Essential Builds – The Grinch

“It’s December 15th,” I thought with some fear.
“I need a build idea for Christmas. It’s practically here!” 

Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that steals popular culture icons to give the gift of Essence20 Player Characters all year round. 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. 

I’ve built The Grinch this Christmas season.
Please don’t ask why, it’s for a terribly foolish reason.

Honestly, I recently saw a post warning artists not to post unlicensed Grinch art as the Dr Seuss estate gets litigious this time of year. And my first thought was “I wonder if I could build The Grinch in Essence20?” 

Who Is The Grinch?

He’s a mean one, that Mr Grinch. He really is a heel. He’s as cuddly as a cactus, and as charming as an eel. Mr. Grinch.

Diss track aside, The Grinch is the star of the 1957 book How The Grinch Stole Christmas, written and illustrated by Dr Seuss. It was adapted into an animated special in 1966, becoming a network television holiday tradition for decades from then on. 

But that’s the media that introduced and popularized the character. Who is The Grinch? Well, remember that song we just put aside? Put it front and center again, because it sums up The Grinch perfectly. He’s sour and unpleasant and aims to make that everyone else’s problem. He hates Christmas most of all. But by the end, he has a change of heart (metaphorically and apparently physically) and he saves the very Christmas he just stole.  

Building Essence20 The Grinch

This build wasn’t hard, even though the variety of options and sources will make it read like Essence20 fruitcake. We’ll mostly be drawing from the book and original animated special, but if one of the two Grinch films provides polish, it might influence our build. 


Citizen of Cobra-La (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1)

Finally, an explanation as to why no one else in Who-ville or its surrounding areas looks like The Grinch. He’s a citizen of Cobra-La! 

Despite tying directly into a very specific portion of G.I.JOE media, Cobra-La works well for The Grinch’s Origin. First of all, the broad strokes of the flavour work for an anomalous creature. He even lives in snow covered mountains, like Golobulus’ Himalayan sanctuary. Furthermore, like Cobra-La’s resentment toward humanity, The Grinch wants to take away the frivolities Whomanity cherishes. 

Mechanically, Citizen of Cobra-La works as well. The bump to Animal Handling explains The Grinch’s bond with his otherwise innocent dog, Max. And the Avoid The Inevitable Perk, which lets him gain temporary Health when he would otherwise be Defeated, reflects The Grinch’s tenacity. 


Renegade (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

This Grinch build ended up with a surprising number of Sgt Slaughter adjacent options, starting with the Role inspired by Sarge’s protogés in the G.I. JOE animated movie. Honestly, I chose Renegade because of one Perk. Reckless Abandon gives The Grinch bonus Health and ↑2 on Strength-based Skill Tests. The only way it could more perfectly represent when The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes and gives him the strength of 10 Grinches plus two would be if he got ↑3 instead of ↑2. 

Other Role Perks reflect this as well. The Grinch gains a bonus to Brawn, additional Health, and a variety of other options that boost his survivability. He also gets better at combat. Lucky for The Whos, The Grinch chose stealth over a direct assault. Although Cindy Loo Who had a close call. 

Sub Rules

Troublemaker Focus (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)

Slaughter’s Marauders Faction (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Sgt Slaughter Limited Edition Accessory Pack)

Even though Troublemaker sounds like the perfect Grinch Focus option, I actually chose it through process of elimination. Renegade Foci accentuate the Role’s fighting style more than anything, and The Grinch isn’t a fighter. The Commando’s Infiltrator Focus suits The Grinch best, but unfortunately the rest of that Role does not. So don’t be surprised if we see a stealthy Renegade Focus in the future. It’s The Grinch’s gift to you this holiday season. 

The trick with Troublemaker is that it’s built around a signature weapon. Although I feverishly remember Jim Carrey using a flamethrower in the live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas from 2000, and apparently there’s a Grinch-themed slasher in which the killer uses blades, of the Troublemaker’s signature weapon options, I’m going with the Close Combat Heavy Bludgeon to represent the crop he uses to guide his sleigh. It’s a stretch, I admit. 

Speaking of a stretch, I’m cheating a bit when it comes to The Grinch’s faction. To gain access to Slaughter’s Marauders, you either need the Once a Marauder Influence, or you need to complete the Marauder’s Marathon in game. For the sake of the blog, I wanted to go with more flavourful Influences, so I guess we all just have to accept that The Grinch spent time at the Slaughterhouse and completed the G.I. JOE drill instructor’s beastly obstacle course. 

We may need to justify how The Grinch gained access to the faction, but Slaughter’s Marauders’ benefits make total sense. An Edge on Infiltration Skill Tests from camouflage is exactly why The Grinch dressed as Santy Claus. It also gives him a General Perk. I was tempted to go with Green for obvious reasons, but instead went with Animal Pet. Honestly, getting Mutt his Junkyard at 1st level was one of the major motivators behind giving Marauders a General Perk, so it feels right to use the Faction granted General Perk to get The Grinch his Max. 


1st: Villainous (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)

2nd: Mountebank (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

3rd: Tricky (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

Villainous is the Influence for cartoonishly evil characters, and is there anything more cartoonishly evil than stealing Christmas? Honestly, the Villainous Background Bonds could have just been lines from You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. 

The downside is that Villainous gives a bonus to Intimidation, but The Grinch only really intimidates Max. And while I could research what hoops I need to jump through to use Intimidation in place of Animal Handling, that sounds like a lot of work and pushes Grinch’s villainy from funny to monstrous. So I added Villainous to the list for thematic reasons, but a better mechanical choice is Once A Marauder. And, come to think of it, he did only loot one town and only one time, so maybe Once A Marauder is a better fit than I realized. 

Because the mechanics of The Grinch’s Role and Origin cover his survivability and combat prowess, I’m doubling down on Influences that bring out his slippery side. Mountebank gives an Edge on a Deception Skill Test the first time we use the Skill on a specific target, and Tricky lets us use a Story Point to gain an Edge on Infiltration and Deception. Basically, if Little Cindy Loo Who didn’t fall for The Grinch’s lies, he could have used the old “Look, a reindeer!” and snuck off in the other direction. 

Essence Scores and Skills

Smarts 6

The Grinch is all about ideas. Awful ideas. Wonderful, awful ideas.

Throughout the story, The Grinch demonstrates acute understanding of Suessian physics. In fact, a lot of his plan depends on shoving whole trees up chimneys, ziplining from house to house on mistletoe wreaths, and packing an entire village’s gifts into one sleigh and riding it uphill. We’ll represent this with three Ranks in Science. 

The Grinch’s aptitude in another Smarts Skill is also his undoing. Alertness. Every complaint The Grinch has about how the Whos celebrate Christmas stems from how it upsets his senses. He can’t stand the warm lighted windows below in Who-ville, or the noise, oh the noise, of the Who children’s toys. He also hated hearing the Whos sing, it being what finally motivated him to try to stop this Christmas thing. Even his pallet was sensitive, what with rare Who-roast-beast being something The Grinch can’t stand in the least. It makes me wish Acute Senses was an Influence instead of a General Perk so it could have a sensory overload Hang-Up. Speaking of overdoing it, I hope I didn’t oversell The Grinch’s Alertness, because I’m only giving him two Ranks in it. 

Finally, to represent the dinner table etiquette The Grinch demonstrates at the end of the story, and the sewing Skills that got him his Santa suit, I’ll give The Grinch a Rank in Culture. 

Social 5

Speaking of The Grinch’s Santa suit, not to brag, but it didn’t fool me for a second. No beard? No pants? I saw right through that disguise. No, it was his performance that fooled me. The Grinch makes a mean fake Santy Claus (in more ways than one). He gets four Ranks in Deception, netting him +d6 and a Specialization in Disguise. 

But Deception isn’t his only Social Skill. He also gets Animal Handling. Again, I wish I had written an option in Cobra Codex or Ferocious Fighters that let a villain use Intimidation in place of Animal Handling, but since I didn’t, I’ll represent The Grinch’s meanness toward Max by only giving him one Rank. 

Speed 3

Pairing with The Grinch’s ability to circumvent social situations through lies is his talent for circumventing locks through Infiltration. We’ll go with two Ranks.

Since about a quarter of the special is dedicated to The Grinch driving the sleigh, I’ll also give him a Rank in Driving. 

That’s it for Speed Skills for now. Renegade’s Speed increases fairly quickly, so if The Grinch needs more Driving or Infiltration, or Ranks in Initiative or Targeting, that can come later. 

Strength 2

I didn’t expect this build to dump Strength, but it makes sense. We only see one feat of Grinch strength, and it’s when he taps into his reserves. That’s what Reckless Abandon gets us. One Rank each in Brawn and Melee increase to d6s when using Reckless Abandon. 

I’m also OK with low Strength because it’s the Renegade’s Diamond Essence Score. Our Grinch will get stronger, whether we want him to or not. 


This certainly is a build. I confess that I went for a lot of options because the name or theme worked for The Grinch, but I’m not sure how cohesively they work together. I had fun with this build, even if it feels like it’s missing something. Like a Santa costume without pants. 


G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Sgt Slaughter Limited Edition Accessory Pack

My Little Pony 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: