“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.”
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).