Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tommy's Take on Army of Darkness

So I recently started watching Ash vs Evil Dead thanks to Netflix DVD, and it took my mind back to another older RPG: Army of Darkness by Eden Studios, powered by the Cinematic Unisystem.

Hail to the King, baby.
Ethics in Gaming Journalism Disclaimer: I did not receive a comp copy of this book. I will be providing an affiliate link to the RPGNow PDF, and using that affiliate link may result in me receiving a portion of your purchase as store credit, which is typically used to buy more books that I later review. I have freelanced for Eden Studios, though I only received comp copies of my work. I have also freelanced for Pinnacle Entertainment, which is owned by Shane Hensley, author of this book.

Just the Facts:
  • Available at RPGNow in PDF for $10.
  • Still available new from Amazon.com and, it looks like, Eden Studios' online store. ($40 at both places.)
  • Uses the Cinematic Unisystem, making it completely compatible with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel roleplaying game.
  • 242 pages, full color.

Based specifically on the Army of Darkness movie (apparently there is or was some weird rights issues between the Evil Dead films and the Army of Darkness film), the Army of Darkness RPG is an action/horror mostly set against Deadites in the past, but had an "ahead of its time" (by about ten years) focus to it.

The Cinematic Unisystem is a point buy RPG in which you select a character type (Hero, Primitive Screwhead or Experienced Hero), which gives you the spread of points you are allowed to spend. Heroes have more than Primitive Screwheads, but this is balanced by Screwheads having more Drama Points that they can use to influence the game and die rolls. Experienced Heroes are noticeably above both of them.There are six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception and Willpower), rated on a scale of 1 to 6 (human maximum), with supernatural scores going higher. If you are familiar with most of the Eden Studios catalog, none of this is going to come as a surprise to you.

Characters are further defined by Qualities and Drawbacks. Your character may be a Dullard who receives a penalty to artistic endeavours, have an Obligation to an organization, be a Nerd (and gain bonuses to mental attributes and skills), or even be a Promised One (like Ash...you can call it El Jefe, if you prefer). There's even a very Ash-specific Quality called Tool Man, which requires that you have to have a Physical Disability Drawback and allows you to attach tools (including, but not limited to, chainsaws) on the end of your stump.

The Skills list is the streamlined, Cinematic Unisystem skill list, with skills like Getting Medieval (melee weapons and non-gun ranged weapons), Gun Fu (for the gun nuts), Kung Fu (for true hand to hand), Occultism (trust me, it comes up a lot), Mr. Fix-It (the catch all repair skills), Crime (for, you know, crime stuff), and so on. If the broadly interpreted skill list doesn't have what you need, there is always the Wild Card skill, which is user defined.

If you want to skip character creation, archetypes of various kinds are included, like a Gunslinger, a Night Stalker (kinda like that Kolchak guy), a Rollerballer, a Viking, a Gladiator and a Hollywood Dick among others.

The basic mechanic is a d10 roll plus the relevant attribute plus either another attribute or skill. A 9 or better is a basic success, and every two points above the target number nets you a success level, which gets added to your damage.

Drama Points can affect this further, but allowing Heroic Feats (which add +10 to one roll), I Think I'm Okay (which heals half the damage you have taken to that point), Plot Twists (which is just creative editing, like making a guard drop a key that you need), Righteous Fury (which grants +5 to all attack actions for the duration of a fight) and Back from the Dead (when you don't want your character to stay dead). 

NPCs are summarized into three Ability Scores that are used as opposition (a GM should rarely be rolling dice in this system): Muscle, Combat and Brains.

The Cinematic Unisystem encourages the use of Combat Maneuvers as well, rather than just roll and hit. While "Punch", "Kick"  and "Gunshot" are all valid options, sometimes you need to Choke a guy, or perform Chainsaw Ballet. There is no limit to the number of Combat Maneuvers you know, you just decide what you want to do and do it, generally applying a penalty but gaining a bonus from it (a Kick does a bit more damage than a Punch, but is slightly harder to land, and can be turned against you if parried). Your players can get analysis paralysis, so I'd recommend a cheat sheet on top of having them record common Combat Maneuvers on their character sheets.

There are tidbits all over the book, like Tool Man and the Chainsaw Ballet maneuver that make this feel more like Army of Darkness and less like "Buffy with Ash's face on the cover", and one of this is a combat rule called Buckets O'Blood, which says that any time a character takes 30 or more points of damage, blood goes everywhere and anyone within a few feet has to make a Constitution check or lose their next action. It gets worse if someone actually dies, and even WORSE if it's a demon (who always gush blood magnificently).

My favorite section of the book are the Mass Combat Rules, which are based on the Savage Worlds Mass Combat rules, modified to match the Cinematic Unisystem mechanics. Essentially, combat is abstracted between the two sides, with the PCs making extra rolls that influence combat on their side. This continues until one side is dead or their morale is broken.

The bulk of the setting material is, of course, about the Army of Darkness movie. Lots of medieval weapons and equipment, character sheets for Ash, Arthur, Sheila, The Blacksmith, Duke Henry the Red and The Archer Captain. There is even a section in Chapter Six that walks you through playing the movie, complete with advice on handling the conundrum of there only being one Ash, and roleplaying tips for the various cast members. A follow up adventure is included, set after Ash has sealed himself in a cave to wake up back in his own time, but Arthur and crew find that there are still bad things about.

Three other settings are introduced as well: Mesopotamia approximately 3000 BC (when the Necronomicon was first created), World War II (because it's an RPG and World War II always gets tapped for RPGs) and England 2093 AD (from the Director's Cut of Army of Darkness). That last one is populated by lots of call-outs that folks who have followed Deadlands and Savage Worlds creators over the years can't miss.

Thoughts:
  • The biggest problem the book has is that it's shackled to Army of Darkness. It strains to convince you that playing the Blacksmith would really be fun. Well, the bench just isn't as deep in this setting as it is in Buffy or Angel. The true highlights are the other time periods, the archetypes (and what they mean for a potential game),
  • The Mass Combat rules may not sound like much, but I have used the Savage Worlds version of them quite a bit, and adapted the Army of Darkness rules into D&D5e to good effect. The core conceit behind these rules are my favorite mass combat rules of all time, and my players actually get excited when they realize I'm wheeling them out. I actually like these rules better than the Savage Worlds version because the Savage Worlds rules have a Knowledge (Battle) prerequisite that almost none of my players ever take, while the AoD rules are based on Intelligence and Influence.
  • The production values on licensed Eden Studios books were always on point, and this is no exception. Everything about the book screams Army of Darkness, from the screen caps to the layout to the quotes peppered all over it. The writing is similarly evocative. This isn't a dry rulebook, this is a book laden with pop culture references and snark. Now, you will have to decide how much or how little that bothers you. Personally, I hate rulebooks that read like textbooks.
  • The nature of the setting, and the portrayal of Deadites, makes it so that adapting new monsters in is not only easy, but fitting. Demons seem to come in all shapes and sizes, especially if you take the canon of Ash vs Evil Dead into account. The various monsters in the Army of Darkness book, plus the list of monster abilities, give you a good start on creating your own.
  • While the book was "one and done", it is completely compatible with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel RPGs (rules wise...a little work would be needed to reconcile the settings, but monsters, Qualities and mechanics like magic can be swiped at will), expanding your options. Taking it a step further, and Classic Unisystem games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Witchcraft use the same base system, just a bit more complex (more Skills, the Essence mechanic and so on).
  • Army of Darkness was a movie, and pretty well wrapped up its story in 90 minutes. The GM section recommends structuring your game like a "season", which Ash vs Evil Dead does a nice job of demonstrating. In fact, it feels much more appropriate now, ten years later, than it did then. Similarly, the structure of groups filled with Heroes and Primitive Screwheads is demonstrated much better in the Ash vs Evil Dead show than it is in the Army of Darkness movie.
So if you've been watching Ash vs Evil Dead and decided to start looking for something that could emulate that style of game, you don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. Army of Darkness covers most of the ground that you would need, in a solid and unobtrusive system (Cinematic Unisystem just does not get in the way). I mean, it even has a rule for extreme gore. Even better, it's not nearly as out of print as I thought it was. Obvious labor of love from all involved, which now seems strikingly more relevant than it did when released, thanks to the Ash revival tour on Starz.