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December 5, 2012

The Maltese Falcon

Hooks and character motivations are powerful things.  I want to use The Maltese Falcon to describe the difference, since that's what it's about.

This post has spoilers for an 82 year old story.  
Go watch or read The Maltese Falcon if you haven't -- it's short and won't take long -- then come back!

A lot of GMs use cliched adventure game tropes such as fetch quests, bug hunts, boss fights, dungeon crawls, matryoshka doll quests, and isolation scenarios.  These cliches are great!

Wait, what?

I said those cliches are great.  They're used to death because they work.  But the problem of a good tool is that the tool often substitutes for the craft.  Kicking a story off with a cliche like "hired for a shady job" is fine because it's a great, time-tested tool for getting straight to the action.  It's not a strong hook on its own, but with some craft, it can be made into one.  A solid adventure fiction trope is not a good plot hook like a $200 Le Crueset pot isn't beef bourguignon. And here's where we tie back into The Maltese Falcon:

SAM SPADE:  We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy.  We believed your two hundred dollars.
SAM SPADE:  I mean, that you had paid us more than if you were telling the truth... and enough more to make it all right.

Nobody accuses Hammett of using the cliched trope of the mysterious figure hiring the protagonist for a job that's more than it seems, but that's exactly what starts the story of The Maltese Falcon.  This is the premise that kicks off Dracula and count-less (ha!) other classic suspense stories.  Ultimately in these stories, the initial hook -- the offer of money for work -- is used for juxtaposition:  Work for hire is so mundane to most readers/viewers/players that the events that follow from this simple transaction seem more dramatic by comparison.  Sometimes it's even the moral of the story:  Greed is a trap.

The initial hook is just the first hook, but in any story, it's the most important.  The rest of the hooks are like the current of a river, pulling the protagonists along.  Sam Spade's next hook is that his partner, Archer, is murdered.  I'll come back to this, but this is a character hook.  Watch as I go along how story hooks and character hooks interact to form a rich narrative.

What other hooks come up?  Here are a few!

  • The police are investigating the death of the man who supposedly just killed his partner, so Spade has to investigate too or else leave his fate up to them.  
  • Then a mysterious but feeble stranger, Joel Cairo, visits Spade, searches his place at gunpoint, and Spade senses that he and O'Shaughnessy are tied up in the same business.  Cairo offers him $5,000.
  • Then Gutman pressures Spade into getting the bird, drugging and knocking him out in the process.  
  • Then a man literally dies on Spade's floor with the Maltese falcon in his hands.  
  • Etc. 

These are internal story hooks:  They're internal because they happen in a logical and progressive sequence between the initial hook and the conclusion.  They're story hooks because they originate from the story itself, event following event in the believable course of the other characters' schemes.

None of these other hooks directly connect to Sam Spade's character's personality, internal motivations or history.  The only one that does that is the death of Archer.  Sam Spade's motivation is just to get justice for his partner's death, and he digs himself deep into this traitorous gang of thieves with a series of dangerous bluffs to do so.  Sam Spade is not a noble man -- he's even sleeping with Archer's wife.  His real motives are more complex than that:  There's his guilt over the affair (when Iva suggests he murdered her husband to be with her, he throws her out of his office and broods), his survivor's guilt, his friendship and history with Archer, and his moral compass that somehow resists getting knocked out of alignment by the twisted scheme he gets drawn into.

At the end of the story, Sam calls the cops to arrest Brigid (if that's her real name).  This act stands out because the middle of the story -- after Archer's death and up to that point -- internal story hooks make you think Sam could be motivated by lots of other things.  But he's not.  In the end, he proves he's not after their money, afraid of their feeble threats, or weak to Brigid's wiles. Every time they try to seduce, threaten or bribe him, it's not a hook but a clue to him.

If it were an RPG, Sam's player would see all these hooks and feel like he should probably be motivated by them.  The GM would have to communicate clearly, out-of-character that he knows that Sam is motivated by guilt to seek justice, not greed for money, fear of threats or lust for Brigid's seduction; and that the threats, offers and seductions that happen are designed to be more clues than hooks.

The Maltese Falcon would be hard to run as an RPG because some of the events of the story follow from Sam making wild, unpredictable gambles to learn more about the stable of suspects who could have killed Archer.  The GM would have to be mindful enough to keep gradually raising the stakes (see the increasing stakes in the bullet list of hooks, above).  Spade lies his way into the conspiracy itself, apparently agreeing to get the Falcon for various parties for money, fear, or lust.  If I were tor run The Maltese Falcon as an RPG I would...
  • Build the stats for a stable of NPCs with stats based on the kind of pressure they can exert -- trickery, threats, bribery, and seduction.  Make them all very good at telling lies so that the protagonist doesn't trust what they say until he believes they have no reason to lie (see trust tracker, below).
  • Write out the events of the backstory in great detail, in sequential order from "the Russian" getting the Falcon all the way up to Archer and Thrusby's deaths.  Refer to it all the time!
  • Write out the schemes of each NPC, including the lawmen.  Write out what each will try to accomplish if his schemes are not foiled.  They have contradictory schemes, so also write out how things will go if the protagonist doesn't interfere.
  • Write a list of clues (such as the name of the ship, newspaper clipping, type of revolver, etc.) and an order to present them in.
  • Build a list of example NPC actions to manipulate the protagonist increasing in stakes -- $200 -> an offer of $5000 -> $10,000 in hand; a feeble man with a little gun -> a big man with a big gun, -> a drugging and beating; etc.)
  • Build a trust tracker.  Each NPC trusts that his or her pressure on the protagonist is working more and more as the story goes on.  Each time the protagonist bluffs like it's working, advance the tracker.  The NPCs will divulge more information the more they trust that the protagonist has been pressured sufficiently.  Make a note on the tracker what information is divulged when.  The other NPCs point toward Brigid as far more cold blooded than she comes across, until she eventually reveals her crime in an attempt to seduce the protagonist into a "we're in this together" ploy.  I think two steps per NPC for each of Cairo, Brigid, and Gutman is enough.  That's a maximum of six revelations.


  1. Considering goals for immersion, what do you think is the best way to emphasize the difference between a plot-hook and a clue?

  2. "Considering goals for immersion" I would still bring it up out of character.

    See, it's very hard to really act it out over the gaming table to block that desperation and scheming deceit that happens in the movie; and you don't get the perspective and internal monologue you get in the book.

    If you absolutely must convey it in character only -- say you're LARPing an intense scene and don't plan to stop time like you can in tabletop -- you might just have to ham it up and overact on the sleaze and desperation. This is how Peter Lorre does it in the famous Bogart film version. This is the $5,000 offer scene. Given the excellent acting and the way he pulls off the ambush, appearing sleazy and desperate, you couldn't mistake it for a real "hook" that would actually motivate Spade: See if you can notice the nonverbal cues:

    Lack of eye contact from Cairo before the ambush

    Figity behavior from Cairo before the ambush

    Lipstick on a pig -- Cairo is clearly tired and rumpled but immaculately dressed

    Desperate, rising voice after the ambush

    Second guessing -- moving from seated to standing

    Submission -- allowing himself to be forced back by Spade's forceful advance

    Hesitation -- does not fire when Spade stands up

    Now try to do all that in a tabletop game without rolling dice or speaking out of character! I mean, you probably can but it's not easy!

    1. Also, Lorre didn't come up with all that now-world-famous blocking extemporaneously. In a film there's a screenwriter and director who tell you what to do. They spend time thinking of what motions and expressions convey the intended mood for the character and guide the actor; and Lorre is -- frankly -- way better an actor than any LARPer I've ever met.