Tacit Knowledge and Negotiation

From wikipedia, Tacit Knowledge is

difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing

The fact that a lot of expertise is tied up in tacit knowledge is a problem for knowledge management. KM has corporate connotations but it’s really to do with managing knowledge on an organisational level.

What has this got to do with roleplaying? Just about everything. Every game a GM runs, every character a player players, suffers from the same issue: the GM or player knows more about the game and the characters than the other players ever will. We have plenty of tricks to make it easier to make tacit knowledge explicit, for example:

  • good character sheets
  • props (miniatures, maps)
  • music and other atmospheric effects

In Apocalypse World Vincent Baker tells us something that we already know: roleplaying is a conversation between players (including the GM), and it goes back and forth in the exploration of the shared world. In some cases that conversation is a negotiation, too. Most games build in the flexibility for PCs to turn their hand to any task; skills represent a breadth of function, attributes can be used where no skill applies (or exists), and the GM almost always has a scale to tune the difficulty of the task.

I think players value this very highly. The ability to loosely define the character initially and then negotiate capability in play takes the cognitive burden away from the player at character creation.

This means the needs of explicit, crunchy systems like D&D do not sit well with the tacit nature of character. Crunchy systems allow players to match their character to a particular task, and if that task isn’t well defined (as a lot of games aren’t at the start) you may be better off with a simpler system. That’s what I prefer, anyway.1

Negotiation vs. Mother-may-I

Of all the roleplaying buzzwords and phrases the roleplaying theory scene has spawned Mother May I2 is the one I care the least for, mainly for the relationship between player and GM that it implies. That doesn’t make it wrong, just rather obnoxious.

In the MMI style, players need constant approval for attempting tasks, because the player lacks complete information to make an informed (and usually tactical) decision. Range is an example: say a player wants to use their bow to shoot someone, but lacking a map that explicitly shows the distance between character and their target, the player must ask the GM for permission to be within range of their enemy.

The problem we have when accusing a playstyle of MMI is that it suggests the game world can be presented entirely objectively. Since the GM’s world is tacit knowledge, it can’t. The example above would ameliorate the range issues with a hex grid, an apply a granular system; and in doing so, places a whole load of restrictions (and cognitive burden) on the players that maybe they would prefer not to have.

Say Yes Or Roll

I don’t know the origin of Say Yes or Roll The Dice. Robin Laws mentioned it in a See Page XX article many years ago. Vincent Baker says Roll the Dice or Say Yes in (in that order) in Dogs in the Vineyard.

The point of Say Yes or Roll is not to prevent the GM from screwing the players over; it’s to sort the interesting outcomes from the routine. Most of us know to only make players roll the dice if there’s something at stake (and yet we still make them roll one too many times, even with all this experience).

But let’s go back to the fear3 that the GM is trying to screw the players, which is the same fear that causes people to use MMI like a dirty word. Can Roll or Say Yes be an insurance scheme that lets players get what they want (a bit like Burning Wheel’s BIT System)?

If it’s incumbent on the GM to either say yes or force the players to roll the dice, it implies two things:

  1. The GM can’t just shut the players down and say no.
  2. In order for the GM to say yes, the players have to ask first.

The first point is pretty obvious and should be high on our mental list of “what makes a good GM”. All bets are off if the players are just asking for something absurd of course (the degenerate case), but then the GM should also be empowered to say “don’t be a dick”.

The second point is where I’m driving to in this little essay: in all games it’s implied that the players can negotiate with the GM in the course of play, but I can’t think of many that say explicitly that the player should plan on negotiating with the GM. That’s another piece of roleplaying tacit knowledge; we all do it, and yet we don’t talk about how we go about doing it.

I think it’s important, particularly for games where the initial definition of character is loose. In WaRP (my current RPG obsession) you start with only three traits. There’s no way you can describe the entire range of skill and experience represented by the Central Trait from the get-go; and why should you? Roleplaying is best when it’s show, don’t tell.

Per the WaRP SRD the assignment of bonus and penalty dice is based on GM judgement (page 8) and that’s fine. Also, Traits need operational boundaries, else the trait become applicable in all situations and the character turns into a Mary-Sue. Still, saying up front to players that they’re free to explore the boundaries of their Traits in play and to ask for bonus dice when they feel they deserve them is a good, proactive step.

So, is MMI inevitable if negotiation over traits happens? Probably. There’s no way around the fact that the GM is granting the player permission to roll extra dice. On the other hand, a negotiation is active, whereas waiting for permission is passive.

Since Traits are purposely broad and include a range of behaviours, it’s fair to assume that if the character wants to complete an action they will remove all obstacles that make the action impossible. In the “am I in range?” example the distance between the shooter and target isn’t a function of the GM’s mental map, but a function of the character’s expertise. They’ll move closer, or take the shot from further away and accept the penalty of doing so. It’s the player’s prerogative to say “I think my character can do this, so I am taking this action”. At the same time the GM will set conditions, like “if you do this, it will take time” or “doing this puts you in harm’s way”.

If the GM starts setting conditions like that, they’re also asking “are you sure you want to do that?” Just as the player is free to act the GM is free to impose a heavy cost on taking the action, and the player can then change their mind if they want to take less (or maybe more) risk. That’s the negotiation, and regardless of outcome, or whether the character took the action in the end, it’s the player’s choice.

The workflow for negotiation in WaRP should look like this4:

  1. GM frames the scene (giving additional details if the player needs it)
  2. Player says
    1. what action they want to take
    2. what Trait applies
    3. what other advantages they might have
    4. the desired outcome
  3. GM decides whether to roll the dice or just say yes. If rolling the dice is needed, decide
    1. If the Trait applies (use the Trait dice), partially applies (just grant a bonus die), or doesn’t apply (just roll 2 dice).
    2. If there are any bonuses or penalties to completing based on relative advantage / disadvantage
    3. If there’s any kind of delay
    4. If there’s a consequence of taking the action that will happen (either regardless of success/failure, or due to failure)
  4. Player either re-negotiates (go to step 2), takes the offer (roll), or backs off (do something else).

Perhaps this is just MMI dressed up in new clothes, but the key point is this: players should feel confident to talk about their characters, and the GM should listen to them.


  1. But if you’re going for a crunchy system, there’s an argument that you should be min/maxing all the way. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

2. Whitehall Paraindustries’ article is a reasonable definition that isn’t conflated with indie RPG terminology, but there are other examples, e.g. this one [RPGnet] discusses MMI in the context of D&D.

  1. Honestly, are players really afraid that the GM is going to shaft them? There seems to be a lot of paranoia around game design these days.

  2. I’ve conveniently ignored the fact that WaRP has disproportionately detailed rules for fighting, including range tables. I’m inclined to take the pruning shears to those.

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  • The tacit knowledge model seems really good for this sort of thing. One feature of it which you haven’t really gone into here is that decisions don’t stand in isolation. Sure, the very first time a player negotiates over a particular action in might feel a lot like “Mother May I?”. But over time precedents can build up. Given an understanding that the GM’s role is not an adversarial one as such there’s nothing wrong with a player making a case for something they feel their character should be able to do based on previous incidents where they did something similar.

    GM: “Seriously? There’s no way you can shoot a 2m exhaust port with a proton torpedo.”
    Player: “I used to bull’s-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two meters.”

    • I wouldn’t call tacit in-game knowledge a “model” so much as a postulate, but that’s splitting hairs.

      Yes, I agree that the decisions don’t stand in isolation. However the critics who like to use MMI to deride a style of play that’s… probably the default among gamers I know… those critics actually oppose the behaviour itself. Storygamers might consider this iterative gathering of information a bad habit (that can damage your brain irreversably) and the wargaming simulationist types will just despair at the lack of an objective environment to base their decision making on.

      I think they have a point, in that you want to write and run games to encourage certain kinds of behaviour in roleplayers. Rewarding players who build on precedent and become more proactive as a result is a good goal for me. I think it’s something our wider gaming circle expects as a norm, and it makes logical sense.

      The example is interesting though because Luke’s anecdote isn’t asking for permission, it’s proactive bidding for advantage based on a piece of previously unknown but plausible info. But actually it has no in-play precedent, if we’re copying the movie, just the tacit knowledge Luke’s player has.