There No School Like Old School: Four Against Darkness

There No School Like Old School: Four Against Darkness

Not all nostalgia trips are created equal. Revisiting a favorite movie or an old neighborhood or some childhood hobby is a great way to reignite that sense of wonder most of us had when we were younger. It’s a way of seeing subtle magic that either fades or is drummed out of us as we grow older.

But just about everyone who frequents this site already knows that there’s a very dark underside to nostalgia, the sort of thing that breeds resentment and a perpetual backward glance. The sort of nostalgia that brings no joy or sense of wonder. The sort of nostalgia that becomes a destructive addiction.

I’m talking about the people who have been collecting comic books since they were children, but haven’t read one in years, just buying and bagging them, stuffing them in boxes never to be seen until they die and their relatives go through their stuff. I’m talking about the Star Trek fans who haven’t enjoyed an episode of the show for decades, but continue watching it regularly, just so they can post another Youtube video about how much the franchise sucks since its “glory days.” I’m talking about music fans who haven’t listened to a new band since they were in college, just replaying the same few hundred albums over and over again, convinced that nothing new is good. And I’m talking about “old school gamers” who never play the game any longer and only post long rants about how the game has grown too P.C., too woke, or too whatever the latest term for “politics that are different from mine.”

I discovered the OSR (Old School Revival, if you didn’t know) movement a few years ago. And while there certainly are the usual trolls that younger gamers would expect to find there, a lot of it is surprisingly forward-looking. Sure, a lot of OSR enthusiasts insist on playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons just as it was written forty-plus years ago. But plenty of others have taken that bedrock of a rule system and cleaned it up, stripping out what they don’t like and adding in new innovations.

Systems like Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, OSRIC, and (my personal favorite) Old School Essentials all bear a more than passing resemblance to the Moldvay Cook editions of D&D from the early 80s (and modules for one system can be very easily used in any of the others), but they each have their own unique communities that play them.

So when I say that Four Against Darkness has an old school nostalgia feel to it, I don’t want people to worry that I’m going to start a long rant about these gamer kids today. A lot of the new stuff coming out looks amazing and there’s clearly a lot of passion behind it. But it’s not for me. It just seems very complicated, with a rule for everything and no room for mystery and random weirdness.

I think the distinction is that modern role-playing games focus more on developing characters, while the old school focused more on exploring the world. I’d rather light a lantern and dive into a cavern maze than maneuver through the “labyrinth” of social etiquette between different fantasy species. Again, a lot of players enjoy creating a vast family backstory with a detailed skill set for their characters, while all I really need to know is “dwarf with axe” or “wizard with sleep spell.”

The biggest stumbling blocks I’ve encountered with OSR gaming are the same stumbling blocks that most gamers encounter: not finding players and not finding the time. Sure, online communities help with a lot of it, but Skype and similar platforms just never feel authentic to me. And the vast majority of online gamers want to play 5E anyway. So I began exploring solo games, preferably something with an OSR feel to it.

If you’re still reading, maybe nodding along because you’ve been looking for something similar, then it’s Four Against Darkness.

The Core Book

The rules of the game are a light combination of the Moldvay Cook Dungeons & Dragons with Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. (And if you don’t know what I mean by either of those names, then this might not be the game for you.) The core book not only provides you with rules for creating a party of four characters, but also an extremely simple combat system and rules for creating and stocking a dungeon setting. The game’s creator, Andrea Sfiligoi, uses the term “play master” instead of “player” or “game master,” indicating a nice combination of these roles. Descriptions are kept sparse (many of the monster entries are little more than names and special attack explanations), encouraging each player to imagine the details they prefer.

For example, you might be given a quest by the Lady in White. Is she a mortal woman in a shimmering white gown? A ghostly figure in tattered white robes? A valkyrie in white and silver armor? She’s whatever you first visualized when you read the first sentence in this paragraph. She’s your Lady in White, not the game designer’s or the game master’s or the interior artist’s version of her.

The character types are going to be extremely familiar to old school gamers, but perhaps a bit odd to newer ones. Fighters, wizards, rogues, clerics, and barbarians are certainly not surprising. But you can also choose dwarves, elves, and halflings not as character races, but as unique classes of their own. So if you’re playing a dwarf, it’s not a dwarven cleric or a dwarven rogue … it’s just a dwarf. That’s straight out of first edition Dungeons & Dragons. Each character class starts with a couple of unique abilities and a predetermined set of items and life points. So there isn’t an hour-long shopping trip to equip your characters or min-max ability scores. In fact, your characters don’t have ability scores … why would they need them? They just have an Attack bonus, a Defense bonus, and a character level.

Exploring a dungeon involves rolling a pair of six-sided dice and checking the results against a list of possible room shapes (complete with doorway markers). You draw the shape on a piece of graph paper, roll again to determine what’s in the room and, once you’ve finished dealing with whatever’s in the room, choose a doorway and roll again to find out what the next room looks like.

What Andrea Sfiligoi has done with Four Against Darkness is create a game that takes the best parts of being a player and the best parts of being a game master, combine them, and shed out most of the rest of it.

The Expansion

The core book really has everything you’ll need to play an infinite series of unique dungeons. Unfortunately, you’ll find that you quickly encounter the same few dozen monsters and complications over and over again. And since so much of it hearkens back to classic Dungeons & Dragons, there’s going to be a lot of orcs, goblins, rats, skeletons, and classic monsters with slightly altered names that avoid copyright infringement. Fortunately, when you get bored, you can always expand the game in one of two ways.

One way is pre-packaged adventures like Caves of the Kobold Slave-Masters or Dark Waters, that use the core book’s rule system, but with pre-populated dungeons and fresh challenges. The other way is with modules that provide new charts for monsters and complications that are either tougher or focused on a certain theme (undead, demons, wilderness, etc.). If you’re worried about this game becoming very expensive with all of the expansions, don’t. They can all be purchased as printable PDF files for a few dollars (some as low as $2 and others as high as $10). This also allows you to better customize the game to the sorts of adventures that you want to play and makes it easy to try a new adventure with low investment risk.

The Adventurers Guild

There is, of course, one big advantage that traditional role-playing games have over solo games. And that’s the interactions with other players. Whether it’s in-person or via online chat, sharing a game with friends is a unique experience. And while Four Against Darkness is designed to be played alone, there’s actually a lot of opportunity for interacting with other players.

The Four Against Darkness Adventurers Guild is a Facebook community that was begun several years ago. Besides an active group of gamers, it also enjoys semi-regular posts from the game’s creator and several of the module writers. It’s a place where fans relate their adventures, ask questions about the rules, and post home-brewed adventures and supplements. I’ve been part of the group for a while and there is something new posted there every day.

Just a word of warning: there are no political or religious topics allowed on the Facebook group. Liberal politics. Conservative politics. None of it. They haven’t banned anyone from the group for posting that sort of thing yet, but unfortunately it really is just a matter of time. Don’t be the person who ruins a relaxed atmosphere for everyone else because you … just … can’t … help … bringing this stuff up. If you can’t carry on an online discussion about fantasy gaming without mentioning your views on religion or who you voted for … get help.

Another, less active, Four Against Darkness group can be found at BoardGameGeek. Not only does that group have plenty of files to browse through, but it also has a number of video reviews and video play-throughs, as well as a couple of online adventure logs.

Patreon

Remember how I just wrote that you shouldn’t bring up real world politics in the Facebook group? Well, this ain’t Facebook and there’s some real world shit that’s affecting the game. While Andrea Sfiligoi is originally from Italy, he moved to Ukraine some time ago. You probably see where this is going.

Fortunately, Andrea and his family were vacationing in Italy when the Russian invasion began, so they’re safe. But Andrea’s studio is in Ukraine and there is a very real possibility that he will never return to that country. While he’s doing what he can to send aid packages to the people still in Ukraine, he also needs to rebuild his studio. Towards that end, he’s begun a Patreon, where he posts previews of upcoming Four Against Darkness modules (as well as other games). If you want to keep up to date on the latest developments in this game system (as well as help out a writer/artist hit very personally by the invasion of Ukraine), it’s only five dollars a month.

Where to Buy It

Four Against Darkness and its various supplements are published by Ganesha Games. All of them are available as PDF files and most are also available as print-on-demand books. The company wants to make purchasing this game as easy as possible, so they’ve made them available through a variety of locations that include the Ganesha Games website, DriveThruRPG, Gumroad, PNPArcade, Lulu, and Amazon.

Wait, Wasn’t I Talking About Nostalgia?

This game very much gives me the same feeling I had years ago when I was first playing Dungeons & Dragons, when I was creating my characters, exploring cave systems, and collecting treasure. It gives me the same feeling I had years ago when I was first dungeonmastering Dungeons & Dragons, building and stocking cave systems, then creating explanations for why these things were happening. And there is that sense of surprise every time I enter a new room, even though it’s all just me telling myself a story.

It’s not tracking down mint editions of the original books. It’s not slavishly recreating the exact same adventures I played years ago. And it’s not getting angry when other people want to play a fantasy adventure game that isn’t my fantasy adventure game. It’s drawing on that youthful creative spirit without getting bogged down in the trivia of childhood. Chances are that Andrea Sfiligoi wasn’t aiming for anything that profound, but it’s what I get from this amazing game. Drop a few bucks, try it yourself, then head over to the Facebook group to let us know what you got from it.

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Joshua Moore

I got on 4AD fairly early on and I will say it has been amazing watching this game grow. As an infrequent gamer, I have purchased a bunch of the little books but more often than not I go back to the core rules for a quick delve. One game should take about an hour, barring “total party kills” and the inevitable medusa turning all but one character to stone, and it is just enough time in and out to scratch that itch. Recommended.

John ONeill

Great review Mike!

I bought FOUR AGAINST DARKNESS (and the solo adventure CAVES OF THE KOBOLD SLAVE MASTERS) back in 2018, with an eye towards doing a review, but I never did. Your article is much better than the one I had in mind anyway! So it all worked out for the best. 🙂

Last edited 1 month ago by John ONeill
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