After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King's Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls.
A new army of the dead rises: to combat Sylvanas' assault on Icecrown, Bolvar Fordragon— the revered former paladin who took on the mantle of Lich King to keep the Scourge at bay—has raised heroes from among all the peoples of Azeroth to bolster the Death Knights of Acherus. With Shadowlands, pandaren and all allied races will now be able to become death knights.
Adventurers entering the Shadowlands will find the realm of the dead in disarray. In the natural order of things, souls are sorted and sent on to an afterlife realm appropriate to the lives they lived, but starting around the time of the Burning Legion's third invasion of Azeroth, all souls who have perished—including the innocents slain at Teldrassil—are being funneled directly into the Maw. The Shadowlands are starving for anima even as the Maw continues to grow from the glut of fresh souls. Sylvanas Windrunner has been seemingly perpetrating acts to bring about great amounts of death and destruction. In partnership with the Jailer, they have been working toward a common end for some time.
But we know that the mission table feature will return in some way, thanks to a Hazzikostas interview with Twitch streamer and professional World of Warcraft tank, Sloot. In the interview, Hazzikostas confirmed that mission tables are present in Shadowlands, and that Blizzard wants it to be something you can do on your phone, rather than a front and center feature. Hazzikostas also stated that the team is looking to evolve the gameplay and offer more for players.
In the opening cinematic, Sylvanas shatters the Helm of Dominion, breaching the veil between the material realm and the Shadowlands, an ancient dimension where the dead coalesces for judgment. Sylvanas' actions have upset the natural balance between life and death, and it's on players to enter the Shadowlands itself and repair the cycle before it is too late.
During the Burning Legion's third invasion, the Knights of the Ebon Blade traveled to the Shadowlands to acquire the Aggregates of Anguish, five tormented essences of powerful souls - Admiral Proudmoore, Soulbinder Nyami, Grand Empress Shek'zeer, Grand Apothecary Putress and Archmage Arugal. Salanaar required these to conjure the Steeds of the Damned for the order's new Horsemen.
Certain playable races will receive new customization options (for example, humans will be able to customize their ethnicities, dwarves and trolls will gain tattoos, and undead will be able to show varying degrees of decay). The Death Knight class (added in Wrath of the Lich King) is being opened up to pandaren (added in Mists of Pandaria) and to all allied races (added in Legion and Battle for Azeroth); players who pre-ordered Shadowlands received access to death knights for these races with the release of Patch 8.3.0, Battle for Azeroth's last major content patch, on January 14, 2020.
Covenants grant two additional gameplay abilities, one being class-specific. It alters your playstyle. Covenants grant unique armor styles and special capes that look a little more like accessories. Titan-like Kyrian capes look more like angel wings, for example. Each Covenant has a unique campaign similar to those found in Battle for Azeroth and Legion.
Beings of death are ancient and powerful, and it is dangerous to meddle in their realm. When Odyn peered into the Shadowlands, he saw some of its inhabitants: souls in torment, the husks of the dead, ghostly wraiths with no face, and others with no form, all made of death itself. This was enough to frighten even him. Several races in the Shadowlands, such as the kyrian of Bastion, are souls of deceased mortals who have been transformed to serve a new purpose. If one of these former mortals is killed in the Shadowlands, they die permanently. Other creatures—such as dredgers and stewards—are endemic to the Shadowlands and are naturally born from the magic of death to serve the different realms and help facilitate the process of the afterlife. If one such creature of death is killed, their energy is recycled back into the Shadowlands, and eventually another member of the same race will manifest to take the place of the one that was killed.