Essential Builds – Scaffold (Original PC)

Normally Essential Builds turns popular culture icons into Essence20 Player Characters. We’re doing something different this time. This is my first PC for a fully casual Essence20 campaign. I’m not playtesting or promoting or even GMing. I’m building a PC that I think will be fun to play. But who am I? 

For those who don’t know, 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. I’ve written over 300 000 words for Essence20, contributing to over a dozen products and counting. 

You’d think I’d be in an Essence20 game by now, but I’ve been too busy writing on it, podcasting about it, and blogging builds for it to play the game. But since everything is content, I figured I’d turn character creation—which already follows the Essential Builds format—into my latest build. 

Who Is Scaffold?

Oh wow, instead of providing context and referencing pop culture, this time this section is just “let me tell you about my character”. 

Options are limited when aircraft sustain structural damage. Pilots are trained to deal with the situation by minimizing casualties on emergency landing. Aeronautic engineers, on the other hand, strap on a VTOL pack and fix the problem at the source. Not content to be brushed off as a youth when asking how planes stay in the air, Scaffold took up aeronautics as a hobby. He built a drone that was basically a flying toolbox, and then he used that drone to help him build and field test a propulsion back. He worked as a lighting technician at the Seattle stadium until his handcrafted flying devices caught the attention of the city’s biggest aerospace companies. 

Out of the few engineers with the technical skills to repair bullet holes in an airborne aircraft engine, most of them couldn’t handle the pressure or the noise outside in the stratosphere. Those are Scaffold’s favorite parts! He wears kinetic body armor as pajamas and uses an old 747 engine as a white noise machine. Hanging off the side of a crashing plane is relaxing to him. 

Building Essence20 Scaffold

For the record, this campaign takes place in The Energon Universe, and the GM has given us permission to use any Essence20 options, including magic. Hopefully I’m not squandering that freedom by only tapping into a few sourcebooks, all G.I. JOE.

When I build a PC, I tend to blend steps 1-5 (as described in the G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook) into three amorphous steps:

Step 1. All the ideas and options that come to me at once. 

Step 2. A few other ideas that are either logically connected or obviously compatible. 

Step 3. The rest. 

In this case, I came up with the concept, Role, and Focus right away. I’ve talked about liking jetpacks and visors before, so the idea of playing a tech specialist with a jetpack came to me as soon as I asked myself what character do I want to play. But why would a tech specialist have a jetpack? To answer that, I took inspiration from my cousin’s husband Jack, an aquatic engineer who does underwater maintenance on rigs. My PC repairs damaged airplanes while they’re still airborne. Exciting, unique, and justifies a jetpack. It’s perfect. 

When I floated the idea past my group, one of the other players suggested my character be from Seattle, home of most major aerospace companies. Works for me. Thanks to my many trips to PaizoCon, I know the Seattle area enough to fake being from there. 

I wasn’t exactly sure about the other elements of my build, but with Quartermaster’s Guide To Gear now available, I knew where I would get the rest of my options. 


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

Unlike the last time I used the Rocketeer Focus, I’m not using the Field Guide to Action & Adventure to swap out my Role. I’m embracing my Technician roots, fully, gaining a utility drone named BTHIANNI TNIANHI, because it’s Better To Have It And Not Need It Than Need It And Not Have It. 


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

Not sure what else there is to say about the Rocketeer Focus than what I already said in my Rocketeer build. Has jetpack, will jetpack. To jetpack or not to jetpack is not the question because to not jetpack is not an option. 

Bonus, our campaign starts at 3rd level, so I get Aerial Attack from char gen. That’s the Focus Perk that lets me attack with Acrobatics or Driving whenever I use my jet pack to move. And, as established, I’ll be jet packing as often as possible. 


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

Well how about that, this is my first use of the Engineer Origin. 

I have mixed feelings about Engineer. Thematically, it’s great, and definitely deserves to be in the CRB. And most of the mechanics work. My issue is the Origin Benefit, MacGyver. It reads like it was written early in the design process, and accidentally skipped during development, because its language does not reflect Essence20 mechanics. Normally I don’t quote rules verbatim, but in this case I think it’s a teaching opportunity.  

“You aren’t hampered by not having tools – you’ve fixed delicate machines with duct tape, chewing gum, paper clips, and even less. In addition, as an action, you can fix or hamper a machine for one scene, after which it will need an in-depth repair. For vehicles and equipment with the capacity for taking damage, you may heal it for 1 Health.”

The “In addition” implies that everything before is rules text, not flavour as I originally assumed. “…as an action” is probably a Standard action, but it’s weird that it doesn’t say so. “…you can fix or hamper a machine for one scene, after which it will need an in-depth repair.” is my biggest issue. Does “fix” mean repair? What does “hamper” mean? What are the mechanical effects of hampering equipment? 

I give a modified version of MacGyver to pregens I build with the Engineer Origin, which I’ve added to the internal errata as a suggestion for future printings: 

MacGyver: You aren’t hampered by not having tools. Ignore Kit requirements for Skill Tests. Additionally, once per scene, as a Standard action, you can repair 1 damage on a vehicle or robot.

You can see how it takes the ideas of the published version and modifies the language to fit the rules. I dropped the “hamper” element completely because the above feels like enough, and dropped the idea that fixing the machine only lasts for the scene to make the use straightforward. 


1st Rocket Scientist (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Quartermaster Guide To Gear)

2nd Skyward (G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Quartermaster Guide To Gear)

Two Influences from the latest release for the G.I. JOE RPG! 

Rocket Scientist is literal. You work on rockets, scientifically. It lets us gain an Edge on a Science or Technology Skill Test outside of combat. We’re going with Technology (Engineering), naturally. 

Skyward is for characters who hate when their feet are any closer than a kilometer to the ground. It gives us Air vehicle Qualification (in case we didn’t already have it) and lets us identify the Speed Essence and Movement Ratings of an aircraft just by looking at it. As a Hang-Up, we suffer ↓1 on Driving Skill Tests to operate land and sea vehicles. 

Essence Scores and Skills

I’m building a 3rd level character, so my Essence Scores will total 18 this time, not the usual 1st level 16. 

Smarts 6

As expected, my highest Skill is Technology, with an Engineering Specialization. I invested 5 Skill Points to get a +d8* Rank. This allows me to fulfill my primary function, and also gives my drone 5 Essence Score increases and a bunch of Upgrades. 

I also threw a Skill Point into Alertness. Our GM requested we not go over the details of our builds, so I want to make sure we’re not collectively blind, even if my +d2 won’t get us very far. 

Speed 5

Also predictable, my second highest Skill is Driving with +d6 Rank and Air Specialization. I didn’t give myself any targeting, so I’m relying on moving and shooting to take advantage of Aerial Acrobatics. 

I gave myself +d2 Rank in Initiative. I often skip Initiative on this blog because it’s not a flavourful Skill, but given that I didn’t skip it for a PC I will be playing, maybe I should treat +d2 Initiative as a baseline for all combat characters. 

Strength 4

Speaking of baseline, I gave myself a few Strength Skills mostly because they come in handy: Athletics +d4, for any physical situation that a jet pack doesn’t help with; +d2 Brawn, because that helps meet weapon prereqs, and +d2 Might, because I figure if I can’t fly in combat, it’s more likely that I’m in a fist fight than a fire fight. 

Social 3

+d6 Persuasion might make me the face of the group. We’ll see. I didn’t have a clear idea for my Social Skills, but I figure someone who jumps out of planes needs to be convincing. 


Rounding out our build is BTHIANNI TNIANHI, the Limited Drone pet we get from the Primary Tech Technician Perk. First we set its Mobility (30ft Aerial, so it can keep up with us), then its size (I went with Small, just cause), and function. 

Here’s where I hit a crossroads. My plan was for BTHIANNI TNIANHI to be Scaffold’s toolbox. But MacGyver lets us ignore Kit requirements for Skill Tests. So instead my options are to make BTHIANNI TNIANHI some other kind of utility drone, or make it an attack drone. If the team didn’t have a medic, I would consider making it a Science (Medicine) drone. I guess we’re going attack drone. It can serve as Scaffold’s bodyguard, fulfilling its BTHIANNI TNIANHI name in a different way. 

As the Limited Drone of a character with 5 Skill Points invested into Technology, that gives me 11 Skill Points (1 per Essence Score, 2 free, and 1 per Skill Point my PC invested into Technology). I put 4 ranks into Alertness and 4 into Targeting, two areas Scaffold character could use support. Then 1 rank into Conditioning, for survivability, 1 into Initiative to qualify for the Independence Protocol upgrade, and finally 1 in Deception, because you can’t trust A.I.! 

Speaking of upgrades, I went pretty classic and complimentary to his purpose. Basic Defenses increases Defenses, Enhanced Sensors gives the Acute Senses General Perk, and Independence Protocol lets it roll its own initiative. I splurged on a Limited upgrade and grabbed Shield Drone, which gives Scaffold a bonus to Evasion. 


It’s not lost on me that my PC is more straightforward and practical than most of my builds. I don’t intentionally make my other builds impractical. In fact, I’m often surprised by how effective some of them turn out to be. I guess when my starting point is a character with history and media appearances that I want to emulate, it’s easier to see how some unusual options end up defining what the build can do. 

That said, I look forward to seeing this build in action. 


G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Cobra Codex

G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game Quartermaster’s Guide To Gear



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: