The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
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.
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.
In previous expansions, entities like the Loa of Death Bwonsamdi, ex-Forsaken Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, and corrupted titan watcher Helya all have spoken of the Shadowlands, and for some, the desire to conquer it. Sylvanas' character arc throughout Battle for Azeroth ends with her seeking to control death itself, indicating that she will play a pivotal role in Shadowlands.
The Shadowlands has long been referenced in World of Warcraft lore, but their origins and true nature remain a mystery. One thing is for certain; the Shadowlands are inextricably tied to death and decay. It stands opposed to the verdant spiritual realm of the Emerald Dream, which represents a vision of reality untarnished by corruption and mortal intervention.
The four zones that comprise the Shadowlands are ruled by "Covenants", similar to the Class Orders introduced in Legion. Each Covenant will have its own campaign, similar to the War Campaign in Battle for Azeroth, with gear specific to the faction and abilities both universal and determined by class. The four covenants are the Kyrian of Bastion, the Night Fae of Ardenweald, the Venthyr of Revendreth, and the Necrolords of Maldraxxus. Players experiencing the Shadowlands content for the first time will need to reach level 60 before they can choose to pledge themselves to a Covenant, while alts are able to do so at the start of the Shadowlands content.
The Shadowlands are accessible upon death, where the player-character can roam, and can only be seen by other spirits. The Spirit of Tony Two-Tusk describes the Shadowlands as all grey and dark, swirling clouds. While Uuna was in the Shadowlands, she described it as dark and she was unable to see anything, though she could hear people interacting with her in the physical world. From within the Shadowlands, she could see the light of the naaru A'dal who was in the physical world, but it was so bright that it scared her. The moonlight at Lake Falathim allowed her to see a friend in the physical world.