GI Joe's history is a strange one. What originally started as the toyline that coined the term “action figure” was effectively reworked in the Reagan era into a more pulpy espionage action series. Thanks to animated TV shows and truly brilliant comics written by Larry Hama, GI Joe became the most successful toy line ever. It became the poster child for 1980s American patriotism merging with cynical corporate excess. It is also an absorbing series of campy action packed with cyborgs, jetpacks, doomsday devices, ninjas, snake people, and hammy villains in need of some comeuppance. And it's that kind of heady energy that GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game does a great job of capturing.
How Does Essence20 Work in GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game?
As mentioned before when I previewed Power Rangers: The Roleplaying Game, GI Joe runs on Renegade Game Studios' Essence20 RPG system. The fundamentals are all still here. You have four core stats: Strength, Speed, Smarts, and Social, with points and bonuses provided by character choices like Background, Origin, and Influences. Those points go into skills which, instead of static number increases to your skill rolls, let you roll increasingly higher faces of dice for each of your skill rolls.
But an adaptation needs to pick its battles, and GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game makes some very smart choices. The biggest one is that it doesn't try to tie the book down to any one single continuity or interpretation of the characters. Its influences range from Hama's original comics run to the 1980s cartoon to the modern IDW comic run (the book even features artwork by Robert Atkins and Steve Morris). In fact, while the introductory chapters do highlight iconic Joes like Duke and Cover Girl as well as several pages worth of side characters, it acknowledges that trying to represent the 500+ members in a single core rulebook would be ridiculous and – due to logistical and legal reasons – impossible. Sorry Sgt. Slaughter fans, there is no official statblock.
It must also be stated that GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game leans more into the fantasy of the organization than the military authenticity it was based on. There is no mechanical difference between an M4 or an AK-47 (they're both just Assault Rifles), but you can pick up a perk called Kung Fu Grip. Furthermore, with the exceptions of certain characters like General Hawk, there's no formal chain of command. The Joe in charge is, “whoever is most qualified for the situation at hand.” This is great for a TTRPG that wants to encourage players to share the spotlight and disparages GM/Player antagonism. But those who want something more formal and regimented might be disappointed.
As for the underlying Essence20 system, it is greatly expanded here. Character creation is a bit more complex with dedicated Roles like Commando, Vanguard, and Infantry also including Role Focuses, essentially subclasses within these character classes. There is also a greater emphasis on environmental conditions as well as diseases and hazards. Given that the main heroes of GI Joe aren't superheroes, it's the kind of attention to detail that helps make an operation set in Siberia different from an operation set in the Sahara Desert. It also helps highlight the equipment requisition system. Before every mission, your players can request gear which can range from thermal clothing to a certain weapon or field kit with the mission. Given that extreme cold leads to ongoing penalties to your Strength score, an extra layer makes a world of difference. After all, knowing is half the battle.
What Was It Like Playing GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game?
GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game felt seamless to get into. While my group's familiarity with Essence20 did play a part, the book's layout and formatting were excellent, letting them make informed decisions about the characters they wanted to play. In addition, the entire chapter on Threats has more than enough material out of the gate for the GM to put together challenges for the team. With one notable exception, the entire Cobra High Command all have statblocks. There are at least four different types of Cobra footsoldier to pick from. The book even includes vehicles like the HISS and the Trubble Bubble to help keep the high-octane action going.
Within a few hours of prep and some handy bookmarks, I was able to take my group of level 1 Joes through their first big adventure against Cobra. Schemes were hatched, a fight in the dark with a ninja was won, an urban car chase with exchanges of laser guns happened, and it all culminated in a terrifying debut by one of Cobra's heavy hitters, Destro.
In fact, my only real problem with running the game was I had to keep track of a bit more than I was expecting. Not just looking over individual vehicle stat blocks but ongoing situational modifiers and rules. Rules for car chases, initiative, and allowable actions during a chase, ongoing persistent bonuses for certain characters, the list goes on. If you're planning on running this for your group, the problem won't be looking for material to work with, but how much of it you will be keeping track of.
After a shaky but enthusiastic first attempt with the Power Rangers RPG, GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game feels a lot tighter and focused. It shows how Essence20 can be adapted for (slightly) more grounded settings without losing its edge. As for how much the game escalates and bends for long-term play, that will have to wait for our full review.