Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
A portentous column on folklore and tabletop RPGs
The first four seals are broken. Four men ride forth on steeds white, red, black, and pale. They are each given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, plague, and the beasts of the earth.
They are the beginning of the end.
They are the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The Four Horsemen
The four horsemen first appear in the Book of Revelations, the only apocalyptic book in the New Testament1. In it, John of Patmos has an apocalyptic vision where he sees a book (or scroll) secured by seven seals, as well as what happens as each seal breaks. We’re concerning ourselves today with the first four, as each corresponds with a specific horseman. Of course, debates over what each horseman means and symbolises (not to mention the larger context of Revelations) have been argued for almost two millennia now. As such, this is very much the cliff notes.
Before I continue though, this is the first article I’ve written on a subject that is explicitly tied to the beliefs of a mainstream religion. While there’s definitely something to be said for what it means to gamify religious iconography, the idea of the four horsemen has become so evocative that you can find them everywhere in popular culture. If we were going to be too worried about the horsemen specifically, it’s easy to argue that ship has sailed (and aboard it, the X-Men, Metallica, and Digimon). That said, as always, judge the use of real-life ideas to your particular table.
White Horse (Conquest or Pestilence)
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
— Revelation 6:1-2. King James Bible.
The first horseman is Conquest. Wielding a crown and bow, all must kneel before him. Conquest is sometimes interpreted as a specific figure, either Christ as a positive force, or the Antichrist as a negative one.
In modern media, the idea that this horseman is instead Pestilence has become particularly common2. Some later Biblical translations to English mention pestilence as a weapon of the horsemen, but they’re translating a Greek word that simply means ‘death’. Despite there being no textual basis, however, since the early 20th century Pestilence has become the pre-eminent white horsemen. Don’t, uh, read modern events too hard into that one.
Red Horse (War or Slaughter)
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
— Revelation 6:3-4. King James Bible.
The second horseman is War, sometimes specifically Slaughter. This distinguishes him from Conquest, who at least has some goal behind his violence. The red horseman seeks only blood and steel. His sword is typically depicted held upwards in a declaration of war.
Black Horse (Famine)
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
— Revelation 6:5-6. King James Bible.
The third horseman is Famine, come bearing scales. These might be the scales of justice, or the kind used to weigh food like bread during a famine3. The fact a voice accompanies him is notable, as is that luxuries are untouched while staples are scarce. Many will starve, but the wealthy will still enjoy wine and oil. It’s not hard to read that one politically.
Having Famine as one of the horsemen is a good reason to keep the first as Conquest. Plague and sickness are horrors that can fall under the black horseman’s banner, which helps how Famine can be implemented on a mechanical level.
Pale Horse (Death)
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
— Revelation 6:7-8. King James Bible.
The last horseman is Death, or Thanatos, accompanied by Hades (translated as hell in the above passage). He has no weapon, as his power is so great that his abilities encompass all previous horsemen. Still, some artists portray him with a trident or scythe. The latter ties him to the Grim Reaper, and there’s a strong conflation of the two in popular culture.
Given he follows wars and famine, Death can easily be the least openly hostile of the four. He might merely here to witness and collect the natural consequence of the previous horsemen’s actions.
Using The Four Horsemen Your Game
As figures from the New Testament, some people will be unsure if they want to use the horsemen in their game. If used completely straight, they do introduce an explicitly Christian phenomenon into your game world. So, let’s discuss how you can use them both literally and inspirationally.
Let’s Get Literal
If your setting is explicitly medieval Europe, or at least heavily inspired by it, the horsemen might be a good fit as is. Given all the turmoil humans are constantly facing we often think we’re about to live, or are living, through the end times, and people in the Middle Ages were no different. If your setting is sufficiently dour, perhaps the arrival of the horsemen will fit right in. Is there something the PCs can do to stop the rest of the seals from opening? Does killing a horsemen stall the apocalypse? Or if the apocalypse is now inevitable, perhaps your campaign is about the PCs fulfilling their earthly goals while they still can.
One way we can take inspiration from the horsemen is the seal motif. The idea of apocalyptic beings bound behind seals isn’t exactly original, but it’s a classic for a reason. An event in your story could unleash four powerful spirits from their prison, each embodying a different kind of strife. Hunting each down and defeating them, either by killing or re-imprisoning them, could be a campaign in itself. Alternatively, perhaps these spirits destroyed a kingdom long ago and now haunt its underground ruins. Defeating or avoiding them then becomes part of navigating the dungeon—just make sure you don’t lead them back out to the surface!
Rather than have the horsemen act as a catalyst for the apocalypse, they could appear as harbingers instead. Here the horsemen are omens, manifesting as misty visions or in the character’s dreams. As each one appears, the PCs know that time is running out on stopping whatever event is going to trigger the end times.
This is a great spot for figures that are merely inspired by the horsemen, so you can more readily adapt them to your setting. Coming up with a set of beings that are the equivalent of the horsemen could help to flesh out the mystical and religious background of the world. They could be four dragons of different colours, for example, or four goddesses—one young, one middle-aged, one elderly, and the last a living corpse.
Horseman Statistics (Old-School)
Armor Class: -3 
Hit Dice: 13** (58 hp)
Attacks: 2 x weapon (1d6+6) or 1 x magic
THAC0: 10 [+9]
Move: 120’ (40’)
Save As: Fighter 13
Numbering Appearing: 1 (1d4)
▶ Aura: When someone first moves within 10’ of the horseman they must save versus spells or…
» Conquest: Lose 2d6 points of WIS. If reduced to 3 or less WIS, victim becomes the horseman’s thrall.
» Death: die.
» Famine: Lose 2d6 points of CON; move at half normal speed, and attack or cast spells only every second round, for 1 turn.
» War: Lose 2d6 points of STR; flee in terror for 1d4 turns.
▶ Magic powers: Each can be used three times per day.
» All: Dispel Magic.
» Conquest: Geas; Hold Monster.
» Death: Animate Dead; Finger of Death.
» Famine: Cloudkill; Insect Plague.
» War: Confusion; Wall of Fire.
▶ Detect invisible creatures: Within 60’.
▶ Magic resistance: +4 bonus to all saving throws against magic.
▶ Mundane damage immunity: Can only be harmed by magical attacks.
▶ Regeneration: A damaged horseman gains 2hp at the start of each round, as long as it is alive.
▶ Steed: Usually riding a 6 HD war horse with mundane damage immunity.
Remove Curse restores ability score loss due to the Aura abilities. This write-up is for a horseman at the height of their power, earlier in the timeline of the apocalypse they may be considerably weaker (with only a temporary or even non-existent aura).
And that’s it for the four horsemen of the apocalypse!
Thanks for reading; I’ve recently started some additional graduate study, so apologies for the missed column last week. For the next few weeks, Mythoi might need to be fortnightly so I can write a few articles in advance in case things get busy. After that, we’ll see how we go!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever played through an apocalypse in your games? Did you, or your players, manage to avert it?
~ A.C. Luke
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Stableford, Brian. 2009. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press: Lanham.
Morris, Leon. 1988. The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester.