Welcome to the inaugural Essential Builds, the blog that turns PCCs (pop culture characters) into EPCs (Essence20 Player Characters).
I’m Ryan Costello, one of the designers of the Essence20 system and an author on the G.I. JOE, Transformers, and My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebooks. As of this writing, I’ve written over 300 000 words for Essence20, contributing to over a dozen products and counting.
In fact, all of that writing is one of the reasons this blog took so long to launch.
A Delayed Debut
You may recall I announced a lot of Essence20 content would be coming to The Know Direction Network when I started working on the G.I. Joe RPG. You may have also noticed that the only Essence20 content on the network so far has been Upshift. Here’s what happened.
I’ve been writing a lot more for Renegade than I expected. Like, a lot more. Almost constant back-to-back and sometimes overlapping contracts since they brought me on for the G.I. JOE CRB. What’s more, not only do Essence20 assignments take up the majority of my writing time, but Sgt Slaughter made me change my original concept for this blog.
To elaborate, neither Sgt Slaughter, the real person/WWE persona, nor Sgt Slaughter the G.I. Joe character wrestled me to the ground and demanded I pick a different blog topic (maggot!). You see, my original plan was to offer three different suggestions for building canonical G.I. Joe characters (in the case of characters with a lot going on, like Snake Eyes) or concepts (in the case of a specialty shared by multiple characters, like Medic). Then, in outlining the Sgt Slaughter Limited Edition Accessory Pack, I realized that concept could be content for Essence20 sourcebooks. That meant, 1. I could get paid for it, which is nice, and 2. I could get in trouble with Renegade for giving it away, which is not nice.
Once showing players how to build Joes as PCs became content that could appear in official products, it became off limits for a blog. I couldn’t even stick to deep cuts. We have the Dinosaur Hunters in an upcoming product! No corner of G.I. Joe is too obscure for an Essence20 sourcebook.
The New Concept
Instead of using the roleplaying system that runs the G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, and Transformers Roleplaying Games to make G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, and Transformers characters, I’ll show how Essence20 can be used to create characters from other settings. I will not write any original options for my builds, and as often as possible, I will avoid reskinning mechanics to fit the subject. These will be options from Essence20 products, as presented in their source material. I want to show off the versatility of the system, especially when you start drawing from more sourcebooks.
What subject shall we start with? Is there a better place to start than seeing if Essence20 passes The Batman Test?
Orphaned in Crime Alley in his youth, billionaire Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to avenging his parents’ death, honing his investigative instincts and martial arts skills to become the world’s greatest detective. Although this superhero doesn’t have any superpowers, his wealth provides him the freedom to workout his body and mind to the peak of human possibility, and affords him an arsenal of weapons (other than guns) and vehicles with which to investigate crimes and fight criminals.
Published by DC for close to 100 years (give or take a decade), Batman’s seen more adaptations than any other superhero. But how well does Essence20 adapt The Dark Knight detective?
Building Essence20 Batman
Now you can live out your wildest fantasies, like having Batman fight Snake Eyes!
Oh, huh. Already happened in a Fortnite comic. Neat!
Below are some suggestions for creating Batman as a level 1 Essence20 Player Character.
Analyst (Transformers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
The Analyst role from the Transformers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook fits Batman’s intelligence-based approach to adventures. It doesn’t have an analogue in any of the other Essence20 Core Rulebooks, where the sneaky Roles and the smart Roles don’t overlap.
The 1st level Role Perks Analyze Target and Informed Accuracy improve your fighting efficiency based on your Alertness, which means Batman’s detective skills contribute in and out of combat. The other 1st level Perk, Unsurprising, covers how he anticipates every possibility.
At later levels, most of the Role’s Perks relate to using information, none more so than Determine Probability at 5th level. Similar to the Pathfinder 2e investigator’s Devise a Stratagem class feature, Determine Probability allows an Analyst to theoretically play out a course of action before committing to it. It’s basically the Zach Galifianakis Math meme, without the thousand yard stare.
Infiltrator (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
The Analyst offers two Focus options: Manipulator and Spec Ops. Although an argument could be made for either, we don’t have to settle for just these two. Thanks to the Crossover Character Creation rules in The Field Guide to Action & Adventure, we can choose Focus options from other settings instead. We’ll be using those rules to change Batman’s faction (since Batman is not, in fact, a shape-changing robot) and setting. While we have that chapter open, we’ll use it to grab the Infiltrator Focus from the G.I. Joe Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook.
The Infiltrator takes something its parent Role (The Commando) is already good at and doubles down on it. Because a lot of its Focus Perks are based on Commando Role Perks, our Batman build actually gets the Role Perks instead. He gains Friend of Darkness instead of Night Eyes at 3rd level, and Takedown instead of Takedown Expert at 6th level.
Circling back to changing the Analyst’s Faction and setting, this is one area in which I have to break my rule against reskinning. Most Essence20 options are tied thematically to their setting, but broad enough to apply to other settings. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t apply to the setting rules. So although Batman is not a member of G.I. Joe and does not exist in that world, that is the closest Essence20 has to a Batman Family Faction and DCU setting.
Tragic (Power Rangers Core Rulebook)
There are currently 52 Essence20 Origins in print. Knowing that Tragic was one of them, I didn’t even need to look up the rest. Batman wouldn’t be Batman if he hadn’t led his parents down the alley that got them killed in his youth.
On top of a perfect theme, the Tragic Origin’s mechanics suit Batman as snugly as a pointy-eared cowl. The reroll granted by the Origin’s benefit reflects Batman always having a contingency plan. Beyond that, it grants a respectable 2 Health and we can put the Essence score boost into any Essence.
Spoiled (Cobra Codex)
Specialist (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
Vigilant (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
Our Batman build covers most of his powers and backstory already, so our Influences can round out anything missing. First of all, his money.
Over the years, Bruce Wayne went from a millionaire to a billionaire in the fiction, adjusting his wealth for inflation to always have more money than he could ever need. Since being so rich rarely hurts Batman, we’re taking it as the Influence without a Hang-Up.
I had a lot of options for the next two Influences (including stopping at one). I could replicate the theme of his Origin and take the Tragedy Influence. But, really, hasn’t young Bruce been through enough? I also could emphasize his combat training by taking the Martial Artist Influence. However, I don’t like how the Hang-Up (being easier to goad) fits with Batman, and the Perk is redundant with the Analyst Role.
So, I took one of the broader Influences, Specialist, and applied it to Alertness (Investigation). The benefit definitely applies, and I’ve seen Batman tied up upside down enough to believe the automatic failure Hang-Up applies as well. Finally, I am giddy to say I took an option from My Little Pony for a Batman build. Vigilant lets Batman roll Alertness when he rolls Initiative, giving him one last chance to avoid being Surprised. The Hang-Up is that he’s Surprised for two rounds if he fails. And frankly, if anyone gets the jump on Batman, he needs extra time to process how that happened. Luckily, his Unsurprising Role Perk means a Surprised Batman is still more effective than a Surprised most other people.
Essence Scores and Skills
Athletics +d2, Intimidation +d4, Might +d4
Infiltration +d4, Initiative +d2, Targeting +d4
Alertness (Investigation) +d4*, Science +d2
I like to start a build with one specialization. It gives me both a mechanical direction to emphasize and a thematic choice that defines the character. For Batman, I went with the comic version that has him use his brains more than his brawn. Most of the Justice League can outpunch Batman, but few can out think him. That said, on the streets of Gotham, he still does a fair amount of punching.
Batman will be fighting with his fists and Batarangs equally, so I gave him equal ranks in Might and Targeting. The more rounds spent using Analyze Target, the more efficiently Batman attacks that target. It allows the build to spread its Skill wings a bit broader. That said, I’d have liked to bump those up to d6s, but a Batman build requires investment in a lot of Skills. As it is, the lack of ranks in Driving means he can’t parallel park his Batmobile, let alone get the Batcopter airborne.
What’s important to keep in mind is that this is level 1 Batman. He didn’t start his adventures with a car. He jumped from rooftop to rooftop, putting that cardio to work. Earmark that 4th level Speed boost from his Role for a rank in Driving.
Final note on Batman’s Essence scores, I’m amused that I gave him Intimidation and Streetwise. That means he uses a Strength-based Skill in social situations, and a Social-based Skill in Smarts situations. Truly, Batman is someone who does things his own way.
General Perks and Other Options
Batman doesn’t get a General Perk until 4th level. By then, this build would have moved toward a specialized purpose. That purpose dictates the General Perk he should take.
If Batman becomes the brains of the operation, like his role in the Justice League, Inspired from the Power Rangers and My Little Pony Core Rulebooks means Batman can come through in a clutch and overcome any obstacle. Photographic Memory from the G.I. JOE and Transformers Core Rulebooks lets Batman skip Skill Tests and recall important information.
If he is the street level fighting machine often seen in his solo movies, Evasive Fighting from the G.I. JOE and Transformers Core Rulebooks reflects Batman taking his time to defend himself while he lines up the perfect shot. Whereas Iron Hands from the Power Rangers Core Rulebook (not sure how this one didn’t make the Transformers CRB) increases the damage Batman does with his martial arts.
Finally, if he’s become the team leader, like his position in the Bat Family, Team Player from the G.I. JOE and Transformers Core Rulebooks lets him help his allies on a micro (Lending Assistance) and macro (gaining a Story Point for it) level. Because Batman works best on multiple levels.
The biggest challenge creating Batman was accounting for his reputation of being able to handle any situation with sufficient time to prepare. The Analyst Role does the heavy lifting on fulfilling that fantasy. The other big challenge is making one Batman build to meet all expectations. Especially at level 1, that’s basically impossible. However, this gives a good idea of the options that cover a broad interpretation of who Batman is. Like a Gotham City gargoyle, it’s a good jumping off point for your own Batman build.