- Gnome Stew - http://www.gnomestew.com -

Driftwood: Hard and Soft Scenes

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On May 3, 2011 @ 12:01 am In GMing Advice | 12 Comments

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?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Driftwood: Hard and Soft Scenes"

#1 Comment By jaapdegoede On May 3, 2011 @ 1:22 am

Good distinction! I’ve been making the distinction myself for many years now, usually calling soft scenes “fillers” or “optionals”, but soft and hard are probably better names.

Making the difference between the two explicit is very helpful.

#2 Comment By EgoPoisoning On May 3, 2011 @ 4:08 am

This is a very interesting approach to running a story without being too caught up in ensuring players toe your plot line every step of the way.

However, I still don’t feel I have a good sense of how I ascertain a soft scene; especially because you stress that players shouldn’t be punished for skipping one, and should get any information or benefit that would crop up in a soft scene even if they miss it.

That seems to create a third category: plot (or maybe mechanical) critical items and information that aren’t communicated in a plot-critical scene. And the existence of this third category seems to increase the work presented by soft scenes significantly beyond what I, as a DM, would see if I just ran all hard scenes.

#3 Comment By XonImmortal On May 3, 2011 @ 6:28 am

Looking back, some of the most tedious games I have been in have not differentiated between hoard and soft scenes. Soft scenes were as mandatory as hard scenes, and it was difficult for the players to tell which type it was.

I tend to throw off a lot of hints as to soft scenes that are available, as in “things you can do in town” sort of things. If the players want to explore the setting a little more, for a bit more flavor, they can take advantage of them. If not, that’s all well and good too. No essential information should be given in a soft scene, unless the players do very well (i.e., showing extra respect or compassion to the isolated old woman in the middle of the woods might lead to a reminiscence of the time she was romantically involved with the grandfather of the current lord of the area).

I think this goes back to railroading. If you railroad your players into soft scenes, then you need to make them hard scenes. Otherwise, you’re just wasting their time.

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 3, 2011 @ 7:30 am

Are there a lot of space stations in 7th Sea? :-P

#5 Comment By evil On May 3, 2011 @ 8:03 am

I haven’t had the chance to do this much because my worlds tend to be sandbox style games. Hence, every scene would fall into the category of soft scene because the players determine which areas and activities they want to try.

I can see it being beneficial in a linear game, though. The key issue would be just what XonImmortal brought up. The soft scenes cannot be as important or as numerous as your hard scenes.

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 3, 2011 @ 8:08 am

@Martin Ralya – Possibly, but the line ended before they could get there (seriously, the later supplements were less “swashbuckling fantasy” and more “Cthulhu tech”).

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 3, 2011 @ 8:13 am

@EgoPoisoning – In D&D-type games, soft scenes award XP and useful stuff that help the PCs fight the Big Bad. If you were expecting the PCs to be 4th level but you had to cut a couple of soft scenes so they fall short, level them anyway.

Also, some soft scenes may reinforce some information or offer a second chance at a clue. If your PCs miss these opportunities because you had to drop a scene, you might want to give the info to them some other way.

#8 Comment By recursive.faults On May 3, 2011 @ 9:15 am

To me, the concept of Soft and Hard scenes are what Savage Worlds call Plot Points. Simple enough, Plot point campaigns have tons of tiny little adventures or small hooks and some are designated Plot Points. That is, they are the actual core adventure. The rest are there to fill in as you like.

Soft scenes are probably the most important scene to me as a GM. The reason being this: Soft scenes are where the players drive the story, hard scenes are when the GM drives the story. That’s a generalization, but I think it holds up.

Soft scenes can be really hard too since it asks for a lot more improvisation from the GM, but then, that’s the game. There’s no reason that what started off as a red herring soft scene couldn’t develop it’s way into it’s own mini-adventure to lead them right back to the same hard scene.

The downside to all of that is the reward mechanics. Some games reward you for surviving the world, not for interacting with it. I’d much rather reward players by saying something like, “You guys were amazing today, so you get X, Y and Z.” Instead of saying, “Ok, you killed 1,037 goblins, survived a CR6 trap… so you get blah XP and 1 million copper, 500k silver, and 456 tapestries that are masterfully embroidered.”

Thats a hard sell for some groups and some game systems, but in my experience the best games I have ever played broke those conventions and the games were the richest I’ve ever had.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On May 4, 2011 @ 11:55 am

Absolutely on the button as far as convention games go.

Last year I used a rather extreme version of this in a modern-day “Delta Green” game that began from the simple need to have *something* for the rapidly approaching date and a brain that resolutely refused to gel any of the ideas I’d had into a concrete adventure.

I came up with the notion of a SAN sucker, that is, an adventure where everything but the end scene would present the illusion of physical danger while in actual fact focusing on nickle-and-diming the characters’ SAN from under them in a series of easily-escaped scenes, so that when they reached the final scene they would be in serious danger of madness.

These scenes were descriptive, and as horrible as I could make them, conceived to be printed on index cards so they could be riffled and drawn from at random (though a printer failure at exactly the wrong time meant that I actually presented the game using my laptop to scroll through my notes). Some scenes were added that were infinite repeaters – encounters that could be tweaked on-the-fly to change them up without the need to write them up as individual encounters.

I decided on the key scenes that I wanted the players to experience, and the rest were “soft” in your terminology, to be used as time allowed.

It worked extremely well indeed, and I recommend others try the same idea.

#10 Comment By BishopOfBattle On May 6, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

@EgoPoisoning – Others may be different, but I typically use my “Soft Scenes” (I would call them Optional Scenes) as filler. They don’t typically offer up additional rewards or info (or at least not extreme or necessary ones).

Instead they tend to be scenes to, as Walt described, pad length (or be easily removed to reduce length) and to give the world more depth. For instance, in my Shadowrun campaign the players might be going after some local gangs. I would have an optional scene where one of their attacks gets complicated by police showing up in the middle of the action as part of a crack down on street violence (this could also be described as an “Optional Modification” to an existing Hard Scene, sort of blurring the line between the two even more.

The optoinal scene gives the world extra depth, that the only things going on in the world aren’t just what is explicitely going on with the runners. It also gives me ways to adjust the difficulty. If the party is having a cake walk, I can increase the difficulty by having a new foe show up near the end of the encounter and be able to focus mainly on them. Alternately, if the dice gods aren’t with them that night (or maybe I messed up in my encounter balance design) they could show up early and distract the team’s enemies and give them a chance to escape.

#11 Comment By Astronut On May 7, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

Given my often tight schedules for games (I play evenings in a pub and often only get 2 1/2 hours), this is invaluable advice – thanks!

On the subject of experience awards: if you use a system that has both experience and action/plot point systems (such as Savage Worlds), you could award experience for hard scenes, action points for soft…

#12 Pingback By Spes Magna Games » Lots of RPG Links On May 15, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

[...] Driftwood: Hard and Soft Scenes by Walt Ciechanowski [...]


Article printed from Gnome Stew: http://www.gnomestew.com

URL to article: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/driftwood-hard-and-soft-scenes/

All articles copyright by their individual authors. All rights reserved.