Kumbayah

There’s a peculiar, recently coined term that’s been floating around the New England theater LARPing community.

I’m going to call it “kumbayah,” and it means something roughly along the lines of “putting aside characters’ differences to solve problems in LARP.”

“Kumbayahing” is not the popular way to refer to this phenomenon. There’s another name, but I’m not going to repeat it here.

The popular term is named for my alma-mater, which you would think would be a point of pride for me- I certainly do like to think that my university plays a large role in this hobby of mine. But the term has a distinct negative connotation, which makes it mildly insulting. And more importantly, I really don’t believe the phenomenon it describes is particularly prevalent among my school’s fellow alumni or its current student body. Certainly not more so than among the other universities in our community. (Case in point- someone recently claimed a LARP underwent this phenomenon, and I was the only alum of my school present.)

Everything I’ve ever learned in linguistics (which was one of my majors, incidentally) is telling me that refusing to use the popular term here is both stupid and wrong. Stupid because the term is already common enough that me refusing to say it is unlikely to make a difference, and wrong because linguistics ought to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

Except I also know from linguistics classes that using the term is what gives it power as a word, and I have a small number of readers outside of the New England theater community who have never heard it before and I’m not keen to make the term universal.

Though it might bring more recognition to my school among boffer LARPers in New England and theater LARPers all over the US and even the world. …Ok, tough call.

Either way, for now I’m going to coin my own term and those of you who know exactly what I’m talking about can treat this as code for it.

(I chose “kumbayah” thanks to this excerpt from wikipedia: “The song was originally associated with human and spiritual unity, closeness and compassion, and it still is, but more recently it is also cited or alluded to in satirical or cynical ways which suggest false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature.”)

It’s a verb. (A transitive verb, actually.) As in “to kumbaya a LARP.” A couple sample sentences:

“They kumbayahed that LARP.”

“The most recent run of that LARP was completely kumbayahed.”

I’m not entirely certain about the meaning, because like any (relatively) new term that describes something abstract (like a phenomenon in LARPing behavior) it doesn’t have a set definition. There’s no LARPing authority to define the term in any official publication, and people disagree on what it means, and what it implies. All I can do is try to describe the impressions I’ve gotten from it. And welcome others to share their own impressions.

Kumbayahing a LARP is something players do during a LARP’s run.  It’s likely contrary to what GMs/writers expected or even intended. It drains the conflict from a LARP, and the biggest problems get solved very quickly, either in favor of everyone present or in favor of whichever side has the superior resources and possibly causes smaller goals to be dropped.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Let’s say you have a fantasy LARP in which a demon is going to show up and consume the world. Odds are, the people who are in favor of this are either the very small minority, or else non-existent. Only a few characters start the game knowing about the threat, and only a few know how to stop it. It requires getting ahold of the MacGuffin (Big Important Holy Relic) and collecting various specified widgets (little objects, maybe candles and herbs and newt eyes, or golden coins.) Characters don’t start out knowing who to trust- maybe there are secret cultists of the demons around? And there are various people who, for their own selfish reasons, want to keep the MacGuffin and widgets for themselves- for their monetary values, or to use in their own rituals.

So the people who want to stop the demon start telling everyone “if we don’t get the MacGuffin and the widgets and do this ritual with them, the demon will consume the world.” Then everyone gets together, pools all of their resources and items, and performs the ritual. It’s easy and quick, and leaves everyone with little to nothing to do for the remainder of the LARP, because no one is trying to withhold their MacGuffin or widgets, and no one is trying to kill the ritualists anymore.

I’ve spotted a number of factors that often contribute- some LARPs contain one, or some, or all. I’ve likely missed some, so feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

The demon-plot trumps the other plots.

The thing that presents an absolute threat to everyone in the LARP and beyond (the city, the country, the world, the universe, the multi-verse… existence…) is sometimes referred to as “the bomb” or even “the bomb that’s bigger than the LARP.” (Other examples include plague-causing viruses and massive invading armies) whatever’s causing the boat to sink or spaceship to break down,  Obviously, if something is going to absolutely kill everyone, stopping it is more important to everyone than pretty much anything else. If I wanted to keep my golden widgets for myself because I like material things, but people tell me I have to give it up for the ritual to stop the demon, I’m probably going to give up the widgets. I can’t enjoy having them if I’m dead and the world has been eaten by a demon. I may not even want to demand compensation because stopping the demon is so important. So my widget-collecting plot pretty much dies, and I no longer serve as an obstacle to the ritual going off. Instead, I’m making it as easy as possible.

Good outpowers Evil.

It’s possible that there are some crazy cultists who want the demon to come. It’s possible some people want to see this world eaten because they hate this world and are planning to teleport to another world. Maybe the demon itself is wandering among the characters, in disguise, trying to regain his world-eating powers. But odds are, they’re the minority. Most theater LARPs have a large number of good guys who want to save the world, a few neutral guys (who want the world saved because that benefits them, too) and a very small minority of evil people. Once Team Good (aka Team White Hat) pools together, Team Evil (aka Team Black Hat) is grossly outpowered and outnumbered.

It’s super easy, because everyone is all working publicly together- it requires no effort to find the items they need and no one is resisting. People drop their other side plots to make sure the demon doesn’t show up- stopping the demon is paramount. The demon cultists, if there are any, don’t provide resistance because there’s a huge number of good guys who could and will shut them down as soon as they try to make a move.

Actually, this cause is particularly problem in that it’s common. I think most theater LARPers in the New England community consciously or subconsciously know that Good will likely outnumber Evil. So if you just announce to everyone present “I’m trying to stop a demon and save the world!” you’ve risked revealing yourself to the bad guys, but you’ve also identified yourself to the good guys, who will all now help and defend you. Accidentally telling the demon cultists, if there are any, that you’re one of the people who knows how to stop them, is often meant to be a risk that makes finding allies hard. But it’s not hard if telling everyone at once is likely to negate the risk.

There’s no reason to doubt the Good Guys

If someone walked up to you at a party and insisted you hand over all your gold because it’s needed for a ritual to stop a demon, you’d probably refuse and walk away. But fantasy settings often have gods and magic and demons that are proven to exist, so if someone tells you they need your gold to stop the demon, it’s perfectly plausible and verifiable.

Actually, this happens even in LARPs where magic and demons are secret. It’s not necessarily purposeful metagaming, but LARPers know they’re playing a LARP. Magic rituals to stop world-eating demons don’t seem plausible in real life, but they pop up all the time in LARPs. Players would rather give up their gold than risk being wrong and letting the world end. Besides, roleplaying finding out about magic for the first time can often be dull or even bring plots to grinding halts. Again, imagine if someone spent four hours trying to convince you to give up your gold coins to stop a demon. Even if they show you magic tricks, or scrolls with prophecies written on them, you’d probably assume it was a con or a prank. Roleplaying believing everything people say about the magic plot is just a hoax or a delusion can just be dull and frustrating.

Succeeding is satisfying!

I think this is actually why LARPs tend to have more good guys than bad guys. Good guys tend to win- it’s a more popular ending for a story. People like to feel as though they succeeded, or “won” (though, good golly do I hate it when people use the word “win” when talking about LARPs- you can’t win a LARP!- and I myself use the word “win” all the time. It’s a hard habit to break.) If you have a LARP of 20 people, 15 of whom want to save the world and 5 of who don’t, and the world gets saved, 15 walk away feeling like they “won.” If the demon eats the world, then 5 walk away feeling like they’ve “won”. Tilting the odds in favor of good guys is just using simple math to give more of your players a satisfying conclusion.

You could write more bad guys, but for one thing, it’s easier to write a bunch of good guys who could all want the same things than bad guys who all want the same thing. (Think about it-  Batman, Robin, Superman and Wonder Woman typically all want to save people, but Lex Luthor, the Joker, Poison Ivy and Catwoman usually all want different things.)

And for another thing, I think it’s typically harder to write bad guys that players can sympathize with. Sometimes, when I get cast as people who want evil things, I have trouble feeling compelled to accomplish those goals and they’re very susceptible to getting dropped. Quick example- I played a character who was part of a country that had been at war with another country and wanted to kill their very last citizen even though they were a lost orphan who knew nothing of their home. Getting revenge on this orphan, when their entire people had already been destroyed, didn’t seem terribly compelling. If I’d been given a chance to save the universe, I might have.

A save the world plot affects everyone, and any player could see their character finding it a goal worth striving for, so it’s easy for everyone to justify picking it up over goals that seem less important.

It’s worth noting that kumbayahing a LARP doesn’t only happen to LARPs that involve bombs-that-are-bigger-than-the-LARP, but any LARP that has plots that are unequal in importance. (So pretty much any LARP.)

It’s kind of unfortunate that kumbayahing a larp has such a negative reputation. Seen in a certain light, it could be considered kind of a beautiful thing- that people’s natural inclinations tend towards figuring out what the most important problem they face is and putting aside their differences to work together for a solution. (And the opposite is arguably worse- I heard someone claim that MIT LARPs sometimes have players figure out how to get what they want by just killing everyone else as fast as possible- that can also bring a LARP to a screeching halt early!) But it’s not seen that way. It’s been called “a failure mode some LARPs fall into.” It generally reduces conflict, which makes the LARP duller. I think it can even be seen as saccharine, or cowardly- people would rather join the group that’s guaranteed to win than stick with their individual goals that may fail. (That last bit might just be me projecting.)

It’s worth noting that there are other, less common, uses of the term. I think people have used it to describe a particular plot (as in “that plot got kumbayahed”.) I’ve also heard people say “that mechanic system got kumbayahed” to mean that it was a mechanic that was based around inter-character conflict that got largely underused or even ignored. That might just be a shorthand for “conflict got reduced.” And it’s related to the phenomenon that’s been called “the Rolling Ball of Good” which involves all of the good guys teaming up (instead of everyone) and deciding that defeating the bad guy is more important than their own differences.  To clarify the difference- I think kumbayahing involves everyone teaming up usually to solve a problem, whereas the Rolling Ball of Good is just the good guys.

For illustration, imagine an election in a LARP with four people running. 3 good people and one bad guy. All 3 good people really wanted the position, and they had differences of opinions on what should be done with the office.  However, two good guys dropped out of the running and backed the third good guy, channeling all of their support and votes towards the good guy. Instead of a close 4-way election, it was a two-way election with one party winning by a landslide. The two who dropped decided it was far more important to make sure the bad guy wasn’t elected

Maybe the Rolling Ball of Good is just a subset of Kumbayahing. I’m not sure.

Of course, this prompts me to wonder how does one write a LARP that isn’t prone to being kumbayahed? Hard to say, as I’m not an experienced writer. And I’ve heard experienced writers puzzle over this. I’ve heard one or two say “well, you can’t really prevent it.” Maybe not, but I have some thoughts.

-Make the bad guys outnumber the good guys.

-Make sure the good guys believe they’re possibly or even likely outnumbered.

-Give the good guys really good reasons to hate one another.

-Avoid having a Big Plot altogether.

-If people are likely to succeed at stopping the bomb, give other people reason to think it’s likely to be stopped and therefore they don’t need to personally help. For example, if I’m a greedy person who knows that the demon is very likely to be stopped, I might still not give up my gold widgets even if the good guys need them because I think the demon will be stopped either way and I might as well try to profit from this. This is particularly true if the stakes are higher. For example, I could help stop the demon, but I’d rather hope someone else will contribute their widgets to the ritual because I need mine to live.

-Consider making the bomb unclear. I played in a LARP where there were several possible ways for the population to come to ruin (demons killing everyone, a storm destroying the city) and the players had to choose which one to stop, as they could only stop one with their ritual. People argued over which was most important to stop- even once the ritual was put together, there was still a puzzle to solve.

-Have multiple ways to save the world. (I.e. Someone has to give up their MacGuffin. But why should it be me when we could use someone else’s?)

That’s all that’s coming to mind for now, but if anyone has advice, please share!

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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6 Responses to Kumbayah

  1. Chad says:

    Heh. I have -many- times played the ‘good guy’ who somehow ends up getting things turned to their own ends. And most ‘bad guys’ don’t see themselves that way, excepting certain caricature characters, or NPCs created so no PC has to be the ‘bad guy’.

    • Chad says:

      Also, I really want to stress your notion of multiple ‘good guy’ factions, all trying to do what they see as ‘the right way to solve the problem’. This is especially easy to do if you have a scenario where any ‘solution’ has a downside. Sure, you can stop the demon, but at what price? And what if you think it is a demon, but it is really a guardian spirit coming to help against the bigger thing coming from somewhere else…

  2. Ivan Zalac says:

    First of all, do you really have to have the big bomb which trumps everything else? It puts player into “succeed or fail” mode and leads to kumbayahing…

    If you do, here’s a few advices:
    – make the consequences if the plot is unsolved less drastic. End of the world is drastic. But, say, players supporting one of the two brothers in a bid for throne. Both have legitimate claims, possibly both claim the other is the evil one. Whichever way it goes, it will not be bad but it might be different in what brothers offer…
    – make the conflict not being between good and evil. How about law vs chaos? While other side might see it as tyranny vs freedom…
    – make it between player fractions – let’s say that it’s a one-shot larp, or a final larp of the campaign where it’s OK to kill a couple of characters. Let’s say there are 10 characters, and each needs a MacGuffin to survive, but there are only 5 MacGuffins around. Who gets them?

    You can also organize your larp in a different manner, to have different types of content – and with that the big plot becomes less important:
    – simulations of daily lives and jobs (e.g. in a fantasy setting: guards, priests, barkeepers etc… it can be quite detailed and engaging)
    – in-character holidays, with a program and something to do for everyone
    – in-character games, gambling, betting on the outcomes etc.
    – in-character competitions – tournaments, archery, sports, singing, etc.
    – pre-written, personal tasks and goals for each player (perhaps from their superiors?)

    Mix and match as you please 🙂

  3. Patrick B. says:

    Interesting, I haven’t heard this term yet – but I’m not larping as much as I used to!

    I’ve certainly seen things like this happen in games, but some games definitely have worked counters into them. For instance, having good guys be the rarity can work. Or you know, the bad guys lying about being the good guys. I’ve used that technique before as well. As long as truth serum/magic is rare/expensive, evil can still flourish.

    I think my favorite trick would be to not have their be an obvious evil at all. I can think of a few games where the good guys had no prior warning at all that there was evil running around – the good guys were all just divided about a variety of political issues.

    Finally – I’ve seen some very fun instances where the neutrals/good guys decided to stick to their player character and simply would not go along with the “BUT WE MUST” attitude of the other players.

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