Sometimes, you need to get a little weird … and Scales of Truth, my current lunchtime campaign, is a lot weird.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Scales of Truth is a D&D 5e-powered game that relies heavily on the tropes of weird fantasy. It draws inspiration from Gamma World, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Numenera, though its still has a strong fantasy component to it. It sounds a lot like my Spellcrash project and it’s possible they’re the same setting. Or maybe this is the next iteration of that setting … time will tell.
The campaign began at Scales of Truth, a library and archive founded (and perhaps still ruled by) a dragon who hoarded knowledge instead of gold. The library is located in the Serpent Hills, the one-time home of a great reptilian empire that fell to ruin thousands of years ago. It’s staffed by one of the echos of that world, a race of intelligent lizardfolk who serve the dragon as librarians.
The first adventure revolved around the theft of a book, On the Mutations of Flora in the Caverns of Kazeal, by Thalis, a human servant of the Keeper of the Occluded Tower. It was stolen from the Garden Stacks after Norman (aka the Wizard Lizard, a male lizardfolk mage) failed in his task of properly monitoring Thalis. Norman’s mentor, the Librarian of Flowers, dispatched him to recover the book (not caring what happened to the thief who carried it). Aiding him in this quest was Ernie, a male human “Knight of Words” hired by the Library to provide Norman with some needed muscle, and Gargoz, a male half-orc monk from a nearby monastery with an interest in the self-same book.
They quickly caught up with Thalis, who explained his master sought the legendary Black Lotus, a flower of great alchemical power that was rumored to grow in the Caverns of Kazeal. Norman decided not to return to the library with the book; instead decided to accompany Thalis on his quest for the caverns (his intention being to return to the library with the book … and greater knowledge of the outside world with which to impress his elders). Along their travels, they encountered Gerbo, a gnome wizard with an affinity for mystical armor, who joined their scientific question.
Exploring the Serpent Hills
Scales of Truth is a hex crawl-style campaign built around exploration. When the campaign started, the players and I didn’t know much about the world. I had an idea about the history of the Serpent Hills and had strewn random encounters, hidden locations, and notable landmarks throughout the region. In drawing the map, I knew that there were settlements to the south – the dwarven city of Iron Crown and the human road warrior-style city of Skull Keep. There were the hills themselves, filled with mutants and monstrosities, as well as the Shield Mountains to the west that kept the region dry. As the campaign progressed, and the players explored new areas, I fleshed out the map.
Here are a few of the notable locations the adventurers discovered (or heard about):
- Broken Gear: A derro city home to scientists who conduct experiments in forced evolution.
- Caverns of Kazeal: Home to the legendary Black Lotus flower.
- Dead Lake, The: A small lake filled with toxic water replenished from an unseen source. Mechanical constructs, some badly rusted, others pristine, wander its shores. The constructs mimic the shapes of animals and are inevitably hostile to any who approach the lake’s shores.
- Iron Crown: A dwarven-tiered city built in an impact crater in the southern reaches of the Serpent Hills. The city is larger below ground than above.
- Monastery, The: The monastery is a trading partner of the Scales of Truth, providing fermented nectars that the lizardfolk enjoy. Their monks occasionally travel to the library to trade their products in exchange for gold and access to the knowledge within.
- Obsidian Tear, The: A massive, 600-foot tall, obelisk that floats a thousand feet above the ground. Nearly 200 feet wide at its widest, the obelisk has loomed over the Serpent Hills for generations. Reachable only by magic, rumor has it the Tear contains fantastic magic of a bygone age. Others say those who touch it, die. No one’s been there in years, so who can tell?
- Occluded Tower, The: A hidden tower rumored to be ruled by a powerful wizard. The wizard periodically sends their agents out into the world to gather key alchemical ingredients, chemical reagents, and obscure magic items.
- Scales of Truth: Home to the lizardfolk inheritors of the Serpent Empire, as well as the alleged residence of a great, powerful, and ancient dragon … whom no one has seen in centuries.
- Skull Keep: An ancient stone fortress carved out of the hills. Ruled by the warlord Slaymaster, who commands construct soldiers. Where he gets these “warforged” from, no one knows.
- Tower of Daar Kimbatuul: Located in the southwestern Serpent Hills, the keep is home to the aged dragonborn scholar Daar Kimbatuul, author of On the Mutations of Flora in the Caverns of Kazeal and numerous other scientific tomes.
Mysteries Known and Unknown
There’s much more to the campaign (and the hexcrawl) that’s hinted at, but not yet discovered.
- Robot Terror: The adventurers encountered a huge robot with a black hole in its chest. Not long after, they found smaller, more nimble robots extracting people’s brains and reducing them to a fine pulp. When destroyed, one of these “gray samplers” was revealed to have a nameplate indicating it was one of many created (dispatched?) by the Storm of Heaven. What is the Storm of Heaven …. and why are there so many damn robots?
- Fungi-controlled Giant Ants: A strange fungi infected the giant ants of the northern Serpent Hills, causing them to act erratically and begin attacking anything that gets too close. The location of this hive is unknown.
- The Gray Samplers: The aforementioned brain-extracting robots had to come from somewhere … right?
- The Citrine Prince: Somewhere out in the Serpent Hills there is a cult ruled by an intelligent yellow musk creeper. The adventurers encountered a group of the Citrine Prince’s followers near the Obsidian Tear … but where does the zombie-spawning flora reside?
- The Serpentine Underdark: Much of the ancient reptilian empire existed beneath the Serpent Hills. Its devolved descendants – in the form of the yuan-ti – continue to reside there. What horrors and wonders lie beneath the surface?
As I described in “Getting Lost in a Hexcrawl”, I’m mapping the campaign using Worldographer by Inkwell Ideas. Originally based on a paper map, I spent Christmas break updating and fixing the map in Worldographer. My next mapping task is to add a new layer to represent the Serpentine Underdark layer using Worldographer Classic Style Underdark/Drow World Map Icons. As alluded to above, the PCs encountered a number of subterranean threats over the last few months, and while I have a rough idea of how things connect, it’d be nice to firm that up. Plus, I’ve never done a true Underdark campaign map before!
Aside from the Underdark, there’s the world beyond. We know there’s some great trade city to the north because that’s where the gnome Gerbo is from. It’s unclear what lies beyond Skull Keep to the east; perhaps the adventurers will find out one of these days.
There’s also the city of Iron Crown. It’s a bastion of civilization in the Serpent Hills and after a few weeks (and several real-world months) of adventuring, the player characters finally arrived there. While Worldographer supports city mapping, I’m going to start with some hand-drawn maps. Iron Crown is a tiered city built within an impact crater, with much of it located below ground. That means – at least on the surface – a lot of curved streets. That’s not something that mapping programs are typically great at, and, if we’re honest, I have no idea how much time the PCs will be staying here. I plan on doing just enough mapping to accommodate their needs. If Iron Crown turns into a center point for the campaign, I’ll revisit it.
The Scales of Truth campaign provided the basis for my first-ever RPG bullet journal. I’ve continued to build out the bullet journal as the campaign has grown, though I’ll admit I’ve had a hard time keeping up with NPCs and locations (especially after the great map reconciliation of Christmas Break 2020). Still, I log my weekly adventure notes there and maintain the at-a-glance weekly grid so I easily know what happened and when. That’s a huge time saver when it comes to a lunchtime, weekly game and I do intend to go back and build out the NPC and location grids one rainy Saturday afternoon.
Scales of Truth is a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign, so our core rulebooks are:
- Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook
- Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide
- Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual
- Dungeons & Dragons Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
When it comes the species of the realm, I tend to treat the intelligent monsters of the Monster Manual – particularly kobolds, goblins, etc. – as intelligent, self-determined, and at least partially civilized. What they do with that civilization (like the derro and their mad science creations) varies.
For the actual monsters, I look to the weird and atypical. Scales of Truth is set in a world that’s survived multiple magical apocalypses, so there is a lot of weirdness lying around. As a result, I’ve turned to a few non-core rulebooks to flesh out the setting:
- Arcana of the Ancients by Monte Cook Games: Numenera – the lost and discarded technology of bygone eons – is very much a thing in the Serpent Hills. I use this book for technology rules, mutations, and tech-based “magic” items, as well as technological monsters like the “gray sampler”.
- Tome of Beasts, Tome of Beasts II, and Creature Codex by Kobold Press: Kobold’s monsters are nicely skewed from the D&D baseline, meaning that many of the creatures you find in these books aren’t quite what the player characters are expecting. There’s all manner of strange flora, constructs, and aberrations that are perfect for populating a slowly-recovering post-apocalyptic wasteland.
- Zine of Wondrous Power 03: The Ioun Codex: Daniel Perez’s zine is packed with ioun stone goodness. The zine’s “ioun cores” – ioun stones that originated from meteorites – fit the tone of my campaign perfectly and became a notable side quest (and the reason the adventurers finally made their way to Iron Crown).
- Game Day: Getting Lost in a Hexcrawl: A deep dive into creating the hexcrawl underlying the Scales of Truth campaign.
- Bullet Journals for RPGs: A look at how I use bullet journals in my campaign. All of the examples are from the Scales of Truth campaign.
- Spellcrash: A gonzo science fantasy campaign idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few years. Inspired by planetary romance, Spelljammer, and Planet Hulk.
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A few of the books I use for the Scales of Truth campaign, as well as my bullet journal. Credit: Ken Newquist.