Who wants to play a super smart dinosaur in power armour? I can hear the roar of a thousand “Me”s like a a T-Rex roaring into a megaphone.
Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that genetically alters popular culture icons and arms them with Essence20 options. 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.
As fans of Hasbro’s properties kick back to enjoy their new copies of G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero #301 and Transformers #2 from Skybound, we look back to the last time this publisher tackled a toyetic title.
Who Is Super Dinosaur?
Through genetic alteration, a Tyrannosaurus Rex left over from the prehistoric age gained enhanced intelligence, combat mastery, and a baller attitude. Using exosuits with cybernetic gorilla arms and integrated weapon systems, Super Dinosaur fights on behalf of Team Dynamo and Earth Corps against evil and the Dino-Men forces of Max Maximus, his creator!
Speaking of creator, the Super Dinosaur comic isn’t just published by Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint. The Walking Dead and Invincible writer also co-created Super Dinosaur. He and artist Jason Howard say they wanted to have something with their names on it that was appropriate to share with their children. The fact that it had action figure, video game, and animation potential probably also factored into their decision to make Super Dinosaur.
Now it’s our turn to make Super Dinosaur!
Building Essence20 Super Dinosaur
Anyone who asks me what licenses I hope Renegade grabs in the future knows that I’d love to work on a Super Dinosaur Essence20 sourcebook. Since that’ll likely never happen, I’ll settle on a Super Dinosaur build.
Super Dinosaur is a T-Rex in a mech suit (a Tyrannosaurus Mechs, if you will). Because Essence20 Origins currently assume either a humanoid, Equestrian, or Cybertronian shape and physiology, that presents our biggest challenge. We can’t build Super Dinosaur unless we can build a dinosaur. That makes the Origin our top priority.
As a reminder, I try to reskin (change the flavour or intent of the mechanics) options as little as possible on this blog. However, the reality is that Essence20 options are designed for specific settings. Since building characters from existing Essence20 settings also goes against one of this blog’s design goals, I would have to rule out a lot of options, including the majority of Cybertronian Origins. Instead, I give myself some wiggle room to genericize elements for the sake of my build.
Monstrosity (Transformers Roleplaying Game Decepticon Directive)
Of the Origins I considered (I’ll get into the other candidates after), Monstrosity from Decepticon Directive checked the most boxes.
First of all, Monstrosity is big. It’s one of I believe only two Huge Origins in the whole system. That goes a lot of the way toward selling this build. Super Dinosaur is so big, the animated series was letterboxed specifically so Super Dinosaur could burst out of the frame for dramatic effect.
Now you might notice that the Tyrannosaurus Rex Threat in Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1 is Gigantic. Huge is not big enough, you might think. Funny enough, canonically, Max Maximus made Super Dinosaur smaller than the average T-Rex to make him easier to control. So being smaller than our T-Rex Threat is on brand for Super Dinosaur.
Second of all, Monstrosity is tough. Four Starting Health and a built-in enhanced melee attack with the option to choose between Blunt or Sharp damage. Super Dinosaur doesn’t bite his way out of his problems, so we’ll choose Blunt damage to represent Super Dinosaur’s exosuit arms. Yes, that does mean we’re using the Origin to cover both Super Dinosaur’s species and elements of his cybernetic armor. Although he takes breaks from his exosuit around headquarters, he does suit up even between missions.
Which brings us to, third of all, Monstrosity looks like one part machine and one part monster. Although technically the Origin is intended to be a robot that can look somewhat organic, it also works for a cybernetic dinosaur. The downshift from Bestial Articulation works for any “I have a big head and little arms” situations. The Alt Mode will represent Super Dinosaur stowing his guns for better mobility. Since we get to choose our Alt Mode’s Movement Type, we’ll grab the Aerial Mode. Technically Super Dinosaur has different suits for different forms of movement, but we’ll just combine the flying mode of Super Dinosaur’s rocket suit with the limited flight capacity of his main suit.
And with that, we have a dinosaur in a tech suit (a dinosuit, if you will). Honestly, I thought I’d need to justify Monstrous a bit more, but other than intending to be robotic (but technically isn’t due to the loophole that we put the Robot trait in the Transformers Factions instead of the Origins), the only issue I have is that it gains languages based on Social. Smarts would have matched Super Dinosaur’s fast learning powers better. That is such a minor hitch, I only bring it up to show how perfectly this Origin fits this build.
The two other Origins I considered for this build were Dragon from the My Little Pony web material, and Test Subject from Cobra Codex. Dragon really only worked aesthetically, so I moved on quickly. Test Subject had potential. It let me take the Animalize Limited Alteration, which in turn let me take the Big Animal Perk. But that’s a lot of steps to end up with a Super Dinosaur build slightly less accurate than just taking Monstrous.
Technician (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
I’ve been writing Essential Builds since July, and this is the first time I’ve used my favourite Role in the game, Technician from the G.I. JOE Core Rulebook. One of the reasons I considered non-robotic Origins for Super Dinosaur is because I knew the Technician covered the suit side of this build. The combination of Technician and Monstrosity covers it even better.
Technician technically only gets one Role Perk at 1st level, but it’s a doozy: Primary Tech. Practically a second Focus choice crammed into a Role Perk, we get to choose between wearing an advanced suit of armor, gaining a drone companion, mastering mundane gear, or carrying a big gun. Obviously we’re going with Armor at 1st level, but what about 11th level when we get Secondary Tech? Armor again. You might be tempted to choose Weapon as our Secondary Tech since cannons and rocket launchers hang off Super Dinosaur in all his artwork, but our Focus will cover that.
Choosing Armor as Super Dinosaur’s Secondary Tech does mean he gains two suits of armor as personal gear, despite only being able to wear one at a time. That too lines up with the source material. In addition to his standard white and red armor, Super Dinosaur also has a rocket suit, a space suit, a ski suit, a dive suit, and a stealth suit. Buy them all!
The rest of the Technician’s Role Perks either show the intelligence of the character, the versatility of his gear, or his access to additional equipment. A lot of the visuals attached to the Perks (like sharing the benefits of upgrades with allies, and using his armor instead of a tool) tie directly into comic panels and scenes from the animated series.
Focus: Think Tank (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
The spectrum of technicians in fiction ranges from Q to Tony Stark in terms of Does The Adventures, and from MacGyver to Lex Luthor in terms of Builds Their Own Equipment. Super Dinosaur is in the Tony-Lex quadrant. He helps with the development of the equipment he uses, and then goes on adventures so Doctor Dynamo and the Earth Corps engineers don’t have to.
While the Technician Role covers G.I. Joe’s tech support like Mainframe and Dial-Tone, the Think Tank Focus covers characters who use advanced tech in combat, like Sci-Fi and Fast Draw. The thinking tank, if you will. Yes, it’s wordplay. I like wordplay.
At 1st level, the Think Tank gets to substitute a designated combat Skill (Athletics, Might, Finesse, or Targeting) with Technology. Although I said the enhanced melee attack gained from our Origin represents Super Dinosaur’s cybernetic arms, he also uses tail slaps and headbutts in melee. Conversely, all of his ranged attacks are made through his controls, like when he plays video games. As such, Super Dinosaur will use Technology instead of Targeting for Skill Tests.
Integrated Offense gives us a bunch of Microtech Weapon and Microtech Armor upgrades. We’ll use these to shrink a couple of ranged weapons down to Integrated size. We’ll start with an element jet or directed element rifle at 6th level (using all three of our Microtech Weapon upgrades at the time to shrink the Long weapon down to Integrated). At 8th level, we can switch to a shrunken rocket launcher. By 14th level, we can have both! In between, we can use Microtech on sidearms and medium weapons, like pistols and shotguns, to supplement our big guns.
The rest of Think Tank’s Focus Perks make up for the Technician’s slow Strength progression, letting us ignore the Strength-based skill requirements of equipment, and boosting our Health and defenses. By high level, we can even go nova with a round of attacking as a Free action.
Faction: Dino-Hunters (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1)
A new Faction enters the blog!
Factions technically debuted in the Power Rangers CRB, but the concept wasn’t fleshed out into a customizable mechanic until the Field Guide to Action & Adventure. That’s when we needed to make good on the promise that you can play a Cybertronian Power Ranger or a Real American Heroic Teen With Attitude. Since expanding on the idea, it’s been further explored in mainly G.I. JOE sourcebooks, including the most recent Factions In Action, which is entirely dedicated to the idea of changing teams and subteams. The fact that it’s listed as Volume 1 tells you everything you need to know about whether to expect more Factions in the future.
As I mentioned when discussing Origins, it can be hard to adhere to a no-reskinning rule since we’re writing the game for specific settings. That’s especially true of Factions, which to date have represented very specific ideas drawn from the source material. It just so happens that Super Dinosaur mainly fights against fellow dinosaur soldiers!
Now, truthfully, Dino-Hunters isn’t mechanically amazing for our build. We’re already trained in the best battledress, we probably won’t be operating too many vehicles given our size and mobility, and we will rarely attack larger targets. And I’m willing to accept all of that based purely on the fact that Super Dinosaur is thematically the most perfect candidate for the Dino-Hunters faction this side of Jack Tenrec.
1st: Beastly (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1)
2nd Heavy Hitter (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
3rd Time Displaced (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game: A Jump Through Time)
Of Essence20’s character creation options, Influences are traditionally the least combat focused. However, two out of my three Influence choices here enhance our melee attack. That’s because the Technician has a slow Strength progression. These Influence choices offset that by bumping up the most noticeable aspect of Super Dinosaur’s silhouette, his big beefy arms. So I took Beastly, which lets us ignore the downshift on Unarmed Combat alternate effects. Add to that, once per scene Heavy Hitter deals additional damage on a successful Unarmed Attack, and we have a highly effective melee combatant.
This is a good time to reiterate that the different Essence20 settings have different needs, and Heavy Hitter is an Influence that makes sense in My Little Pony (with fewer weapons and options that improve attacks) but overpowered in more combat-oriented settings. It’s an Influence that’s good for every melee build, which is usually a sign that an option is too good. I’m taking it here because if anyone is a heavy hitter, it’s Super Dinosaur. But the GM part of my brain is raising an eyebrow at the player part of my brain.
Finally, a fun option that only works if your character’s theme revolves around it: Time Displaced. Super Dinosaur may not have traveled through time, but he’s from a era millions of years bygone. The world just isn’t built for his kind, and so the mandatory Hang-Up—suffering ↓2 when being time displaced would negatively impact a Skill Test—applies to a dinosaur trying to interact with the human world. Such as…
…trying to reach something with your tiny T-Rex hands but your giant T-Rex head is in the way.
Essence Scores and Skills
As I’ve alluded to, this is one area where the options we’ve picked and the build we’re going for are at odds. The Technician Role assumes backrow characters, using Smarts-based Skills primarily, and ranged weapons to contribute in combat. Even the Think Tank assumes ranged combat. And while Super Dinosaur can mix it up at range, he’s a switch hitter, highly affective in your face.
We need to invest enough into Might to last us until 4th level, the first time the Role increases Strength. Four Ranks gets us either +d8 or +d6 with a Specialization. Monstrosity’s natural attack comes with an Upshift, and Beastly lets us ignore downshifts, combining into an ideal time for a Specialization.
Our other combat Skill is Technology. We’ll go with four Ranks there as well, but no Specialization. The Technician Role improves Smarts so regularly, we have plenty of opportunities to invest in a Specialization later. Since we plan on switching around the types of ranged weapons we use, we might stick with no Spec for most of the build. We’ll also grab a few Ranks in Alertness, because it’s always useful.
We’re in a funny position with Speed. We get a lot of it, but it’s not an important part of our build. The obvious Skill to invest in would be Targeting, but we use Technology for Targeting. Instead, we’ll invest two Ranks in Infiltration, to cover Super Dinosaur’s stealth suit, and two Ranks in Initiative, because it’s always useful.
The Technician’s slowest progressing Essence Score, and Super Dinosaur’s least used skillset. Earth Corps doesn’t send Super Dinosaur into diplomatic situations. We’ll go with three Ranks in Streetwise, a flexible Social Skill to represent Super Dinosaur’s fast learning ability, and one Rank into Animal Handling, because he picked up a penguin one time.
I had an inkling that my last few Essential Build subjects (Luis, Inspector Gadget, and The Rocketeer) were too niche, so I set out to choose a more mainstream subject. Then I remembered that G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #301 from Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint released this week, and I had earmarked this week’s Essential Builds for my favourite Skybound character.
Every time I revisit Super Dinosaur, I’m shocked it wallows in obscurity. And not for lack of trying! The concept sells itself, the visuals are perfect, the comic and animated series are fun, and the toys and mobile app capture all of the above. Combined with the name value and business savvy of one of the creators, this feels like it should have been the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Instead, it came and went and no one seemed to notice except me. As much as I’d love Renegade to grab the license to create official Super Dinosaur Essence20 material, even with the Skybound connection, I doubt it would happen. At least this build shows that the main character is already viable with the options that are available.