Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that never says never when it comes to turning pop culture champions into 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.
Last week, one of the most controversial wrestlers of the past 20 years returned to the WWE after an inauspicious exit 10 years ago. Now seems like the perfect time to add CM Punk to the storied history of wrestlers joining the fight between G.I. Joe and Cobra.
Who Is CM Punk?
CM Punk earned the nickname “The Voice of the Voiceless” by saying things that WWE fans often complained about but WWE decision makers didn’t otherwise acknowledge. In a post-kayfabe world, CM Punk is one of the only wrestlers left who can make viewers question what is planned.
Punk walked out on the WWE in 2014 right before Wrestlemania, citing creative differences. This eventually got him fired (on his wedding day, by coincidence the WWE insists). He returned to wrestling in 2021 when he signed with rival wrestling promotion AEW. That ended after multiple backstage fights with fellow wrestlers. Like, real ones. I’m almost positive they were real.
I had CM Punk on my list of Essential Builds for months, but when he left AEW, I assumed he’d never wrestle again. Certainly he burned the bridge back to the WWE. I even joked about the possibility of him rejoining WWE on the Renegade Discord.
That just goes to show that you never know what CM Punk’s going to do next.
He hasn’t wrestled his first return match yet, but during his last stint with the WWE, CM Punk had memorable storylines with John Cena, The Undertaker, The Rock, Triple H, Rey Mysterio, and just about every big name in wrestling these days. One wrestler CM Punk never faced? Sgt Slaughter. This despite them both being in the WWE at the same time. Although semi-retired, the G.I. JOE crossover celebrity still worked a couple of matches a year for the WWE while Punk was on the roster.
Unlike the majority of Essential Builds, I don’t have to justify CM Punk’s faction. He wears it on his sleeve. And yes, out of all wrestlers ever, CM Punk is the one to make it onto my list of Essential Builds candidates because he has G.I. JOE tattoos.
Building Essence20 CM Punk
The idea behind this build is “what if Hasbro gave CM Punk the same G.I. JOE crossover celebrity treatment they gave Sgt. Slaughter and Rowdy Roddy Piper?” Sarge’s connection to G.I. JOE was his military gimmick. Piper joined the Iron Grenadiers because he and Destro are both Scottish. Punk’s in is his tattoos. Not only does he have the Cobra logo on his shoulder, he has the Arashikage family’s logo, the 63rd I-Ching hexagram, in the same spot on his forearm as Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow.
So that’s the story of our build. Punk is an unorthodox Arashikage graduate whose fighting skills and iconoclastic attitude got him into Cobra. Even though his actual UFC record is 0-1, this build aims to make a martial arts master, bordering on super human, with a chip on his shoulder. Right next to his Cobra sigil.
Yellow Spectrum (Power Rangers Core Rulebook)
I would have loved to use the Pink Spectrum so I could make a CM Pink reference. Sadly, Pink just doesn’t work as well for melee combat as Yellow, and the blog’s need for the best builds outranks my love of wordplay.
The Yellow Spectrum is the best melee combat Role in Essence20, rivaled only by the Warrior in Transformers. Between the two, the Yellow Spectrum works better for an unarmed mixed martial artist. Triple Strike Attacks at 1st level mimics Punk’s in-ring offense, which includes a mix of punches, kicks, and knee strikes. The Follow-Up attack mechanic is a fun way to manage the damage output of a combat-focused character while still showing how quickly they can string attacks together.
A lot of the rest of the Yellow Spectrum Role Perks add combat versatility but cost Personal Power and require being morphed. As outlined in the Field Guide to Action & Adventure, when removing the Power Rangers Faction and Setting from a Role, the Role still gains Power Points and gains a Perk that lets it gain access to When Morphed abilities, albeit temporarily. A few mechanical details mean a Power Ranger tapping into the Power Grid will still look supernatural compared to our more grounded build, but our CM Punk will look impressive for having pushed his physical limits to the point of comparing to a Morphed Ranger.
Faction, Setting, and Focus
Since we want to give Punk the Cobra Faction and don’t need to summon Zords, we’ll be removing the Power Rangers Setting and replacing it with G.I. JOE.
The Cobra Faction gives our build +1 to Evasion (which will likely be our highest Defense already, making for a dodgy scoundrel), and, in addition to some equipment Training and vehicle Qualification, it lets us pick a Cobra Division. The Martial Arts Division is the closest we have to Arashikage training at the moment, and it fits our build thematically and mechanically. Even though we’re going for an unarmed martial artist, being Qualified in all Martial Arts weapons means CM Punk can grab a bow or shuriken or throwing staff for use as a ranged weapon instead of relying on a gun.
Because we changed settings, we get to choose a G.I. JOE Focus in place of our Role’s Power Rangers setting perks, like Power Weapon and Zord. I debated grabbing a Focus that reflects CM Punk’s ring psychology. Analyst (Manipulator) from Transformers had a couple of nice Perks, but also suggested that CM Punk had a hologram projector, which I don’t believe he does. I considered Officer (Battlefield Psychologist) and Officer (Taskmaster) as well, but half of Battlefield Psychologist’s Focus Perks help allies, and most of Taskmaster’s Focus Perks boss allies around. Sure, Punk’s lead a few stables, but I wanted more abilities that could be used independent of allies.
So I went with the more obvious choice for a build based on a pro wrestler: Renegade (Slammer) from the Sgt Slaughter Limited Edition Accessory Pack. Slammer improves the effectiveness of unarmed attacks, adds additional options, and lets us chain unarmed strikes with maneuvers. Try Me, which challenges a target to a one-on-one slugfest, is a bit of that psychology I was looking for. It’s named after a Sgt Slaughter quote from the cartoon, of course. If this was written as a CM Punk Focus, it would be called It’s Clobberin’ Time.
One of Slammer’s Focus Perks, Roll with the Punches, interacts oddly with the Field Guide to Action & Adventure’s rules for changing a Role’s settings. Normally when a Focus Perk modifies a parent Role’s Role Perks, you get the basic version instead. In this case, you get the regular Perk, but a few levels earlier, and then a second use of the Perk at the level you would normally get the Perk. I recommend that you get regular Roll with the Punches at 3rd level, but don’t get a second use at 6th level.
Iconoclast (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)
I didn’t have a firm idea of what Origin to give CM Punk until I described him as iconoclastic earlier in the blog. Iconoclast just happens to be an Origin in Cobra Codex.
From having a look that goes against the Vince McMahon mould, to his notorious Pipe Bomb promo, to the particular way people listen when he speaks, CM Punk does things his own way and succeeds against the odds.
The Perk, which grants an Edge on Initiative Skill Tests against higher level Threats, reflects how Punk overachieved in the WWE, both by defeating larger opponents and catching on despite having an unconventional look and personality.
1st: Montebank (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
2nd: Angry (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)
3rd: Martial Artist (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
Here’s an Essence20 Influences hack for you: If you are looking for an option that ties into a specific Skill, check the My Little Pony Influences. They were intentionally written so that each Skill has at least one Influence tied to it. For example, I wanted to bring the Deception Skill to the forefront of our build, since most of our options up till now covered combat. Montebank gives CM Punk an Edge on Deception Skill Tests the first time he targets a character. Nice and simple, and exactly the kind of option I was looking for. And, as always, it’s fun to use My Little Pony options for builds you wouldn’t expect. Like My Little Punky here.
Despite being a trickster, Punk’s also a hothead. Enter Anger. Whether chemical, societal, or experiential, CM Punk has a temper. If he focuses that rage, he can gain an Edge on a Strength-based Skill Test. This is how he’s able to hit his finisher, the Go To Sleep on larger opponents (side note: I think the Go To Sleep is wrestling’s dumbest finisher) . The Hang-Up works well too, giving GMs an open-ended opportunity for karma to tell him to calm down.
Finally, there’s Martial Artist. Whoa. This is my first build with the Martial Artist Influence? Well, now’s my chance to say that normally I wish the Martial Artist Influence Perk was more like the Martial Arts Division Perk. I do like the Martial Artist Influence Perk, and it is thematic, but it doesn’t make a character better at martial arts. Fortunately, that does mean the Martial Arts Division and Martial Artist Influence compliment each other, and work for our build. And unlike with my Batman build, where I rejected the Martial Artist Influence because of the Hang-Up (being easier to goad into a fight), it reflects Punk’s time in AEW and his notorious backstage issues. Yes, that means my fictional Cobra version of CM Punk based on a character in a theatrical sport show includes elements inspired by the performer rather than the performance. This is the enigma that is CM Punk.
Essence Scores and Skills
The Yellow Spectrum’s melee Perks queue off Finesse, so that’s our primary attack Skill. Four Ranks, giving us +d6 (Martial Arts). Speed can get high quickly, and it’s our Role’s fastest advancing Essence Score, so I’m going to deliberately take it easy with secondary Speed Skills. One Rank each in Initiative and Targeting and that’s it.
Our other most important Skill is Deception. His theme song is Cult Of Personality for a reason.
I don’t know why, but I tend to avoid Deception unless it’s integral to the build. Maybe it’s because I’m a bad liar in real life. Well CM Punk certainly isn’t. We’ll go with three Ranks for a healthy +d6. And we’ll round out our Social Skills with a Rank in Streetwise.
We need one Rank in Alertness, so let’s get that out of the way first. I’ve also invested two Ranks into Culture, because Punk strikes me as someone who knows his history. I don’t usually give a character both Culture and Streetwise, but they don’t overlap as much as Acrobatics and Athletics, so I’ll stick to that choice.
Speaking of Athletics, that’s our main Strength Skill. We’re running low on Skill Points, and I want at least one Rank in Brawn, so that means we only get +d4 Athletics. Not great, but it gives us room to grow.
General Perks and Other Options
As soon as possible, I want to grab Cruel from Decepticon Direction. Gaining an Edge on attacks against targets with Conditions will come up a lot with this build when you remember that Grappled is a Condition. CM Punk would absolutely get in a few cheap shots when he’s got an opponent locked in. He’d argue that it’s not cruel, it’s smart!
After that, I’d like a few more options built around Deception. And to my surprise, there aren’t that many. Mental note: Make a list of General Perks by Skill prerequisite and fill in any blanks.
There may not be many, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Devious Alliance from Ferocious Fighters lets Punk use Deception to gain Contacts regardless of the Skills normally required. It’s a fun play on the trope of wrestlers turning on one another.
Finally, Create Chaos from Cobra Codex is a cerebral, narrative General Perk that, as the name implies, lets the character zig when the GM calls for a zag. By passing a Skill Test with a Skill other than the one being called on, the rest of the group gains an Edge on their Skill Test. I know I said I didn’t want options built on helping others, but I think this one is a worthy exception.
One General Perk I considered but passed on was Wrestler from the Power Rangers CRB. Our Focus already covers that aspect of the character, thematically and mechanically, and the General Perk depends on Might, which our build doesn’t have.
This build went places! The G.I. JOE-based options were a given, especially those drawn from Cobra Codex, but a Power Rangers Role? A My Little Pony Influence? Who saw those working for a CM Punk build?
Something else that I appreciate about writing this blog is getting to think about builds from a different angle than I normally approach characters. I would not have thought to build a martial artist with an emphasis on Deception, especially not as a PC, but given that hook, I found a lot of options that worked together. Once again, I’d love to get this build to the table to see how it plays.