Hot on the heels of Avatar Legends’ record-breaking Kickstarter, another beloved animated series is headed to the tabletop as a roleplaying game. Cowboy Bebop - regarded as one of the greatest and most influential anime of all time - will see a tabletop RPG in 2022 from publishers Mana Project Studio and Don’t Panic Games.
The announcement of Cowboy Bebop: The Roleplaying Game last week, ahead of its first showing at the Essen Spiel 2021 board game convention in Germany, was followed by the expected mixture of excitement from fans that the ‘90s series was getting a roleplaying adaptation and a sense of trepidation about whether the game would be anything more than a licensed cash-in ahead of its live-action Netflix remake.
While nothing is a given until the game hits tables, there is reason to believe that the Cowboy Bebop RPG is at least in the right hands. Helming the upcoming RPG’s gameplay is Fumble GDR, the Italian roleplaying studio that released acclaimed RPG Not the End in early 2020. After accolades including the top Roleplay Game of the Year award at the Lucca Comics & Games festival, the studio successfully crowdfunded an English edition of the game over the summer for release next month.
Rather than using the likes of Dungeons & Dragons 5E to drive its gameplay, the Cowboy Bebop RPG will be powered by a variation of Not the End’s system, modified to use a pool of multicoloured dice based on characters’ attributes. The game is described as wanting to capture the tone and style of the original anime, as well as allowing players to delve into their own characters’ backstories - or those of the Bebop crew seen in the series, including Spike and Faye, if they prefer.
Ahead of the Cowboy Bebop RPG’s Kickstarter in 2022, I spoke to Mana Project founder Michele Paroli, who is serving as lead designer on the upcoming RPG alongside the creative team at Fumble, at this year’s Essen Spiel. Paroli discussed working with the original series’ creators on bringing its setting and characters to the tabletop, how the RPG will play, the expectation of fans surrounding the game, and what we can expect in its upcoming playtest and eventual release next year.
Do you mind giving me a brief bit of history about Mana Project?
I started [as] an architect. And then I left everything for RPGs. And we [Mana Project] started as a creative studio for graphic design and illustration, then we also became a game developer and then we started to be a game publisher. When I was working as an architect, I did my first Kickstarter. It was Journey to Ragnarok in 2017. It went quite well for the time. So I decided that could be my way, and everything started there. I started to work for an Italian game company named NEED Games, I was the art director and the game designer. And then after a few years of working with them, I split. We are still in a good relationship - they are our Italian publisher for our games. But I created Mana Project for my [own] way.
Everyone now is saying, "Oh, you're just throwing out a licence because you see the Avatar Legends success,” but we started like eight months before Avatar.
We are mainly focused right now on [Dungeons & Dragons] Fifth Edition settings. [We did] Journey to Ragnarok, we did Historia, we did Nightfell. We are designing more. And then we published the English edition of Not the End, by Fumble. Not the End was the Game of the Year [at Lucca Comics & Games festival] in Italy in 2020, and we are the English publisher for Fumble. So when I started this good partnership with Don't Panic Games to create the Cowboy Bebop roleplaying game, I thought about them because the system is very fresh. And I think that could work very well in a cinematic environment.
This project started way long ago. Like eight months ago, a year ago, something like that. Everyone now is saying, "Oh, you're just throwing out a licence because you see the Avatar [Legends] success,” but we started like eight months before Avatar. But we're working with Japanese [studio Sunrise] that has a very different culture. So every approval takes months, every word needs to be accurate. You have to respect the IP. We are very proud to work with them. But it's always also very difficult.
You say this started about eight months ago? Was the RPG discussed in terms of the upcoming live-action Netflix series?
Not yet. It was a discovery for us. It was like Christmas.
So the RPG itself is just based entirely on the original series?
And the movie [2001's Cowboy Bebop: The Movie] as well?
No. We partnered with Don't Panic Games, which has the licence for the anime series, and we’ll stick with that.
You mentioned it’s not the 5E system. It uses multicoloured dice, which seems to be inspired by Spike’s eyes. Do you mind explaining generally how it plays?
The game is still under development. We are doing huge modification these days. So it's quite early to describe it. But the game framework is very similar to Not the End. In Not the End you have hexagons that contain your tag. The main tag describes you, the area near the main tag is what you do and the area outside is your ability. This is a huge simplification. But just to be clear.
The Not the End system is very fresh. And I think that could work very well in a cinematic environment.
When you compose your pool, in Not the End you have a bag. You take a token for every time you want to use a tag in the action. Let's say I'm a paladin in the centre, and then I'm Trained to Battle. And then I'm Proficient with a Shield. I'm improvising. So they're shooting an arrow at me. And I'm a paladin. And I'm trained. And I use my shield. So I put three tokens inside the bag. The difficulty is two; I put two negative tokens in the bag. How much I want to risk is the [number] of tokens that I'm pulling out from the bag, right? This is Not the End. The same game framework will be used in Cowboy Bebop, but we are using dice, no tokens. So you will compose the pool and the difficulties with the same mechanics. But you will have dice, and you don't have tokens in a bag. That's all I can say right now.
So you're not pulling the dice out of the bag or anything like that, you're just building a pool of positive and negative?
Yeah. That's why there are two colours.
Does that mean the game will use custom dice?
We are trying to get approval for custom dice. They will be d6, so you can use your own or get our custom [dice]. The customisation will maybe be just on the sixth face: Faye, Spike, the Swordfish and so on.
Are you able to say much about the structure of the game? Is it structured like a TV show at all?
Yeah, of course. You will be bounty hunters, you will be on your spaceship, you will struggle for money. You will have money, but never enough money. So you try to collect bounties. But like the TV show, every bounty has its own story. You will be taken to the point to decide: "Okay, I'll get them or I'll kill them. Or I'll try to understand them and maybe set them free." That would be the concept of the whole session.
We are trying to translate the jazz part of the series into the core system.
Another interesting core feature of the system is that we are trying to translate the jazz part [of the series] into the core system. I shouldn't say that much because we're trying to release a playtest in a few... I hope weeks. I don't want to say months, but let's say months. There will be something like a time clock, where it will be a crescendo like a jazz session. I shouldn't say but - 3, 2, 1, Let's jam.
One of the big things about Cowboy Bebop is you have the space-western setting, but so much of it is the style. Are there other elements that you're looking at bringing in, like that jazz feel? Are there elements of the visual style that you're trying to capture in the game?
Yeah, of course. We're trying to bring everything we can, from the aesthetics, the theme, the concept, the interior struggle of the characters. We tried to bring that in the game.
That's also a big part of the series - you have the bounties, but there are whole episodes where something mutates in the fridge.
“I do need the money, but I know they’re not guilty. So what am I doing?” You'll be able to create your bounty hunter. Of course, the pre-generated character will be, you know the crew that we already know. But you'll be able to create your own ship, your own bounty hunters and your crew.
So you will be able to play as pre-gens like Spike and Faye?
This is set during the same timeline as the series?
Yeah, but you can also create your own characters.
It's rare for a licensed RPG to touch existing characters, I'm genuinely surprised.
We are working on that with [the licence-holders]. We have to be very careful. But this is our aim.
A lot of the series is kind of fleshing out those characters’ backstories, whether it’s Jet’s past, Faye’s self-discovery or Spike's encounters with Vicious. How are you handling that kind of storytelling in the background for those existing characters, but players' own characters as well?
For this, I have to say you'll see it in the playtest. [laughs] Because we are figuring it out. We have some ideas, but everything will be connected to the interior struggles of the characters. We're trying to achieve a narrative-first system, but also with a few fresh mechanics.
Everything will be connected to the interior struggles of the characters. We're trying to achieve a narrative-first system.
Given that it's set at the same time as the series, will this allow supplements in the future? Or things that go beyond the timeline we've already seen? I know that's a big question.
It's a really huge question. Because it depends. It depends on the approvals. It probably depends on how the game is going. The interest of the people. How it will be accepted and received in Japan. It depends. We'll see. It's our very first Japan licence. Don't Panic Games is very used [to working with licences from Japan] - Attack on Titan, Cowboy Bebop, Naruto, Tokyo Ghoul - so they are the experts. We are just the RPG publisher and the creative studio.
You mentioned Avatar Legends earlier. Even in recent weeks and months, we've seen so many RPGs come about based on comics, based on manga and anime. There's obviously a lot of cynicism from some players about licensed games and the sense that a lot of licensed RPGs are just D&D reskinned. How do you get past that feeling of, “Well, it's not going to be a good game because it's just a licence”?
Good question. I think that our strength is in the design. The aesthetic. The graphic design. The game design. So we try to do our best to satisfy those people. But, you know, haters gonna hate and we accept that.
Avatar Legends was huge - just enormous - on Kickstarter. Are you looking at that and thinking, "Well, maybe there are things we can learn from that in terms of the way they went about certain ideas?"
Haters gonna hate and we accept that.
Their story is way different from ours. We're not that huge. Magpie has a long story of Kickstarter. Great community. PBtA has its own fandom. We are using our own system. That is very dangerous, because if they don't like our system, they won't like the game. So it's a bet. We are very used to [D&D] Fifth Edition. But we decided not to go with it because we'd like to go for more cinematic gameplay. But I really hope they like how it is. We're working very hard. And let's see.
On Avatar, they did tons of add-ons. Like dice, a notebook and that huge box with metal dice. We cannot do that for many reasons. Also because we are not sure how to produce them; we've never done something like that. So, to be sure, we are just doing what we know that we can do great. For mathematics, the average pledge on Kickstarter is what they do. You know, if you have 1,000 backers, and your average pledge is €10, you will do €10,000 but if your average pledge is €100, you are doing €100,000. Our average pledge will be way lower than Avatar. So I don't think that we can achieve that amount. But that is not our goal. Our goal is to say: "Hey, we are Mana. We are Fumble. We are Don't Panic. We can do this, this kind of quality. Not just Fifth Edition, not just board games.”
I have to ask: if you could adapt another anime - or there's an anime or manga that you feel really deserves to be an RPG - what would it be?
I cannot say that. Because we already asked for that licence and we are waiting for an answer. But, yeah, I really hope that this could be the first of a series. This is our intent. But let's see how the public receives it. How all the haters receive it.
I wouldn't say no to a Samurai Champloo RPG - it's right there! The players form a party and follow the smell of sunflowers…
That could be cool!
What else is Mana Project working on at the moment?
We are trying to figure out how to end the last Kickstarter fulfilment. The last two years were like hell. We finished production in early 2021. And we had so many problems in shipping to the US, shipping to the UK. COVID, Brexit. It's like... how? We ordered shipping in July. The ship sailed in September and it reached New York like last week. So we stopped production to be fair to the backers; not to launch other products while they're waiting. We are doing a little crazy project called 7 Sinners. Probably in January. We'll see. This is a small bestiary. It's both for Fifth Edition [D&D] and First Edition. So it's like new school with old school.
Is the plan to tidy up all your other projects before Bebop? Will the RPG be on Kickstarter towards the end of next year in that case?
I really hope that we will reach 100% fulfilment before the end of this year. We’ve already done Italy, we've already done Europe. We only need UK and USA. USA should start now. So I really hope that before the end of the year, everything's done.
For Cowboy Bebop, it depends. Our aim is to launch a Kickstarter campaign around the [first] half of 2022. And hopefully, crossing fingers, legs, tentacles and stuff, releasing it - I shouldn’t say, but I'll say it - before the end of the year. Because we're already working on it a lot.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.