Ch’ihónít’i and Imperfection

You’ve probably heard this one before: every authentic Navajo blanket (or “rug” as they’re frequently called but that’s not what they are) has a small imperfection — the ch’ihónít’i, “way out” or “spirit line,” depending — sewn deliberately into it. There are two explanations, both of which are true as I understand them, depending on context (1):

* An acknowledgement that only God is perfect, which also is an idea present around the world: Greek sculptures, Islamic art, Persian rugs, Orthodox Jewish houses, you name it.

* As a path for the weaver’s spirit, which they’ve imbued into the blanket during its creation, to leave the work so it isn’t sullied by the blanket’s sale and use.

I’ve been thinking about those ideas for a while now, especially related to some crippling perfectionist tendencies I bring to my own creative work — specifically, writing and running games.

Something I ran into when I was studying music history and theory in college, over and over again, was this thing where a technical imperfection in a work was the thing that took it from good to great. Later on, retroactively, theorists would just integrate the imperfection into their larger understanding of the form, and the next generation of creators would look for ways to violate the “rules.” The first time anyone heard a diminished 7th, I’m sure there were squints and cries of horror, right? Oh god that noise!

So my theory is this: it’s the imperfection that makes something great. It is, in a very real way, a “fruitful void” into which the players project themselves but beyond an at-the-table kind of way.


* For me, the big imperfection in Burning Wheel that’s also key to its greatness is the scripted conflicts. They’re slow, they’re fussy, they’re procedurally challenging to master, and they take you right out of your character’s experience. They’re also one of the game’s (many) killer apps. Whenever it comes time for us to stop and script something, it creates this hiccup in our flow. It is a technical imperfection and the game wouldn’t be what it is without it. So we stop, we talk about the scripting, we move our heads into a different space. We accommodate the imperfection and therefore take a different level of ownership in it.

Maybe this is just a form of cognitive dissonance! Like, we already like this game, but there’s this part of it that’s hard/different/weird/disjointed, but we wouldn’t like a hard/different/weird/disjointed game so therefore…. and so on.

Another example:

* Apocalypse World 1E’s “seize by force.” Oh lordy was that hard to grasp. It was a huge glaring hole in the expected “this is how you hit and these are the consequences” school of violent conflict rules. So we had to adapt to it, right? Either we had to make this new weird thing fit into our head orrr, unfortunately, “fix” it via 2E’s various battle move solutions. (I’m in the minority here, I think, in that I really loved 1E’s difficulty, because it created a new space into which we could talk about what violence is really “for.”)

“Scene” long effects in games that make no effort to define a scene.

Murphy’s Rules-style math exploits that demand fictional positioning actually fucking matter.

Per-session economic refreshes in games that don’t tell you how long a session is or how often you’ll need to engage with a reward cycle.

All imperfections. All the source of what makes a game great and not merely good.

I can’t think of a single technically “perfect” game out there, of course. Some are more airtight than others. But I think nailing down the imperfection in a game is a key toward figuring out what makes it great.

I’ve also been thinking about the deliberate imperfection as an out for the creator. I’ve been so obsessed with trying to achieve technical perfection in my work that I’ve also set myself up for a very unhealthy over-investment in the work after it’s gone out into the world. I very much will need a way for my soul to exit my blanket once someone buys it and inevitably misuses it.

What are some ch’ihónít’i you’ve seen in your favorite games?

(1) if you’re interested in reading some hardcore academic talk on this topic

*Please Share* I’m a queer feminist creating diverse games. Writing at home recently has been so healing for my chronic nerve pain & I’d love to continue. If I can hit 1500 a month on my new Patreon, I can begin to support myself with ttrpg game writing!

Howdy! Came across this article today at work. The author has some interesting insights into why people are drawn to roleplaying games based on qualitative analysis (so interviews). Good stuff…and it can help you to be a better GM!

Humpocalypse Day
Session 3

I found the missing feels!

They were hiding at the intersection of psychic maelstrom and threat prep, traveling at the velocity of several hours of play time X three or four advances for each character.

By some miracle of table zeitgeist, everyone had “Weird” as a highlighted stat last night. I had thought about pushing that myself if nobody else did when they chose new stats to highlight, but three of the five did it on their own. Made it look less weird for me to just follow along and do the same for the other two players. The maelstrom was the center of attention this session so it was a good stat to push.

I’m still feeling out the tension between the blow-by-blow play that snowballing moves demands and the bigger-picture narrative-level authorship that all that delicious prep wants. It’s a good tension! But I’ve got pages of threats doodled up and I can’t really get to much of it at the pace we’re going.

Nothing super notable about the session to talk about, not really, other than the fact that I’m now definitely seeing the hooks sink in and the trappings of pure adventure game fall away a bit. The maelstrom is asking more and more pointed questions, largely emerging from my prep. The new moves folks have are prompting new and interesting angles of play, and I kind of wish they got to buy more moves! But I think every playbook is limited to like, two of their own moves, maybe one from somewhere else, then it’s just stat boosts. Which is fine, whatever, just enjoying what the moves do more than what failing missing less feels like.

I did have an unfortunate hiccup with our newest and least-experienced player, and I’m still chewing on it. (This isn’t a cry or even a request for help btw.) One of my players got fixated on very precise details about fictional positioning, which to where I was sitting felt like getting boxed into a rhetorical trap. Like, if I mentioned something about a previous scene that looked like it would preclude her plans, then that’d be the GM trying to screw the player. But she was also super-uncomfortable with framing her own scene, despite my strong encouragement to do so — because she probably felt like it was a rhetorical trap and I was just looking for a reason to NOPE her plans. It was a bummer of an impasse, emerging entirely from trust stuff I think, and not improved by some ill-considered snark on my part when we just couldn’t move on. I’m still thinking about that a little. Other than reining in my urge to be a dick, I’m not sure what else there is to be done other than continue building trust (which, yeah, my snark interfered with). Not a showstopper and we got through the session, but still. Disappointed in myself.

This feels like the halfway point, but unfortunately come December I’ve got a player or two whose schedules are gonna not allow us to play. So we need to decide whether to continue without the missing player(s) when the time comes.

EDIT: Oh, as promised, here are the custom moves I revealed in play last night:

When you first talk to the guards at the gate to Durango, roll +hard. On a hit, they let you pass but they keep an eye on you in town. On a 10+, they’re so impressed they take you to Mice to talk recruitment into the Patriots: take an XP if you meet with Mice, or +1 ongoing whenever you deal with the Patriots, because now you’ve got their number. On a miss, they see you as a total pushover: give them something valuable or things will get worse.

When you first interact with a child in town, roll +weird. On a hit, the child is actually an extrusion of the psychic maelstrom. On a 10+, the child takes you into the maelstrom with them.

Pre-Humpocalypse World
Session 3
I Wuz Wrong So Wrong

Tonight we’re getting back to our Apocalypse World game. And I’ve had time to complete my for-realsies prep.

I am a prep hater. And I’ve specifically called out conventional PbtA fronts as ehhhh I kind of don’t bother. And I usually don’t. But I wuz wrong, so wrong, probably on lack-of-time grounds that I then rationalized into a well-reasoned “argument.”

Well so I have time, now that my kid’s on a swim team and I have a lot of sitting around not doing much. And what can I say, my mind has turned toward the apocalyptic since, oh, exactly one year and a day ago.

For second session, I had kind of half-assed my way through ye olde “everyone and everything not a PC is a threat” stuff. Mostly just listed assets, figured out how to map ’em to the seven threat types. That wasn’t that interesting to me, mostly just hooking up fictional assets to GM move subsets and those kind of wear me out anyway. No, where it got very interesting for me was forcing myself through the whoooooole process. I added clocks to the “big and/or interesting” problems and started cooking up custom moves.

Jason D’Angelo has been writing a series of really thorough discussions of the AW2E text. I’ve been following on and off for a bit but his latest one ( was super revelant so I wanted to call it out. I read it the day after I doodled up my threat clocks and it was interesting! For me, the clock process is a very interesting sort of uh…guided meditation. Yeah. It’s not traditional prep-prep, you know, stats and shit. It’s more like…let’s figure out the worst case scenario, accept that that’s the worst case, put it on a shelf, and take away the ladder so I can’t get to it again. It’s interesting! It’s like tricking yourself into granting your own text authority that overrides whatever whim may come to me later. Which, as a practical matter, it probably doesn’t. Not really. But if I’m taking “be true to your prep” super-seriously, well, that’s a very neat logical/rhetorical trick.

Doing up custom moves relative to my threats drives that effect home. It turns out I’ve developed a talent for writing moves, what with my various in-progress projects and a few throwaways over the years. What’s the done thing on those, anyway? Kosher/cool/expected to share those out for everyone, or to unleash them when the fiction dictates? I’m leaning toward the big reveals. But I’m really proud of a few of them and kind of want to show off. Maybe next week I’ll show the ones that got used and keep my powder dry for the ones I didn’t.

So anyway, yeah. I started out by dreaming through the stages my worst-case scenarios might pass through, keeping in mind I’ll have to live up to that later — it’s like how a responsible parent really can’t make empty threats to their kid, you know? Then if I add a move, well, that’s a rule. A capital-r Rule! Now I can’t back out. Very interesting process.

Building custom moves into prep is also interesting to me because it seems to break the sanctity of the official moves, in a way. This is a related topic that probably deserves its own thread at some point, but the tl;dr in my head is: Given the intense struggle we designers go through to nail down a common move set that captures our genre or theme juuust right, isn’t it interesting that the source document kind of doesn’t give a shit about moves that work juuust right? It’s pretty cavalier. And, sure, in a practical sense probably either most folks don’t do custom moves or if they do, they suck. And yet the game probably doesn’t suffer even in the face of sucky moves. Meanwhile it’s teaching MCs what makes for good moves.