
Like a whirling fan of death, the foursome cut down eight of the fungi in their first turn. The last one came after Taipha, but she defended with a shockingly explosive roll of 6 + 6 + 4. Reed cut the final fungus down.
In the rubble of bodies, they found a gold-and-turquoise bracelet that would later prove to be worth 120 gold. The party unanimously decided that Reed should keep it.
Though the party wished they could endure a final boss and fulfill their goal, they were so exhausted that they could only hope to backtrack and escape alive.
Return to Room 3: Four wandering hobgoblins!
Another miraculous first-turn win. Every member of the party took out one. As the monsters fell, it dawned on the party that maybe they had what it took to adventure full-time after all. Or…maybe they were just getting cocky.
Unceremoniously Leaving the Dungeon: The gang left with somewhat heavy hearts. Since they weren’t carrying the head of a medusa or a chaos god out with them, it hadn’t been such a glorious dungeon run. But they did have…each other… Also, somewhere along the line, Chora found a Protect scroll that nobody especially wanted to keep. That’s worth like 50 gold. That’s something.
They sold their spoils at the local market. For now, all of them, even bitter Chora, felt secure in their failure. Then they hiked back to Reed’s place for a well-deserved night’s sleep.
Four Against Darkness is a game that I enjoy and, clearly, want to play more of in the future. This is my first-ever actual play, and it’s more narrative-heavy than any I’ve seen, so let me know what you liked and didn’t like about the style.
Meanwhile, thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning! These adventures may come back…
Meanwhile, have some entertainment of a different color: tips for comic artists who “can’t draw,” warm words for people who (like me) have unfinished story drafts scheduled to finish last year (or earlier), and my bafflingly detailed analysis of 4Kids TV’s annoying/amazing theme songs.