IN THE WORKS

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft

“I love horror movies. When [Senior Art Director] Kate Irwin told me that the D&D Team was making a horror book, I knew I needed to be a part of that. I was ready when Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft finally came around,” says artist Stephen Oakley, who describes his day job at Sony Santa Monica Studios as taking the ideas of game designers, directors, and art teams and adding “extreme” touches. But he’s outdone himself with the terrifying vision he’s created for Van Richten’s Guide: a being known as bagman.

The concept started off early in the genesis of the book, with a conversation about creepy folklore, fakelore, and how terror tales that form from the mundane resonate. “D&D Concept Illustrator Shawn Wood and I were looking for D&D’s Slender Man, a terror that has always been there—always been right in the background—but that you never noticed,” says Senior Designer F. Wesley Schneider. “A being close to home for D&D adventurers, and one who once they know about it, they can’t un-know about it. The genie’s out of the bottle. The threat’s always there.”

Discussions then moved to adventurers—where they think they’re safe, and what’s closest to home for them. And what’s safer than their own treasure and equipment? “We hit on pervasive magic items pretty fast, and bags of holding were at the top of the list. There’s already a measure of mystery about how they work, where they go, and how they might be dangerous, so we wanted to make that even worse. Shawn had his first sketch of the Bagman pretty much the next day.”

(Select to view)

From there, the concept of a creature hidden within a bag of holding and who comes out to menace resting characters evolved swiftly. As Stephen began to develop the idea for the monster, he tried to imagine the worst possible way such a being might interact with a party.

“My brain started working overtime,” he remembers. “A bag that attacks you at random is already pretty creepy. But what if the bag allowed you to carry it around? And like an evil parasite, it was committing atrocities while you and the party were asleep in the towns you were visiting? The party might think they’re following a murderer but in reality they’re bringing this killer with them and they’re the problem!

“And what if the party becomes paranoid that it’s one of their number who is doing this? Maybe this sneaky, evil being realizes that one of the party members is figuring it out so it decides to try and take them into the bag one night. That seemed like a fun mechanic for DMs to play with.”

Stephen felt that bagman should be an entity with high Stealth, because nothing’s more disturbing in a horror movie than when something horrible is in the background and the main characters don’t see it. He also wanted to lean into the lore of a bag of holding. Usually, when you put a creature inside one of those, it doesn’t live very long. While that didn’t automatically make bagman an undead creature, it did suggest some unusual aspects.

“I feel if bagman was a simple zombie, it wouldn’t be as intimidating. I’ve always enjoyed the nightwalker and what it represents—this unknowing, uncaring entity that might be immune to magic. And I’ve always enjoyed the idea of aberrations because they’re just so other. There were some really broad strokes around the theming and most of them were to make sure the entity was as horrendous as possible!” he says.

“I particularly love it when you see something in game and think, ‘Okay, this is definitely X’. But then it turns out that it’s actually Y—and Y is way worse! Anytime something in D&D plays into being a simple creature so the characters feel like they know what they’re dealing with, and then flips that to show them they’re completely wrong, that stands out to me. It’s that fear of the unknown that’s always fun to discover.”


Van Richten’s Guide: Horror Logos

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft uses a neat system of logos to signpost the kinds of horror that can be found in each of its Domains of Dread. Designed by artist Trystan Falcone, these logos highlight the sourcebook’s primary horror genres (Body, Cosmic, Dark Fantasy, Folk, Ghost Stories, and Gothic), as well as its secondary genres (Disaster/Survival, Occult Detective, Psychological, and Slasher/Monster).

 

  • Icon: Dark Fantasy Horror

    “I was so thrilled to work on this project and I immediately used it as an excuse to watch a bunch of my favorite horror movies for inspiration!”

  • Icon: Cosmic Horror

    “The first icon I ended up sketching was Cosmic Horror, while watching Annihilation. It had to have a nod to outer space and a focus on tentacles. That wasn’t even a question in my mind.”

  • Icon: Body Horror

    “Body Horror is too much fun. As D&D players we all know the more eyes a creature has, the more horrifying it may prove to be!”

  • Icon: Folk Horror

    “The goat is a not-at-all-subtle nod to my favorite folk horror movie, The VVitch. All the versions I drew were different types of not-quite-right goats: three eyes, six horns, for example. The final version has four ears and a human smile, which I find both charming and unnerving!”

  • Icon: Ghost Stories

    “I love all kinds of horror, but I have such a soft spot for supernatural ghost stories. While working on this book, I think I watched every movie from—I can’t believe it’s a thing, but it sure is—The Conjuring extended cinematic universe. Twice! In the context of Dungeons & Dragons, I love the idea that an adventurer can face unspeakable horrors in battle but still be scared of a ghost just like anyone else. If you look closely at the finished Ghost Stories icon, it has little elf ears.”

  • Icon: Gothic Horror

    “I tried one concept for Folk Horror featuring some rotting flowers, which was based on the film Midsommar. But I ended up using a flower to depict Gothic Horror instead.”

  • Icon: Occult Detective

    “My favorite concept was Occult Detective. The idea for a fingerprint with a skull in its ridges came to me really early and it was fun to work up.”

  • Icon: Psychological Horror

    “I read a lot of psychological horror books and comics but I had such a hard time deciding what to use for that icon. The genre can vary so much and is so abstract it felt impossible to nail down,” Trystan reveals. “Eventually, I chose the ominous spiral—inspired by rereading Junji Ito’s Uzumaki—to symbolize the descent most protagonists go through. I had the spiral break into little pieces and look like smoke because what frightens me most about the Psychological Horror genre is questioning one’s own perception of ‘reality’ in a stressful situation.”

  • Icon: Disaster (Survival)

    “I drew at least three to four unique concepts for each icon. My first instinct was to show whatever I personally find most unsettling about each genre.”

  • Icon: Slasher (Monster)

    “But I had to laugh because on the first pass there were way too many teeth. The icons for Body Horror, Gothic, Folk, and Slasher (Monster) all either featured too many teeth or were similarly fang-focused.”


Stephen’s initial drawings played with the idea of bagman as a smaller entity, with shorter arms. As the potential space within a bag of holding is so large, thanks to its extra-dimensional qualities, he then shifted to imagine how big it could be.

“The idea of contortionists started playing in my mind so I gave it tall, lanky limbs that push the envelope. And I also imaged what this horrible entity might look like at various stages of its life,” he explains, adding that less can often be more when it comes to monsters.

“I’m from a small town that’s very similar to the one where Stephen King set The Mist. I love that movie because it’s more about how people deal with those kinds of horrors, and any monster movie that doesn’t show the whole monster is high up there on my list. The unknowns that you can play with, simply by hinting at a creature like that, is always a fun thing to pull on.

“That idea helped to influence bagman. The reason it has all that mange hiding its face is to leave enough room for whatever people think is underneath it. It might be whatever they think is the scariest thing, whether that’s more man, more wendigo, more chihuahua, we’ll never know!”

Bagman isn’t the only incredible concept included in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. In the gallery below you’ll find the original sketches for the three Gothic Lineages race options, which featured as part of Unearthed Arcana.


  • Damphir
  • Damphir
  • Elise (Reborn)
  • Elise (Reborn)
  • Elise (Reborn)
  • Hexblood
  • Hexblood
  • Hexblood
  • Hexblood

You can find more art from Stephen Oakley on his Artstation site and connect with him on Instagram. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is released May 18, 2021 with an MSRP of $49.95. Preorder a physical copy at your local game store, bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, or online at retailers such as Amazon. Also available as a digital version at D&D BeyondFantasy Grounds, and Roll20.