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. 

  2. The backstory. 

    Many years ago, a meteor fell to earth. It was gigantic and had strange hollows all through its mass. The locals shunned it, until one man took an interest and built a tower around the rock. He grew more and more obsessed with the stone, spending long hours researching occult lore until many say he went mad. One day he simply disappeared, with the book he was reading still open.

    After his death, the locals explored the tower and discovered strange, dangerous tunnels underneath it, leading through the rock of the meteor and stretching far beneath the manor. The entrance was destroyed, and the manor lies abandoned. 

    Every so often, people go missing near the ruined tower. Some come back, but some are never seen again. 

  3. The Invitation.

    Birds, fish, frogs, a strange force seems to animate the animals around the PC's with malign intelligence, driven by one beast in particular. When the beast finds them alone, it comes to them. "You are awaited," it croaks. The frogs multiply. The fish swarm. Streams of animals, more than seem possible, begin to fester and bubble out of the swamp. "Please, join us," they repeat. "You are awaited." 

    The party are hounded by these animals until they either obey the summons and begin the adventure, or kill the beast. 

  4. The Boss. 

    The creator and ruler of the dungeon is looking for a successor. The dungeon is their attempt at paradise. But the mould and bugs always creep in. No matter how hard they try, no matter how beautiful they try to make it, the dungeon always falls to chaos, decay, violence and terror.

    They are old now, and their death looms close. Their dream will die with them. They grow ever more desperate, reaching out and kidnapping people from the real world to try to find a true successor who can take their place and finally turn the dungeon into a perfect world.

    They might have kidnapped friends, family members or loved ones of the PC's. If the PC's reach the heart of the dungeon, they will have proven themselves worthy. The ruler will test the PC's as they venture deeper, and eventually try to convince them to become the successor.

  5. Leaving the dungeon. 

    The dungeon has many doors that lead to the outside world. These doors lead to different times throughout history. You could exit the dungeon 10, 20, 200 years in the past or the future.

    Once you open a door, you can see the outside world beyond it. You can even go out into that world, but you must always hold onto the handle. As soon as you let go of the door, you'll instantly lose it and never be able to find it again. You'll be trapped in that time forever.

    The PC's could think up clever ways to abuse this to find interesting shortcuts or explore other times.

  6. The Tower Blocks.

    In the heart of the dungeon is a miniature tower of blocks. This is a map of the dungeon. By moving and rearranging the blocks, the PC's can move the rooms of the dungeon and twist it to meet their needs. If the blocks are destroyed, the dungeon will fall apart in a great cataclysm, splitting and falling into the abyss of endless space beyond.

  7. Weapons. 

    In order to defeat a monster, you need to create a weapon using a piece of its body. Take feathers from the bird and use them to feather your arrow. Take an old tooth to make your sword. These weapons will have power over the beasts and are the only way to truly defeat them. 

    These items may also give you power over the beast - allowing you to give it commands that it may follow. Of course, it will plot to overthrow you and steal back its property as soon as it can. 

  8. The dungeon is a dead world.

    The only true life in the dungeon comes from things that have been brought here from the outside world and twisted into new shapes. Everything else is dead, barren and sterile, no matter how beautiful it looks. There are no fish in the ocean. The grass fields are empty. The forest are still.

    Ghosts haunt the landscape. You see the phantoms of an endless parade of boats on the horizon, sailing forever to nowhere. Dopplegangers, reflections and empty mirages are common.

    This also explains the presence of hostile monsters. They are hungry. There is nothing to eat. They fell into this otherworld and have never been able to escape. Birds or other animals that fall in find themselves twisting into new, monstrous forms. Now their children have begun to forget what the outside even looks like. They lose the ability to speak or fly or breed. All they can do is starve and scheme and hunt for every scrap of food they can find in this beautiful yet barren world.

  9. The dungeon is a true otherworld.

    Inside the dungeon are vast oceans. Fields of grass. Forests, towers, abandoned cottages. Each dungeon Room you make on your GM map may be hundreds of acres wide, or even seemingly infinite once you're inside. The players might travel between rooms by exploring a haunted forest, or sailing for days until they find an island with a staircase leading down into the next Room. 

    There is a real sky in the dungeon, and you can look up and see stars. The inhabitants of the dungeon refer to the real world as "Up There". There are mystical, strange links between the dungeon and the world above. It seems to be able to influence the real world in ways you can't quite understand.

    Fires could be like a fast travel point unlocked by experienced explorers. Once you learn the trick, the party can jump into a fire and emerge out of any other fire in the dungeon.

  10. The fantasy is juxtaposed with a real-world setting. 

    This is a common idea - Narnia, Pan's Labyrinth, The Book Of Lost Things, and of course this movie - but I don't see it often in RPG's. I think it could make for a unique and compelling campaign.

    Outside the megadungeon you have a relatively mundane setting - let's say you set it during World War 1 or 2, and the protagonists are sent to the countryside. While exploring their new home and the grounds, they find the dungeon. 

    Once they enter the dungeon, they discover the fantastical otherworld and unlock the full powers of their classic D&D character (or whatever system you prefer). Just being in the dungeon gives you magical strength and power. They get the spells, skills and D&D powers while they're in the dungeon, and in the real world they just get their basic stats (or you could even use a different system, like BRP). 

    They have to juggle their real lives (And the mundane horrors of the war) with the wonder and terror of the dungeon. This juxtopisition adds an element of grit and realism that grounds the surreal fantasy of the dungeon world. 

All images from The Boy and The Heron by Studio Ghibli. 

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