This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy on 23 June 2021.
Lennon: CHAIN DEVIL!
(Eldritch Blast strikes)
Ryu (surprised & angry): YA!! Lennon!
Lennon: Sorry, sorry.
Ryu: Oh you’re lucky I have a high Dex! How could you possibly think I was something summoned from the nine hells!?
Lennon: Well the Killer DM-
Ryu: Isn’t here! It’s just me! And you’re lucky. You think you’d have any better chance of hitting her? Or being alive afterward?
Lennon: Well Ostron’s been opening up portals all the time, how do I know what’s going to sneak through?
Ostron: Two. I opened one portal to bring in a consultant, and the other one to get Tony to sub in and you weren’t even here for that. Though that said, why are you carrying a bunch of chains around?
Ryu: I think KayDee did some shopping while I wasn’t paying attention. I found this…I think it’s an outfit?…in my room. There’s a lot of metal.
Ostron: Um…I don’t think she went shopping.
Ryu: What do you mean?
Ostron: Were you missing any gold?
Ryu: No…I actually had a few hundred more now that I think about it.
Ostron: Yeah, and there’s dried blood on some of that. I think those might be…used?
Ryu: Ugh…KayDee….why do you do these things to me? Who…or what…did these belong to then?
Lennon: Oh that’s easy, they’re Shadar-Kai.
Ostron: How do you know that?
Lennon: Archfey patron, remember? They…requested…that I learn more about the fey and such.
Ryu: Shadar-Kai are fey?
Lennon: Almost elves, actually. Oh, here! This is the primer I got.
At this point in D&D, there’s an unofficial pattern where every major area of the multiverse has its own set of elves. On the Material Plane, you have the regular elves, in the Feywild you have the Eladrin, and in the Underdark the Drow are hanging out. If you’re venturing into the Shadowfell, however, the Shadar-Kai are filling that niche.
The shadow elves, as they’re sometimes called, were added to D&D without a lot of fanfare beginning in 3rd edition. They’ve never been a prominent enough fixture of the game to have anyone delve into their publication history but it’s likely they were added for two reasons: to give the Shadowfell, or the Plane of Shadow as it was called, more native inhabitants, and to build up some more mythology around the Raven Queen.
As is typical with creatures that have been around in D&D for a while, there are conflicting stories regarding their origin. The most popular one relates to the history of the conflict between Correllon and Lolth, the primary elven god and the prominent deity of the Drow, respectively. Apparently early in their conflict, early enough that Lolth had not yet been cast out as a demon, a queen of the group of elves that would become the Shadar-Kai was horrified by the conflict between the gods. Her solution was to become a god herself, and use her newfound status to go talk some sense into the ones that were currently fighting.
A whole ritual was prepared that involved her followers surrendering their souls to amplify the queen’s power and cause her ascendance. Everything went fine until a few wizards among the group got greedy and tried to siphon some of the power themselves. The queen had attained godhood, but immediately noticed what the wizards were doing and killed them. That fouled the ritual and dragged her and everyone involved down into the Shadowfell. That killed the queen, but she had enough divine power to pull together scraps of her own being and merge them with memories from souls scattered around the Shadowfell, eventually becoming the Raven Queen.
As for her followers, the aftermath of the ritual left them in the Shadowfell in a cursed state. Because they had offered their souls in the ritual and it was interrupted, their souls are now constantly trying to escape their bodies. Their “half-present” souls mean the Shadar-Kai don’t have the ability to experience things as completely as ensouled beings, and usually impart a sense of wanting to die just to escape the half-living existence they’re cursed with. It also means they often seek out extremes; pain, decadence, and extreme emotions are some of the only things that excite them and produce enough sense of living to give them a better hold on their souls.
If they stay in the Shadowfell, the Raven Queen’s influence and control over souls means they don’t have to deal with the souls attempting to leave. It’s also why many of the Shadar-Kai pledge themselves to her service. However if they’re on any other plane the risk of losing their souls increases the longer they’re there.
For the record, the alternative story of Shadar-Kai origin simply paints them as more generic fey creatures who were obsessed with shadow and tried to make a bargain with some sort of dark entity to cover the Material Plane in perpetual twilight. The whole arrangement didn’t work out, and the soul curse is the result.
Independently, the Raven Queen came about because of a fight with a god of death, and the rest of the gods cursed her to have the position of a god of death with no real power over the souls; the Raven Queen’s role is to collect souls and shepherd them along to their next destination, but she herself has no ability to really interact with, claim, or use the souls for anything except accessing their memories. In any case, her minimal amount of control still lets her dampen the Shadar-Kai souls’ imperative to run off, so the alliance forms either way.
Physically, the Shadar-Kai look much as you’d expect beings to look if they rarely ever see sunlight and want to hide in grey shadows a lot: pale skin, thin builds, dark or black hair for the most part, and dark eyes that had minimal whites and no pupils. Their elven heritage, if you subscribe to that version of the history, is hard to make out; some Shadar-Kai seem to favor elven features, but others look more human.
Their fascination with sensory stimulation informs most of their clothing choices, as well as tactics. They usually dress in grey or black to hide in shadows and ambush from mists, and their clothing is usually functional for combat; the Shadar-Kai tend to resent most other humanoids and will readily fight whenever they can, either trying to achieve some memorable deed, or just from overwhelming envy and resentment for their situation. They’re also very into body piercing, again out of a desire to increase sensory experiences. Related to that, many of them also wear a device called a gal-ralan, an armband with cold-iron needles that pierces the skin. It causes near constant pain, but it’s a dedicated anchor that keeps the soul connected to the Shadar-Kai’s body.
The reason they might want to prove themselves in combat is that Shadar-Kai societies are obsessed with personal achievement. The Shadar-Kai can’t actually die; whenever they die the Raven Queen has to recycle their souls and send them back to the Shadowfell, where they reincarnate. Performing great deeds, either objectively or for the Raven Queen, is the only way they can stand out and advance in their society; almost all of it is a meritocracy. After all, in an immortal society it’s not like there are people retiring or dying and opening up positions higher in the chain of command. The ones devoted to the Raven Queen also do it as a form of worship so the goddess has more interesting and exciting memories to acquire when they go through their next reincarnation cycle.
Practically speaking, what few Shadar-Kai settlements there are in the Shadowfell are usually led by powerful spellcasters among their ranks. And while most of them are incapable of dying, the overall population of Shadar-Kai is fairly stable; while any pairing of Shadar-Kai with other races produces a more or less pureblood Shadar-Kai, and they’re capable of reproducing within their own species, it’s not something that happens often. The Shadar-Kai are not eager to create more people who suffer with their curse, and their attitude of fatalism, resentment, and obsessions with being adrenaline junkies doesn’t often make people think of them as great romantic prospects.
Then again, when they aren’t in the Shadowfell, thanks to their fey heritage, they can often appear darkly attractive and young, though their pale complexion remains. People also say that shadows on their bodies seem somehow darker than normal. However if they return to the Shadowfell the ravages of the curse make them appear emaciated, old, and withered, almost like walking corpses, although they still retain all the strength, agility, and power. For that reason the Shadar-Kai often go masked when in their “home” plane.
As mentioned there’s a prominent feeling of resentment and desperation through much of Shadar-Kai society, along with either personal or societal pressure to do something memorable. That causes a lot of Shadar-Kai to harass or steal from other humanoids in various planes just for the thrill, or as revenge for some slight.
A few Shadar-Kai actually do make an effort to get their soul repaired or freed from the perpetual state of recycling, though again that usually takes the form of them acting out, usually violently, to get the attention of a being who is capable of repairing the soul. Since that requires something on the level of a wish spell or divine intervention, they tend to be quite desperate.
They are masters of two things in combat; sneak attacks and ambushes. Their affinity for blending into shadows makes them very hard to track, and they have the ability to teleport between shadows. They are so good at making use of shadows and quick strikes they’re even known to successfully ambush and kill Drow in the Underdark.
In straight up combat the Shadar-Kai use regular weapons like spears and knives but they’re also known for using more exotic weapons like spiked chains and so-called whip swords, or chains with segmented pieces of blades. Apart from the exotic weapons they employ most of the same tactics as other humanoid fey; basic magic, their teleportation, and misdirection.
Fitting Shadar-Kai into a game is fairly easy to do, although keep in mind most of the official stat blocks for them suggest they should only be pitted against medium-to-high level adventurers. If the characters are involved in anything related to the Raven Queen or spend a lot of time in the Shadowfell it’s very likely they’ll encounter Shadar-Kai. They fit in very well as an uncertain foe in the Shadowfell; in their home plane they aren’t as predatory as most of the native creatures and they aren’t obviously evil like many of the things characters would encounter if they wandered into a Dread Domain, but they aren’t friendly toward other humanoids.
Because they literally operate from the shadows and have a habit of going on raids trying to make a name for themselves, they can easily fit into the “mysterious force attacking the village” trope or any evolution of it. And as we suggested previously, it’s very probable characters will encounter them in the Underdark.
On the other hand, because of the neutral space the Raven Queen fits into, Shadar-Kai can also appear as uncertain allies when the characters are after the same or similar things. The Raven Queen despises undead, so large incursions of them, especially if the Demon Lord Orcus is involved in some way, may be of interest to the Shadar-Kai and they might be interested in assisting the characters if they have similar goals. And as mentioned, individual Shadar-Kai are always looking to make a name for themselves, so if the characters are on a quest that’s prominent enough it may be enough to catch the interest of a Shadar-Kai as a potential ally.
One final note of caution; the description and behavior of Shadar-Kai can closely resemble symptoms of people suffering from mental illness. Violent anti-social behavior, a sense of being unable to feel anything emotionally or physically, feelings of hopelessness, and harmful thrill seeking are all recognized symptoms of a few different conditions like anxiety disorders and depression. If Shadar-Kai and the details of their society and feelings are going to be a major part of your campaign, it’s worth going over the behaviors to see if anyone’s uncomfortable, and make sure not to suggest that the behaviors are the cause of any negative actions or attitudes about the Shadar-Kai.
Ryu: Well, none of that sounds like the Killer DM, so I still don’t understand why she was fighting with them? I guess I could sell some of this? Oh it looks like this earring is made of gold. Wonder why there’s only one?
Lennon (worried): Um…given what I’ve learned of the Shadar-Kai I’m not sure that would have been part of a pair…or that it went on an ear…
Ostron: All right rather than trying to figure out what the Killer DM does in her spare time or where the Shadar-Kai have piercings, maybe we should investigate the Scrying pool. Hopefully there’ll be less cringey topics to discuss there.