Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
The following allegory is based directly on events that transpired during a play session.
There was a time when three zimby tribes coexisted in the lands upon the river Zig: the aggressive Reds, the greedy Golds, and the peace-brokering Purples. The Golds were the first to settle in the fecund mud flats to the east of the river Zig, where seasonal floods ensured that the fruit trees swelled year-round with issue. The Purples were the next to arrive, establishing their tribal compound in a nondescript clearing that was strategically adjacent to the powerful Golds. The Reds, distrusting of their strangely proportioned neighbors, built a great fortress of spiked walls and lookout huts in the jungle canopy west of the river Zig. In time, these disparate tribes were united under the Crown of the Cannibal King, and an era of uneasy peace ensued for many generations.
One day, while he dozed in his headquarters atop the tallest tree, surrounded by his most trusted guards, a strange thought entered into the Red Shaman’s head. “The Cannibal King is strong, for sure,” he thought. “But I am stronger. I could take the compound and the Crown and crush the other tribes beneath my zimby feet. I could be King.”
At the same moment, in his bed of moa feathers, immobilized beneath the weight of golden chains and baubles, cocooned in rare, exotic furs, the Gold Shaman was visited by a similar epiphany. “The Crown has many powers,” he thought. “It’s certainly the most precious artifact in the Near Shore. What exactly did the Cannibal King do to earn such riches? Shouldn’t they be mine, instead?”
The Cannibal King himself slept soundly that night. No dreams or visions visited him; the Crown, ever scheming, saw to that. This was the Crown’s burden, adding the weight of many to its wearer’s steps and thoughts.
The next morning, draped in elegant robes of state, Shaman Purple addressed her followers. “Last night, while I slept, I was visited by a warning,” she said. “The shamans of the Red and Gold tribes seek the power of the Crown. They must not succeed; it would disrupt the peace we have worked so hard to build. Although I have no desire to rule, there is only one way to ensure that the powers of the Crown are used responsibly. The only way to ensure peace in our homeland is to retaliate first. This afternoon, we lay siege to the King’s compound.”
Watchful dawn, forming a sanguine halo over Red’s tallest watchtower, illuminated a zimby massing just beyond the spike wall: Purple’s forces, the first to intrude upon the King’s compound, sent in via one of the compound’s four witch-portals. The illiterate but fanatical warriors bore missives requesting strategic alliance, readable only by the Red Shaman. In the meantime, whispers bubbled out of the fecund earth of Gold’s camp, promising greater riches for those who supported their soon-to-be-Queen. Before dawn had attained its full flush, a fat spear-thrower had arrived at Purple’s always-open gates. He was soon buried beneath a throng of greeters and well-wishers.
“My shaman!” Red’s sentinel shouted when the shadows had begun to shorten. “Another zimby column has just passed through the portal from the west! Gold’s warriors this time!”
The Red Shaman turned scarlet, but his devious, scheming brain was already working out a way to turn this to his advantage. “After all,” he mused, “if I can get Gold and Purple to throw their peons against the Cannibal King and his thugs, there will be fewer I’ll need to slaughter on my way to razing their lands and guzzling their shaman’s lifedrink.” With this plan in mind, he sent a column of his own to parley with Gold’s ambassadors. “Play nice!” he admonished, smacking them each on the lumpish skull as they filed through the gate.
When the gibbering of the warriors had faded in the distance, the shaman gathered his trusted witch doctors. “We’ll need our most devious witcheries, rituals and incantations for this one,” he snarled. “Open up the scroll library.”
From within the red mist, the Cannibal King’s consciousness bobbed gently to the surface, a seamless awakening from the sleep of an empty vessel. “My liege,” the Crown chimed sibilantly. “We have a breach. Time for another blood ritual?”
“Mmmmm…yesss…,” the King purred, running his wormlike tongue over a meshwork of stained incisors. “It has been a while since I’ve had a ritual, hasn’t it?” Pivoting his girth to upright, he emerged from the blood mist, his rolling gait reminiscent of a sated bear at the onset of ts hibernation. Fat droplets clung to his bare chest and shoulders like full-bellied ticks.
“Let’s see here,” he burbled, prodding the ritual items in the little ceremonial circle. “Ah, yes.” He ran his tongue again over his web-like teeth, stifling a belch. “The Ritual of Hunger, yesss….”
As the Cannibal King drew upon the power of the blood that roiled in his tautly rounded tick-like belly, the three shamans felt their own abdomens twist in sudden, insatiable hunger. Mindlessly, each one seized his (or her) nearest aide, distended his (or her) jaws, and devoured the unlucky zimby whole. A moment later, when their senses returned, the shamans blinked at the carnage while their surviving aides shuffled a few steps closer to the door.
“So the King has awakened,” Purple sighed. “This will be interesting.”
The joint zimby column, half-composed of Golden spear-chuckers and half of Red dagger-stabbers, was halted in its tracks, bickering. They hadn’t received orders from either shaman in hours, and there’s an old saying that a zimby without orders can’t beat a zimby without legs in a foot race. “What’s he doing, I wonder?” a Gold zimby mused.
“Making more zimbies. What else?” the other answered, darkly. Zimbies are spiritual siblings to Mola mola: short-lived, prodigious, and suicidally stupid. The zimby gestation and early development periods last only a few hours each, giving them no particular evolutionary impetus toward survival. Coincidentally, this rapid breeding has created impressive genetic diversity, which is how we get things like Kings with lantern-fish jaws.
While Gold repopulated, Red played to his aggressive strengths. “March south,” his soft growl bounced from zimby skull to zimby skull within the formation. Each zimby brain, even those of Gold’s warriors, reacted instinctively to the voice of command. “A thug heads east,” the shaman intoned, studying the bones and entrails arrayed before him. “Ambush and kill him.”
The assembled zimbies charged into the fray. The King’s thug, a meaty subhumanoid wearing an orange mask, joined with them at once, holding his own against the four-zimby column. Though larger in stature than their tribal brethren, the King’s thugs are just as stupid as the rest of the zimby race, and will battle with mindless devotion until the other side has been eradicated. Shaman Red breathed the words of Bigger and Badder, channeling the witchery through his favored dagger-stabber, and the little zimby’s irises flushed a glowing blue that was soon engulfed by his saucer-like, predatorial pupils. The zimby descended into a blood-rage, tearing the thug’s head clean from its shoulders.
Red hadn’t merely raided the scroll library. He’d had his witch doctors begin an incantation of Picky Picky to ensure that his gofers always brought back exactly what he wanted. And he hadn’t been disappointed.
Satisfied at the conclusion of this maneuver, the shaman sent another witchery coursing through the dagger-stabber’s veins. The little zimby raised a shaking arm, and a knot of entangling vines sprouted from the earth, visibly growing to block off the thugs’ marching path. In a final action, Red sent a spiritual contagion through the mixed zimby column, infecting Shaman Gold by the same psychic umbilicus that allowed them both control over the troops on the field. Gold wailed as precious knowledge was yanked from his memory, trailing emotions and tatters of thought like gore. “What’s this?” Red asked delightedly. His witch doctors began a chant, and a glowing map of the King’s portal system floated in the dust before him like motes of sunlight.
The ritual of Contagion is a funny one. Because the psychic umbilicus functions like a two-way connection, you can’t just leave an empty space in the victim’s head; such a vacuum could suck the caster’s own thoughts clean from his skull. For this reason, you can’t steal a memory with Contagion without leaving something in its place: the knowledge of the Contagion ritual itself. Usually, the victim’s first instinct is to redirect the contagion back toward the original aggressor. Particularly obdurate shamans have been reduced to drooling vegetables by long, Contagion-fueled grudges.
Fortunately, Gold was smarter than that. Knowing that Red had all but depleted his current supply of ritual knowledge, Gold turned his sights on Purple instead. Purple nixed the ritual with a quick counter-hex, and the illness died on the vine.
“You made me waste my mojo, asshole,” Purple snapped, moving her own troops to join the mixed zimby column. Mobilizing a column of three mixed tribes is a slow operation involving a lot of elbowing, tripping, and “accidental” collisions, but Purple managed to move them slightly closer to the elemental shrine.
Behind them, unnoticed, a thug became hopelessly entangled in the freshly sprouted wall of vines.
As with Gold and Red, Purple had sent her own runners to the scroll library, and it was time to give her people an edge. Her aides began a chant of Slippery Devils: while the chant lasted, her own warriors would be a little harder to stab in the back. In the meantime, she sent another scouting party to lurk near the King’s compound, awaiting their opportunity.
“March forward,” Gold ordered the mixed-tribe column via umbilicus. “Within the shrine you’ll find the first elemental seal, the key to unlocking the wards placed upon the King’s inner sanctum.” The zimbies bickered into the shrine, uncovering a golden seal marked with three tear-shaped ovals: the Elemental Seal of Water. Gold’s face glowed with psychically reflected light.
“This is too heavy for us all to share,” he spoke through the mask of one of his spear-chuckers. “I’ll relieve the column of this burden.” One golden warrior slipped away from the group, balancing the Seal of Water on its head like a serving tray. Pausing to break the elemental ward, as promised, the golden warrior skedaddled down a side passage, snickering with the shaman’s voice.
“What the other shamans don’t realize,” Gold chortled, “is that the Crown is only one of the Cannibal King’s precious possessions. This seal is a puissant artifact in its own right.” He instructed his peons to begin a chant of Dead Strong, a zombie-toughening incantation.
“But my shaman, we don’t have any zombies,” they protested, earning themselves a skull-cracking thump on the head for their insolence.
Red, unsurprised but annoyed by Gold’s betrayal, used the knowledge he had extracted from Shaman Gold’s head to uncover two more witchery scrolls, stolen from the library weeks ago and secreted in the King’s compound. He formed a three-zimby column and, using his map of the King’s portal, sent it to the nearest wing of the compound.
Unluckily for greedy Gold, the killed thug’s replacement had already finished its gestation and crash training course in the King’s secret jungle barracks. It emerged from another portal into a side passage of the compound, dragging its great mass straight toward the seal-carrying zimby. While the Elemental Seal of Water does, as Gold believed, grant its holder un-zimby-like power, it doesn’t provide protection against being juiced like a ripe mango.
“They’re still here, my liege,” the Crown chimed from within the King’s head. “And they’ve taken down the first ward. Perhaps another ritual is in order?”
“Mmmm, another ritual,” the King purred, inhaling deeply of the roiling, carmine mists. He coughed a few times, jets of cooling blood puffing from his flared nostrils, and cast the Ritual of Exhaustion. The three shamans blanched and sank to their knees, drained of their sacred mojo, as the King’s laughter echoed in their heads.
While Red replenished his numbers, Purple saw her opening. Right now, the only elemental ward that had been lifted was the one to the south, closest to Purple’s cooperative. She also controlled, temporarily, a large column of mixed zimby tribes. “The King is weak,” she whispered into the skulls of the zimby rabble. “United, we are strong. We can take back the Crown from this tyrant. For the Good of the People.” The zimbies, each imagining himself surrounded by wives and children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Cannibal Crown resting rakishly on his head, moved on the King with fierce grins.
Unfortunately, the powers of the Crown make the Cannibal King a formidable foe, even against the combined forces of three power-hungry shamans. Sensing the proximity of the crown to their meat-puppets, the exhausted shamans went into a frenzy, pumping up their troops with every power they could master. Gold channeled the witchery Stoopid Move through his spear-chucker, and the King attempted to feint left, rolling straight into one of Purple’s garroters. She whispered a few words of power, and Nasty, Sharp Knives manifested in the zimby’s tiny fists. For ten frozen seconds, the two forces were evenly matched, the King’s bloody aura fending off the strikes of the fanatical zimbies, then Gold cast Sneakier Cheat and the momentum of the battle shifted, forcing the King to focus all his attention on his right side while one of Gold’s troops drove a spear deeply between his left ribs.
The King bellowed in pain, crushing the spear’s shaft into splinters and tearing it from his flesh while shaking himself free of the zimby assault. He was grievously wounded but not yet killed, and the blood mist closed the puckered hole in his side as the horrified zimbies realized the gravity of their error.
While the King returned to the blood mist, ignoring the quivering zimbies, Gold, with his remaining mojo, sent a lone zimby warrior through a random portal. An odd choice….
As the thugs lumbered around the King’s compound, waylaid by the tangling vines, they left an open path to two more elemental seals, and Gold was more than happy to collect. “Please forgive my subordinate his misguided ambition. The King still has three elemental seals of great power. It’s clear that our initial assault has failed, and we no longer have the advantage of surprise. Perhaps our victory lies in these puissant artifacts?”
“Of course I welcome any opportunity to collaborate,” Purple assented, teleporting in another zimby column and accidentally expelling Gold’s enigmatic lone warrior (it’s an unfortunate element of the portals’ design that two creatures cannot occupy the same terminal point at the same time). Gold joined with Purple’s column to claim the next artifact, the Elemental Seal of Fire, then sent out another lone zimby warrior (weird…). Red repopulated and started a chant of Portal Boss. The glowing map of the portal system before him became more nuanced, pulsing filaments illustrating channels through which witcheries could be redirected. “Purple and Gold may control the artifacts,” he growled, “but I control the chokepoints. Fools!”
Meanwhile, the mixed-zimby column continued their hopeless battle against the King. Purple’s garroters brought him to his knees, their cords opening a clean slice below the chin, but the King grappled free and the blood mist once again closed over the wound. The spear-chuckers tried another flanking maneuver, but the King anticipated the feint and turned it to his advantage, skewering the terrified dagger-stabber who was meant to have been the distraction. Finally, under Red’s orders, the entire column closed on the King at once, but this proved to be a grave mistake, and the King was able to send three of the attackers–one from each tribe–to the Far Shore.
When the red mist cleared, only a single Purple garroter stood before the King, fairly quaking in his zimby boots. Pushing past the intruder with haughty disdain, the King sauntered over to a third ritual site and cast the Ritual of Winnowing. A sudden gale passed over each of the shamans’ huts in turn, lasting only a second, but with its passing each shaman felt a memory being torn from his thoughts like a leaf in a hurricane.
“Why do my zimbies keep dying?!” Red fumed. “I’ll need to repopulate. Send in the den mothers!” While thusly engaged, he sent a whisper via the umbilicus to one zimby from his massing. “The Water Seal has been abandoned,” he said. “Fetch it and return to me. This portal will take you straight there.” The floating diagram before him pulsed with knowledge.
“It’s my time,” Purple huffed. “I will NOT allow this assault to fail.” With that resolve, she executed one of the boldest and most elaborate military maneuvers in the history of zimby-kind. Steering a two-zimby column toward the nearest thug, she poured more power into the psychic connection. One garroter’s eyes flared with witch-light and the Purple Shaman’s smooth voice issued from its twisted mouth: “Assuming Direct Control.” Wreathed in a dark blood-aura, the possessed zimby seized its marching partner and engaged in the sacred rite of zimby cannibalism, then, in the same motion, swung a gnarled hand to point at the thug and shouted the words of Bolt O’ Lightning. Amplified by the holy rite, bolts of electricity as thick around as the zimby’s thumbs arced through the air, coiling around the thug and reducing him within seconds to an ashen heap redolent of rancid barbecue.
The possessed zimby narrowed its eyes in satisfaction and moved toward the King’s inner sanctum with strides that seemed unhurried yet managed to cover more ground more quickly than would have appeared possible. Another zimby wordlessly broke off from the column still bickering over the fire seal and joined its two tribesmen. Sensing the shaman’s spiritual presence, the two lesser zimby’s knelt in deference. The possessed zimby gave them a curt nod then tore out their throats, guzzling deeply of their life-drink. The blood-aura around the possessed zimby grew even darker, a black so dense that it warped the light around it like heat haze, and the Purple Shaman, through her flesh-puppet, raised both arms and wrenched at the air, draining it of all warmth. The King’s skin turned purple, then blue, then a sickly green as the blood within his swollen belly froze into piercing shards. The daggers of ice expanded, stretching the King’s skin leaf-thin, then ruptured, poking through like shattered bones. As the Burst O’ Frost witchery faded, the icy blood began to melt, pouring freely from the King’s tattered, flaccid skin-bags. As he deflated, his head nodded forward as if in a gesture of repect, and the Crown slipped free of his skull and rolled to a halt by the zimby-shaman’s feet.
Shaman Purple released the possessed zimby and addressed her assembled court. “The King is dead!” she shouted. “Long live the King!”
“The King is dead! Long live the King!” the zimbies cheered, tearing into one another’s flesh in their fanatical zeal.
Purple, exhausted but flush with satisfaction, used her last drop of mojo to direct her peon to grab the Crown. All that remained was to bring it home.
“The King is dead!” Gold hissed, eyes glittering like silver saucers. “The King is dead! The Crown is undefended! Call in the matriarchs!”
The King’s thugs, sensing the death of their liege, began to swarm like termites whose mound has been kicked in. One lumbered up to the mixed column that still held the Elemental Seal of Fire, but the spiritual heat of the purloined artifact was an even match for the thug’s mindless ferocity, and the combat was inconclusive. As the other thugs rushed mindlessly through the King-less corridors, the blood vines and blood thickets, sustained by the King’s dark witcheries, began to wither.
“I have a special task for you,” Shaman Gold whispered to a particularly beefy spear-chucker. “Go forth through this portal to Purple’s threshold.” As the spear-chucker emerged from the portal, Gold sacrificed four zimbies, chanting words of forbidden magic, and his two lone warriors clutched their chests in agony as their hearts exploded. Gooey, black blood trickled from between their teeth, their ears, and the corners of their eyes, and they shuffled forward with mindless hunger. “This ought to take care of that purple upstart,” Gold muttered. “I don’t have any zombies, do I?” he asked his nearest peon, who was still chanting the Dead Strong incantation. “I just can’t have that bitch interfering,” Gold considered, tossing a Mojo Whammy on Purple, who felt the psychic pressure of the aggressive ritual and countered it with a distracted “Nix!”
“Nix my spell, will you?” Gold roared. “I’ll Nix your Nix!” Purple frowned as her counterspell was overridden and her precious mojo drained away. With his final mojo, Gold directed one of his zombies toward Red’s lone warrior, who had almost reached the fallen Seal of Water. “I believe you’ll find that belongs to me,” Gold said smugly as the lone dagger-stabber got munched up, bones and all. “Yum, yum,” the zombie belched.
“I take it the truce is broken?” Red asked, directing the mixed-zimby column to destroy the attacking thug. “Thank the spirits. Peace is so boring.”
Using his chant-powered portal map, Red circumvented Gold’s zombies and sent his zimby column into the former King’s sanctum. “Killing is so much more fun,” he said with a grin, channeling a witchery through his zimby foot-soldiers. Deadly sucking vines sprouted from the earth beneath the Crown-carrier’s feet.
As they quested like leeches over the purple zimby’s ankles, an unfamiliar voice echoed in his head. “Wear the Crown,” it chimed. “It will protect you.” The garroter lifted the crown to his head, and the growing vines flinched away as if shocked.
Undeterred, Red slung a Death Curse at the newly crowned King. The Crown glinted, and the curse somehow fell wide of its mark. “Oh, for the love of…,” Red muttered. He glanced over the chanters surrounding him, then grabbed the juiciest-looking one by the top of the head and unhinged his jaws. “That’s better,” he said a moment later, smacking his lips, and used the extra mojo to position his warriors to block the only working entrance (and exit) to the King’s sanctum.
“You know, I never really liked any of you anyway,” Purple yawned. “I do believe a little genocide is on the menu.” As she directed her newly crowned underling off of the bloodsucking vines, she carried out a ritual of Poison the Well. Half of the zimbies in Red’s fortress began suddenly to vomit blood and, in some cases, fragments of bone. “Oh, and the truce being over? That happens when I say it happens.” She issued an order to the mixed-tribe zimby column, through the connection maintained by the one purple zimby that remained within its ranks, and marched the entire column toward the warded side entrance to the King’s sanctum.
The presence of the Elemental Seal of Fire, carried by one of Gold’s warriors, broke the warding, giving the crownholder another path of egress. With her remaining influence, before the other shamans could react, Purple marched the entire column straight into the drooling jaws of Gold’s guard-zombie.
A thug, racing through the outer compound like a chicken with no head, bumbled straight into the fray, while another was caught in the King’s dying vines. Whether the zimby warriors, the Dead Strong zombie, or the King-less thug would prove to be more powerful was a moot point, because in the time it took for a victor to emerge, Purple’s zimby had walked the crown home.
“Excellent work, my thingling,” Purple cooed. “Now place my Crown on my head.”
“Your Crown, my shaman?” the zimby asked, its expression strange. “Who said it was your Crown?”