The Homebrew Review #3, SOAP
SOAP is an unusual, action-packed game in which "your character is likely to be shot by ex-lovers, have a life-threatening operation, save a family member and have a car crash, all in the space of 30 minutes." That's right - SOAP is meant to be an RPG-style approximation of TV soap operas.
I'll admit it: I have a problem. Like any addiction, it started out small, then grew until it overwhelmed me. I had to admit that I'd lost control, quit cold turkey, and never look back. But to this day, whenever I'm watching TV, I'll often catch myself lingering for a few moments longer than necessary over a Mexican soap opera before I change the channel. These days, I'm more than a little ashamed to talk about my rather embarrassing passion for telenovelas (the cheesier, the better). But it gives me strength to know that I'm not alone in trying to kick the habit and find a healthier way to satisfy my craving for bad acting and overwrought plots. My evidence, and support system, comes from SOAP, "the game of completely illogical emotional pain and suffering", and the Homebrew Review's newest featured RPG.
As conceived by developer Ferry Bazelmans, SOAP is an unusual, action-packed game in which "your character is likely to be shot by ex-lovers, have a life-threatening operation, save a family member and have a car crash, all in the space of 30 minutes." That's right - SOAP is meant to be an RPG-style approximation of TV soap operas. You might expect a game like this one to focus on character at the expense of systems, but this isn't the case - in fact, playing wisely and making the right "moves" is the most important thing in the game. The end result is a strange, unique game that, despite its subject matter, might end up being more appealing to strategy gamers than to dedicated roleplayers.
SOAP's character generation system is simple and straightforward. Characters are made from only five basic components: a name, a connection to one of the other characters, three key character traits, a goal, and a secret. The entire process takes about 5 minutes, and numbers and dice never even get involved in this portion of the game.
Things get slightly more complicated when gameplay begins. SOAP is a numberless, diceless game; the only equipment you need to play it is a sizable amount of coins, bottlecaps, poker chips, or other small objects to serve as "plot tokens." Each new character begins play with two of them. Plot tokens are the backbone of the SOAP system; the entire game is oriented around obtaining and using them wisely, which makes SOAP rather different from the average RPG.
Play moves through the group in turns. When it is your turn, you can choose to start a scene (a situation in which other characters would be able to interact with you), continue a scene that hasn't ended yet, join a scene already in progress, or end a scene that you have started. This is where plot tokens come in - they're the currency you use to start scenes, or to get your way within them. Players pay plot tokens to join scenes (though other players can bid their against you to prevent), and earn new ones for doing things that use their previously defined character traits, giving clues to their secrets, or cleverly attempting to thwart the plans of other players.
Confused? Never fear. The creators of SOAP realize that their material may seem overly complicated at first glance, and provide a number of very edifying "examples of play" along the way, which really helped me understand how the game is supposed to flow. Games of SOAP are supposed to be short and fast-paced (only 30 minutes long, the runtime of the average soap), but it's likely that your first try at this system will be neither. With a large group of players and many scenes running at once, the intricate plots and scene structure of a game of SOAP can become impossible to follow unless everyone knows exactly what's going on. Before you begin, make sure all the players have read and understand the rules, and don't be afraid to move slowly through the first session.
Ultimately, SOAP's only major flaw is that there's no way to know when you're done with it. It seems to be geared toward maintaining an ongoing storyline; each session ends with a cliffhanger and, true to the tropes of the soaps, characters cannot die unless their secret is revealed. But, to be honest, I picture SOAP as a game that works better as an occasional one-shot game used to add variety to your group than as something you go back to week after week. Of course, the problem with running SOAP as a one-shot is that if you never go back to it, you might be left wondering what the point was. There is an optional rule offered for determining a winner (they're the person with the most plot tokens after 30 minutes), which I think I would definitely implement while playing SOAP, if only to give the game some sort of closure. Also, the lack of any sort of GM figure or referee could lead to problems if there are ever disputes between players (for example, over what constitutes a genuine clue to a character's secret).
In the end, SOAP as it is and SOAP as I thought it would be ended up being two dramatically different things, and I'm still not quite sure if the surprise was entirely pleasant. I came in expecting an RPG and got something much more akin to a card or board game. But for better or worse, there's no other game out there that's quite like SOAP. In my book, it's at least worth a glance in my book - if only because it's a better alternative to backsliding into the vicious cycle of soap opera watching yet again.
How SOAP Measures Up:
- Playability: B
- Presentation: B
- Setting: A-
- Overall: B+
Interested in SOAP? Check it out for free at http://www.crayne.nl/soap.shtml.
The Homebrew Review Game Supplement
Having some problems coming up with an appropriately melodramatic set of characters for your game of SOAP? Here are a few interesting characters, complete with connections to one another, to get you started. (I knew watching all those telenovelas would come in handy someday...)
Concept: patriarch of the Blakewell family
Traits: rich, influential, power-hungry
Goal: Prevent Vincent from usurping control of his law firm.
Secret: Fathered an illegitimate child.
Concept: junior partner in Jonathan's law firm
Traits: conniving, amorous, handsome
Goal: Take control of the Blakewell law firm.
Secret: Murdered his wife out of jealousy.
Concept: Jonathan's son
Traits: intelligent, charismatic, clever
Goal: Become the most well-regarded lawyer in the state.
Secret: Former drug dealer.
Samantha Kent Blakewell
Concept: Edward's wife
Traits: artistic, emotional, beautiful
Goal: Become a famous actress.
Secret: Had an affair with Vincent.
Concept: Jonathan's illegitimate daughter
Traits: conniving, vengeful, immoral
Goal: Seduce Vincent and use him to get revenge on Jonathan
Secret: Is an escaped criminal.
Concept: parter in the Blakewell law firm
Traits: rational, calm, wise
Goal: Hinder Vincent in any way possible.
Secret: In love with Jonathan.