It’s time to buzz the tower.
Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that takes popular culture icons and inverts them 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.
I feel the need. The need for ease. In the preview of this week’s network content, I said that I’d be building My Lillium Falcon. I even teased that you’d have to wait until Friday to find out what that means. Unfortunately, I misremembered the mechanics of an option that the build depended on. I needed a replacement fast. As it happens, I watched Top Gun: Maverick this weekend. With Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell fresh in my mind, and mechanics that build themself, I revved up my engine and listened to their howlin’ roar, because we gotta take a ride into the Danger Zone.
Who Is Maverick?
We’re talking Top Gun: Maverick Maverick here, since it’s fresher in my mind.
As his call sign suggests, Pete Mitchell plays by his own rules, banking right when his gut tells him that his orders to go left are wrong. He doesn’t just do this for the good of the mission, though. Maverick taunts authority. He breaks rules because he can. He turns every mission into a game. Can he just not help himself? Or is he only insubordinate enough to balance out his successes and avoid both punishments and promotions?
Maverick also shares actor Tom Cruise’s defiance of age. I bring this up because it’s a plot point in Top Gun: Maverick, the only movie I can think of that writes a Tom Cruise character like he’s supposed to be in his 60s. This makes the scenes talking about how old Maverick is unintentionally funny, and it makes this another build that could benefit from an Essence20 Vampire Origin.
Building Essence20 Maverick
Obviously, we’re going with the Pilot Origin from the G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, right?
That’s what I thought. However, we already used Pilot for The Rocketeer a few months ago. It made me wonder if I could effectively build popular culture’s most famous pilot without the Pilot Origin. It also made me wonder why I would do that to myself, since this was supposed to be a quick and easy build, but here we are.
Going with a different Origin does let us focus on Maverick’s defining character traits, though, while still giving us room for vehicle operator proficiency from other options.
Rebellious (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
You see where I’m going with this?
Top Gun is considered a classic, and Top Gun: Maverick was a worthy follow-up. But even though the action scenes, with practical jet fighter piloting effects, set these movies apart from other action fare, it’s Maverick’s cockiness that holds the movie together. That and playing volleyball with the boys.
Although Rebellious is very specific in its flavour, it’s actually quite general in its mechanics. Two Health is baseline, a bump to Strength or Speed is always useful, as are the Origin Skills you can invest your Skill Rank into. Most flexible of all is the Origin Benefit, which lets us pick a General Perk. Really, the only area in which the Origin slacks off is the Language selection. That’s a shame, as I believe Maverick is shown to have some fluency beyond his native language.
Infantry (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
I knew I wanted the Infantry Role’s Mechanized Infantry Focus, but at first I explored the possibility of Setting swapping the Analyst or Field Commander Role from Transformers. They both capture Maverick’s quick thinking, and the mentor position he holds in the sequel. The thing is, I’ve used both of those Roles for past builds. If that was enough to disqualify using Pilot for a Maverick build, it’s hard to justify making an exception here.
That said, there are a few Infantry options I usually gloss over that work very well for a fighter pilot. Fighting Style lets us pick from a variety of options to hone how we approach combat. One I don’t think I’ve ever taken is Trigger Happy, which lets us ignore the Snag for using the long range of a weapon. What a brutal advantage that gives in a dog fight. I also appreciate how Gallantry at 2nd level reflects Maverick’s willingness to live dangerously (almost like he lives in a zone of danger) (that’s what I call “risky business”). Then there’s Overwatch, which lets us set additional Contingency actions, and Adrenaline Surge, which gives us a whole extra turn once per combat. Reexamining these options with a fighter jet in mind lines up with the quick decisions and precision timing that win Maverick the day in the movies.
Mechanized Infantry (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
This Focus makes the build. Normally I see ↑2 on Driving Skill Tests as a way to avoid having to put all of our Skill Points into Driving Ranks. In this case, I’m like Maverick trying to reach Mach 10. Max Driving ASAP plus ↑2 means getting to roll 3D6 reliably, and hitting autosuccess in favourable circumstances. Sure, it limits what we can do outside of vehicular combat, but points at Top Gun movies.
Narratively speaking, I guess Maverick was level 6 during the first movie. I say this since at level 7, Roll Cage means our passengers take no damage from a crash. RIP Goose.
1st: Racer (Transformers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
2nd Disenfranchised (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex)
3rd Party Maestro (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)
Continuing the trend of going all in on the Driving Skill, Racer gives us an Edge on Driving Skill Tests when a Specialization comes into play. My palms are sweating just thinking about how many dice we’ll roll on a Driving Skill Test. I apologize to anyone who borrows my damp dice after that…
As is often the case, I took my second and third Influence choices as much for the Hang-Ups as the Perks.
Disenfranchised pairs nicely with the Rebellious Origin to encapsulate Maverick’s personality. He seems aloof, like a joker, but if you come at him with rules, he comes back at you with his track record despite them. We’ll use the Edge it gives us on “[Skill Tests] that directly harms something from how you used to see the world” mostly to get the upper hand on superior officers.
The last aspect of Mav’s personality I wanted to capture is the way musical numbers and montages happen spontaneously when he’s around. Party Maestro fits the bill better than I could have imagined. So whether he’s telling his crush that she’s lost that loving feeling, or he’s encouraging team bonding with a game of dogfight football, Maverick can get a party started wherever he goes. Once. If he tries it again, he annoys everyone.
Essence Scores and Skills
I didn’t say I had a need for Strength, Smarts, or Social.
So here we are. A maxed out Skill, with Specialization, at 1st level. Maverick has +d12 (Air), and that’s before the ↑2 from his Focus. This means he’s extremely limited outside of a vehicle, but inside an aircraft, he’s unstoppable.
I should note that I didn’t give him a Rank in Finesse or Targeting. That’s OK, as long as his vehicle has a targeting system, like G.I. Joe’s F-14 Tomcat stand-in, the Skystriker. That lets him use Driving for ranged attacks.
So if he doesn’t have any Ranks in combat Skills, where’s the eighth Skill Point go? +d2 Initiative. It’s superfluous, and I could have probably used it better elsewhere, but I just couldn’t accept Maverick rolling Initiative with a Snag.
Maverick’s a pretty smart guy, but only when it comes to facts about flying. I gave him +d4 Alertness, and then debated where to slip in an extra +d2. I considered Culture and Technology, but I settled on Science. This Skill covers both the math that’s involved in plotting a course and calculating an attack run, as well as anatomy. Maverick may not have been able to save a life, but he knows a human’s limits. Mostly his own.
In an argument, Maverick always has an angle. To represent that, I chose to give him +d4 Deception. This will also help him fake out his opponents in a dog fight. Like with Smarts, I wanted a little diversity in my Skills, so I went with a Rank in Streetwise. He often draws on practical experience when he’s out of his depths.
Finally, I gave him a Rank in Athletics, for the broader physical abilities his flight training unlocks, and a Rank in Conditioning, because he refuses to die. I dumped Strength because it’s Infantry’s Diamond Essence Score, so we’ll be able to invest in it later.
General Perks and Other Options
Dog Fighter from Power Rangers: Across the Stars and Peerless Pilot from the G.I. JOE CRB may seem like obvious choices, but they’re redundant with the Mechanized Infantry Focus. Instead, we’ll take Daredevil from Across the Stars, which boosts our Initiative and saves us from taking damage from a Fumble (a potential lifesaver before we reach 7th level and get Roll Cage), and we ignore Snags on Skill Tests when we’re at 1 Health. That’s such a cinematic ability, and reflects how Maverick keeps lucking out when he’s near defeat.
Similarly, Adolescent Attitude from the MLP CRB lets us roll untrained Skills (which we have a lot of) as if we had a d2, and reroll failed Social Skill Tests. Not only does the flavour reflect the many ways Maverick’s told he needs to grow up, but the mechanics show how he gets his way most often when he’s being an immature pain in the butt. There’s at least one moment in Top Gun: Maverick where his senior officer, played by Jon Hamm, clearly wants to reprimand him, but something stops him. It’s how I now picture rerolling failed Skill Tests.
Finally, when we get to 12th level, we’ll take Battle Hardened, which gives us a 1-in-4 chance of regaining spent Story Points. The last half hour of Top Gun: Maverick plays out like a player with a hot d4 throwing Story Points at the GM and somehow still having more.
I did this to myself. “You need something quick and easy,” I said. “No one expects anything but a basic pilot build,” I continued. But no. I made a pilot without the Pilot Origin or the Dog Fighter or Peerless Pilot General Perks.
As usual, I do not recommend committing seven Skill Points to a single Skill at 1st level. Maverick might be the least playable build the blog has seen as a result. And yet, not totally unplayable. If you are planning a character that is all in on a single Skill, many of the other options I went with show how Essence20 can be flexible and forgiving. Surprisingly, I may have been more successful grabbing broad and flexible options for Maverick than I was when I made that the design goal of my Barbie build.