Driftwood: Hard and Soft Scenes is the first in a line of articles that highlights an aspect of a particular RPG and looks at how it can be applied to other RPGs (see Drift  in Gnomenclature). It’s also probably the title of a porn movie.
Adventures in 7th Sea use a scheme of “hard scenes” and “soft scenes.” Hard scenes are encounters that need to occur through the course of an adventure. For example, if your adventure begins with an NPC coming to a local space station to hire mercenaries (i.e. the PCs) to keep her cargo safe en route to the core worlds, then the opening scene in the space station cantina is a hard scene, as would boarding the NPC’s ship to meet her crew.
A soft scene is an optional encounter that adds spice to the adventure but can easily be dropped without losing the adventure’s integrity. Continuing the above analogy, a barfight between the PCs and an old rival might be a soft point, since it has nothing to do with the current adventure.
I find hard and soft scenes very useful in convention games when I need to watch the clock. Having enough soft scenes enables me to adjust the adventure to finish on time without the players feeling like they missed key scenes or I rushed to the end.
I also find them useful in my regular home campaigns. Building soft scenes into my session notes enables me to end the session where I want the cliffhanger or resolution to be. It doesn’t always work, but since hard scenes tend to be adequate stopping points I can usually end on one of them.
Some things to consider when using hard and soft scenes:
- The mix of hard and soft scenes is an art, not a science, but you should try to design your hard scenes such that if you only ran the hard scenes that you’ve planned for a particular session, then you’d end pretty early. If it takes the majority of the session to run your hard scenes, then even one soft scene could upset the balance.
- The designation of “hard scene” and “soft scene” is internal. As far as your players are concerned, every scene is integral and the stakes are just as high.
- Don’t penalize your players if you have to forego soft scenes. If they would have gained a needed advantage (a special item, extra experience points) then find another way to put it in their hands (or, in the case of experience, hand them the points anyway).
- The inclusion or exclusion of soft scenes is not just a matter of time. Soft scenes are also designed to adjust the flow of your campaign. Sometimes the players could use a scene to blow off steam after an intense hard scene, or the excitement of getting to the climax of the adventure is such that you don’t want to slow it down with a soft scene or two just to stretch the adventure.
- Hard scenes and soft scenes can sometimes switch places based on player actions. Don’t be afraid to edit out a hard scene if it no longer seems essential and don’t skip a soft scene that suddenly becomes critical.
- There are no wasted soft scenes; if you don’t use them, hold them for another session.
I’ve found hard and soft scenes very useful; how about you? Do you utilize this technique and, if so, how well does it work? Do you find yourself trying to fit in all the soft scenes anyway? Is it easy to determine what scenes are “hard” and “soft” based on your GMing style?