D&D 5E The Star-Shaman’s Song of Planegea for 5e: An Interview With David Somerville (Atlas Games)

Several months before the launch of the Planegea Kickstarter, Heather O’Neill of Atlas Games reached out to share the game and its quickstart with me. Prehistoric 5e from the publisher of Magical Kitties Save the Day, Unknown Armies, and Ars Magica, I was interested in their plans to make the world exciting. She connected me with David Somerville, the creator, and he agreed to answer my questions.

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EGG EMBRY (EGG): I appreciate you talking with me about your newest crowdfunding campaign. What is The Star-Shaman’s Song of Planegea?
DAVID SOMERVILLE (DAVID)
: Thanks for inviting me to the interview, I’m excited to do this! The Star-Shaman’s Song of Planegea is a new, prehistoric campaign setting guide for 5th Edition. It allows players and DMs to run adventures and campaigns set in a fantasy Stone Age, where everything that we love about the game becomes more primal, wilder, and deadlier. This is a world from before the planes of existence separated, where you can travel by foot from the material plane into the plane of fire or the Astral Sea, where the gods themselves have yet to be fully realized, and where all of fantasy sprawls ahead in infinite possibility. The book has new player options including subclasses, spells, and equipment, and new ways of seeing classic races and classes, refracted through the lens of eons of time in the past. It also has a ton of material for DMs, with good or neutral factions, world-menacing threats, new monsters, and a huge map full of adventure hooks for the party to discover.

EGG: You're moving back from the advent of civilization to the era of cave dwelling. That changes some fundamentals of D&D like the tavern meetup, what the dungeon crawl means in terms of a precursor society, and spellbooks, among other updates. First, what are some of the big changes?
DAVID
: It was important to me from the beginning that Planegea be recognizably the same game, but with new life and strangeness breathed into it, given the setting. What that means is, all the ingredients for adventure are still there, but new and different—you gather not around a tavern hearth, but around the fire of a Stone Age clan of hunter-gatherers. You delve not into dungeons, but into cave systems, prehistoric fortresses, or the buried vaults of aberrations. In a world where the written word is unknown, tattoos and cave paintings fill the role of empowering studious spellcasters. It’s such an exciting place to run games because you can already use the tools and techniques you’re used to from classic medieval adventuring, but they all feel fresh, like you’re seeing them for the first time. It’s an easy world to adventure in, and the adventures feel original, even if they’re as simple as a classic dungeon crawl, which I find really rewarding.

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EGG: Dwarves and Elves are redefined in this world. Can you share how they’re different than most?
DAVID
: When working on the world, what I tried to do was not reinvent, but rewind. I asked myself, “What beginning would lead to the elves and dwarves that we know today?” So it was almost a process of devolution or reverse-engineering. For both, I wanted to bring forward what their basic, primal properties were. Dwarves have always had such a deep connection to the earth, and there are various sources that say dwarves sprung from stone. I wanted to make that literal—in Planegea, dwarves are still half-stone. They have rocky outcroppings on their joints and gem-encrusted beards. They’re still in the process of waking up, as a species, and you can play as a dwarf that’s fresh-hewn from the earth just as easily as one born to parents. They’re new to the world, and they’re trying to figure out their role in the order of living beings. Dwarves are also builders and creators, and add a special lens on the idea of nomadic peoples, because they’ll settle in an area, build a fortress or permanent settlement, then as soon as the fortress is done, move on, losing all interest as soon as the construction is done. Which means that you have all these abandoned stone buildings lying around, just waiting for monsters to move in—dwarves are the reason that dungeons and ruins dot the landscape in a world as young as this.

As for elves, I wanted to explore their essentially magical nature. I thought a lot about their connection to the Fey, and classical inspirations for that, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the idea of the collective subconscious. All of which led to the creation of a place called Nod—twin worlds of Dreams and Nightmares that sit just alongside the physical world, but not quite in the same space. These are recognizably similar to the Feywild and the Shadowfell or Ravenloft, so you can use that material to populate them in your games. That’s where the elves are from, and they’re actually half-dream. So elves in Planegea are physically blue-skinned and translucent… you can see through them just a little bit. There’s some amazing art of this on the Kickstarter that I can’t wait for everyone to see. Planegea leans into the otherworldy, abstract, distracted nature of elves—they always seem to be drifting away, stepping through doorways into their other world. And this also makes half-elves fun. We actually have a new subrace for half-elves, called Blood Dancers, who are able to shift between their elvish aspect and human aspect.

That may be more detail than you wanted (laughing), but every race has been carefully reexamined and touched like this. Halfings are silent predators, gnomes are scavenging outcasts, dragonborn are conquering destroyers, and orcs are honored leaders. Each comes not from a desire to reverse the tropes, but to look more deeply at what they are and where they come from. I like to call Planegea a “pre-apocalyptic world,” and each thing that makes it different from medieval fantasy is a clue in the larger mystery of “how did we get from there to here?” There are also new races, like the treefolk called dreas, the hungry half-oozes, the necromantic saurian, and the starlings, which are literally stars that fell from the sky. But we should probably move on, right?

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EGG: I appreciate the detail, it’s interesting. Let’s talk about some with new names like the Bard, Monk, Rogue, and Wizard, how are those classes different?
DAVID
: Sure! So a few classes did get renamed because the current names felt like they were tied too closely to medieval tropes, or another word better expressed the primal fantasy. Bards become chanters, monks are ascetics, rogues are scavengers, wizards are spellskins, paladins are guardians, and clerics are shamans. To be clear, you don’t need to use new names for any of this; the setting works fine if you keep the names as they are. But taking monks for example… when I think of a monk, I think of monasteries, which conjures up images of thousands of years of history and discipline. But a Planegean “monk” is someone who carries that power inside them, who is committed to a path of discipline, but doesn’t have access to that kind of tradition that comes from later history. So they become the ascetic, someone who draws their abilities from their connection with discipline and inner strength. The guardian is one who is dedicated to a path of protecting the oath that they take, without the medieval trappings of the world “paladin.” And so on.

In terms of the deeper differences, there are some key changes—most interestingly, perhaps, around status and relationship to the gods. Planegea features proto-gods: particularly powerful creatures or places that have taken on divine qualities, but are not the kind of cosmological gods we typically encounter in later fantasy. The gods are tied to their lairs (called hallows in the setting), and feed on the worship of others, as well as the bones of other gods, to grow stronger. In a setting like this, a shaman (cleric) has a very practical job: Deal with the god on the next hill to help the clan or party survive travel through the wilderness. Clerics take on a new social role that’s been left to others before, and negotiate a network of local gods, few of which are entirely good or unselfish. Druids, on the other hand, are hated by gods, because they’re much closer in power and sap divine magic from the same source as the gods themselves. So druids take on that sketchy, scary role that’s often held by warlocks in medieval fantasy. Warlocks, on the other hand, are well-respected, often raised for the role from birth, because their job is to be the clan’s ambassador to the powerful, not-god things that the clan might encounter. Meanwhile, chanters (bards) and spellskins (wizards) are met with extreme caution, even suspicion, because they tamper with things that could endanger an entire clan.

Across the board, each class has something that’s designed to interact at a deeper level with the world and refresh the experience of playing that class, while not abandoning anything about the class fantasy. Barbarians and sorcerers, drawing on primal instincts, are in the mainstream of clan society. Fighters and scavengers occupy opposite poles of trust, while both being skilled martial survivors. At every level, the goal is to make Planegea an easy place to have satisfying, surprising adventures that refresh your idea of what fantasy roleplaying can feel like.

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EGG: Written words have a profound impact in this setting, correct? What happens to those that write?
DAVID
: Yeah! An early challenge in presenting the setting was expressing the idea that Stone Age people were just as smart and savvy and complex as their descendants; it was vital to create a world where you didn’t have to play a low-intelligence character to feel like you fit the world. (Although low-INT characters usually have the most fun in any setting.) So Planegea has what I call a DM tool called the Hounds of the Blind Heaven. The Hounds are an unexplained metaphysical force that keeps Planegea locked into the Stone Age. They enforce the Black Taboos: Writing, currency, and wheels are forbidden in Planegea, and result in the Hounds killing whoever breaks one of the Black Taboos. This means that you can have absolutely brilliant, immortal characters who, by other rights, should be able to advance technology, but are kept trapped at their current level by a technological ceiling that spells certain death to anyone who touches it. Exactly what the Hounds are or how they operate is purposefully left out of the canon. Different DMs all have their own answers to that—for some, they’re a Lovecraftian elder threat, for others, they’re the work of time-traveling gods or master wizards from the future. But one thing is certain: to write, to build a wheeled object, or to create or exchange currency results in terrible things.

The one other thing really worth mentioning about the Hounds is that I called them a DM tool… this is because they’re not strictly necessary for the setting. Some groups don’t find the idea of the Hounds enticing, and are perfectly happy to stay at a set technology level without a metaphysical explanation. That’s fine! The Hounds are woven into the lore, but like anything else, they’re there to drive the fun forward—if they’re not a fit for your table, drop them with my blessing and have a blast inventing coins, chariots, and the alphabet! It’s all about what’s fun for you at your table. Everyone’s Planegea is different.

EGG: How do characters obtain weapons and armor?
DAVID
: Because of the Black Taboo against currency, gear is acquired through barter, looting, or crafting. Barter can be so much fun for the table; it adds surprise and social elements to every exchange, as what one trader values may entirely different than another. The book includes rough guidelines for equivalent value for a number of materials, even including skilled or unskilled labor as payment, but the idea is for each group to have fun exploring what this particular trader values, as idiosyncratic as that might be. You can also harvest natural materials from monsters you battle. In Planegea, there is no workable metal to be found; it’s a world without ore. So the natural armor plating of a dinosaur, chitin from a giant bug, or the hide of a bulette make great armor, and tusks, spines, and claws are natural materials for weaponry. I will say that the book doesn’t include extensive guidelines for crafting… that’s handled so well in so many 5E supplements, I didn’t feel like I had much to add there that wasn’t done better elsewhere. But using whichever crafting system feels right for your table, you can handwave putting together your own gear, or spend hours of fun getting intricately involved in every stitch and joint of the armor made of the trophies of your past battles.

EGG: You mention mindless dragons in the book. In your setting, how many of the “sentient” monsters are reduced to their neanderthal ancestors?
DAVID
: Literally all of them. Or none of them. It’s up to the DM. The book includes 20 monster templates, which are features that you can snap onto any monster, to make it strange and unpredictable. Berserk is one of them; add the berserk template to a dragon, and you turn a cunning magical creature into a savage beast, hungry for blood. The templates almost always make monsters tougher, but they’re such a cool way of unlocking the Mesozoic weirdness you want in a prehistoric game, where you can encounter frilled owlbears, spiny gelatinous cubes, or tentacled basilisks. It’s one more way in which it’s an easy, familiar place to play, populated with strangeness and surprise around every corner.

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EGG: For players in a campaign, what’s the larger goal? You mention horror, do you see this setting as something that lends itself to save the world campaigns or something less grandiose?
DAVID
: Between you, me, and the readers of this interview, I’ve mapped out a whole 1–20 campaign in the setting, and each of the threat sections in the DM portion of the book has adventure hooks for every tier of play. The three themes of the book are kinetic action, primordial horror, and mystic awe—it’s a world where you leap into action, where something unknowable slithers past you in the dark, and where you gasp at the gigantic impossible. And, because it’s 5E, you also laugh a lot. I think the setting serves adventures from the most basic first-level survival quests to apocalyptic demi-god (or actual god?) status. There’s more than enough world there for local, regional, world-wide, and multi-world threats adventures.

EGG: Beyond Planegea, what else are you working on?
DAVID
: Parenting and my day job! Haha, I have some other micro-RPGs I’m noodling on in the background. Nah is about heroic slackers who make saving throws vs being awesome. Clashland is about enacting a war from the POV of a hero, a beast, an army, and the land. Prism Souls is about travel, trauma, and the magical power of memory. But all of those are just filling up notebooks… I’ll be focused pretty solely on Planegea for a while.

EGG: Thanks for talking with me. Where can fans find out more about your work?
DAVID
: Thanks so much for having me! This has been a blast. The best place to find me is at [our website], on the Planegea Discord server, where I’m @smrvl, or on Reddit, where I’m u/smrvl. My social accounts are pretty dormant these days, but if you can track me down, I’d love to talk to you. And for anyone reading this, thanks for taking the time! Whatever setting you play in, I hope you have unforgettable adventures full of wonder and actual magic.

Planegea from Atlas Games
  • “The Prehistoric Campaign Setting For 5th Edition
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 
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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
EGG: So how do you pronounce Planegea?
DAVID
: (walks out before answering the most important question of the interview).

Seeing the art makes me hope the book is more fluff (and thus, not D&D-specific) than crunch!

Psst @Egg Embry typo question 2
 






dave2008

Legend
I think this project looks awesome and wish the creators the best of luck. My only really issue is what I see to be a disconnect between what they say they are doing and it what it seems they have done. The idea seems to be a "first world" concept and there is a lot of awesome ways they explore that. However, their approach to monsters and races seem to less, lets see where it all started and more, what cool things can we add. Which is an OK approach, it just doesn't seem to grow from the idea of a "first world" to me.
 

jedijon

Explorer
In the two questions about races and classes there was almost nothing new - but rather a re-skin/explanation for everything that exists (walking fallen stars Ala Stardust excepted).

min the monster templates section it was “yeah add tentacles” or “holy dinoparts Batman”…which may not be to your…primordial tastes. Although the artwork seems to be making the most of this!

What do you think would make for a compelling rewound world?

I’m pretty impressed with the approach shared in this interview—a lot of thought and work. BUT, what really strikes me (duh, it’s a 5E supplement) is the rules overhead this designer is stuck with. To get a cavemen and Dinos game…they’ve got to reskin bards, swords, spells (that contain writing…)—they’ve got to “do it all” and that’s a bit much.

if I were to RUN such a game, I’d want to zoom in the focus, and would be curious to see what the designer has to say about a setting without spellcasting characters, without dragons, without fan service Tolkien awakening stonefolk, maybe that’s just the “everything outside your fire’s light will kill you” of a Kingdom Death board game.

I’ll say this, neat concept, artwork that’s both grungy and epic—sure looks cool! My 10yr old son very much approves!
 


Aldarc

Legend
I am interested in backing this, but I seem to have missed this, what is it they did with Druids?
From the interview:
Druids, on the other hand, are hated by gods, because they’re much closer in power and sap divine magic from the same source as the gods themselves. So druids take on that sketchy, scary role that’s often held by warlocks in medieval fantasy. Warlocks, on the other hand, are well-respected, often raised for the role from birth, because their job is to be the clan’s ambassador to the powerful, not-god things that the clan might encounter.
In a paleolithic setting where druids would seemingly be close to nature, they still play second fiddle to clerics and are made fringe outcasts for reasons.
 


In a paleolithic setting where druids would seemingly be close to nature, they still play second fiddle to clerics and are made fringe outcasts for reasons.
Alternatively, in a paleolithic setting where hostile nature is one of the main things trying to kill you all the time, druids are understandably viewed as fringe outcasts because they're seen as too close to nature rather than respecting the gods who help protect your tribe from the vicious natural world.

I don't mind the druid interpretation to be honest. Though it strikes me as an extremely easy thing to ignore at your individual game table.
 

dave2008

Legend
From the interview:

In a paleolithic setting where druids would seemingly be close to nature, they still play second fiddle to clerics and are made fringe outcasts for reasons.
It just a different, unconventional take which I respect a bit. Not sure it is better or worse, but interesting. I would be interested in how it is fully described in the book, as the interview is obviously giving you the cliff-notes version at best.
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

This? Now THIS sounds like a Campaign Setting I could get into. (Are you listening, WotC?...stop following Hollywoods "If it's been done before...we can do it again" trope and do something new!). ;)

It sounds similar to a world I created back in my 1e/2e crossover days (early 90's I think it was). My "world" was called "Briarwood" and it was basically a huge "world/seed" that had masses of tangled, thorny 'briarwood' reaching up thousands and thousands of feet into the air and clouds. The idea (and name?...maybe?) came from a cover to a Dragon magazine, iirc. (yup...cover of Dragon 175). Basically, a "prehistoric/primitive base...but with means of flying/traversing between the various 'briarstalks' using balloons, dirigibles, wingsuit/hangliders, and animals like pterodactyls and giant eagles. At the 'bottom' was earth...swamp, water, lakes, etc, but nobody ventured down that far because it was soo dangerous, and took forever to climb back up...if you could even do that!

Anyhoo... Planegea here sounds like a LOT of cool! :D

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

pacnw.owlbear

Villager
From the interview:

In a paleolithic setting where druids would seemingly be close to nature, they still play second fiddle to clerics and are made fringe outcasts for reasons
I kind of feel it should be the other way around; Clerics steal god essence and are outcasts while Druids should be the respected Shamans of the settlements.
 

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