Essential Builds – Leonardo of Grayskull

Welcome to Essential Builds, the blog that mashes up popular culture characters with Essence20 rules. Sometimes, those popular culture characters have already been mashed up, leaving us with some kind of science-fantasy mutant. 

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. 

No pithy opener this time, I need all my energy to inform anyone who doesn’t know that there’s a line of Masters of the Universe/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mash-up action figures, and it’s way better than it has any right to be. Instead of going with the obvious (and not bad) idea of just mashing up characters from the two franchises like the TMNT/Power Rangers line, Mattel crafted a story in which Krang travels to Eternia and teams up with Skeletor. The android belly-riding alien brain uses Dimension X technology to upgrade Skeletor’s underlings, and TCRI mutagen to turn Eternia’s greatest heroes into Skeletor’s newest minions. Meanwhile, when Man-At-Arms meets the dimension hoping Ninja Turtles, he gives them an Eternian tech upgrade. 

This story is set up in a pack-in comic, and otherwise only told by extrapolating what’s happening from the toys. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing today as I turn the heroic Turtles of Grayskull leader into an Essence20 player character.

Who Is Turtles of Grayskull Leonardo?

Leonardo (the blue one with katanas, to anyone who didn’t grow up on one of the many TMNT comic series, shows, or movies of the last four decades) was appointed the leadership of his ninja brothers by their master and adopted father, Splinter. Together with Donatello (purple, bo staff, does machines), Michelangelo (orange, nunchucks, party dude) and Raphael (red, sais, either cool but rude or an absolute psychopath), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fight crime in New York City, and continue their father’s ancient feud with Oroku Saki, aka The Shredder, and the Foot Clan. Shredder works with scientist Baxter Stockman and alien genius Krang, both of whom supply the Foot with a variety of monsters and advanced technology. 

In Turtles of Grayskull, the Ninja Turtles travel to Eternia, a fantasy land of ancient magic and advanced technology of its own, in which He-Man and his allies feud with Skeletor and his minions over control of the Power Sword and Castle Grayskull.

Here’s where I’m making an assumption for the sake of a fun build. We know He-Man has been mutated by Skeletor and Krang. We know Man-At-Arms equipped Donatello with his spare gear, and Raphael with Ram Man’s gear since Ram Man was also captured and mutated. Leonardo has He-Man’s gear. But unlike Man-At-Arms and maybe Ram Man, He-Man doesn’t get his power from technology. He gets it from magic. So, does that mean fabulous secret powers were revealed to Leo the day he held aloft his magic katana and said, “By the power of Grayskull! I have turtle power!” 

For the sake of this build, we’re assuming yes. 

Building Turtles of Grayskull Leonardo

Quick shout out to TheZMage on the Renegade Game Studios Discord server. He suggested I build a Ninja Turtle. Which one, he left up to me. Now, at the time, I knew the best options for a Ninja Turtle build were on their way in the now-announced Intercontinental Adventures: Factions in Action Vol. 2. So, I was saving this suggestion for that book’s release in August. However, it occurred to me that I could make a totally different build based on the Turtles of Grayskull turtles now, and save a more traditional ninja build for later. And since there are eight canonical turtles to pick from (counting Slash, the evil turtle, Tokka, the other evil turtle, Venus de Milo, the teal turtle from the live action Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, and Jennika the yellow turtle from IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic), I am spoiled for choices and free to take this one in a different direction.

That direction includes taking a Power Rangers Role. I believe this is only the third Power Rangers Role to show up in Essential Builds (four if you count the Upshift pilot in which I built Snake Eyes as a Green Ranger). That’s because the Power Rangers Roles tie more heavily into the setting than G.I. JOE and Transformers Roles. Even when we use the Field Guide to Action & Adventure rules to remove the Power Rangers Setting from a Role, it’s still built heavily around It’s Time, the setting neutral version of It’s Morphin Time. As a result, Power Rangers Roles are best suited for characters that have basic/upgraded versions. Such as He-Man. Or Leonardo, with He-Man’s powers. 


Red Ranger (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

We could have gone blue, but other than color coordination, the Blue Ranger Role suits Donatello much more than Leo. Instead, we’re going back to Leonardo’s roots and making him red. 

After I decided that It’s Time was the best way to represent giving this build The Power of Grayskull, the rest fell into place. The Red Ranger is the Power Ranger leader Role. Follow Me might be my favourite mechanic in the Power Rangers CRB, letting allies choose to go 1d4 places later than us in Initiative order instead of rolling their own. Not only does that mean the leader can lend assistance to an ally who goes soon after them, but it also means the other PCs don’t need to invest in Initiative, freeing them up to be their best selves. On top of that, we get +1 to our Initiative result for every ally that follows us, meaning we don’t need an amazing Initiative, just a good one. I don’t usually go into this much detail explaining a rule, but I love how these mechanics fit their theme so tightly, without being complicated. 

It’s also a great melee Role. With Power Strike boosting our melee damage at 1st level, Weapon Mastery increasing our accuracy at 2nd level, Extra Attack giving us an extra attack at 5th level, and Resilience improving our defenses at 7th level, Leo grows more combat capable at a steady pace.

Finally, there’s Team Focus at 9th level, which combines the Role’s two niches. We get a bonus for attacking the same target as an ally. Some of the best Ninja Turtle fight scenes have the turtles using their surprising nimbleness to trade enemies and gain the upper hand. 

There is one Perk that doesn’t fit a typical Leo build. Let’s Bring’Em Together has the party combine weapons for a super attack. While this might line up with my Mary Sue fan fiction TMNT character, Scramble, who used ALL THE OTHER TURTLES WEAPONS BECAUSE HES THE BEST (!!!), it’s not something we’ve seen in typical Ninja Turtle fiction. But this isn’t typical Ninja Turtle Leo. This is Turtles of Grayskull Leonardo. Who says Eternian martial arts weapons can’t be combined? Heck, the toy’s swords combine together for added power, maybe the more weapons we add, the more powerful the attack.


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

This Vanguard Focus gives us a shield as personal gear. While that’s a bit unusual for Leonardo, again, Turtles of Grayskull is unusual! All of the Turtles of Grayskull have removable shells that can be wielded as shields. Now, that doesn’t make much sense, anatomically, but we don’t need it to. The turtles use their shells as shields all the time, without removing them. As long as we respect that the shield takes up one of our hands, we can flavor using our shield as turning around to deflect blows off our natural armor. That does mean Leo can’t dual wield katana, of course. Or does it? 

At 3rd level, Shield Fighter lets us treat our shield as a close combat blade and a close combat bludgeon. So we can make multi-weapon attacks that deal sharp damage. We can even knock some noggins with the butt of our sword, or, again, our shell. The path to get there might be off, but the destination is the same. Besides, according to friend of the Network Jacob Backmon’s review, “Separated, the swords are kind of floppy in Leo’s hands. When combined, the power sword fits perfectly with no floppiness.” 

Most of the Focus’ other Perks involve getting better with shields. However, a couple put the “city” in “Citystriker”. Urban Jungle at 3rd level and Urban Adaptation at 10th level give us Ranger benefits when in urban environments. Most of the Turtles’ adventures take place in New York City, the most urban an environment can get. Turtles of Grayskull may take them out of their home base, but Eternia has its share of cities. And Urban Adaptation shows that you can take the Turtle out of New York City, but you can’t take the New York City out of the Turtle. 

Citystriker does leave us with a corner case that the Field Guide to Action & Adventure doesn’t directly address: We can spend uses of our Personal Shield to give our shield an Element trait.

Uses of Personal Shield are tied to the Vanguard Role, and not transfered over when we add a Focus to another Role. In cases like this, the best rule of thumb is to give us access as though we were half our level (round down, minimum 1), and only for this Perk. So at 3rd level, when this ability unlocks, we have a number of uses of Personal Shield equal to a 1st level Vanguard (2), with none of the usual benefits of the Personal Shield Role Perk.


Mega Monsters (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Ferocious Fighters: Factions in Action Vol. 1)

Even though Leonardo has a designated mech, we need to swap away from the setting that gives him a Zord to the G.I. JOE setting in the name of the Citystriker Focus. And honestly, once Intercontinental Adventures releases, there are better Faction options to emphasize Leo being part of a ninja team. Instead, I went with a faction to highlight the M in TMNT. It’s just a shame Leo wasn’t part of the Mighty Mutanimals

Mega Monsters requires two genetic Alterations to get in and gets us a Limited Alteration, which we’ll get to. Unfortunately, that means we need to wait until we gain a General Perk at 4th level to qualify. In the meantime, we can settle for Cobra, with the Martial Arts division. This feels like a lot of work for a faction I’m only taking for the theme, but I’d take a few of these alterations anyway, because mutant.  


Test Subject (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex) 

OK, technically the Ninja Turtles were an accident, not an experiment. When you’re transformed from the norm by nuclear goop, you get to split hairs. 

We’ve used Test Subject before, for Inspector Gadget. However, that was for a cyborg. Luckily, this Origin (and the Alteration rules) are flexible enough that we can also use it for a mutant. We’ll get into how later, when we discuss Alterations.


1st: Not From Around Here (Power Rangers Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

2nd Martial Artist (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook) 

3rd Precise (My Little Pony Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook)

I love it when I can’t decide which Influences get the Hang-Ups because they all fit.

The alienation theme of Not From Around Here might fit any Ninja Turtle build, but when they’re in an alien land, it applies even more. It got the honours of primary Influence only because its Hang-Up is most disruptive. 

The last time I picked Martial Artist, I was shocked that I hadn’t picked it before. This time I was all set to say I wouldn’t need to use it so often anymore once Intercontinental Adventures adds more options that fit this theme, only to realize this is just the second time it’s shown up. What? 

Finally, Precise. Always enjoy bringing MLP options into action/adventure builds. The flavour of Precise implies it’s for delicate crafts like sewing, but ninja are notoriously surgically precise. 

Less precise, unfortunately, is the wording of the Perk. It was completely changed in the last edit pass, and that means the new version didn’t get any editing or development. The big question is whether it allows us to make a Finesse-based attack as a Move action. Because it’s limited to three times per day, and those uses can be spent to undo an aggressive Hang-Up that applies a Snag whenever we take damage (common in TMNT, but rare in MLP), I think it’s balanced. It definitely fits the advanced and versatile fighter reputation of a ninja, and I think the Snag specifically works as Leo being hard on himself when he messes up. 

Essence Scores and Skills

Social 6

I tend to give my leaders high Persuasion, even though there’s nothing to suggest that it’s the leadership Skill. Well, other than Leadership being a suggested Specialization. I guess that absolutely suggests that Persuasion is the leadership Skill… 

I split Leo’s Social Skills down the middle: +d6 Persuasion, +d6 Streetwise. Because Citystriker eventually lets us use Streetwise in place of Survival in an urban setting, Leo’s NYC roots let him read the land, which I like a lot.  

Speed 6

I wrote all of the following before I realized I made a mistake: So, there’s some jumping through hoops here. I like Leo as a Finesse fighter. Often I default to Might as a build’s melee Skill, I like when I can break away from that. The problem is the Red Ranger gets two Ranks in Might by default. One of my Alterations deals with one of those Ranks at 1st level, but I’m stuck with the other for a while, possibly forever. Because of this, I only managed +d4 Finesse. Oh well, by 2nd level I can reroll 1s and 2s on my attacks (not just with power weapons, since we changed settings), which averages out to half my attacks until I increase my Finesse. Hits will still depend more on the d20 than my d4, but at least my d4 is on firm ground. 

Wait! No, I forgot: Because Power Rangers Roles don’t grant a Focus, they provide 3 Skill Increases instead of 2! I trade one of them in for my Focus Essence Increase, so I only have one Rank in Might, which one of my Alterations turns into Finesse. So I do have d6 Finesse! 

I also have d4 Initiative, because if I’m asking people to follow me, I need to be worthy of their trust. Finally, I gave us d2 Targeting, in case I need to toss a shuriken. 

Strength 2, Smarts 2

I’m combining these since I have one Skill in each: d4 Athletics and d4 Culture. I like the idea that Leo doesn’t have Ranks in Alertness, because he prioritizes the world as Splinter describes it over the world right in front of him. Besides, when there’s something to see, he relies on Donnie.  

General Perks and Other Options

We’re finally talking about Alterations!

We get a Standard Alteration at 1st level from our Origin. While I wanted to use it for Standard Skin Tempering to further emphasize Leo’s turtleness, I needed it for Elastification, which increases Speed by 1 but reduces my Strength by an equal amount. That solves the above Might/Finesse issue.

At 4th level, we use our General Perk on a Limited Alteration, and that means we can take Softshell as a Limited Skin Tempering Alteration. Increasing our Toughness delivers on my original idea for an Alteration that much better. It also means we can join the Mega Monsters if we want, gaining another Limited Alteration. Crawler gives us a Climb speed, which will help us strike hard and fade away into the night.

Our options are wide open for 8th level and beyond. We can get more mutations, improve our fighting prowess, or shore up our shortcomings. And if we want to tap into the turtle power of Grayskull, we can even take Grid Powers. 


I’m fascinated by the Turtles of Grayskull. TMNT and MotU both place in the top 10 of brands that reflect my tastes, and yet neither cracks the top 5. Not only does crossing them over allow two settings I feel strongly about to interact, but the direction Mattel took this mash-up combines beautifully. 

This build is about 50% how I would build standard Leonardo, and about 10% of how I would build He-Man. That last 40% is uniquely Turtles of Grayskull Leonardo. Not only did this take a mash-up in its own direction, I think it’s an effective battlefield leader build. 



Essence20 Field Guide to Action & Adventure

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

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: