Essential Builds – Barbie

Welcome to Essential Builds. It’s a builder blog, in an essential world. Adapting plastic, with statistics. 

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. 

To cap off 2023, we look at a Person of the Year 2023 candidate (despite not being, y’know, a real person), fashion icon and film star Barbie Roberts. 

Who Is Barbie?

She’s everything! 

Barbie started as a fashion doll in the 1950s, with an undefined backstory and open-ended purpose. What set her apart at the time was that kids could play pretend through the doll, as opposed to the traditional baby dolls which served as accessories for games in which the child takes on the role of parent. 

As the decades went on, Barbie’s look, messaging, and purpose evolved. Mattel began releasing Barbies themed around careers, some glamorous, some practical. More recently, Barbie expanded to other genres, including sci-fi, super hero, and spy. Barbie’s slogan, “You Can Be Anything”, applies as much to the brand as its audience, as the billion dollars the movie made indicate.  

Building Essence20 Barbie

While there’s no wrong way to build a character who can be anything, I’m going to focus on Margot Robbie’s character from the recent movie, Stereotypical Barbie. 

If you haven’t seen the movie, that’s not me passing judgment. She’s addressed as Stereotypical Barbie in the movie, and even refers to herself as such. Because even if Barbie can be anything, if you close your eyes and picture a Barbie, it probably looks and acts a lot like Margot Robbie’s character in the movie. Before her existential crisis sinks in.

As a result, I aim to work in options built around flexibility. After all, Barbie changes jobs as often as she changes clothes. The more ground we can make our build cover, the better. 


Spirit of Kindness (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

I don’t know Barbie very well, so before dedicating a blog to bringing her to Essence20, I needed to come up with a build that I felt worked. The quickness that Spirit of Kindness came to me as her Role confirmed that she was a good choice. 

As I’ve discussed before, the My Little Pony Roles have some mechanical and thematic overlap. This makes Role Perks slightly less important to an MLP character than to other Essence20 settings, with the flexibility of the Essence Score Progressions playing a larger, um, role, in differentiating characters. That said, this blog made me realize how potent these Roles are when brought over into other games. 

Take the Spirit of Kindness. It’s built around Empathy, both the concept and the Role Perk. You designate one of three Skills as your Empathy Skill, and then use that Skill to aid allies and penalize enemies. We’re choosing Persuasion as our Empathy Skill, turning Barbie into one of the most effective diplomats possible in Essence20. She won’t be throwing many punches, but she’ll drop her huge heart onto any battlefield and force her enemies to reconsider their actions. Outside of combat, Persuasion is one of the most useful Skills, so she will regularly get more opportunities to shine. 

When it comes to using My Little Pony Roles to adapt pop culture characters, normally the 20th level Perk causes issues. Princess Of X (where X= the Role’s theme) turns the character into a magical winged unicorn. That doesn’t fit most builds outside of the MLP setting, but it suits Barbie just fine. Barbie has totally gained wings and magic! When they say Barbie can be anything, that includes a fairy princess. 

Regrettably, MLP Roles do not have (currently defined) rules for changing settings. I’d love to grab the Commando (Spy) Focus since it is the most versatile Focus in Essence20 (and it works thematically since Barbie was a spy more than once). We’ll just have to find other ways to express Barbie’s versatility. 


Popular (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

Let me start by saying that if you take the Power Rangers CRB Origins (which represent the teenage identities and attitudes of Power Ranger PCs) and the My Little Pony Roles, you end up with a pretty perfect combo for a Barbie fantasy RPG. 

I narrowed my Origin options down to Kind and Popular. Both work thematically (and yes, Barbie is kind enough that kindness could be both her Origin and her Role). Both have comparable Essence Score Increases and Origin Skill selections. It came down to the Origin Perk. 

The Kind Origin gives I Know A Guy, which lets her call on a friend for help. That disqualified the Origin for this build. I was there for the 2014 backlash against Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, a book in which, contrary to the title in multiple ways, Barbie says “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn [my ideas] into a real game!” Barbie doesn’t need to Know A Guy! Barbie can be anything!

Popular, on the other hand, lives up to that tagline. Depending on the situation, Barbie can gain temporary Specializations in Deception, Persuasion, and Streetwise. Naturally we’ll want that to be Persuasion as often as possible, but if the situation calls for it, Barbie is prepared to cheat a cheater. 


1st: Chronicler (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game: A Jump Through Time)

2nd Stylish (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

3rd Teacher (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

I did not expect Influences to be the hardest part of my build. 

In retrospect, it makes sense. I kept looking for broad themes, but Influences relate to specific parts of a character’s personality or history. So when I looked at Influences like Artisan, Athlete, and Professional, my stumbling point was when those Influences asked me to narrow down my choice to a specific art style, sport, and profession. If only I could choose Professional three times! Instead I took three Influences that represent any interpretation of Barbie. Well, OK, two out of three. 

In many of her animated series, Barbie serves as the narrator by way of her vlog. The Chronicler Influence from A Jump Through Time specifically calls out vlogger as a type of Chronicler. It gives Barbie an Edge on Culture (History) Skill Tests to recall a fact about the information the PC chronicles. I will note that when an option calls out a Specialization, there can be some confusion about whether that means it only applies when that Skill and Specialization come into play, or if it’s suggesting a Specialization that could apply. I believe Chronicle only applies when the Specialization does. Which is a shame, since Barbie doesn’t vlog about history and I’d have liked a little more flexibility to the mechanics. Still, thematically, it works. 

Though listed second, Stylish was the first Influence I picked. Even though Barbie has evolved from being more than just a fashion doll, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with having an interest in fashion. Rarity taught me that there’s a difference between being passionate about fashion and being superficial. Barbie may not be as enthusiastic about it as Rarity, but she puts an effort into her appearance. The Hang-Up’s penalty to Stealth Tests in social situations probably won’t come up often, but I like the flavour. 

Finally, I chose Teacher because Barbie is often seen as the wisest of her friends, and a mentor to her younger sisters. In fact, some series don’t even feature her parents, with Barbie being the only adult looking after Skipper, Stacie, and Chelsea. I was particularly drawn to Teacher’s Hang-Up, which forces the Teacher to perform the task if they’re better at it. It reads like the plot of a typical episode of one of Barbie’s series, where Barbie needs to learn to trust others as much as she believes in herself. 

Essence Scores and Skills

Social 8

Social is obviously Barbie’s Diamond Essence Score. 

Based on her Role, Barbie needs high Persuasion. I rarely give a 1st level character more than 4 Ranks in one Skill, even their main Skill, and we’re being consistent here. The question is whether to go +d8 or +d6 and a Specialization. I’ll stick with the +d8 for now, since our Origin lets us pop in situational Specializations, and we get plenty of Social increases to invest in a permanent Persuasion Specialization later. 

She’s also going to need a couple of Ranks in Performance, since she’s never too far from her next musical number. And I’d like to give her Animal Handling since she has pets and moonlights as a vet and a zookeeper. Then there’s her Popular Origin, which can grant temporary Specialization in Deception and Streetwise. Putting even one Rank in every other Social Skill would mean half our starting Skill Points are invested in this one Essence. That’s understandable for this build, but then Deception and Streetwise don’t net any benefit from Popular. Instead, we’ll give her 1 Rank each in Performance and Animal Handling, and 2 Ranks in Deception. 

Smarts 4

If we were building a D&D or Pathfinder version of Barbie, based on how she’s portrayed in her many animated series and movies, Int would be her second highest stat, and Wis her lowest. She’s smart, but her naivety gets her in trouble. We’ll recreate that feeling by not giving her any Ranks in Alertness or Survival.  

For Skills we are investing in, we’ll start with Culture since it’s important to the Chronicler Influence. Our Social Skill ate a lot of our budget (isn’t that always the case?) so we have to invest modestly here. Two Ranks. 

That leaves us with Science and Technology. Barbie definitely needs a bit of both, assuming she hasn’t forged her qualifications for her many careers (it’s possible, with her Popularity and two Ranks in Deception!) I’d love to give her two Ranks each, but we can only really afford 1. 

Speed 3

One of Barbie’s most iconic accessories is her pink convertible. Being a responsible driver, she invests the appropriate Ranks (2) into that Skill to qualify her to drive. 

With only two Skill Points left, one of which has to go into Strength, that leaves us with 1 to invest in Finesse. Barbie won’t need Targeting since her Kindness Role’s more diplomatic Perks allow her to affect target’s at range. When words don’t work, Barbie can defend herself. Slightly. 

As we level up, future Speed Ranks will go into Finesse and Initiative, to harden her fighting ability and show how her experiences made her quicker on her feet. 

Strength 1

Barbie’s not a fighter, but she is an athlete. We’ll set Strength as her Bronze Essence Score and give her +d2 in Athletics. Her Role gives her regular Health increases, so all three of her Strength increases will go into this Skill. There isn’t much need to start any higher than the minimum. Now she can rollerblade along Venice Beach in style. 

Playing Barbie

I hope you like flipping coins, because this is the most D2s I’ve ever given a build. A trapping of most RPGs is that generalist characters are hard to make. But Barbie’s not 100% generalist, since we when hard into Persuasion. If you think she could use a bump in any of her Skills, knocking her Persuasion down by 1 will help with that. However, bear in mind the utility d8 Persuasion brings to our build. It’s useful in and out of combat, thanks to our Kindness and Empathy. 

I also like what the multitude of d2s means for our character. She’s dabbled in a lot, which helps her relate to a variety of people. It also shows that she’s still discovering herself. That’s why Barbie can be anything. 


My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

Power Rangers Roleplaying Game: A Jump Through Time

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: