GI Joe: the role play walks a fine line as an adaptation. The action figure toyline turned sci-fi spy thriller moves back and forth between fantasy and believable at all times. A group of elite soldiers and commandos using military tactics against ninjas and robots are just another day in the office. And it’s a balancing act that this TTRPG pulls off with aplomb.
How does GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game feel like playing?
Renegade Game Studios‘ Essence20 system shines in GI Joe: the role play. The fundamentals still hold, you roll higher and higher dice faces alongside a d20 for ability checks rather than static increases in numbers with situational modifiers modifying those faces accordingly.
But what the developers managed was to make the upshift and downshift of the dice feel natural. Do you roll to hit a soldier with your laser pistol while he is in cover with a Targeting d8? He’s in partial cover so you roll twice to d4. Do you set up your sniper rifle, prepare your shot and take your time aiming at an unconscious target in the open with the same skill? You upshift twice, once to prone and once to aim, up to a d12. It’s simple, it’s understandable, and it adds just the right level of complexity to a game that might have gone too far into pedantry.
This also extends to vehicular combat. G.I. Joe is a franchise known for its ridiculously toy-like vehicles, and there are plenty of classics covered here. There are rules for ramming, smashing, fall damage if your parachute doesn’t deploy, as well as powerful rockets and mounted machine guns to keep the fight interesting.
Which brings me to what helps GI Joe: the role play stand out: the ability of players to prepare. A little like Power Rangers: The Role Playing Game, there is no economy in the game. Looting items from defeated enemies is only for plot-focused macguffins. Instead, there is a requisition system where your Joes request items and supplies needed for the mission. This is how players can get upgrades to their weapons and armor, dictated by an ability roll on a handy chart, as well as specialized gear.
These include field kits, which give bonuses to certain skill rolls. This can do everything from making the ninja in the party even stealthier to giving the powerful character a chance to disguise themselves. What helps keep this system from becoming too powerful is that there are requirements for the different levels of Field Kit, and the party has a set number of requests allowed per mission.
What are the player options for GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game?
As for the type of characters you can create in GI Joe: the role play, there are many choices. Along with influences such as Thrillseeker, Nomad, and Gearhead, there are seven major squad roles to choose from. Commandos are your black ops and infiltration specialists. Infantry are your frontline warriors. Officers are the tacticians and battlefield leaders. Renegades are loose cannons with bad attitudes who are recruited more into GI Joe so they don’t get caught by Cobra. The Rangers are essential environmental specialists in their chosen field. Technicians are all about electronic and mechanical expertise. Finally, the Vanguards are the dedicated brickyards that focus on tuning and tanking fire.
But what’s particularly impressive is that each of these squad roles also has three dedicated role objectives. These function as subclasses, emphasizing certain specific playstyles within those roles. Commando’s focuses are Infiltrator which involves moving around unseen, the explicit Sniper, and the Spy which turns the Joe into a social chameleon.
These player options even extend to the perks you can get at each level. In addition to an Animal Pet Perk, there is a Multiclass Perk. There are a few caveats, you can’t double a named boon (so no additional bonus attacks) and you can only choose a boon from a different role equal to half your level or lower. Given how highly dedicated and complex this character creation is already, it’s a decent compromise.
Is it easy to run GI Joe: The Role Playing Game?
Apart from the things absorbed by cultural osmosis, I didn’t exactly have an in-depth knowledge of G.I. Joe. I could tell you the basics and maybe a detail or two stuck out in the jokes. But when I sat down to campaign with GI Joe: the role play, I was given a crash course in why this franchise has lasted so long. The introductory chapter is written like a speech by the head of GI Joe, General Hawk, and does a great job of establishing this secret organization not just as a branch of the US military with less oversight, but as a global peacekeeping organization specializing in the management of terrorists.
This thoughtful design extends to the Exploration and Threats chapter. As mentioned in my preview, GI Joe: the role play contains everything you need to run a campaign in a single book of approximately 350 pages. Not only are there comprehensive stat pads for Cobra’s High Command and their many different lackeys and henchmen, but there are examples of various locations and environments you can send the Joes to on their next mission. There are even seeds of intrigue, creative little prompts to get your mind thinking, that accompany each of these locations. These can range from preventing Cobra from collecting the coins needed by a weather dominator to preventing him from recruiting teenagers into his ranks in a metropolitan city. With all of these tools and prompts at your disposal, setting up a campaign wasn’t just easy, it was fun.
There are two key areas where GI Joe: the role play can be a little daunting for new game masters. The first is considering the phase of requisitioning your players. As mentioned earlier, this is where the group is informed of the mission and has the opportunity to make plans and request materials. Pre-written adventures will have a fixed number of requisition requests, but for house ops the rule of thumb seems to be three. This is a tricky phase to set up because you want to give your players a preview of what they’ll be up against, but you don’t want to give away all the surprises.
The second key area is presentation and pacing. As stated earlier, GI Joe: the role play takes Essence20’s luck-based base and manages to add some complexity to it. This very complexity carries over to how you build encounters. There’s a greater focus on henchman teams, the standard Cobra troopers have an ability that actively increases the defenses of the guy in charge for example, and there’s a greater demand for spatial reasoning and movement to things like line of sight and area of effect explosions.
In some ways, running a narrative script of GI Joe: the role play may feel closer to a skirmish-based miniatures game than a TTRPG. But what keeps it from being overwhelming is the accessible core of the system. This means the more complex vehicular combat isn’t as involved as you might think, the air combat is still grid-based and doesn’t include fancy maneuvers for example, but it does help keep things on a pace. supported. If you’re a Game Master theater of mind, you can do just fine, but if you’re more into maps, miniatures, and terrain, this is a TTRPG that will excite and spark the imagination.
Should I buy GI Joe: The Role Playing Game?
If you have fond memories of G.I. Joe and I wanted to fight for freedom on land, sea and in the air, so I highly recommend GI Joe: the role play. If you have only a passing knowledge of GI Joe and are more interested in the flexibility of Renegade Game Studios’ Essence20 system, I recommend this TTRPG even more. Not only is it a great core rulebook for setting up fun missions of exciting action, it’s built with such care that it’s making new fans of the G.I. Joe goods. I should know, I’m one of them now. Yo Joe!
The copy of GI Joe: The Roleplaying Game used in this review was purchased by the author.