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.
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.
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.
Alpha Beta PTR Vanilla 1.1.0 1.2.0 1.3.0 1.4.0 1.5.0 1.6.0 1.6.1 1.7.0 1.8.0 1.8.4 1.9.0 1.10.0 1.11.0 1.12.0 Burning Crusade 2.0.1 2.0.3 2.0.4 2.1.0 2.1.2 2.2.0 2.3.0 2.4.0 2.4.3 Wrath of the Lich King 3.0.2 3.0.3 3.0.8 3.1.0 3.2.0 3.2.2 3.3.0 3.3.3 Cataclysm 4.0.1 4.0.3a 4.0.6 4.1.0 4.2.0 4.2.2 4.3.0 4.3.2 Mists of Pandaria 5.0.4 5.0.5 5.1.0 5.2.0 5.3.0 5.4.0 5.4.7 Warlords of Draenor 6.0.2 6.0.3 6.1.0 6.2.0 Legion 7.0.3 7.1.0 7.1.5 7.2.0 7.2.5 7.3.0 7.3.5 Battle for Azeroth 8.0.1 8.1.0 8.1.5 8.2.0 8.3.0 Shadowlands 9.0.1
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.
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.
The origins of the Shadowlands remain uncertain, but they have existed ever since mortal life first arose in the physical universe. They span all worlds, including Azeroth, on which Icecrown serves as an anchor to the Shadowlands. There are those who believe mortal souls are drawn into this dark place when they die, remaining there forever. Others hope their souls will go on to a brighter place rather than languish for eternity within the cold confines of the Shadowlands.