Random Maps 3 - Four Against Darkness

The third post in the random dungeons series, looking at Four Against Darkness as a dungeon generation mechanism.

Random Maps 3 - Four Against Darkness

Hello again! Today we're going to look at a game system where creating the random map is part of the core gameplay mechanic.

That's right, it's time to talk about Four Against Darkness! Four Against Darkness calls itself a "solitaire dungeon-delving game" and explicitly states that it is not a roleplaying game, but that it may be played as a cooperative GMless game if you choose. I'd say that they're being very accurate with their marketing - in my experience it's exactly what it says on the box.

That said, there's an entire section in the book for running the game as a rules-lite RPG, so clearly they've thought about how it'd work in that sort of setting.

Four Against Darkness reminds me a bit like if you were to take Hero Quest and turn it into a solo journaling game. All the basics are present: character archetypes, a short basic equipment list, a handful of spells and a lot of gumption.

Now, I'm going to stick to using the core book for a couple of reasons. The foremost of which is because I only own the core book, but I've also read that some of the supplements get a little uncomfortably weird. Since I'm only planning on covering how the map generation mechanism works (while also getting a game in), just covering the core book should be sufficient.

Right, so about those maps?

Okay, so what sets Four Against Darkness apart as a mapping exercise is that it's tile-based, random rolls. You start with a single d6 roll to generate the starting room, and then you go door-by-door through the dungeon. You continue doing this until you encounter the "final boss", which is randomly encountered or found in the last room you can open (if not encountered before then).

For each room, you then roll on random event / encounter tables and play the game like you would a board game - without the board.

So for this exercise, I'm going to give a play-by-play of the game and generate the map as we go. I'll discuss the broader use of the map generation method for dungeon creation at the end.

Entering the Dungeon, Meet the Party

Image of the Supernote A5X showing an image of the player sheet filled out with the characters outlined after this image
The Party Sheet

To begin, you must make a party of four characters whom you'll be taking into the dungeon. I went with a classic party composition:

  • Theron - the Warrior
  • Bronn - the Rogue
  • Seraphina - the Cleric
  • Lyra - the Wizard
It's worth calling out that this game uses class-as-race contrivances (much like B/X, Hero Quest, and a bunch of other OSR games) which I'm not a fan of. Since this is also usable as a solo game, it hardly matters; make that Cleric an elf if you want, no one can stop you.

Each character starts out with a set gear list, some gold, and the ability to purchase some stuff. Notably, no one starts with a lantern, which is essential. Make sure you pick at least one up. It takes about 3 minutes to get through "character creation", and after that you can get to rolling.

When I started, I rolled a 1 for the starting room, which has 3 exits. I started by walking down the leftmost path, adding rooms as I went. Since I was playing the game, here are some quick highlights of the journey:

  • Encountered a series of creatures which fell to violence: Fungus people, giant centipedes, an iron eater, hobgoblins
  • A pile of gold coins sitting on a bear trap
  • A whole pile of Goblins (12 of them) that I immediately noped out of by turning around and shutting the door behind me.
  • Backtracking!
A look at the map at "checkpoint 1"

So what happens here is you pick a door, roll two d6s to generate a number between 11 and 66, and then draw the tile that corresponds to that number. The types of tiles in the core book are fixed, but you're allowed to rotate them and fudge the length of corridors to make the rooms fit and connect better together. If you hit the edge of your paper, or dead-end into another room, that is simply considered a dead-end, a wall, or otherwise impassable.

From a gameplay note, a couple of weird things occurred to me while I was playing. For one, not a single group of monsters failed their morale roll (monsters must check to see if they flee after they lose half of their number. There's a 50% chance. It never happened). For two, I rolled very well for the first half of the dungeon, and only suffered a single wound. It was bizarre.

Gameplay and the rest of the Dungeon

A couple of things happened as I was playing the game and generating the map, which surprised me. Since this was the first time I was playing the game, I had to do a lot of looking up of the rules and the random tables. But about 45 minutes into the game, I started getting much faster at generating the rooms. It was extremely quick to generate the results. That was also right around the time where it got a little dull. Since everything boiled down to a series of the same rolls, it was both streamlined, and I didn't think much about what the characters were doing or feeling.

Contrast this to another journaling game I've reviewed, Thousand Year Old Vampire, where the game is designed a lot more around pulling out the story. Four Against Darkness didn't give me much to think about until the very last room (I'll get to that in a minute).

Another key element: because there were only a few tables in the core book - I rolled similar encounters several times. In fact, I rolled two small dragons in a row, and one of which was the final boss.

That series of events is actually what got me thinking about the party as characters. The group had just had a tough fight with one dragon, and upon opening the door to the next room, found an even bigger dragon than the last. I immediately imagined this as the "elder small dragon", related to the prior dragon that they'd just slain. And it was mad.

Tithi Luadthong @ Shutterstock

Fast forward through the fight and the dice had abandoned me. I'd started rolling exceedingly poorly. Several rounds of the dragon hitting the party and the party doing no damage to the dragon. Lyra, her spells depleted and about to take a fatal bite used a scroll to escape to the beginning of the dungeon. Leaving her friends in there, hoping they would live. Not long after that, the dragon unleashed a gout of fire, leaving Seraphina a charred corpse. Bronn and Theron continued to fight bravely, but as Bronn became increasingly injured - he activated a Ring of Escape he'd found earlier in the dungeon, escaping just to the other side of the door.

That left Theron, all alone, fighting a dragon. They traded blows, but emboldened with fear and adrenaline, Theron managed to best the dragon, shoving his blade deep through its right eye and into its brain. He gathered the treasure, and met Bronn, for whom he had a few choice words. Together, they retrieved Seraphina's corpse and made for the entrance.

On the way back, they met another Iron Eater, which Theron placated by throwing it his shield as they fled. They eventually made it to the entrance, where Lyra was nervously waiting. She burst into tears when they arrived, both with joy that some of them had made it, and from the guilt of having left them to potentially die. Finally, a good story from the game.

The Final Party Sheet

Using the Mapping System

Now that we've played the game, let's look at the map system that it generated and critique how it works.

What you'll quickly notice when looking at the map above is that because the possible room choices are picked from a list and are tile based, there are only so many combinations.

Likewise, the room connections in the core book are very dungeon centric, there won't be a lot of rooms that resemble other biomes. This mechanism of action also creates incongruous dead-ends more frequently than connections with other rooms, making looping a bit more difficult.

Finally, like the 5e Generation method, doing this mechanism without playing the game will frequently result in the same "keep going until you choose to stop" generation, rather than the bounded dungeon size of the Shadowdark Method.

Ultimately, I don't think I'd use this to generate dungeon maps for my home game, but as a solo diversion, it's a pretty solid quick game to play when you've got a couple of hours to kill.