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Author: Ferry Bazelmans
Cost: $2.95
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2001-04-01

Soap is a recent addition to the pool of free, internet-available brilliant RPGs. (Editor's note: the game is now $2.95, although an older, free version is available.) Not everything posted in this way is even good, and some is downright stinky, but Soap is right up there at the top. This is the kind of RPG publishing which either shows up, years later, in the store-bought books as someone else's so-called innovation, or, most commonly, gets incorporated into the "but that's how you obviously do it" canon of design, as the previous modes are conveniently forgotten.
I liked this game so much, I played it three times in a week and a half. I think that Soap is primarily a technique-developer game, an excellent training tool disguised as a fun li'l thing. It's so enjoyable that players might never realize how much they're learning from it.

The game has no Game Master; it is played in a round-robin of plot statements from player to player, in a limited time-frame (30 minutes). It consists largely of rules about resolving conflicting outcomes and over-rides. It's easy to spot the influence of the wonderful card game Once upon a Time, but unlike that game, Soap is indeed an RPG, due to the one-player-one-character foundation.

I suggest that whoever introduces Soap to their role-playing group ("C'mon, it's only half an hour!") prepare a one-page handout that preps people a little. The rules are well-written and very clear - with really, really good examples - but as we all know, very few players will process a wad of rules quickly; they'd rather learn through a quick introduction and actual play. And the game is easy, mechanically, but conceptually it's quite a mind-bender.

Character creation is a matter of a name, three adjectives, and a heinous Secret, with no numerical aspects. What I like best is that every character must be related in some fashion to every other character, ensuring connections for the story events to overlap among them.

The system is all about scene resolution, not "attempting" specific actions. It's based on Plot Tokens (whatever you want to use), in that one's single statement, before play passes to one's left, may cost one or more Tokens. One may initiate, continue, or close a scene; or, even better, one may interfere with someone else's scene (even if one's PC is not present), up to and including killing the other PC. All of these outcomes range widely in cost, with interference being a matter of bidding Tokens against one another. (And don't worry, if you die, you just wait out one turn, and then - oh goodness - it turns out you weren't killed!)

For game theory aficionados, we're talking about serious Director stance. OK, enough jargon.

On the plus side, one gets Plot Tokens for demonstrating a Trait (one of the aforementioned adjectives), for guessing another PC's secret, or - and this is how to get a real ton of Tokens, wait for it - providing clues about one's own Secret. This is the real motor of the game, because everyone wants those big ol' handfuls of Tokens, but if another player guesses your Secret, and if you're killed after that, you die permanently, no-hits-points-left AD&D death.

If there's one thing the multitudes of "lite" systems of the last 10 years have shown, it's that an RPG cannot truly be free-form. If, as in Soap, the resolution mechanic is Drama-based, then there still must be rules, specifically formalizing announcement of outcomes, who's got "the power," and resource management. All are here in perfect accord, very funny but also very effective - things happen.

So let's see, we have connections to give commitments and conflicts, traits to give characterization, the Secrets to provide serious conflict, revealing the Secrets to force resolutions - and basically, the sordid theme of soap opera story-telling emerges. Well, here comes the jargon again. This is not only a Narrativist motor, it's a Narrativist jet engine.

About now, someone will be saying, "Wait a minute, Soap is about winning. If you have the most plot tokens at the end, you win, and that's the point." However, I suggest that here Soap has a problem. The winning-mechanic is actually contradictory to effective play. Let me illustrate. In Once Upon a Time, winning is the point: clearing your cards from your hand (a) has an impact on the game-world (it's "effective") and (b) permits you to play your Ending card and win. However, in Soap, you're stuck: either you hoard your plot tokens to win, or you spend them to have an effect on the story. In other words, the metric for winning in Soap does not increase from effective play.

My claim does not arise from any dislike of a winning-mechanic in an RPG; to the contrary, I think Gamist RPGs desperately need such mechanics. If Soap is to be such a game, it ought to be re-tooled such that spending plot tokens will result, directly or indirectly, in winning. As it stands now, however, we have a Narrativist RPG with an out-of-place winning-mechanic that basically gets ignored, because it doesn't drive the most fun (i.e. most active) play.

Soap has two suggestions for ending the game: (1) simply stopping at 30 minutes, or (2) generate a "cliff-hanger" as a lead-in for the next session. One of my groups came up with an alternative for #1 that I like a lot. When the timer goes off, we do one more round and generate a cliff-hanger, with no intent of continuing. It's just more fun that way.

It's amazing how short thirty minutes can be. It's really, really quick! The players must learn a very fine skill: to reveal a great deal about their Secret without actually spilling the beans. The Secret underlies all their PCs' actions, and they constantly hint at it, but only through player interaction does it emerge. I like the effect, for both guesser and guessee. The former, for instance, must be paying attention to the actions and importance of other PCs in the game. This is one of those things I alluded to earlier, regarding technique-training for better role-playing.

I have found Soap to play a pivotal role for me more privately, as a GM. It highlighted for me some specific things about my players that I can now work with, or address, or otherwise take into consideration for whatever we play from now on. For example:
  • Given full freedom to create, interfere with, or end an entire scene, a player restricts his actions to announcing "I guess I'll drive to the party."
  • Confronted with physical danger, a player had her character pull a couple of .45's from her purse and begin blasting away.
  • A player avoided "attacking" others' characters, regardless of the minor and indeed fun consequences of doing so.
  • A player did have another PC attacked, but specifically announced the result was only wounding (what's up with that?? Remember, in Soap, an apparent death is automatically a scam on the audience for a character who still has a Secret).
    Interesting insights for me came out of these observations. So as a suggestion, for those who are inclined toward this use of Soap, a short debriefing discussion afterward would be valuable for developing the player-group, at least raising a few issues for people to think about.

    Okay, that's all from me - it's been over thirty minutes, and the review is over. (Pause) Bad joke, I know. Really, go get Soap and play it.

    Comments from the author:
    An insightful review, perhaps most for me. I agree with your observation that the "winning" tactic feels awkward in comparison to the rest of the system. Looking back I would have to say I am still struggling to get out of the traditional game designing mindset. This is all new terrritory for me, both the designing of games and the theory and mindset behind it that I am agreeing on and co-developing with the other free minds on the net, so I suppose that doesn't justify, but more or less explains why it's in there.

    That said, I am going to take it out of the main system and make it an optional rule to lower the threshold for new players. If your group is absolutely indoctrinated in a need-to-win-attitude, then having a way to score is something recognizable in a perhaps otherwise alien system.

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