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.
* 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 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) https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/mar/article/view/1033/2037 if you’re interested in reading some hardcore academic talk on this topic
16 thoughts on “Ch’ihónít’i and Imperfection”
This is a great insight! Two questions:
1. Do you think Luke & Crew would consider scripting an imperfection? (I’m, guessing the Bakers thought Seize by Force was, or they would not have revised it.)
2. “Murphy’s Rules-style math exploits that demand fictional positioning actually fucking matter.” Would you be able to give me some examples of this?
Mark Delsing no idea on 1. That’s my take.
2: Oh dumb shit like putting sacks inside of sacks inside of sacks. Or weapons that have objectively worse stats and nobody takes ’em because nobody gets beyond “I roll to hit.” Yeahhhh good luck with that halberd in this tiny corridor.
Neither of which are the key to any particular game’s “greatness” that I can think of off the top of my head. But that’s the essence of a Murphy’s Rule.
I think there were things in Exalted that jump out at me like this. I don’t know why I think that. It’s at the back of my head.
Or maybe like…oh okay. In Urban Shadows the Wizard has a power-up move. It’s very simple, just roll it and get some hold to blow on magic. There’s no upper limit on how often you can do it nor how long it might take. So you have to talk about what it costs, time and materials wise, to power up. Maybe it’s truly nothing, and the counterbalance is the chance of rolling a miss! Maybe it’s time. Maybe it involves total quiet, and anything less than that requires you Keep Your Cool. But it introduces an interesting conversation about just what the Wizard’s jam is all about. US is full of that stuff, starting from “Let It Out” and going forward.
Mark Delsing better: ultra-effective combos in Champions/Hero type games, yeah? If you just math it out you can probably build completely “broken” effects. But then you absolutely must fictionally position their utility and effect, and in the course of that discussion the “broken” effect makes perfect sense. But the fact that you can math stuff out like that in Champions is part of its appeal, I think.
And then that mandatory discussion of effects’ fictional position becomes a Champions selling point.
You had me at “Champions/Hero type games”.
Fascinating. It’s a great point. I think that’s exactly why I love Saga of the Icelanders so much. The initial frustration when we figured some basic moves could not be used towards NPCs ; then realizing this glaring void in the design – for all its faults – actually made you target and interact with PCs so much more.
Linguist-me saw the title and immediately was like “Why is Paul talking about Navajo is this gonna be about minority and endangered languages oooooh oh wait no it’s…” and then it turned out to be great anyway, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I.e. thanks for writing this.
JC Nau right? I was thinking about SotI as well. You can’t talk sense to NPCs!
Mark Delsing re BWHQ considering scripting an imperfection. You’d have to ask them, BUT there’s been many an occasion when they’ve flat out stated that Fight! Doesn’t work without scripting.
I’ve tried other games which use Social combat and I despise them. I don’t even like Mouse Guard social combat. DoW, however, I love to death. It’s the scripting PLUS the RP cue built into the different available actions to script
Man, I love you RPG nerds! Great Post Paul Beakley!
I agree with your contention that imperfection in a game is a “fruitful void” into which players insert themselves. There is no perfect game, and imperfections/incompleteness/unclarities in a game must be bolstered by a play group with its own spirit for the game to come alive.
Art lives in those imperfections. That’s important. And the designer can keep it that way by not explaining them.