It’s going to be really hard for me not to share some of my thoughts on G.I. Joe as a property in this review, because in a lot of ways, G.I. Joe was as central to my geeky interests as Star Wars, Spider-Man, and Batman. I received a Snake Eyes action figure almost as soon as the line hit shelves, and the Marvel G.I. Joe comic was the first comic book for which I had a subscription. I didn’t want to miss an issue due to the vagaries of trying to find it when my mom went grocery shopping.
While I watched the G.I. Joe cartoon after school, my real love was the Marvel comic, written by Larry Hama. While it’s easy to dismiss G.I. Joe media as playing into the jingoism of 80s America, or as an extended toy commercial, I would posit that Hama had a fairly subversive take on the subject matter that wasn’t always obvious. In between the military operations and science fiction, G.I. Joe was ultimately about how 80s America wanted to view itself (the morally upright and highly competent G.I. Joes), and what America feared it was (an organization founded by someone that got rich on MLMs, destabilizing other countries for their own personal gain, with evil CEOs and an avatar of the Military Industrial Complex on their side).
America, in different forms, was both the hero and the villain of the piece.
On the other hand, you might have grown up just watching red and blue lasers and exploding vehicles that always allowed for their pilots to escape at the last minute. But even the G.I. Joe cartoon had some deeper moments. Shipwreck got psychologically tortured by false memories of failing his friends. We see an alternate reality where Cobra wins, allowing the show to set the stakes of the series without breaking the 80s era “we can’t let the villains win” paradigm. There were romances like Steeler and alternate reality Baroness, and Zarana and Mainframe. Hell, they even touched on topics like the children of American soldiers left behind in southeast Asia.
All of this is to say that I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about G.I. Joe. When the roleplaying game was announced, I knew I was going to be looking at it. With all of that in mind, let’s dive in.
I did not receive a review copy of this product, and instead purchased this on my own for review. I have played a session of the game and made up characters for each of the different roles in the game in order to get a better feel for the mechanics.
The Field Manual
This review is based on the PDF and the deluxe version of the core rulebook. The deluxe core rulebook has a blue cover with an inset silver stars and stripes logo, with “Wherever There’s Trouble” in silver on the back.
The PDF is 354 pages long, which includes a title page, a credits page, a foreword, a two page table of contents, a four page index, five pages of lined “notes” pages, and a two page character sheet. I haven’t seen dedicated “notes” pages in an RPG in a while, and I wish there had been a vehicle “character sheet,” even though you don’t custom build vehicles.
Interior artwork is full color. Individual sections have full page artwork, and the art is derived both from Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Classified action figure line packaging and from IDW comics. In general, the layout doesn’t look bad, but I do think that spreading some of the equipment tables across multiple pages limits usability, especially when working from the PDF.
Order of Battle
The book is organized into the following parts:
- Character Creation
- Essence Scores and Skills
- General Perks
- Running a Mission
The introduction sets the expectations for the RPG. It isn’t emulating a specific version of the property so much as presenting a version that can be nudged in different directions based on the group’s preferences. It starts off with a pep talk from General Hawk, directed at new recruits. From there, it introduces a list of G.I. Joe members. These are quick descriptions that touch on what they do out in the field, and what they do when assigned to The Pit, the G.I. Joe base of operations.
Hawk’s speech makes it clear that this version of G.I. Joe, while primarily US military, is also a joint UN operation, and thus includes various members from allied nations. It’s not quite the international force presented in The Rise of Cobra (which, to be honest, probably should have just been Action Force), but it also isn’t just an extension of US interests.
The descriptions of the various Joes do not include statistics. By focusing on the roles existing characters perform when stationed at The Pit, the text emphasizes that the PCs are likely to be uniquely created characters. When they need to do something related to the team’s home base, various Joes exist to interact with them. I like this approach, because it gives you a built-in reason for cameos, while not pushing players to try to recreate the wheel by playing existing Joes.
Rules of Engagement
As you read this, you may feel the ghost of the 5e OGL looking over your shoulder, and that’s not wrong, but there are some strong deviations from those rules as well. The core resolution mechanic is to roll a d20 and add a die to that roll based on the skill ranking of the character. The game has snags and edges, which cause the player to roll 2d20 and either take the best or worst of the two rolls. Any time you don’t have at least a d2 rating in a skill, you roll with a snag, so having a broad skill base can be desirable.
Conditional modifiers are handled by moving up or down the die chain. For example, if a character has a d8 skill and aims, they get a +1 shift, and roll a d10. However, if their target has cover, they get a -2 shift, meaning that same character would now be rolling a d6.
Critical failures happen on a 1 on the d20, but critical successes trigger if any skill die rolled shows its maximum face, with the exception of the d2. The skill dice steps are d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. You can have a specialization under a particular skill (for example, water vehicles under the Driving skill). If you have a specialization, you roll every die in the die chain up to your skill die, and if any of them (other than the d2) rolls maximum, and your overall roll is a success, you score a critical.
It took me a bit to wrap my head around why specialization would matter, because statistically, it doesn’t make you much more likely to succeed on a die roll. This really seems to be much more about increasing your odds of rolling a critical. It also means specialization doesn’t mean a lot until you have at least a d6 in a skill. This is one of those places where I would have loved some designer insight on a sidebar to help me wrap my brain around the benefits of this mechanic.
There are no saves, and no bonuses added to rolls due to essence scores. Essence scores provide a static defense that is 10 + essence + armor + perk/role ability. Despite the overall similarity in structure to the 5e OGL rules, health and damage are constrained in a manner not unlike bounded accuracy and skill bonuses in D&D.
What I mean by that is, it’s not uncommon for a character to start off with 3 health at 1st level, and maybe have 8 health at 20th level. A lot of weapons do 1 or 2 points of damage, but weapons are often defined by special abilities, so taking a -2-die shift may allow for multiple targets or an extra point of damage.
Another potential “trap” that you can fall into in character creation is not knowing how the action economy of the game works. You must have at least a 2 in Speed to get both a standard action and a move action. You must have a 3 to have a standard, move, and free action. Your total number of free actions equals your speed -2, meaning high speed characters have several free actions. Free actions let you do minor things like open doors, aim a weapon, or move an additional 5 feet. Given that these actions are contingent on speed score and are tracked individually, this would have been much more clearly labeled “minor actions.”
The game also uses Story Points. Each character starts with one, and they can gain these a number of ways, but mainly when a character rolls a 1 on a skill test. Story points can be used for the following:
- Re-roll a 1 on the die
- Roll a skill test as if specialized
- Add +5 to a defense before a roll, or +1 after a roll
- Get access to a minor piece of equipment
- Ask for a clue
- Trigger some perks or role abilities that call for story points
The GM also gets a supply of story points equal to the total number of players. I can say from our playtest experience, I really wish you could use these to reroll other rolls outside of a natural 1.
Character Creation, Influences, Origin, Roles, Scores and Skills, General Perks
While all of these are organized into separate chapters, they are essentially one big section of the book that detail character creation. The steps to making a character include the following:
- Character Concept
- Essence Scores
Characters have a set number of points to assign to their Strength, Speed, Smarts, and Social categories. For each point assigned to one of these essence scores, a character can bump up a related skill associated with that essence by one step. In theory, this means that if you know how many total essence points you have, you know how many skill upgrades you have. This is a nice way to quickly verify the decisions you have made, but some of the subsequent steps of character creation can make this more confusing than it needs to be.
Influences are bits of history from your past that provide a benefit and a hang-up. You must have at least one influence, but you can have up to three. Having three hang ups can be challenging, since these often provide negative consequences to roles until a certain thing is done, or the first time something is attempted in a game session.
Origins are more specifically about what you did before you were recruited into G.I. Joe. Origins set your starting health, your starting movement, and give you a bonus to an essence score. The skill you pick up with this boost is limited to a set list of skills detailed in the origin, although the wording can sound like this is a bonus skill rather than a constrained list of where you can spend your skill boost for the essence bonus.
Origin is one of those places in the book where I’m not sure why the organization is provided in the manner in which it appears. For example, the actual origins are:
- First Responder
- Covert Ops
Instead of providing these origins first, and listing example service branches after each one of these origins, the book instead groups these under Origin Branches, which are:
- Air Force
- Non-Specific Support Origins
By grouping origin branches first, you have some awkward page flipping and explanations. For example, if you’re character is a Marine, you are told under the Navy heading to go to the Army heading for Soldier. If you’re character is a Navy pilot, you are told to go to the Air Force heading to look up pilot.
So this organization of material not only introduces some odd page flipping, instead of just having an entry at the end of, say, pilot, that mentions what branches of US and other world military units have pilots, but it also trips right over something you probably already know if you have people that have been in the Air Force, Army, and Marines in your immediate family. In other words, you may not want to tell a Navy pilot that they are “like an Air Force pilot,” or tell a Marine that they are 1) just a subset of the Navy, and 2) their job is listed under Soldier in the Army section.
Roles are essentially the classes of the G.I. Joe Roleplaying Game. Each role has three role foci presented, which are essentially subclasses of the main role. These include:
- Mechanized Infantry
- Battlefield Psychologist
- Frontline Leader
- Think Tank
- Heavy Ordinance
Some of these roles draw inspiration from 5e OGL archetypes. For example, if you think of the Renegade as a Barbarian, you wouldn’t be wrong. The biggest head scratcher in this list is the Vanguard, because it seems to be the least represented in G.I. Joe media. The Vanguard is all about protecting others while dealing out consistent damage, so it is very much a Tank/Defender style character. However, the flavor for the class indicates heavy armor and force fields, as well as cover fire, etc. So, while I can picture Roadblock as a Tank/Defender style character, I’ve never associated him with heavy combat armor or high-tech defensive systems.
As characters gain levels, in addition to picking up more essence points to spend on more skills, they also get perks. Perks are what other games would call feats or stunts, little rules nodules that give a character more abilities beyond what they already have for influence, origin, and role.
I think in a sci-fi military action game like G.I. Joe, people may want a degree of granularity in their gear. This is especially true when the source material shows so many different guns, gadgets, and backpacks.
A character that is Qualified in gear always has that gear. A character that is Trained in gear can attempt to requisition that type of gear before a mission. Characters have mission critical gear and on average three requisition picks per mission. Gear has a rarity rating, and Standard gear is always available, but rarer gear requires a character to roll a requisition check (usually a skill associated with that gear) to get better versions of that gear.
While there are fancier weapons, a lot of gear exists in the form of upgrades. For example, a character may want to requisition a silencer, because Commandos only do sneak attack damage with silent weapons.
Vehicles have Strength and Speed stats and have skill ratings that a character can use in place of their own when using the vehicle, if the vehicle skill rank is higher. Vehicles will also have weapons listed, as well as firing points, i.e., how many people can lean out and shoot their own weapons instead of the vehicle’s.
The most confusing part of gear, for me, are the kits. The stated goal for kits is to allow a character that would roll with a snag to roll normally. The stated purpose for this is to shore up skills that might be lacking among the people assigned to a mission. However, further description of kits indicates that GM should have special short cuts or side missions that, even for a skilled character, would impose a snag, and that a kit negates that. It also mentions that this should be in addition to the standard design of the mission.
Kits are assigned a skill specialization where they apply, and kits with different rarity can be used for more difficult side mission special skill checks. That feels like a lot of extra GM design to justify kits, rather than just letting kits serve as what I thought they were, a means of letting a character function using skills they don’t currently have.
The threats chapter has some example characters for a G.I. Joe campaign, including some faces (masks?) that may be familiar to anyone that knows the property. There are threat levels from 0 to 20 listed here. You get a greatest hits of Cobra High Command, like Cobra Commander, the Baroness, Destro, and Dr. Mindbender. There are also cobra soldiers, vipers, veteran officers, and Crimson Guards. The Dreadnoks get generic stats, but none of the established Dreadnoks receive stats by name. The book assures us that we’ve got more coming on that front.
NPCs are generally set up the same way as PCs, although they only have skills listed for those in which they are trained. Instead of listing a set of specializations, skills are marked with an “*” to denote that these are rolled as if specialized. Some of the perks that the NPCs gain are fun and useful for their roles, and probably not something PCs would want. For example, Cobra troops have “Bullet Stopper,” which grants a bonus to the highest-ranking Cobra officer in the encounter if the troops are on the battlefield. Cobra Commander has a wonderful ability called “Retreat!” which allows him to call retreat and move at double his normal movement rate, even in vehicles, if he’s trying to flee the scene.
While most of the low and mid-level threats look reasonable, the higher end stat blocks like Cobra Commander and Baroness have me scratching my head. A 20th level player character is going to max out at 34 essence points, with a cap of 15 for non-enhanced characters. Cobra Commander has 78 essence points with three stats above 15. While I don’t expect NPCs to always fit the same rules as PCs, that feels way off. And this is in addition to NPC abilities he gets, like being able to spend free actions on extra attacks and gaining 1 additional health for each Cobra on the battlefield. I don’t mind these NPC special rules, but coupled with the massive essence scores, it feels like he blows the lid off the stat curve.
There are a good range of stat blocks that can be repurposed here. For example, I used the various Crimson Guard stat blocks, with different weapons, to represent members of a private security firm.
Running a Mission
The “Running a Mission” section is the “how to GM” section of the book. One of the things I appreciate about this section is that it assumes that the group will employ a session 0 to set expectations, collaborate about what they want and don’t want in the game, and get on the same page. There is also discussion of what usually ends up in G.I. Joe missions, like combat, exploration, social interactions, and vehicle combat.
This section winds up with a starting scenario where the player characters are new recruits that are left alone at The Pit with a single seasoned Joe mentor. A group of Cobra troops trying to make a name for themselves attempt to raid the location. This involves several places for player characters to try out simulators to practice skill tests, as well as expanding their ability to requisition gear and have access to vehicles.
While some of my other thoughts about the game and how it runs at the table are present throughout, I wanted to touch on the playtest that I ran. We had four players, and I had made pregens for all seven of the roles in the game. The characters selected were the Officer, the Renegade, the Ranger, and the Vanguard.
The session revolved around going undercover on a tourist island, taking a mini sub to the site, and then staying at a resort to gain information from a private security firm that was doing work for Cobra. The primary mission objective was to extract data that the firm had secured for Cobra, with a secondary mission objective of hindering the operation of the security firm.
One thing we found out is that the mission, as I created it, would have been much easier for the team if they had taken the Commando and the Technician. The team made some use of spending hero points to produce items that weren’t included in the mission critical items, such as papers identifying them as crypto investors looking to employ the firm.
We had a lot of roleplaying, as the group tried to work around not being able to sneak around or hack at a distance. The officer ended up rolling more than the other players, and because we spent a lot of time working around barriers to get the group inside the firm, instead of having a straight up fight at the end, the group ended up blowing up the firm’s servers and running while getting shot at, as they stole a plane.
The session was fun, and the skills seemed to work as intended. The player currency helped to work around potential dead ends. However, it did show that being too specialized as a character was a detriment. Even the Officer tended towards being specialized as a pilot, but they had the widest range of skills. While GMs should be tailoring missions to the characters that the players build, it’s also going to be very rough trying to make any kind of checks with skills that characters haven’t rated at least as a d2, since that negates the snag and adds a minimum of +1 to the roll.
Because of that constrained scale, upgrades have more room to breathe, and allow for the kind of gear granularity that both a toy line and a sci-fi/military RPG often lives by. Raise the Flagg
The initial framing of the organization of G.I. Joe and their conflict with Cobra is great, as it incorporates international cooperation and highlights the marginalization of populations as a recruitment strategy for Cobra. Constraining health and damage ranges allows for a more even progress curve between low and high levels and does for weapons and health what bounded accuracy does in the 5e OGL, making more game elements relevant over multiple tiers of play. Because of that constrained scale, upgrades have more room to breathe, and allow for the kind of gear granularity that both a toy line and a sci-fi/military RPG often lives by. Many of the character roles and specializations do solid work calling to mind archetypical Joes and their place in various media.
Organization in this book is a problem. The order in which material is presented is confusing, charts flow across pages, which makes referencing the PDF, especially, difficult. Some rules elements are referenced but missing in the PDF, and those same omissions made it into the physical printing of the book. Reading the frequently asked questions on the Renegade Game Studio website is very important to understanding some of the rules. While most of the roles are drawn from G.I. Joe media, and military and espionage fiction broadly, the Vanguard feels like rules design that was grafted onto characters that don’t entirely fit the paradigm.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
I had fun making characters in this system, and I had fun running the game. I could run the kind of G.I. Joe scenario that appeals to me in the game system. That said, it took more work than it should have to verify what was left out of the game and what some of the intents of the rules were from the text. This feels like it could have used a little more polish, and that perhaps some of the design from Power Rangers, G.I. Joe, and Transformers were concurrent, which meant some of the connective tissue may have been lost when rules modules were included across game lines.
If you aren’t as much of a diehard G.I. Joe fan, you may want to wait until later printings iron out some of the items that require you to reference the FAQ for clarification, especially if you want some of the errata to be present in a printed book. The game is playable in its current form, just a bit confusing, and missing a few options (like two-weapon fighting).
What nostalgic gaming media tugs at your heartstrings? What properties do you wish had their own RPGs? We want to hear from you in the comments below!