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Shadowfell 5e - D&D Plane Review

Shadowfell 5e - D&D Plane Review

Table of Contents:

Shadowfell 5e

The Original Upside Down

You’ve lost your way in the graveyard and stumbled your way through an open grave. The shock creeps into a confused and foreboding terror as you crawl out of the cold earth and behold a dark and twisted landscape bereft of color and solemnly still save for the lumbering forms of countless undead. You’ve just fallen from the forgotten realms through a shadow crossing and if you don’t scramble back through before it closes, you’re likely in for a bad and spooky time in this unapologetically evil echo of the material realm. Grab your lantern and some holy water as we go through everything you need to know about the plane of shadow.


A Dark Reflection

The Shadowfell is not a proper plane amid the astral plane but rather it’s one of the “mirror planes” of the prime material plane (to us the “normal” world) that exists as a parallel plane alongside it. This makes it more or less the evil version of the feywild with its positive energy that also hugs tightly to the material world. This means that for every major landmark in the material plane, there will be some sort of dark and evil version of it in the Shadowfell at roughly the same place. Mountains are reflected by looming crags, forests by gnarled groves, and cities by rotten and degraded citadels. The landscape itself is morphic and literally shifts to be as ominous and evil as possible, bleached of color, and incredibly dark.


Shadow Crossings

The primary way mortals reach the Shadowfell demi - plane is through passages called “shadow crossings”. As the Shadowfell is so closely tied to the material plane, the planes often briefly overlap and freely allow travel between them. You’ll find these in particularly dark and dreary locations rife with necrotic energy, like graveyards, the creepy corners of basements, or anywhere that light and joy rarely reach. Many of these crossings are permanent, and a deep cavern within the Underdark is a good place to find them. But many at the surface occur for only a single night or return with the setting sun only accessible in true darkness.


The Plane of Shadows

It isn’t just darkness, it’s advanced darkness. Flames and other bright light sources function here but they’re muted and work like dim light across the entire plane. They serve to give the blacks and grays definition rather than proper illumination in this negative energy plane. There’s no sun here, no stars, nothing but an endless black canopy to oppressively cloak the shadowstuff landscape and necrotic energies. Adventurers will find that this world hates light, a spite shared by many of its inhabitants. It's also a “fugue plane”, which makes reality and consistency tentative at best. Anything could be lurking in the dark.


Gloomy Inhabitants

The Shadowfell is infested with countless undead and dead creatures, particularly shades, wraiths, shadow mastiff, and spirits but also the odd death knight or lich and their zombified minions leftover from the Spellplague. Shadow dragons loom from the mountaintops and fiends lurk in the deepest dungeons. Material plane creatures sometimes wander in as well through the shadow crossings and manage to survive the evil creatures there. Owlbears, umber hulks, wolves and basilisks can all be found hunting the shadowlands. Over generations many of these creatures have become saturated with the negative energy of the plane becoming a form of undead called “dark creatures”, beings bleached of color and gifted with dark powers.

Mortals also call the shadow plane home, though they too have become “dark creatures” one with the plane. They’re called “shades” though technically we haven’t seen them pop up yet in 5th edition but in previous editions these shadow people haunted the twisted Shadowfell streets. With a soulless lack of emotions, pointy teeth, and shadow powers, they straddled the line between monster and mortal inhabitant. In some editions you had to do some specific nasty rituals to absorb shadow powers and become a shade, and in some just living in the Shadowfell long enough did the trick.


Domains of Dread

So, while the Shadowfell is already dark and spooky, it also links to even worse places collectively called “domains of dread”. These are nightmare-scapes or the domains of powerful evil entities who are usually trapped in the hells of their own design with their own lore. The most famous of these is Castle Ravenloft, ruled by the vampire Count Strahd. Domains of dread can open up all over the place, but the Shadowfell is essentially “next door” and most of the permanent passages to numerous domains of dread lie somewhere in the plane of shadow.


Notable Locations

The Shadowfell demi - plane is highly morphic, which means the landscape is going to shift and change a bit every time you turn your head. The locations that stick are “reflections” of material plane places and cities. Every city back in the material plane has a dark and twisted version here with their own shadowy population and potential quests and conflicts. We haven't actually visited most of them in 5th edition yet, so they're all blank evil canvasses for you to work with.

The vast swamp back in the forgotten realms has a notable mirror version here called the shadow swamp containing a mysterious form at the bottom of a magical trench called the black rift. There's also a shadow keep called the “shadow citadel” at its heart just waiting for some evil rituals. The vast swamp is already dangerous enough but with the interplay into an even darker and more dangerous shadow version it makes for prime adventuring real estate.

The Shadowfell is also a favorite home to the Goddess of Death herself, the Raven Queen (not quite the one from critical role). She keeps a castle here called the Fortress of Memories filled with the memories and soul fragments taken from dead gods. She's also said to keep a divine realm here called Letherna, a dark ice fortress surrounded by a frozen wood.

If you're looking for a more structured location. Take a dig through Thunderspire Labyrinth from back in 4th edition by Mike Mearls. It's not 5th edition but there's a ton of Shadowfell dd lore to mine content from.


Adventuring in the Shadowfell

So, your party has slipped down a particularly dark hole and popped out into the Shadowfell, what next? Do you just announce, “things are dark and spooky” and move on? Well thankfully we get a bit of mechanical impact found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide called Shadowfell Despair.


Shadowfell Despair

This is an optional rule that they suggest you run if you want to emphasize just how creepy and unnerving the Shadowfell should be and the negative extreme emotions they'll be bombarded with. Once a day or just whenever you feel the situation is especially unnerving, have each player (that’s not native to the Shadowfell) make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, have them roll a d6 and use the following table:

Shadowfell Despair


Despair Effect


Apathy. The character makes death saving throws and Dexterity checks for initiative at disadvantage and gains the following flaw: “I don’t believe I can make a difference to anyone or anything.”


Dread. The character makes all saving throws at disadvantage and gains the following flaw: “I am convinced that this place is going to kill me.”


Madness. The character makes all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws and ability checks at disadvantage and gains the following flaw: “I can’t tell what’s real anymore.”

If a character fails a save but already has one from a previous failed save, they replace the old negative emotions with the new emotion. Whenever they finish a long rest they can make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw (it’s a higher save once the despair sets in) and on a success they end the effects. They can also get rid of despair with calm emotions spells or any magic that can remove curses.


Adventuring Tiers in the Shadowfell

Unlike many of the other “evil” planes the Shadowfell is actually fairly survivable at early tiers. Not that you couldn’t pull a few shadow dragons out to challenge a high level party but the inherent despair effect is passable by low hit point characters and there’s nothing intrinsically lethal about it unlike say Hell or the elemental chaos of the plane of fire, or even the Underdark with its dark elves. If your party does have trouble, try giving them something that deals radiant damage since half the things they'll fight here will be weak to it.


Tier 1 Shadowfell (Levels 1-4)

This early, a stay in the Shadowfell should be brief and frightening. They should be huddled in dark corners as hordes of undead and terrifying shadow creatures narrowly miss their discovery and subsequent devouring. The “dark creatures” are an excellent resource for creatures to fight, as are typical low-level Underdark creatures like darkmantles or shadow mastiffs.

For a quick and easy “dark creature” template, just apply the following to an existing creature from the monster manual and pump it’s CR up by 1:

The creature gains darkvision to a range of 120 feet.

The creature deals an additional 1d4 necrotic damage on each attack.

The creature becomes invisible in areas of darkness.


Tier 2 Shadowfell (Levels 5-10)

Tier 2 honestly feels ideal for Shadowfell campaigns. Not so low that you can’t play around with all the fun evil creatures but not so high that they aren’t scared of anything. Still a bit low to be taking on the serious contenders of the plane though. This is a good spot to fight a bunch of ghosts in a Shadowfell ruin, maybe do a few quests for a suspiciously helpful shade, or even just a few random encounters as a prelude to entering a domain of dread.


Tier 3 Shadowfell (Levels 11-16)

To make the Shadowfell encounters interesting at tier 3 I’d recommend tying the adventurers into a power struggle at one of the shadow cities like Chaulssin or Evernight, or perhaps pit them against a particularly nasty dark wizard, death knights, or a shadow dragon. At this tier the adventurers shouldn’t be too worried about your average undead and you’ll have to start raising the stakes beyond just “spooky”.


Tier 4 Shadowfell (Levels 17-20)

At tier 4 the Shadowfell monsters are actually a bit mild compared to what the players will be able to take on, unless they're here clashing with the Raven Queen. Ironically, at tier 4 I find the Shadowfell functions best as a “normal” staging ground and “safe place” to set against the real adventure taking place in an extremely nasty domain of dread linked by stable shadow crossing to the Shadowfell.


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Last updated: January 27, 2019

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