Tag Archives: liminality

Dungeons and Dragons Ritual: “How Do You Want to do This?”

Main Piece: 

“Oh! Yeah, so ‘How do you want to do this?’ is a thing that’s been picked up since it’s been become used by Matt Mercer in Critical Role where like if a person gets a sufficiently good kill at like, say, the end of a combat, the DM will go ‘How do you want to do this?’ And then the player will describe how they eviscerate their enemies.”


A little pop culture background is necessary to understanding this folklore. After the release of the 5th edition of the table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, D&D live-play shows became a popular form of entertainment. The most famous and successful of these shows is Critical Role. This is a practice that the Dungeon Master of Critical Role, Matt Mercer, employs that others have picked up. It’s been proliferated to the point that despite not being part of any official D&D material, Dungeon Masters may say “How do you want to do this?” at the end of an encounter because they know that’s the common thing to do even if they’ve never seen the show or don’t know from where the phrase originates. My informant saw this practice as a way to get players involved with the “theatre of the mind” portion of D&D and increase “coolness.”


What’s interesting about this example is that it’s very recent and fast-moving folklore. There’s even an argument to be made that it could count as having authorship to some degree, as its origins can be traced back to a singular figure, but there’s no ownership. 

Besides the interpretation that my informant offered- that it helps increase player engagement -there’s another possible function of this phrase. It signals that combat has come to an end. Dungeons and Dragons has a signal for the beginning of combat baked into the rule set. Everyone rolls “initiative” to see in what order they take their turns. There is no instituted method to exit combat. This phrase helps bridge that awkward gap. Within the game, there is a liminal space that isn’t naturally bridged. The way this new unofficial ritual is constructed, there’s a set way that the players and the DM end combat. When that ritual is complete, the liminality has been bridged and the mode of play changes.

Limerick: “Monkey and a Baboon Sitting in the Grass”

Main Piece: 

“Uh… Here’s one. Monkey and a baboon sitting in the grass. Monkey stuck his finger up the baboon’s ass. The baboon said ‘Monkey, damn your soul! Get your finger out of my asshole!’”


My informant learned this from his step-grandfather when they were bonding as part of the joining of two families. My informant presented it as a situation where the performer of this limerick recites it to a single person in a setting where it would normally be inappropriate- for example, over the dinner table. This would provoke groans or laughs from other listeners. The reciter apparently could be called on again to tell new people the same limerick. 

When asked the meaning of this limerick, my informant responded:

“There is absolutely no meaning to this. And I would say this if it occurred to me and I was hanging around my friends and thought ‘Hey, y’all want to hear something funny?’”

Thoughts:While my informant took a nihilistic view of this limerick, this seemed mostly based on the lyrics. While the lyrics seems predominantly intended to shock and amuse, the context and audience response to this limerick points towards another purpose. The first thing that stuck out to me was that this limerick was part of an early bonding between two separate family units. This means it may serve as a benevolent version of wedding or funeral pranks. This could serve to break the tension of liminality as two families undergo a transition. I doubt that this is always the purpose of the limerick, but the interesting bisecting of the audience does make me think this is something of a welcome. According to my informant, one person- a new person -is receiving the recitation while others moan and grandpa doing his normal thing. This singles a person out as someone who now knows the limerick and welcomes them into the same group as the rest of the audience. In the situations that my informant put forward, this seems like a piece of humor that functions as a bridge over liminality. Further evidence of this interpretation is the tendency to call on the reciter to serve their role again when another new person is present. 

Harvard Graduation Tradition

Main Piece:

I: Before you graduate, you’re supposed to like streak through some part of the Yard, have sex in the library– the library sex– and pee on the Harvard statue’s foot. And then I heard there’s a fourth where you’re supposed to jump in the river, but like I don’t know…

Me: What’s the statue?

I: Pee on the statue’s foot– like it’s so gross because the statue’s foot looks a little different… and like, tourists touch it? It’s supposed to be like a lucky thing, but they don’t know that people are peeing on it! It’s so gross (laughing).

Me: What’s the statue called?

I: Oh John Harvard statue. And it’s like yellow…like it’s a different color than the rest of the statue and like people touch it (shuddering). 

Me: Do you have to do all of these things right before you graduate?

I: I think just at some point during college, like you could knock them all out freshmen year if you wanted to.


My informant is a good friend from high school. She’s a freshman at Harvard University, where she was able to attend in-person during the pandemic. She learned about this tradition through her roommate, whose brother graduated from Harvard in 2020. She says that her roommate’s brother peed on the statue and went streaking, but didn’t complete the other activities. Because of the pandemic, she has still been pretty isolated, so she hasn’t met many seniors and wouldn’t know people who performed this ritual. She tells me that she would not do this tradition. 


This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and me over the phone. We were talking about ethnic traditions before his conversation until I asked her if she knew any folklore from her school, which reminded her of this tradition.


This tradition, or ritual, of university seniors performing a series of rebellious or profane acts (from the institution’s point of view), is indicative of the liminal period. In this period of liminality, university seniors are straddling two different identities, and are close to a state of being identity-less. They are not quite university students anymore, yet they may not have acquired an “adult” job in the “real world” yet either. This liminal period can thus be filled with feelings of freedom, but also tension from being identity-less. Pranks and rebellious acts can then be a way to resolve and alleviate this stress. Streaking in public on campus, peeing on the statue of an authority figure, and having sex in a taboo place on campus can be both freeing, as students are disregarding university rules and methods of alleviating tension. 

Boarding School in New Zealand

So I went to a boarding school in New Zealand, and the boarding schools are modeled on the English boarding schools, because new Zealand is a commonwealth country, which means it’s part of England, or ruled by England basically, and New Zealand still recognizes the Queen of England as the Queen of New Zealand. And so, because New Zealand was colonized by the British, a lot of our traditions and customs are very distinctly british, and the concept of the boarding school transferred from Britain to New Zealand. And it fit in very well with the New Zealand way, because a lot of the people lived in the country, and therefore the kids would go off to boarding school when it came time to go to high school because, like myself, we lived too far away from town, and it would just be too big of a deal to go out every day. And so a lot of the customs and practices I had at my boarding school had their historic roots in England. Like for example, one which was not very nice and goes back to kind of the really tough days of English boarding schools was, I dunno if you’ve heard of the gauntlet? So my school was called Fielding Agricultural High School, and there were two boys boarding houses, the one that didn’t have windows was called Rangatani house, and then the one that did have windows was called Schoolhouse. And then the girls hostel was called Metataihee house.


Why did one of the houses not have windows?


To make the boys tough, I don’t know. And so there were elements of New Zealand that were woven in, so the names are all Maori names, but the traditions were very British. And most of the kids that went to boarding school, like in England, were the sons and daughters of farmers. And in my case my dad didn’t own the farm, so the farm payed for all of us kids to go to boarding school, as part of my dad’s package.


But the gauntlet, which was practiced in the boys’ boarding houses, it’s now banned by the way, but it was a form of punishment where, if a boy had done something wrong, they would create two lines of boys and the kid used to have to run down the middle and the kids could kick and punch him. And often they’d come out the other end, like, semi-unconscious. It was horrible. That was one of the practices, and when I was at school they still did it.


That seems like a pretty severe punishment, what would they have to do to deserve that? What kind of things would get you in that much trouble?


Maybe they got caught sealing something? Of one of their buddies? That wasn’t very common, but I’m trying to think of something that would… Something more sort of serious. And this kind of activity wasn’t something the teachers – the teachers knew about it, but – what they called the schoolmaster, they knew it went on, but they didn’t stop it. So it was kids punishing other kids, so the sorts of other things might be…I dunno maybe they just were smart, you know, mouthy? And it would be one of the preficts would decide, so if you were the equivalent of maybe a junior or a senior in American high school, like in your last two years, that’s what the preficts were. So there’d be a head boy, and a head girl, and I used to be the head girl of the boarding house, and then there’d be other preficts, and the preficts would dish out the punishments to the kids. It could be for a range of things, but if a prefict decided they’d done something, the most serious form of punishment they would call would be the gauntlet, but it only happened to the boys, not the girls.


With the girls, I’m trying to think, some of these things are coming back to me. With the girls, some of the things we would do is, the preficts… I mean one day one of the girls called me into her room and just said to me “kiss my shoes,” and I said no. And she’s like “kiss my shoes” and I said no, I’m not gonna do that. And I was a third former, and she gave me two days. And a day is a form of punishment, and one day would mean that you would have to…and the word day came from England, English boarding school, and that means a day that you cant do the stuff that you would normally do after school, you’ve gotta do like, do chores and labor so to speak. And so I’d have to weed the garden instead of being able to go downtown after school.


It would almost be like food rationing in the morning, like there would be enough pieces of toast for like one and a half slices each, and we ate all our meals with the boys in what’s called Refectory, and you’d have duties so sometimes you’d have to stay to help do the dishes.


Oh so after lights out, in the first year you slept in a dormitory with other kids, and as you got more senior you’d start sharing a room, and then eventually if you became a prefict you’d have your own room. And again that’s part of, it’s like a hierarchy system that is again very British. So after lights out, we’d have torches, flashlights, under our pillows, and we’d talk, but you couldn’t talk to loud because up the hallway was the house mistress, which was usually an unmarried woman, either younger or older, that would be in charge and if she could hear you laughing and talking… I remember we had one lady once that, she would walk in and say “who was talking” and no one would say anything, it was like you didn’t wanna snitch on who it was. And so she’d line us all up out against the hallway and make us stand for 15 minutes until someone said it was me. She would just come in and get us all up and make us stand.


And we used to do “prep,” which was two hours of study every night, from 7 til 9, which is short for preparatory, like preparatory schools, even if you didn’t have any work you’d write to family, read a book, do anything, but you had to be silent for two hours. You were not allowed to talk.


Oh! We used to sandwich beds.


What’s that?


That’s like, it’s also known as apple pie-ing a bed, where you know, you’ve got the bottom sheet which is usually a fitted sheet, and then you have a top sheet. So we’d take the top sheet and we would tuck it around so it looked like the bottom sheet and then you’d turn it in half, so you would go to get in the bed, and your feet would only go halfway down the bed, cause the top sheet’s turned in half. So you turned the sheet up like an apple pie. Oh, and we’d put salt in their bed as well.




Because that was a ritual – third formers on their first night, all the preficts would salt their bed, just because. Because they’re third formers, that means like first year.



Children or young adults attend boarding school at a transitory, liminal time in their lives. It is a time of going away from the safety and comfort of one’s family, being in a completely new environment with new people, rules, customs, social order, expectations, etc. These punishments and initiations establish a hierarchy, and a way of separating the ‘new’ kids from the ‘old’ kids, the people that are in the group versus the people that are out of it. You have to work your way to the top, you have to go through the same tortures and pranks that the people above you went through, in order to attain that status and respect that the older kids have achieved. It’s a way of keeping social order, as well as introducing new students to how things are done in this new culture.

Tree Planting Tradition

Tree Planting



My informant told me of a end-of-year tradition at her school:

“Tree planting is a tradition on campus. At the end of every year, the graduating Class plants a tree on campus.  There are some restrictions on us, but for the most part we get to choose the tree. As we live, it continues to grow and be there. One of the important parts is the spade. The ritual involves the spade, which used to be used to dig the hole. Now that the hole is usually made (since the spade is old and special), every member of the Senior Class shovels a bit of dirt to fill in the hole. The Senior Class president is the last person of the Class to put in dirt to fill in the whole, and the rising Senior Class president receives the spade from her and places the final bit of dirt into the hole. Later, people fill it in properly, but the ceremony ends with the next Senior Class president.”


My informant said, “I really like this ceremony because it provides closure to the Seniors and it connects them to the schools history, since most of the trees on campus are planted by previous classes.”


This act is a moment in a liminal space that aids the Seniors in transitioning identities from students to alumnae. Establishing their identities as alumnae by joining their tree with the others, this also helps the graduating Seniors maintain their presence on campus. Through the tree, the alumnae are connected to the school, even when they are not present. Especially because each student plays a role in planting the tree, every one put effort into it and, thus, their spirits remain at school while they are away.