Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that turns pop culture icons into Essence20 Player Characters that want to suck your blood.
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.
All of September is Halloween eve, so we’ll mark the kickoff of spooky times with literature’s most famous vampire.
Building Essence20 Dracula
Now, I said from the beginning that Essential Builds would only feature characters I would never need to build for an official Essence20 release. That’s only mostly true of today’s subject.
Dracula exists in G.I. JOE. Sort of. The book is referenced in the original animated series, as is Vlad Tepes, aka Vald The Impaler, the actual count said to have inspired Bram Stoker. Not only does Vald The Impaler exist, he’s an ingredient in the genetic recipe that made Serpentor.
Dracula also exists in Transformers. Sort of. Hasbro released a Transformers/Universal Monsters Collaboration called Draculus, a Decepticon vampire who turns into a bat. They also just announced the upcoming Frankentron (with Hasbro boldly suggesting the creature is Frankenstein, a debate as hot as FIRRIB vs FIBRIR), not to be mistake for Autobot X, who is a Frankenstein creation of parts, but not a creation of Frankenstein or a creation named Frankenstein.
Dracula even exists in Power Rangers. Sort of. At least he appeared in one of the Super Sentai series that Power Rangers was based on. Not being even a novice Power Rangers fan and my only experience in this regard being that wiki page, I don’t believe he ever appeared in the Western show.
Regardless, even if any or all of those Draculas appear in official Essence20 products, they will at most share some options with the following Dracula build. That’s because I’m adapting Dracula from BigBadWorkshop and Fresh Monkey Fiction’s Operation: Monster Force.
Who Is Operation: Monster Force Dracula?
In Operation: Monster Force, an ancient Egyptian sorcerer called The Forgotten King returned to life to reinitiate a reign “so brutal, so sacrilegious, that his name was forever stricken from history.” For all his magical powers, the most concerning is his ability to turn living creatures into loyal zombies. Every soldier sent against him becomes one more member of his Apophis Legion. Every living soldier, that is.
For whatever reason, The Forgotten King’s powers do not work against those with vampire blood in their veins. Agent Declan Van Helsing, 13th generation vampire hunter, suggested injecting a task force with vampire blood, and unlocking the tomb containing Dracula to lead them. He reasoned that “It takes a monster to fight a monster.”
Dracula is committed to the fight against The Forgotten King, probably because a world without humanity is a world unfit for vampires. But he openly threatens Van Helsing, reminding him that they are not allies, and recommending against sleeping before sunrise.
What’s fun about this Dracula is that it is the traditional 19th century vampire, but in the modern day. His aristocratic tutelage doesn’t carry the same capital as in his time. He’s like if Captain America was a vampire (unlike the real Captain America, who was a werewolf).
Pretender (Field Guide to Action & Adventure)
Originally when I decided to adapt an Operation: Monster Force character, I thought about building Declan Van Helsing. But that’s super boring, right? A line about a supernatural fighting force and I make the token human? So I asked myself which of the monstrous characters was Essence20 equipped to handle?
That’s when it occurred to me: Dracula has an Alt Mode. Arguably, he has three. Dracula can change into animal form, usually a bat but sometimes also a wolf. He also has peaceful mode and attack mode. Even when the difference isn’t as stark as it is on Buffy, most depictions of Dracula in media show physical differences between when he’s acting all aristocratic and when his fangs come out.
The Pretender Origin from the Field Guide to Action & Adventure works extremely well here. I should point out that the Origin’s concept is somewhat removed from the Transformers Pretenders line. Where those Pretenders are organic-passing shells that hide Cybertronians within (and some of the worst offenders of mass shifting), Essence20 Pretenders replicate the concept of a robotic being trying to pass for an organic one. The Origin started with that concept and took the Pretender name because it fit thematically, although in retrospect it causes confusion that leads to paragraphs like this one explaining the difference.
In either case, the Pretender Origin gives us a good way to handle Dracula between when he’s pretending to be human and when he reveals his monstrous side. For a more grounded Dracula build, I would go with Bot Mode being his mild-mannered mode, and his Alt Mode would be when he vamps up. However, in Operation: Monster Force, Dracula isn’t trying to pass as human. If he was, he wouldn’t dress like a 19th century gothic count in a modern day military unit. So we’ll use the Alt Mode’s Size and Movement options to turn from Common sized with a 30ft Ground Movement to Small sized with a 20ft Aerial Movement. Instant bat.
There’s one obvious issue with using the Pretender Origin. Dracula is not a robot. Now, technically because we made Robot a Faction feature instead of an Origin feature, the Pretender rules don’t give him the Robot trait. It’s somewhere between exploiting a loophole and reskinning, but RAW, this is legal. We’ll just say he has a Count Mode and a Bat Mode instead of an Alt Mode and Bot Mode.
Field Commander (Transformers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
I’ve all but said that the Field Commander is my favourite Essence20 Role (except for maybe the Technician). But I’m not just using one of my favourite Roles for this build. In Operation: Monster Force, Dracula is the Delta Red field commander.
However, as a leader, Dracula is more Megatron than Optimus Prime. Fortunately, Renegade previewed a couple of pages from the Field Commander section of the upcoming Decepticon Directive, including Replacement Perks to do away with do-gooder abilities like Irrefutable Order and Let Cool Heads Prevail. Now we have a capable tactician with a dark side, leading Monster Force while manipulating enemies.
Faction and Focus
Cobra (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Coba Codex)
Spy (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
In addition to new Origins and other options, the Field Guide to Action & Adventure has rules for adapting Roles from one setting into another. Now, I was tempted to make Dracula a Decepticon and treat Energon and the powers it grants as blood (Transformers even regain Energon from defeated foes, it’s perfect!) but I worried that pushed the limits of my No Reskinning Stuff rule too far. Plus, this is Dracula, not Draculus.
Instead, I’m adapting the Field Commander to G.I. Joe and giving him the Cobra faction to represent Monster Force. I might have given him the Mega Monsters faction instead, but Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1 isn’t out yet.
One of the features of the Cobra faction is Division, which lets me further customize my build. Divisions are the different departments within Cobra. I debated the Martial Arts Division based on the Dracula figure’s sword accessory, but Field Commanders are already Trained with melee weapons. Instead, I’ll go with the Experiment Division. This gives me another suite of options, including gaining a Standard Alteration at the start of every mission. One such Alteration is Advanced Photoreceptors, which gives better vision in darkness at the cost of some usefulness in light. In other words, vampire eyes, and one of the few rules that represents a vampire’s sensitivity to light.
Changing settings also opens up new Focus options. Again, if I stayed in the Transformers setting, I’d have used the new Mastermind Focus seen in the Decepticon Directive preview. Instead, I chose the similarly manipulative Spy Focus from the Commando Role. It shores up Dracula’s reliability with Social Skills, and reflects Dracula’s supernatural powers of persuasion. Because I’ll Take That builds on the Takedown Commando Role Perk, Dracula gets the base version, which will serve him well as a primary form of attack once that unlocks. I especially like the idea of Dracula initiating the Takedown in bat mode before converting to his more combat capable form.
Funny enough, the last time I changed a Role’s setting, I also took a Commando Focus. Like Dracula, it was for a bat/man build.
1st: Conniving (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)
2nd Checkered Past (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
3rd Nobility (Field Guide to Action & Adventure)
Listing out Influences like this reinforces how they tell a story about your character more than any other option. A conniving noble with a checkered past? That sums up everything about Dracula after “creature of the night”.
Conniving is fun even if part of its benefits are situational. If an ally offers to Lend Assistance, they can instead attempt the Skill Test while you lend them assistance, with them suffering any consequences for failing. What I love about this Perk is the clout it gives the player of the Conniving character at the table. “You know what, you do it” they say both in character and out.
Checkered Past and Nobility make their second Essential Builds appearance, both being Influences I chose for Richard. Going back to my point about storytelling through Influence choices, Dracula is a conniving noble with a checkered past, whereas Richard is a violent noble with a checkered past. Even sharing two thirds of those adjectives, the polar contrast of those remaining adjectives distinguish the two characters completely.
Admitedly, I could have chosen other Influences to avoid repetition, I think these both work very well here, mechanically and thematically. Checkered Past gives a benefit for thinking outside the box, but has Dracula butting heads with authority. In what limited Operation: Monster Force media there is (one issue of a tie-in comic), it’s repeatedly reinforced that Dracula is on the team because the agency saw no other option.
As for Nobility, it practically assigns two hang-ups. Its benefit to Social Skill Tests only applies to “those who recognize your nobility or royal authority.” Every time a player tries to use that part of the Perk is an opportunity for the GM to remind them that no one recognizes the royal authority of a Transilvanian Count. Luckily, Nobility has other privileges. The ability to automatically pass the occasional Wealth Test is nice. More importantly, it grants a butler. I don’t know if Operation: Monster Hunter has a Renfield, but ours certainly does.
Essence Scores and Skills
The Field Commander is generous with its Social Essence Score Increases, but the only Role Perk of the Decepticon version tied to a Social Skill is 18th level’s Stand Together, which requires Persuasion. Do As I Say ties into Intimidation. The Field Commander’s Strength doesn’t progress that quickly, and I see Dracula as a Might-based fighter, so I will grab the Mentor General Perk (representing Dracula’s sire) at 4th level to make Intimidation a Social Skill. (EDIT: Renegade Discord user Juggernaut pointed out that the Spy Focus already lets me treat Intimidation as a Social Skill! I’ll change the General Perks section to reflect this.)
I’ll use some of the 12 floating Essence score increases at 1st level to gain +d6 Might and +d6 Intimidation, then a combination of the rest and the Field Commander, Spy, and Pretender Skill Points to get Persuasion and Deception to that same rank as well, if not +d8.
I’ll invest whatever Skill Points I have left for Infiltration, Initiative, Alertness, and Culture. That feels like a decent combination of Dracula themed Skills and a fairly well-rounded leader character. If the campaign imports the Spellcasting Skill from My Little Pony (more on that in a second), it makes sense that Dracula and Van Helsing would be the only ones in Delta Red with Ranks in it. Everyone else in the task force injected vampire blood on faith that at least one of these two supernatural experts have their best interests at heart.
General Perks and Other Options
One of the advantages of adapting a character based on a classic literary figure is that there’s a lot I can safely assume even if there’s minimal media for this particular version of the character. One of the disadvantages is the baggage that comes with the character that isn’t addressed in the minimal media for this particular version of the character. For example, in the above illustration, Dracula has hellacool glowing hands. Does that mean he’s a spellcaster? To what extent?
Regardless, since Dracula’s magical powers seem minor (they didn’t even warrant a cool spellcasting effect accessory, unlike The Forgotten King), I’ll wait until 8th level to take Magical, and I’ll take Fast at 4th level. A 30ft walking, 20ft flying Dracula could use a boost. We’ll just say it took him a few levels to shake off the cobwebs of a thousand year sleep. The rest of my General Perks can be used on Alterations from Cobra Codex to add more vampiric powers.
If I were playing this character, hopefully by the time a second issue of Operation: Monster Force came out we’d have seen more of this Dracula’s fighting style to better inform General Perk choices.
I know I say this a lot, but I’d play this build. I especially like that it’s loaded with villain-coded options from Cobra Codex and Decepticon Directive, and yet Dracula is one of the heroes in Operation: Monster Force.
The main thing missing from this build is something to represent feeding off the life forces of others. But that’s a bigger issue for other Dracula builds. I’m not sure how Operation: Monster Force deals with it, but I don’t believe Dracula can drink the blood of The Forgotten King’s undead army, and I assume Van Helsing isn’t letting Dracula and Delta Red go around murdering people. They’re probably consuming blood rations. That would make it a moot point in an Operation: Monster Force campaign.
If I absolutely needed a Life Force subsystem, Energon Points can be converted easily.