This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Four on 22nd January 2020.
Lennon (storytelling): It was a dark and stormy night
Ryu: I’m not hearing a storm
Lennon (storytelling sarcastically): Because someone is slacking off
Ostron: At this point I’ve already used four spell slots just on ambiance. Magical darkness, mist cloud, control weather, wind gust, now you want lightning on command?
Lennon: … well I’ve gotta set the mood right
Ryu: Wouldn’t it be easier to just meet in the Shadowfell at this point?
Lennon: Well…actually I don’t know, would it?
Ostron: In terms of planar locations it’s one of the easier ones to find.
Among the various planar dimensions that crop up regularly in D&D, the Shadowfell is relatively new. It only officially came into existence during 4th edition, and unlike many things conceived during that time, the Shadowfell has stuck around largely intact, at least so far.
It wasn’t a wholly new creation, however. Many aspects of it were borrowed from Ravenloft, Strahd’s setting, and indeed in 5th edition Strahd’s domain is located in the Shadowfell. But a lot of other elements of it came from what used to be known as the Plane of Shadows.
Along with the Feywild, the Shadowfell is one of the planes that, while separate, is very close to and heavily influenced by the Material Plane, or where most people spend most of their time. While portals or gateways to places like the Abyss or Celestia are big deals and there’s always a lot of attention surrounding the very few that crop up, it’s possible to end up in the Shadowfell more or less by accident. Portals called Shadow Crossings allow pretty much anyone to literally walk from one plane to the other. Shadow Crossings aren’t loud or noticeable either; they just look like dark areas of shadow, though they’re usually located around graves, creepy caverns, or gloomy buildings with dark histories.
Dark, gloomy, and creepy are major major themes for the Shadowfell itself. Color has literally been leeched out of everything, so any native life or landscapes will have themes of black, bleached white, and grey, with the occasional dark mud brown for variety. It has more fog than London on a regular basis and it’s not a static landscape. Like many planes apart from the material, certain elements of the landscape are fluid, though given how close the Shadowfell is, the plane doesn’t change as drastically as places like Limbo or the Abyss. Major landmarks and geography will stay as-is most of the time, but occasionally a mountain might turn into more of a hill, or a river might change direction. In addition, again because of how closely tied they are, most of the Shadowfell will reflect the material plane. Those who’ve seen Stranger Things will clue right in to how this works; the “Upside Down” from the first season works very much like how the Shadowfell does.
If you know where a mountain range is back home, in the Shadowfell there will be *something* there, although it may not be mountains. Some settlements are reflected as well, but they have to be major sites like Waterdeep or Baldur’s Gate, and their Shadowfell incarnations will probably be rotted ruins that may or may not be inhabited. Then again, there are places like Evernight, which is an active city that mirrors Neverwinter but is inhabited by necromancers, cannibals, cultists, and hoards of undead.
Because of the more-or-less static nature of the plane, there are permanent or semi-permanent landmarks. Most of them are so-called Domains of Dread; areas where dark powers have imprisoned a particular being (then called a Darklord) for varied reasons. While they are prisons, the prisoners run the show; anyone wandering into a Domain of Dread can only escape by leave of the Darklord or by killing said Darklord. Borovia and Strahd, as mentioned before, are probably the most famous example of a Domain of Dread and its Darklord.
The other two most well known landmarks are Gloomwrought and Letherna. Gloomwrought doesn’t currently have a solid mirror. Older editions claimed it was a reflection of a magical city called Thultanthar, but some 5th edition resources make that problematic, because in certain 5e maps of Faerun there’s a large exploded crater where the city should be. So it’s kind of up in the air. Either way, as it exists now it’s a trading hub in the Shadowfell, mostly for travelers from other planes. It’s also the National mall for liches, vampires, and necromancers.
The other landmark is Letherna, which is the only thing like a country in the Shadowfell, not counting the Domains of Dread. The Raven Queen controls Letherna and conducts her business there; judging souls. Dead souls from the Material plane are supposed to filter through the Shadowfell to her. That doesn’t always happen for a large number of reasons, but a lot of them do, and when they do they end up in Letherna. The only other people there are ones devoutly sworn to the Raven Queen, such as the Shadar-Kai. Anyone else trying to enter is in a world of trouble.
The preponderance of ghosts and dead spirits is the reason for a lot of the realities of the Shadowfell. Necromancers, Liches, and anyone interested in the undead are all over the place and cults of Orcus spring up like Starbucks. There are a lot of Vecna cultists as well because Vecna used to live in the Shadowfell. Of the natives, you’re likely to find most of the races you’d see in the regular world, but fewer of them; the only way natives usually show up is if they’re born in the Shadowfell, and they also tend to be the only ones who want to stay.
That’s the intelligent inhabitants. The monsters are more varied in the details, but they’re all on-brand of being dark, gloomy, and generally disturbing. Displacer beasts are the most well-known creatures that come from here, but shades, bodak, and shadows are all worrisome, while things like Death Giants and Sorrowsworn can be truly terrifying.
The gloomy, depressing atmosphere doesn’t just permeate the landscape and the inhabitants. Travelers to the Shadowfell are said to feel an unshakable sense of gloom and melancholy. There are even optional rules in 5th edition that impose penalties for travelers as they traverse the plane; if they fail enough wisdom saves, exhaustion-like effects or madness can take hold.
So, given all that, why would anyone want to go here? The truth is usually no one does. Unlike Celestia, where you might chat with your God, or one of the Nine hells where you might make a deal or get a cool trinket, or the plane of Ice where you keep your beer, there isn’t anything inherently enticing about the Shadowfell.
People going there usually have one of three objectives. They’re very interested in necromancy or spirits and want to be close to the source, someone they know died recently and they want to try to have one last argument about socks or something, or they really want to talk to the Raven Queen. Note that reason 1 or 2 can very often lead to reason 3.
Now that’s the people going there on purpose. As we mentioned before, it’s very possible to accidentally lean into a shadowy gravesite and end up in gloomworld. And, because of the way particular details of the landscape shift around, it’s possible your way in won’t be where you found it when you want to get out.
As a result of the above, unless you’re running a campaign like Curse of Strahd where everything is in a Domain of Dread focused on the Darklord, few long campaigns take place entirely in the Shadowfell; there just isn’t much to do there most of the time, and it gets depressing for a number of reasons. The Shadowfell is more often used as a diversion, or a “Mines of Moria” type detour; the adventurers end up in the Shadowfell, need to do something quick, and then need to get back out.
However, at the moment part of the problem is that there isn’t much official information about the Shadowfell in 5th edition. A lot of info is being assumed based on previous incarnations and, as we mentioned, some of it is already being contradicted. In addition to the origins of Gloomwrought getting murky, in 4th edition Tiamat had set up shop in the Shadowfell, and she’s definitely not there anymore. It’s possible a later resource will flesh out the setting in more detail and provide more areas to explore and reasons for adventurers to go there.
Lennon: Okay, so on the plus side, it takes care of the ambiance problem.
Ryu: Yeah, on the negative side: undead, physical manifestations of negative emotions, and frickin Strahd von Zarovich!
Lennon: Well I mean if we don’t go knock on his door he’s not going to bother us, right?
Ryu: So I need to bring up the liches and the cannibals? Really?
Ostron: And remember, Gath upped his rates recently.
Lennon: Fine, fine, but I expect lightning bolts.
Ostron: …And the flashing lights, yes, I know.
Ryu: Speaking of flashing lights, I think the scrying pool is doing that strobe thing where there’s a backlog of listener messages. We should check that out.