Essential Builds – The Rocketeer

Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that straps a rocket to popular culture characters and flies them into the Essence20 Roleplaying System.

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 the latest Upshift, our Essence20 podcast, while discussing the Rocketeer Focus for the Technician Role in Cobra Codex, I talked myself into statting up The Rocketeer for Essential Builds. With the idea fresh on my mind, let’s get to The Rocke-who?

Who Is The Rocketeer?

Wearing a 1930s leather bomber jacket and an aerodynamic helmet that both protects his face and hides his secret identity, stunt pilot Cliff Secord takes to the skies above the Hollywoodland sign via a jet pack designed by Howard Hughes and sought after by Nazis and gangsters. 

That’s basically all you need to know, really. Cool look, jet pack, fights Nazis.

Building Essence20 The Rocketeer

I love jet packs, so naturally The Rocketeer was one of my favourite movies growing up. Or do I love jet packs because The Rocketeer was one of my favourite movies growing up? Well, whether it’s the chicken or the egg wearing the rocket, 1991 live action adventure film The Rocketeer left an impression. 

That said, there are a few movies from my youth whose cultural impact I overestimated. The Rocketeer is one of them. As a kid, I assumed it was beloved by all, as good as any Indiana Jones film. Naturally it was a big hit, everyone I knew saw it. Sure, it didn’t have any sequels, but that didn’t reflect the success of a film at the time. And yes, star Billy Campbell didn’t have much of a career after, but what did Mark Hamill do after Star Wars at that time?  

Ends up The Rocketeer was a mild success with a cult following at best. There’s been talk of a new movie or series for the last decade, but other than an animated sequel series on Disney Jr about The Rocketeer’s daughter inheriting the title and jet pack (in which Billy Campbell reprised his role!), and some spin-off comics, this 90s franchise flew off into the sunset. 

Oh, speaking of comics. Yes, The Rocketeer is based on an early 80s comic. However, I haven’t read it. My exposure to the character is through the movie and the mediocre NES side scroller of the time, so that’s the source material I’ll be drawing from for my build. 



Green Ranger (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game core rulebook) 

I could easily have kept the Technician Role for this build and it would have been fully functional. However, The Rocketeer doesn’t build or repair his equipment. Alan Arkin’s character, Peevy, is The Rocketeer’s engineer and confidant. The Rocketeer is more of a fighter. So a Technician (Rocketeer) Rocketeer build would be more tech savvy than the movie presents him as. Instead, I’m dipping back into The Field Guide to Action & Adventure’s Advanced Crossover Character Creation rules to create a Green Ranger (Rocketeer) Rocketeer. 

I went with Green Ranger for a few reasons:

  1. Solo Strike works thematically, since The Rocketeer did all the fighting himself.
  2. Solo Strike works mechanically, too. The Rocketeer can leap to the back ranks and fight leaders and utility enemies while the majority of the party fights on the front lines. 
  3. Survival Boon’s Move Like A Song and the Sidestep Perk both add to the feel of defense through maneuverability, and increase the build’s survivability.
  4. I don’t use Ranger Roles that often, so I take any opportunity to apply one to a build when it fits. 

That said, this isn’t a perfect fit. Unique Weapon grants a weapon tailored to the character, but The Rocketeer mostly used a Mauser M712, a standard semi-automatic pistol. I think he grabbed it off a Nazi he defeated late in the movie, mostly relying on hand-to-hand combat the majority of the time. Using the Unique Weapon Table 4-4 options, we’ll go triple 1s (a three eyed snake, if you will) and give The Rocketeer a ranged weapon that stores up to 3 Personal Power but loses 1d4 Personal Power on a fumble. Predictably, we’ll flavor any Personal Power usage as jet pack maneuvers. 

Focus and Faction

Rocketeer (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)

The most obvious option to ever appear in an Essential Build. It’s rare that a pop culture character shares a name with the perfect Essence20 mechanic for that build. 

In my defense, as alluded to on the podcast, G.I. JOE has a long history with jet packs. The JUMP debuted in 1983, shortly after The Rocketeer comic debut and long before the movie. It’s still a part of the line today. Oh! In case anyone’s curious, Starduster was the mail away JUMP trooper whose name I was trying to remember in the episode. 

Cobra also used a variety of jet packs, and the Iron Grenadiers introduced a dedicated jet pack trooper. Even G.I. Joe commander Hawk has been a jet pack general once or twice (or thrice). And rocketeer is in the dictionary. So there, person I’m having an imaginary argument with! 

Obviously, the Focus’ most important Perk is getting a jet pack (I didn’t mention this on the podcast, but the name of the Perk that gets Rocketeers a jet pack is Skybound, a nod to the comic publisher than even then was rumoured to be taking over the G.I. JOE license). The rest of the Perks either open up uses for the Acrobatics and Driving Skills, unlock jet pack based attacks, or improve the jet pack and the Rocketeer’s relationship to it. 

While I’m throwing out trivia, the Human Bullet Focus Perk is a reference to Bulletman, a super heroic addition to the original 12” G.I. Joe team toward the end of that line’s run. 

As usual, none of the Faction options work thematically, since they’re tied to their setting. As much as I wanted to go with something different, like Tiger Force or Slaughter’s Marauders, I’m once again sticking with G.I. Joe for this build. 


Pilot (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game core rulebook)

This build keeps building itself!

So, confession: I’m not a huge fan of the Pilot’s Fly in the Future benefit. It’s built entirely around operating air vehicles, which, while thematic, means Pilot PCs get nothing special out of their Origin for the majority of most adventures. That, and the Perk’s second benefit—halving an air vehicle’s Movement to force attacks to target its Evasion—is redundant with the Evasive Maneuvers power that a majority of air vehicles have. 

One air vehicle in the minority? The Cobra Jet Pack. By gaining a Cobra Jet Pack as a personal vehicle, Rocketeer Pilots get more out of their Fly in the Future benefits than anyone else who takes this Origin. 


1st: Adventurer (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game core rulebook)

2nd Racer (Transformers Roleplaying Game core rulebook)

3rd Thrillseeker (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game core rulebook)

It just occurred to me that Adventurer and Thrillseeker fit together like two pieces of a two-piece puzzle. Adventurer grants an Edge on a Smarts or Social Skill Test when you bring up a past adventure that applies. Thrillseeker grants an Edge on a Strength or Speed Skill Test when acting recklessly. Basically, your first hand Thrillseeker experience leads to your reflection upon past lessons as an Adventurer. Even better, Adventurer is the first Influence in the G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game core rulebook, and Thrillseeker is the last. They bookend the section like they bookend a life of thrillseeking adventure! 

I chose Adventurer as the Influence without a Hang-Up mostly because I find the Hang-Up burdensome on a group. It gives Snags for being in the same place for too long. As a player, you have minimal control over how long an adventure keeps you in one area. As a GM with a Adventurer PC in your group, you have to decide how much impact this Influence should have on the settings and pace of your adventure. I also chose Adventurer as the Influence without a Hang-Up because The Rocketeer isn’t in any hurry to leave Los Angeles. He works there, he seems ready to settle down with his girlfriend there, and his roots run deep. 

Squeezed in between (because I list second and third Influence choices alphabetically) is another obvious choice for Cliff Secord, stunt pilot and plane racer: Racer from Transformers. It grants an Edge whenever a chosen Driving specialization comes into play. You know just what Driving specialization our jet pack enthusiast will choose. 

Essence Scores and Skills

It’s Driving (Air)! 

I think of d6 as the best jumping on point for Specializations, so we’re putting four ranks into Driving to give us Driving (Air) +d6*. It’s our highest starting rank, and always useful for a character with a vehicle as personal gear. Not to mention that we can attack with it as of 3rd level (I’d rule without specialization for ranged attacks, but with for rocket punches). 

Speaking of attacks, even though the Rocketeer Focus lets us use Driving for attacks at 3rd level, that’s two levels away, and it’s only when we’ve moved with our jet pack that turn. This is a combat build, so I’m giving Might and Targeting +d4 each. That will get us by for two levels, and give us something to fall back on when we can’t use our jet pack on a turn. 

Jumping to Smarts and Social, Cliff might not be a dummy, but he isn’t shown excelling in any particular area. We’ll start him off with +d6 in Alertness, and see if we need to diversify Smarts Skills when we get our bumps at 4th, 8th, and 12th level. 

An area Cliff does excel is Deception. He lies a lot in that film, including using trickery to defeat the villains in the end. Again, we’ll give him +d6. As he levels up, we might even throw in a Specialization. Also, weird fact. I looked up if there was a dog in The Rocketeer to see if he should get any Animal Handling and discovered a dog car harness called The Rocketeer that can’t be comfortable, can it?

With four Skill Points left, we go back to our Strength and Speed needs. As I mentioned, the main gun he uses is an automatic pistol. Per the Advanced Crossover Character Creation rules, taking a Technician Focus also gave us the Technician’s weapon and battledress Training and Qualifications, which means we are trained with the SMG. Even though our Rocketeer gains a Unique Weapon automatically, we’ll be requisitioning an SMG every mission, so we’ll give him the required +d2 Brawn. 

We’ll grab a Rank in Initiative, because it’s always handy, and a Rank in Infiltration, something we see him do a few times in the movie, especially when he hasn’t got his jet pack on. I could and maybe should put two Ranks in Infiltration, but instead I’m using the last Rank for Athletics. It’s a good catch-all Skill for physical activity, and a Skill we can invest in when we gain Strength Increases.  

General Perks and Other Options

Peevy is to The Rocketeer as Alfred is to Batman, solving as many of his issues as humanly possible between missions, and even helping from time to time on a mission. Trusted Contact from the Field Guide to Action & Adventure captures that relationship perfectly. Unlike Human Companion which abstracts having an ally by his side, or Animal Pet and Robot Pet, which gives a bonus character, Trusted Contact grants a free Contact of your design. I’m not going to build the Peevy contact entirely here, but he would definitely have a Perk for repairing vehicles, another for sagely advice, and maybe one to help with lies. 

By 8th level, we’ll be mostly attacking with our Driving Skill, and our Driving will be quite high. That means we can afford All Out Attack, which lets us trade downshifts on attacks for bonus damage. It’s a great General Perk, but can be hard to use to its fullest unless you’re completely dedicated to your attack Skill. We may not always get to attack with Driving, but getting to combine our jet propelled attacks with extra damage at the expense of accuracy matches half the fight scenes in the movie. 

Then there’s Peerless Pilot. I almost feel bad taking this, because of the second of the three benefits it grants. I want it so our Rocketeer can automatically pass the Skill Test to emergency disembark, and I appreciate gaining an Edge on Initiative Skill Tests when piloting a vehicle in which we’re specialized. I feel guilty about gaining ↑2 on Driving Skill Tests while piloting a vehicle we are Specialized in. Combined with getting to use Driving to attack, that’s a hefty bonus. If I were playing this build, I might suggest to my GM that this bonus applies to piloting a vehicle we are Specialized in, not when piloting a vehicle we are Specialized in. 

Finally, Weapon Training will be handy to get the build’s signature weapon without having to requisition it. It’s not a flashy addition to the build, it’s what you call a quality of life choice. 

Honourable mention goes to Sonic Rainboom from the My Little Pony Roleplaying Game core rulebook, which would have been a fun addition if the Cobra Jet Pack flew just a little bit faster. 


This build combines mobility with offense in a way that is both fun to play and true to the source. It also solves what I call The Pilot Problem, where investing in Driving or building around a vehicle driver theme only pays off in certain scenes, and those scenes often include hand-holding rules in case no one invested in Driving. This build excels in vehicle scenes, dominates vehicle scenes in an air vehicle, and always has access to an air vehicle even when the scene or mission doesn’t provide one. 

Also, if you’ve never seen it, or haven’t watched it in a while, check out The Rocketeer! 


G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex

My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

Transformers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game grew into a podcast network. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as the director of logistics and co-host of Upshift podcast, dedicated to the Essence20 RPG system he writes for and helped design. You can find out more about Ryan and the history of the network in this episode of Presenting: