Cardboard Cinema: Battle The Medieval Dead In The Army Of Darkness Roleplaying Game

For horror fans, few new releases carry as much fanfare as a movie like "Evil Dead Rise." Since the original "Evil Dead" debut in 1981, the franchise has become the gorehound's answer to the "Alien" franchise. Both sets of movies take on the personas of their filmmakers, with "Evil Dead" ranging from slapstick (Sam Raimi) to nihilistic (Fede Álvarez) to claustrophobic (Lee Cronin) while still delivering on a central promise of monsters and mayhem.

But for those who like to relive their favorite films on the table, one question remains: is there an adaptation of "Evil Dead" worth your money? It turns out the answer is yes. The "Army of Darkness Roleplaying Game" was released by Eden Studios in 2005 and offered a complete playthrough of the third "Evil Dead" movie. While physical copies can be harder to find, PDFs of the game remain available on DriveThruRPG for a modest $10.

Based on Eden Studio's Unisystem — a core ruleset that powers both their original games and other licensed adaptations like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" — the "Army of Darkness" RPG offers players a robust set of rules for pitting a single chump against the armies of the undead. And as a faithful adaptation of one of our most famous horror comedies, "Army of Darkness" also offers players a chance to dabble in horror storytelling without the pressure of scaring your players.

Getting started with Army of Darkness

Some licensed games want you to play something that looks and feels similar to the source material. This game wants you to actually play "Army of Darkness." Granted, the original character and campaign creation is surprisingly robust — we'll get into that in a moment — but few games work this hard to offer a faithful recreation of a movie. That's why the rulebook comes with a multipage breakdown of the "Army of Darkness" plot and stat sheets for each main character. The game wants to be every horror fan's tabletop gateway drug.

This may indicate how quickly the tabletop industry has grown — even as recently as 2005, an adaptation of a major horror franchise still had to put a ton of effort into building its audience from scratch. Hell, one section of "Army of Darkness" even offers alternatives for players who cannot locate a D10, recommending that they grab a deck of playing cards and separate the first ten numbers of a suit to allow for randomized "rolls." For a game that is in no way rules-lite, "Army of Darkness" works harder than any game I've seen to demystify the roleplaying experience.

And that includes the book itself. Writer Shane Lacy Hensley ("Deadlands") has put a lot of effort into recreating the tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie. Of course, nobody gives better "confident idiot" than Bruce Campbell, but Hensley tries, which makes the book a surprisingly breezy read. And while some of the humor might be a touch outdated, Directors (GMs) tasked with learning and teaching the game will find "Army of Darkness" a surprisingly engaging read – no small thing when it comes to learning new systems.

Be a hero (or a primitive screwhead)

But let's say you aren't interested in a Gus Van Sant-style shot-for-shot remake of "Army of Darkness." Then you and your players may choose to create unique characters set within the film's universe. Character creation starts with archetypes: Heroes are capable warriors, while Primitive Screwheads are ordinary people just trying to survive. Whichever archetype you choose, you will then be given preset pools of points for attributes, qualities, and skills. This also includes a point pool for drawbacks, which are narrative or mechanical penalties that offer bonuses in other categories.

Attributes are your core character features — strength, dexterity, the usual — while skills indicate areas of proficiency. Want to be a surgeon with a chainsaw? Dump as many points as possible into Dexterity and Getting Medieval, the game's equivalent to a melee weapons skill. Need to add a few more points to your pool? Be sure to grab the Dullard drawback, which will give you a point bonus but limit your character's likability and sense of humor in roleplay actions. Having to roleplay built-in limitations may add an extra level of engagement for people who find roleplaying the most challenging part of any game.

During the game, players will use these skills and a D10 — or a deck of cards, I guess — to pass necessary skill checks. "Army of Darkness" uses a success chart to show outcomes and levels of success; the latter will determine the success of more complicated tasks or as a combat bonus. Technically, anything above nine counts as a success, but thanks to a combination of one-time bonuses and a progressive action economy, skill checks in "Army of Darkness" can go much higher. The rulebook gets to 35 ("Godlike") before it stops counting.

Drop a D10 of hurt on your enemies

Once you understand how skill checks work, you also pretty much understand how combat works. There are a few wrinkles, of course. For example, combat maneuvers allow you to try more complicated actions with penalties and damage multipliers baked in. Meanwhile, NPCs use flat combat score scales rather than opposed roles to determine their effectiveness in battle. But whether you want to shoot a skeleton in the head or steer through a horde of Deadlines in your 1973 Oldsmobile, your skill checks and D10 rolls will drive most of the action.

Combat is also where Drama Points will have their moment to shine. Drama Points are a finite system of player points that can be traded for game-breaking abilities. These can include one-time bonuses to combat rolls, halved damage from an opponent, or a miraculous return from the dead if your Deadite hunter has their face entirely caved in. When you start to string together some of these different core elements – using maneuvers to gain attack bonuses and Drama Points to greatly increase your rolls – the damage you deal can scale up quickly. While Drama Points can be excluded from a campaign, they are an important part of the big, dramatic swings that make a movie like "Army of Darkness" fun.

As if one-on-one combat promising the franchise's signature cartoonish gore wasn't enough, "Army of Darkness" also offers a system for war between multiple armies. This combat style – called battle checks – allows players to pit tens or even hundreds of NPCs against each other in massive rounds of attrition. If your character is participating in the combat as a ranged or melee soldier, you can also include them in the assault at the risk of exposing them to painful counterattacks. And in those cases where one-on-one combat is required, "Army of Darkness" explains how to shift between battle checks and traditional combat on the fly.

Battle the dead forever and ever

So the stage is set for a climactic battle between an unsuspecting hero and the armies of the Necronomicon. "Army of Darkness" offers plenty of advice on how to turn individual encounters into full-fledged campaigns, including leveling criteria for NPCs and broader tiers of evil entities and their minions. If you choose to recreate the events of the third movie, the publisher adds plenty of advice on where (and when) to unleash Evil Ash and Evil Sheila onto the unlucky players.

And if medieval Europe is not your thing, never fear: "Army of Darkness" also offers a handful of additional campaign settings hinted at across the "Evil Dead" franchise. One campaign is set in ancient Mesopotamia and heralds the creation of the Necronomicon. Another chapter uses the director's cut ending of the film as inspiration and unfolds in a post-apocalyptic future where the Watcher's armies have run amok. Yet another campaign — my favorite — is set during World War II, where Hitler is (of course) using the Necronomicon to raise armies of the dead.

That makes the "Army of Darkness" RPG the perfect system to run any "Evil Dead" story and to let your fanfiction run rampant when it comes to weaving together the various iterations of the movie (or the franchise). Because, at the end of the day, every TTRPG is just a combination of mechanics and flavor. The team at Eden Studios has proven that they understand how the pieces of this world fit together. So if your tabletop group features an overabundance of horror fans, see what happens when you slip "Army of Darkness" into rotation. You'll be glad you did.