10 great ideas to steal from The Boy and the Heron

This post will include spoilers from Studio Ghibli's latest movie, The Boy and the Heron. I just saw it, and the hypnotizing underworld dreamscape that takes over the last two thirds of the movie is a wonderful source of inspiration for RPG's. Here are some interesting ideas you could use to inspire your campaign at home.

  1. The dungeon is a timeless place.

    The dungeon stands outside space and time. Once you enter it, no matter when you went inside, you can meet anyone else who has ever entered. You may meet people who explored the dungeon a hundred years ago. Even people who are now long dead. 
    You remember a story where your late mother went missing for a year when she was a child - it turns out, she fell into the dungeon. You can find her here again, as a young woman. 

    Once you return to the real world, you lose all your memories and return to your life. (It's probably a good idea to make the PC's special in some way that makes them exempt from this rule). The dungeon has stood for timeless aeons, so you can find different people from all throughout history within. 


Research has shown that false memories can be implanted with surprising ease. The "Lost in the Mall" experiment involves implanting the subject with the false memory of being lost in the mall as a child. Subjects not only took on the false memory, but spontaneously created their own new details to support the implant. When told that one of their memories was false, they were unable to identify which was implanted, and which was real.

The Lost In The Mall Machine has refined this process with terrifying efficiency. New models are now capable of implanting false memories into the mind of anyone within a city block. This technique has opened up new vistas of propoganda and product placement.

Remember the night you proposed to your fiance? How you both shared a delicious can of Coke together? Remember, after your son was born, how you ordered takeout through Uber Eats? The Machine is programmed to tie its false memories into moments of great emotional significance. When used effectively, this technique means the subject begins to take on the lie as a core component of their personal identity. Their personality slowly grows around the false memory, like flesh growing and closing over a splinter. If someone tells them the memory is false, they react with anger, disbelief, defensiveness. They will defend their own brainwashing at all costs.

It lives!

My visual novel The Thief, The Toad, The Witch and The Mushroom is now feature complete. This is something I've been working on for the past three years - and I've wanted to make a video game as long as I've been alive. So, this is a pretty huge moment for me.

I would love to get as much playtesting and feedback as I can. If you're interested, please shoot me a line and I'll send you the build!

You can contact me by filling out this form on my website, or by joining the Brisbane Megagame Discord server, or by commenting below!

Dread Encounters

All illustrations by Russ Nicholson, Rest In Peace.

I just read this interesting post from Goblin Punch about changing the random encounter roll. 

The core design goals are:

1. To provide time pressure.

2. To create suspense. 

The Underclock achieves these goals but I have an alternate proposal: Let's take a page from Dread

Dread Encounters

Whenever the party takes a meaningful action in the dungeon, they must pull 1 block from a Jenga tower.

A meaningful action is:
  • Entering a new room (exploring it and seeing what's there at a basic level)
  • Completing a full search of a room with the entire party (finding all secrets, traps and treasure)
  • Completing 1 normal combat
  • Doing something that makes a lot of noise (eg kicking down a door)
  • Completing a short rest
  • Moving through 3 rooms that have already been explored
  • Anything that takes around ten minutes
Whenever the tower wobbles, tilts, or almost falls over, give the players an Omen. They hear the beast in the distance. They see it's footprints. They smell the bitter iron tang of it in the air. Foreshadow the incoming danger to push up the suspense. 

When the tower collapses, the beast descends. The party has a Dread Encounter.

Beauty and Terror

A dread encounter should be monstrous. A major twist that's much, much more terrible and damaging than a normal random encounter. Some examples could be:
  • The evil forces accomplish a critical part of their plans. The lovecraftian entity is summoned. The hostages are killed. The ancient relic is lost forever. The rival party got to the treasure first and stole it.
    • This is a good default option. Think about what your factions want and have them achieve a major part of it when the tower falls.
  • A terrifying monster ambushes the party.
  • The dungeon undergoes a horrific metamorphosis. The environment changes and shifts in a fundamental and awful way. The earth shakes, rocks fall and damage you, your path to the exit is blocked off, mouths form in the rock. The Underworld is hungry. 
    • A great example of when to use this would be the Tower of Soot from The Estate. The players are climbing up a chimney. When the tower falls, the fireplace is lit and the whole dungeon catches fire.
  • Morale fails. Your hirelings riot or turn on you and attack. Try using this table for hireling freakouts if you need inspiration.
  • Your body fails. The corrupting magic energies of this place distort your mind and body. A carnivorous hunger falls upon you and you need to eat someone now. One of you is possessed by an ancient spirit.
Remember that on average this will happen after 30 pulls, so this should be a major twist and change in the situation, not just a normal random encounter. In Dread, it just kills a player instantly, so don't pull your punches! Just make sure you give the players lots of foreshadowing so that it feels fair.


Taking a short rest in the dungeon means 1 block pull (ten minutes). A long rest takes 6 block pulls (1 per hour). Either way, you need to mark off a ration to rest.

If you are in a completely safe location, you can rest without making any block pulls. For example, you're in a secret room or something totally locked off from the rest of the dungeon. 

Leaving the dungeon

When you leave the dungeon and head back to town, the GM decides.

A: If this is a perilous and urgent situation then the players must pull 2 blocks to leave the dungeon. The Jenga tower then stays as it is for the next delve. 

This represents the forces of the dungeon marshalling their strength while the players stay away. Use this option if the players have left the dungeon without accomplishing any real goals - for example, they've just peeked in the dungeon and scouted around a bit.

B: If the players have bought some time, they can use their hands to shift and stabilise the tower when they're about to leave the dungeon. They can put up to 2 blocks from the top back in the tower if they choose.

This is the option to choose if they have accomplished a minor goal like finding some treasure or delaying the evil plot. If the tower falls while they're doing this, they still get the dread encounter.

C: If time is on the player's side then the players can completely rebuild the tower, resetting it back to its starting position.

This is the option to use once the players have accomplished a major goal and escaped the dungeon. Defeating a boss, rescuing a key NPC or piece of treasure, etc.

Resource Attrition

If you want resource attrition, take a black marker and mark half the jenga blocks. 

Whenever you pull a marked block, your resources deplete. Mark off a torch (or suffer other wear and tear on your equipment and resources, at the GM's discretion). If you cannot, suffer a negative condition.

If your system doesn't have negative conditions, try: Frightened (disadvantage on Intelligence and Wisdom Checks), Hungry (Disadvantage on Strength and Constitution Checks), or Exhausted (Disadvantage on Dexterity and Charisma checks). 

Players will naturally avoid the marked blocks. So they'll start off fine with no attrition, and then their supplies will start running out rapidly as they run out of blank blocks to pull. I like this sense of escalation. 

Shorter dungeons

This system is designed for longer dungeons that the players are expected to make multiple delves into. If you're planning on a one-shot or a shorter dungeon, give the tower a gentle twist so that it spirals from top to bottom.

I am told this lowers the average amount of pulls down to around 12. This is the way to do it if you want an urgent situation. 

Thoughts on Random Encounters in general

I agree with Arnold that Random Encounters don't achieve the design goal of Suspense and Time Pressure. In my opinion, the core problem isn't just the encounter roll itself... it's that an encounter isn't a punishment. Encounters are fun!

After all, in a classic OSR game we should be using a reaction roll. That means the random encounter only has a 2.6% chance of attacking immediately. It's much more likely that we can negotiate with it, sneak around it, run away from it, give it some food to stop it from attacking us, etc. An encounter should be a chance to roleplay, find out more information about the dungeon, make new allies or bargain for supplies. It's more like a reward than a resource attrition timer.

(This was very noticeable in my recent Mausritter campaign, where encounters are things like: "d6 Sugar cultists, carrying buckets of honey". This isn't a punishment for taking too long! It's a charming surprise and a prime opportunity for roleplaying and negotiation. )

When we start trying to make an encounter into a punishment...  it naturally stops being fun. The true resource attrition timer encounters are things like:
"8 orcs appear, they immediately see you and attack, you cannot hide, they cannot be reasoned with, roll for initiative." 
Sure, it does work a bit better as time pressure, but it's also seriously dull. Especially when it starts happening all the time as the result of a random encounter table. The ability to bargain or negotiate or find ways around problems other than straight combat is a critical part of what makes OSR play interesting.  

So, while I totally agree with Arnold about the issues with suspense and time pressure, I don't think changing the random encounter roll will do enough to fix that on it's own. Normal random encounters create surprising, fun moments, but they aren't effective time pressure punishments. The consequences themselves need to be dire and have more build up, and I think the dread system could be a good start in that direction. 


The ideal conditions for human life are between 30% and 60% reality. Below that, shapes become unconstant. You become larger and smaller based on your mood and feelings. You hands distort. Space and time bends. 

Earth is in the "Goldilocks Zone", with truth levels that are perfect for human life. Any higher and humans would never have been able to become sentient. Any lower and human life would never be able to become organised into human shape - we would exist as scattered shapes and strange resonances.

Haunted Houses. Empty Sewers. Abandoned amusement parks. These are the Low Reality Zones. Away from human influence, they warp and bend and grow carnivorous. The further you get from human culture, the more strange you become. Your body and your mind slowly expands and mutates and fractures in on itself. 

So you can see why the space program was a failure. 


Artist: Elijah Kass.

As we have established in previous entries, reality is a weak and unstable force. So, how do our forms stay stable? How do humans keep themselves in the same shape day by day? Keep their houses and thoughts and the objects around them from twisting away and mutating into wild and terrifying shapes? 

The answer is Culture. Culture is a physical force that exerts crushing pressure on you, like gravity. It constrains you and shapes you, forming your physical and mental form into a shape that pleases it. Culture is what keeps us from exploding into twisted masses of flesh when we pass through low-reality locations. 

Culture soothes over everything and makes you unable to see the weird stuff at the edge of the world. You simply forget it as soon as you look away. Pedestrians step around the strings of drool from the beast looming over them and chatter about how rainy it is today. Loners and adventurers have built up sufficient counter-culture defense systems to be able to see things, but even they sometimes find the concepts slipping from their mind, like trying to hold onto fog. If they ever retire, they'll forget it all ever happened. 

The Culture Vampire is a weak, shrivelled thing that survives through it's ability to manipulate the Absolute Culture Field.


This elite special ops unit is trained to contain hyper-real objects and persons. The world is mostly fake, so any object that is 70% real or more can cause extreme damage to the fabric of the universe. In the presence of these hyper-real objects, fictional concepts begin to break down. The fundamental storytelling instinct that humans use in order to understand and interpret the universe begins to disintegrate. Reality Exposure begins to set in.

In the first stage of Reality Exposure, subjects begin losing their understanding of basic fictional concepts - like The Economy, or Nationality. 

In advanced stages they no longer understand more important concepts like Truth, Beauty, Love, or Human Connection. 

In the terminal stage, they completely lose the concept of the "Human Being". They are no longer a Human - just a collection of organs, flesh and brain matter. The exposure continues until finally they lose even that. They become nothing but molecules, randomly vibrating through space. 

Physically, nothing changes. But no-one who looks at them would recognise them as a human at all.

Megamall23, week 1: The Avenue

Here's the start of my Dungeon23 project. I don't think I'll be able to post an update here every week, but I wanted to start out with an update. 

I stole the layout of the real American Dream mall and cut it into rough dungeon sections to get me started. I decided a horizontal layout would be best. Not only does it evoke an actual Megamall better, it also helps make sure the space is naturally jacquayed. This space automatically has a lot of entrances and connections between sections. The players immediately have a lot of choices about where they want to go.