The Planes: Shadowfell

The Planes: Shadowfell

Our next stop in The Planes series is the Shadowfell - a land of the Dead and Darkness.
Introduction to the Planes
Feywild

What is the Shadowfell

The Shadowfell, also known as the Demiplane of Shadows or the Shadowlands, is the home to shadows, dread and the dark feelings of life. To wander through the plane is to risk losing yourself in misery and apathy - why put a stop to the lich when everything you do is meaningless and fleeting? The Shadowfell is not a place for mortals to visit on a whim, and many who do visit are forever changed by its dismal appearance.

History

The Shadowfell came about in 4th edition from a combination of planes, settings, and ideas. The Plane of Shadow, which was once the Demiplane of Shadow before growing in power, the Ravenloft setting from the 2nd and 3rd edition, and the dark reflections of the Material Plane.

The Plane of Shadow is home to shadow-creatures and shadowstuff, the raw stuff that creates the shadow-creatures. The more shadowstuff a shadow-creature had, the more powerful they were. Each of these shadow-creatures started as the shadows of creatures from the Material Plane, though many found ways to become untethered to their original owners. Mortals from the Material Plane with enough magical-ability could briefly visit the Plane of Shadow and travel great distances across their home plane as the Shadowlands are far more mutable.

The Ravenloft setting is home to the most evil of creatures, trapped forever in their demiplane prisons. This plane is best known for the vampire lord, Strahd Von Zarovich, though Ravenloft was also the home to Vecna, the God of Evil Secrets. When a creature became so horrifying and evil, it was said that the Dark Powers would cause fog to rise all around their domain, it would then fall into Ravenloft. Here, the evil creatures would become prisoners of their own world. While they had all the power in their domains, they could never leave until they atoned for their evil or others came along to destroy them.

In 4th edition, all of this was combined to create the Shadowfell - a plane of shadows, the demiplanes of dread, and the Raven Queen who oversees that all souls pass through Letherna.

An Outsider’s Perspective

Looking into the Shadowfell, there is not much here to entice most adventurers. The dark shadows permeate not only the land, causing everything to come across as muted grays, blacks and whites, but it even infects the hearts and souls of the adventurers. Throughout the Shadowfell is the overwhelming sensation of melancholy. Visitors to this plane feel the constant chill on the air and the damp in their bones. Even the sun, when it does shine through the heavy clouds, is weak and far away, doing little to warm the skin. Many that live in the Shadowfell are seen as cold and apathetic, and visitors can quickly fall into that same despair.

Journeying through the Shadowfell is no more dangerous than journeying through the Material Plane, though there are areas that are more dangerous than others. Traveling the plane can be fairly difficult as the land itself is morphic and is constantly in a state of change, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by observing it.

The Shadowfell is a place that visitors come with a set mission in mind and then leave. Through the ruins of cities and the dead forests, adventurers must always be on guard, for if the melancholy doesn’t dull your spirits, the natives may get to you.

A Native’s Perspective

The inhabitants of the Shadowfell reflect that of the Material Plane, though they are far more sullen and sparse. In the few cities that have managed to take root in the Shadowfell the humans, gnomes, halflings, shadar-kai, and others have eked out an existence. Many of these inhabitants were born to this plane and have no ability, or desire, to leave. Their ancestors committed great sins and entire civilizations were cast into the Plane of Shadows as punishment. Their descendants now reside in the old ruins, barely holding out against the dark creatures.

These communities of civilization appear to be like any that can be found on the Material Plane. They have farmers and traders and explorers, and they all have the mundane desires and wants that those on the Material Plane have. Unfortunately, most communities have dark problems at their core. Some cities must deal with cultists trying to destroy the settlement, or the dead keep rising and attacking, or no one dies from age but the bodies keep growing older and older until it collapses in on itself.

Other settlements have fared better and have even prospered, like Gloomwrought, where trade is their biggest commodity. In these larger cities, you can find liches, necromancers, and other dark creatures looking for dark artifacts, powerful secrets, and hidden knowledge. It’s all to common a sight to see a lich disembarking from their bone-ship to walk the market streets in search of rare spell components.

Atmosphere

Walking through the Shadowfell, the first thing you will notice is that all color has been sucked out. Living things still grow, though they appear drab and grey, and while they still provide food it is far from nourishing. On top of that is the constant and pervading chill that hangs in the air, it is always chilly here, even when the weak sun appears from behind the heavy clouds in the air. The air of Shadowfell is heavy with despair and sorrow, it infects your lungs and hangs there in your body sucking out your energy. 

The land is always dull and at night it is like walking through pitch blackness. Lighting torches do little to dispel the darkness and a campfire's warmth is gone from its feeble light, in fact, it is incredibly dangerous to have a light source in the Shadowfell as the dark creatures who inhabit this world are drawn to it. 

Traits

As the Shadowfell is a reflection of the Material Plane, it shares many commonalities, though it is typically twisted in such a way that it may not be as recognizable.

Shadow Crossings

Traveling to the Shadowfell is fairly easy and there are many places where an adventurer can slip into the shadows and find themselves standing in this grim plane. The most common places to find these Shadow Crossings are in graveyards, battlefields, and in the bleak corners of crypts, though the crossings never last very long. It is as if the Shadowfell is boiling over, and the bubbles rise and burst into the Material Plane.

These crossings may last a day, hours or years though the moment that the sun touches on them they burn away and they never appear in the same locations. Many of these same crossings are one way, and once you arrive in the Shadowfell, you must find another way home. Sometimes these crossings will only expel shadow-creatures on to the Material Plane before closing. Many communities have been wiped out when a Shadow Crossing appeared in their graveyard, causing the dead to rise.

Traversing the Plane

Crossing the plane is fairly easy and is much like walking through the Material Plane. As the Shadowfell is a reflection, you will often find forests or mountains in the same locations as the Material Plane, though their appearance can be far darker. Lush forests of the Material Plane may be dying swamps, home to sinister shadows and creatures attracted to your campfire. Or a castle that sits atop a mountain cliff may be reflected as the ruined halls sitting along a mountain line that resembles the wicked teeth of some horrifying creature.

Morphic in Nature

Unlike the Material Plane, the Shadowfell is constantly in motion. Mountains may sink into themselves creating canyons, or forests may move across the plains to relocate itself. To an observer, the plane never changes, but if they leave and come back they will realize that nothing is the same. Even the streets of cities like Gloomwrought morph and change where they lead too, with towers growing high above the city before crumbling into ruins the next day. The Shadowfell is always reshaping itself, and the creatures that call it home reflect that.

Lingering Spirits

As all souls first travel to the Shadowfell when they die, many of them can be found throughout this plane. While all souls must pass through Letherna before moving onto their afterlife, some refuse or resist that journey. Powerful souls that still have business on the Material Plane can resist that pull for a while, though those spirits grow mad and become a force of darkness and evil. Many adventurers may be called on in the Shadowfell to determine why a spirit is not yet at rest, and how they can help it pass on through the gates of Letherna.

Locations

Throughout the Shadowfell are bastions of civilizations, though they are few and far between. Most are haunted by dark creatures, and the inhabitants ill-equipped to deal with it.

Darklands

The darklands are the name for the areas throughout the Shadowfell where the power of darkness is stronger. In these spots, the power of dread is stronger and it sucks away at all life and color until everything resembles shades of grey. If one finds their way into such a location, you should leave as fast as possible before it sucks away your life energy and kills you.

Most darklands are thankfully temporary, though there are a few that are permanent and are far more dangerous because of it. Here nightwalkers, sorrowsworn and other evil creatures call home and are quick to destroy all life.

Domains of Dread

In the darkest corners of the Shadowfell are domains of horror and pure evil. In these closed-off locales, the best known is the valley of Barovia, home to the vampire lord, Strahd Von Zarovich. Here, the Dark Powers watch over their prisoners, known as Darklords. Occasionally mortals make their way into these domains, either by the cruel Dark Powers or by unintentionally wandering into a Shadow Crossing. The Darklords are unable to leave these prisons until they can atone for their sins, though it is unknown if that has happened before.

More often than not, the mortals that are trapped in the domain become the plaything of the Darklord, though some are able to destroy the evil and escape. Unfortunately, the Dark Powers are unwilling to allow one of their prisoners to die so easily and will restore the Domain once those mortals leave. The only creatures that know how to travel in and out of the domains unmolested are the Vistani, and they refuse to share their secrets.

Gloomwrought

One of the major cities of the Shadowfell, this port city is slowly sinking into the Skins, a vast peat bog that extends for miles all around it on land. Dark walls keep out the worst of the Shadowfell, and it even has dark walls that wrap around its port with openings large enough for trade galleys to travel through. This port city is one of the brightest lights on this plane and is a common destination for traders and travelers of other planes.

The walls of this city are decorated with macabre skeletons writhing across them, and the entry gates are skulls screaming, their jaws agape as in agony and they constantly move around the walls so you never know where an entrance or exit might appear. These walls give off a sickly green light that illuminates the surrounding peat bog and no one knows if the gargoyles that stand watch along the top of the walls are just carved stone or guardians of the city.

In the city market, you can find all manner of dark and illicit goods being openly traded on the streets. Liches, necromancers and other evil creatures will often sail into port and look for rare ingredients for potions, spells and other dark rituals. Cultists to Vecna and Orcus can be found in their hidden temples, plotting the destruction of the Raven Queen and their conquest of the Shadowfell’s dead.

Prince Rolan the Deathless, a somber human nobleman, is the ruler of Gloomwrought, though he holds little influence and power. The true power of Gloomwrought lies with the merchants who keep the city going by selling their mysterious goods. 

Letherna

The realm of the Raven Queen is where all souls must pass through before going on to the afterlife. Crossing through the thick forests that surround these mountains, you can see souls falling across the skies like comets streaking high above. The closer you venture to Letherna, the greater the number of souls can be witnessed as these silvery ghosts crowd their way in. Here they are judged by the Raven Queen and they learn of their fate. Those that are refused entry by the Raven Queen, whether because they are far too evil, their souls are broken or other mysterious reasons prowl through the forest their malice lashing out at any mortal foolish enough to get close to them.

No living mortal is allowed to enter Letherna, but there is a nearby temple to the Raven Queen known as Zvomarana. Here, only the most powerful and loyal of the Raven Queen’s servants may enter, though it is an ordeal of faith to even find the temple and enter it.

Shadowdark

As the Shadowfell is a reflection of the Material Plane, there is a reflection of the Underdark known as the Shadowdark. The Shadowdark is far colder than the rest of the Shadowfell and massive ice sheets make up much of its interiors. Aberrant horrors like mindflayers, Grell, and worse make their lairs in the twisted, dark tunnels plotting their eventual destruction of the surface dwellers. Those who journey down into the bowels of the Shadowdark don’t often return, and the ones that do return are forever changed by the horrors they witnessed.

Factions & People

Cultists

Throughout the Shadowfell are cultists and priests to dark gods of death and undeath. Many perform dark rituals and search for knowledge through the ruins of ancient civilizations. Some cults make plans to destroy the Raven Queen and usurp her domain.

Orcus

The cultists for Orcus are working hard to destroy the Raven Queen and for Orcus to take her place. His plans for conquering the planes involves taking over the undead of the Shadowfell, and to that end, he must vanquish the Raven Queen.

Death Giants

The Death Giants are evil giants that found their way onto the Shadowfell and brought their slaves to help them take over the plane. They were successful at the beginning, unfortunately for them, the melancholy of the plane caused the giants to wither away and die. In a desperate attempt to hold on to life, the Death Giants began killing those that served them and stealing their life force. Many still hold onto their castles but they are quickly fading away into the Shadowfell.

Nightwalkers

These shadow creatures are the original inhabitants of the Shadowfell created by the shadowstuff. In the 4th edition, they were created by spirits so malicious that they grew in power and began warring for territory against the Sorrowsworn and the Raven Queen. Many have pledged themselves to Orcus or Vecna, though they are only interested in agreements so long as they are benefiting from it.

In 5th edition, they have become a being created by the Negative Energy Plane and seek only to destroy all life.

Raven Queen

A mysterious figure in charge of overseeing that all souls make it to their afterlife. She makes her home at Letherna where all souls must pass through before being ushered to exaltation or damnation. In 4th edition, she was a haughty sorceress-queen who was able to overthrow the God of Death, Nerull in his realm of Pluton. After overthrowing him, she took up his portfolio and the other gods elevated her to godhood status but adjusted her role so that she couldn’t be the god of the dead and try to lead an army of undead against the other gods.

In 5th edition, she was an elf who rose to power while Corellen and Lolth began warring for control of the elves. She amassed her own following, known as the Shadar-Kai, and became a quasi-divine being from their worship. As she was growing in power, a group of wizards formulated a dark ritual to siphon some of her worship to them and she brought her wrath down upon them. Unfortunately, this cast her and her worshipers, the Shadar-Kai, into the Shadowfell where she now rules over the dead. Many are unsure of her true motives in rising to power, though some think it was so she could unite the races of elves under a single divine god while others attribute it to something far more sinister.

Shadar-Kai

These creatures follow the Raven Queen and work to better themselves for her worship. They train relentlessly and have become a society of extreme emotions and incredible appetites. The Shadar-kai have built grim and sullen cities in the Shadowfell and are unafraid of death, for when they die the Raven Queen guides their souls not to death, but to new bodies where they are reborn.

In 4th edition, the Shadar-kai where humans that walked a dark path in an attempt to stop themselves from dying. When their dark rituals failed, they pleaded with the Raven Queen to save them. She agreed to do so and taught them to not fear death, but rather that she would watch over their souls and protect them from the damnation of undeath. The shadar-kai decided to reallocate themselves to the Shadowfell where they truly began their worship of the Raven Queen in an attempt to join her powerful army of Sorrowsworn.

The Shadar-kai of 5th edition were elven worshipers that followed the Raven Queen when she tried to ascend to godhood of the elves. They were caught in her divine wrath against the traitorous wizards who tried to steal her power, and they are now inhabitants of the Shadowfell where they are cursed to forever serve the Raven Queen.

Sorrowsworn

These creatures are the perfect appearance of the Shadowfell. Dark and twisted, they seek only to purge the Shadowfell of creatures that don’t belong, like the Nightwalkers or Death Giants. In 4th edition, many work for the Raven Queen and are powerful Shadar-kai that the Raven Queen turned into her elite Raven Knights who patrol the Shadowfell.

5th edition introduces these creatures as the twisted manifestation of the Shadowfell, though they have no loyalties beyond anything that allows them to survive. They eagerly suck up at life and will attack with a horrible onslaught that can make even the bravest adventurers run in fear.

Vistani

The Vistani are a bloodline of many different races that can freely travel across the Domains of Dread, the Shadowfell, and the Material Plane. When they arrive at a place of civilization they take on the guise of entertainers and circus-like performers, and when they leave a settlement they take orphans and the lonely with them. The Vistani are not a singular race, but rather a mystical-like bloodline that connects them all. Only the Vistani know the secrets of traveling so easily through the domains and planes, and they refuse to tell anyone else how.

Resources & Further Reading

Guide to the Ethereal Plane (2nd Edition)
For more information on the Demiplane of Shadows.
Dragon Magazine #213
For more information on the Demiplane of Shadows.
Manual of the Planes (3rd Edition)
For more information on the Plane of Shadows.
Manual of the Planes (4th Edition)
For more information on the Shadowfell and its locales, inhabitants, and features.
Player’s Option - Heroes of Shadow (4th Edition)
For more information on the Raven Queen and Vistani
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (5th Edition)
For more information on the Raven Queen and the Shadar-Kai.
Curse of Strahd (5th Edition)
For more information on Barovia - a Domain of Dread, Strahd Von Zarovich, and the Vistani.


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Art Credit: Manual of the Planes by WotC

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