Don’t Go into the Basement Unarmed: Reader-mind, Writer-mind, and Role Playing Games

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When I’m reading a book and really enjoying it, I’m in my reader-mind: I’m invested in the character, I want them to do well, I don’t want them to suffer too much or lose anything too precious. I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I wish I could actually enter the story and tell the protagonist what they should do so they stop fucking things up.

In reader-mind, I’m a partisan for the main character

In writer-mind, I’m thinking more about the story as a whole. I (try to) create a character for readers to invest in, then I put them through their paces, running them ragged and making them suffer for the benefit of the story. I have them make mistakes, fail, and screw up in ways that can’t be fixed.

Hopefully, that leads to a hard-won victory that gives the reader something to celebrate. Unless the character is Ray Lilly, and that victory is pyrrhic as hell.

One of the big differences there is control. When I’m in reader-mind, the problems the character faces is wholly out of my control, and that shit can be stressful. In my writer-mind, I’m in complete control, and while I’m making life hell for that perfectly wonderful main character, I know how far I can push things. It’s up to me, and that takes a lot of the stress out of it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two perspectives a lot, mainly because of the role-playing games I’ve been playing lately.

In the old days, when I played D&D (before it became AD&D) and other games later, like The Fantasy Trip or The Morrow Project, I approached the role of GM with the writer-mind. I tried to measure the challenges without making them impossible. Hard-fought, but not impossible.

That could be a challenge, obviously, and those old-school number-crunching games sometimes made it hard to avoid a total party kill, once the scenario was committed. And I can admit it: I wasn’t a great GM.

But when I played a character, I was in reader-mind all the way. I never had the character do anything stupid or illogical, never had them take an action that might screw up their quest, whatever it was. They never rushed in without preparation. Never gave in to foolish temptation. Never trusted anyone likely to be playing the role of traitor in the story.

They never went down into the basement without grabbing a knife from the kitchen first, if you know what I mean.

As I’ve said before, rpgs are storytelling of another kind. Unlike novels or movies, they’re an oral, interactive narrative. And if you played those old-school D&D games, most of the time they were fucking terrible stories. Characters marched down halls in formation, stabbed monsters, searched for treasure, and if they survived, spent it. Often, that became the only goals: gather wealth, go up a level. “There’s a group of bandits stealing from those villagers” was nothing more than a fig leaf over the necessity to put our miniatures on the hex paper.

We made half-hearted efforts to create actual stories in the game, but frankly, we were terrible at it.

That was because the point of the game was not to tell stories, it was to hang out with our friends and make each other laugh. The game was always less important than the people we were playing it with.

However, as boring as these narratives could be, I learned a lot from them. I learned what people expect when they experienced stories with reader-mind. I learned to make the characters as smart and aware as I could.

Essentially, I learned not to have characters in my novels investigate a weird noise in the basement without first stopping for weapons in the kitchen. So to speak.

I still write with the writer-mind in place, but I try to be aware of reader-mind expectations.

Games have changed, though. The last few games our group has played required much more writer-mind perspective from the players. For example, many times our GM will say something like: “Okay. You’re in another dimension. What do you see? Describe it to me.” Everyone in the group is empowered to contribute to the setting and to design NPCs.

That’s something you can’t do if you’re stuck in reader-mind, and think the hellscape surrounding the villain’s stronghold should have a beautiful bridge across it, with napping guards and plenty of fountains for proper hydration.

I confess, that I sometimes struggle with this. I don’t want my characters to get killed every session, but I don’t want to play rpgs on EASY every time, either.

Which brings me to our last session. We’re playing a game called MASKS, which is about a team of teenage superheroes. The characters have power but they’re young and unsure of themselves. They try their best. They make mistakes. And it’s a great game. If you want me to go into details, let me know.

Briefly, here’s where things stood in the game, story-wise: the major villain we were facing was a time-traveling conqueror who, in the distant future, has become powerful enough to rule over every one. Basically, he’s a tyrant who conquered the universe, but no one knew who was really under the mask.

However, we knew he came from Earth and that, in our time, he was a regular guy. He keeps bumping back to our present to influence events, kidnap people, or just villain up the neighborhood. Basically, we were trying to unmask him and identify him, so we could beat him before he became a cosmic-level threat.

Now, since this is a comic book story (and in keeping with the theme we’re often asked to describe what we’re doing in terms of panels) it seemed very likely that the villain was either one of the player characters, or someone we knew. I thought it might be my character, who is a teenage version of Dr. Strange. His history makes him a candidate for turning evil, and when we did finally unmask the time-traveling villain in our last session, I figured there was a 50/50 chance it was my character.

And in my writer-mind, I was mentally prepared for that. It made me unhappy, because I was supposed to be in writer-mind without having the same control I do when I write fiction, but this is how it’s done and I’ve been trying to play the games as best I can.

But it wasn’t my character. It was my friend’s character, and my reader-mind was absolutely not prepared for that.

Here’s the thing about MASKS: the character classes are not defined by power/abilities. Not really. They’re defined by the kinds of stories you tell about them.

For instance, The Janus covers a hero with a demanding secret identity: they have a job, school, money troubles, an Aunt May… The game recommends power sets that work best for each class, but they’re only recommendations. You can play Peter Parker without taking bug powers.

Similarly, if you want to play The Transformed, you don’t have to be a big, strong, left-hook throwing pile of orange rocks like The Thing. But you can still role-play Thing-type stories–the fearful way people react to you, the normal life you can never return to, the whole deal–if that’s what you want.

Weeks ago, as an exercise, I sat down and wrote out the same Deathlok-style hero, with the same powers, for three different classes. Same guy. Same origin. But the changes between one class and another were like different runs by different writers on a long-running comic. It was just a change of tone and style.

One of the character classes that lets you play someone like Raven, from Teen Titans. (Her dad is a super-powerful demon who plans to invade the Earth, and the team helps her keep him at bay. But the danger is always there.) The playbook for that character class is The Doomed and it suits any hero who is the child of demons, scout for a race of alien invaders, etc.

Now you would think, logically–I mean, logically–that it would be obvious to me that a character who is called, literally, DOOMED in the game, would be a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by an evil force and turned into our deadliest enemy. You would think that.

But I never saw it coming, and here’s why:

On the character sheet for The Doomed, under the section “Advancements” (which is a bit like leveling up, except some advancements are plot beats you unlock) I could see RIGHT THERE on the page was an advancement called: “Confront your doom on your own terms; if you survive, change playbooks.”

Which is a way of saying “Your character wins over their mortal enemy and can become any hero you want them to be.”

When I saw that on the character sheet, I thought: “I can’t wait to play out that moment.” My reader-mind wanted my friend’s character to win the day. I was blinded by the expectation that he would get a happy ending. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get to play that scene.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, except to say that the games people make now are wildly superior to what we played in my junior high days in the seventies.

Also, it’s been really hard to keep my reader-mind in check when my writer-mind should be working. It’s also hard to stay in writer-mind when so much control of the narrative has been ceded to the other players. Old habits, I guess.

Even when I’m ready to put my own character through it, I’m still rooting for the rest of the team.

Randomness for 6/19

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1. Cracked makes an honest ad about the ways casual games are like crack for our brains. Video.

2. Chatbots built by Facebook engineers to negotiate with each other begin to develop their own non-human language. Time to re-watch Person of Interest.

3. Having power causes a degradation of certain mental functions.

4. M.C. Esher: Adventures in Perception: a 20 minute Dutch documentary about the way he created his work. Video.

5. Are paintings that mimic photographs more “realistic” than paintings from before photography was invented?

6. How to build a bicycle with car tires for wheels.

7. The same song played on a $100 bass, a $700 bass, and a $10,000 bass. Which sounds best? Video.

Randomness for 6/10

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1) Author Robert Jackson Bennet on raising kids who don’t give a shit about your nerd pop culture.

2) Scientists have eliminated HIV in mice using CRISPR.

3) An episode of 80’s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon with voiceover to make it seem like a real D&D session. Video.

4) A bucket of water with a camera in the bottom captures thirsty desert animals. Video.

5) My Family’s Slave. This is heartbreaking and awful.

6) How to remove unwanted shows from your Netflix algorithms. Maybe your ex cruelly favorited an Adam Sandler movie before dumping you. Maybe you didn’t think to create a separate account for yourself after a few drinks. Maybe you just have regrets.

7) Four people who were buried alive and how they got out. Spoiler: “knocking” plays a big role.

Three Reviews and a Pre-review

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I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.

LOGAN

Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.

It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.

But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:

LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.

And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.

And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.

They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.

TRANSISTOR

This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.

The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).

They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.

But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.

She gives up her life for a guy.

This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.

BOSCH

Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.

One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.

And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.

I can be a cheap date, story-wise.

Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.

IRON FIST

Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.

But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.

I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.

Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.

First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.

It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.

Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.

This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.

But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is

not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.

Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.

There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.

Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.

I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.

(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)

I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?

Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.

This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.

It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.

But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:

It’s just so disappointing.

Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.

“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”

“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”

I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.

No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.

And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:

“Where did you train?”

Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.

“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”

The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?

Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.

Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.

Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.

I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.

In fact, I’m hoping it will live up to this:

We’ll see.

State of the Self, Feb 2017

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Let’s talk about where things stand in general with me.

1. Last night I posted fiction onto my Patreon. It’s the first scene of ONE MAN, the novel I’ve been working on, and I thought my patrons deserved a sneak peak. Just my way of saying “Thank you.”

Someone immediately cancelled their pledge.

Can’t please them all, I guess.

2. My gaming group has been playing MASKS, which is a genuinely great game about teenage superheroes. For the longest time, we couldn’t settle on a team name, so I’ve been throwing out joke suggestions (The Integriteens!)

The other players have latched onto one of my jokes as the name they actually want to adopt.

It starts with a hashtag.

3. I shipped my latest revision of ONE MAN to my agent last weekend, and I feel pretty good about it. She may have additional tweaks, but maybe not. If she does, I’m not sure how long it will take me to do them, because

4. I’m sick and getting sicker. Low-grade fever. Body aches. Exhaution.

And a cough that could shatter marble. At this point, I’m coughing so hard that my vision goes fuzzy and my extremities tingle. I honestly feel close to fainting. Which sucks.

Now that I’ve gotten older, it’s common for me to suffer a lingering cough after a cold, and I mean that it lingers for months. My wife hates it, because I cough big. BIG. She tells me to see a doctor, but they never do anything except prescribe cough suppressants and try to placebo me into thinking they’re super powerful. That never works and I’m sick of going. This time, though…

5. I’m not doing too much social media right now, because HACKING. It’s too hard to focus, which is why I’m doing Lemony Snicket and PI shows on Netflix.

6. My rent just went up.

7.Buy my books.

Randomness for 1/27

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1) Gameification gone mad: China has made obedience to the State a game.

2) Thirty of the Most Important Articles by People of Color in 2016.

3) New superhero idea: the paper airplane gun. Video. Shoots 120 planes/minute. Warning: terrible music.

4) Episode one of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). Video.

5) A CIA Operative’s Nine-Step Hotel Safety Checklist.

6) To follow up on the last entry: How to Book the Safest Room in a Hotel.

7) “Chatbot lawyer” originally created to help people get out of paying unlawful parking tickets now being used to prevent evictions and will soon aid Syrian refugees.

It’s how you spend your free time: the power of small decisions

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One of my friends said something really smart on Sunday, and I thought I’d share it.

She and her partner live in Denver, and my son (who is 14) is planning to spend two weeks with them to pick their brains about Photoshop, After Effects, and a number of other programs they use. They make their living using all sorts of fancy software that I don’t know anything about, so he has a lot to learn in those two weeks.

ANYWAY. What she said, which I have to paraphrase because it was during an extended conversation, was: “What matters is how you spend your free time.”

To which I say: Yep.

Her story is that she was in college some years ago, learning software as part of her design class. I think it was Photoshop, but there was some cross-talk. Anyway, it was relatively new, and she and her friend were so fascinated by it that they spent their free time on a deep dive into the program, learning all the things it could do. In not time, the professor realized that she and her friend were more capable of teaching the software and asked them to do so. When she graduated, they offered her a teaching position.

It wasn’t because she was so good in class; it was because she was so engaged outside of it. The same is true of any kind of challenging field. If you want to be great in the arts, you have to cut out time from your daily life to practice and improve. That’s time you could be spending watching TV, going to the gym, sleeping in, playing video games, or making money.

If you click on the Tweet below, you’ll get a thread by comics writer Gail Simone on this very subject.

[Update: she deleted the whole thread. The gist was that people determined to be writers have to make the time to practice.]

I’ve tried to explain this to my son, because he acts like his great ambition is to be the best Overwatch player ever. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tempted to take away his computer games for good, even though he and I built a gaming computer for him just this past January. (Personally, I try to avoid most games because they’re addictive, and I’m vulnerable to that.) Choosing to spend all his free time playing video games is essentially choosing to be a regular joe with a joe job, and the US culture and economy squashes people like that now. If he’s going to be squashed, he ought to have the satisfaction of making art (or something!)

And what of myself? Thinking about spending down time always makes me audit myself, and I have to confess that I’ve been obsessing over Twitter and the election these past few months. It seems like my duty as a citizen to be as informed as possible, but how much of my time and energy do I REALLY need to devote to this? How much can I push off onto other citizens?

Clearly, I need to cut back and focus more on my work. The book I’m revising is complex and I need to get it to my agent so she can sell it. But Twitter is soooo tempting, almost like a video game.

And that’s the power of tiny decisions. Not the big stuff, like Where should I go to college or Should I quit my current job for that new one? No, the really important decisions are the huge clusters of tiny ones that we all make every day. Should I work on my book, or should I watch this tv show/go to the gym/hit the pub/etc?

Obviously no one can spend every spare moment of their lives writing (nor should they) but if you never choose writing over those other things that’s a clear statement of priorities.

[Added later: See also: Twelve Years from Hobbyist to Pro]

Randomness for 8/12

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1) Now that the Olympics are airing, it’s fun to look at some of the demands the IOC makes on countries bidding to host the games.

2) The best way to perform a “USB drop” hack. Technical, but interesting.

3) Saturday Evening Post covers from the DC Universe.

4) Brainstorming is a terrible way to create new ideas.

5) I don’t normally care about this sort of thing, but this mashup trailer combining The Dark Knight with Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a Batman movie I’d like to see. Video.

6) Gamer problems then and now.

7) The “Glarofon” is not a Pokemon; it’s a percussion instrument made from hand-blown glass tubes.

Not with a bang but a buy link: the rpg supplement from my just-finished Kickstarter is now ON SALE

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For writers, the huge projects that we put hours of toil and sweat and heartache into typically end when something goes on sale. That happened today.

The Fate Core supplement, titled The Way into Fate, that covers The Great Way and A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark has been sent to backers and is now available for sale on Drive Through RPG. It’s over 53K words (far more than intended) and is basically a world-building document expressed in Fate’s (deeply intuitive) game system.

Plus, there’s a 50-page adventure covering a historical incident briefly alluded to in the books. The Key/Egg section of the game covers Marley’s Farce Magic, and both sections include many story seeds for possible campaigns/adventures.

It also means my Kickstarter campaign is officially over.

The campaign that I launched in Oct, 2013 to fund books that were released one year ago, has now, with the publication of this game supplement, ended. To say this is a load off my shoulders is understating things significantly. If you’re a backer and I owe you books, check your Kickstarter messages. If you don’t have a working link, message me through Kickstarter.

And, to bury the lede, check out that final Kickstarter update for a big Twenty Palaces update.

In the meantime, if you like games and fun, pick up your copy of the game supplement here.

Randomness for 3/28

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1) The weird physiological trait that suggests a young person is prone to violence.

2) The influential and well-established psychological theory of Ego Depletion may be bunk, and scientists should be worried.

3) Volleyball or fire extinguisher?

4) An oral history of the Justice League.

5) Classical art, now available gluten-free.

6) How Alfred Hitchcock blocks a scene. Video. I’m really loving this genre of short documentaries about filmmaking techniques.

7) “The Worst Game I’ve Every Played.” Video. Bought off of Steam, this game is amazingly shoddy work.