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.
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.
For the first time since the release of World of Warcraft in 2004, Shadowlands will involve a level reduction ("level squish"), with player characters at level 120 (the level cap in Battle for Azeroth) reduced to level 50, with level 60 being the new level cap (as it had been in the original game). In what Blizzard has called a "New Game+ experience", newly-created characters will have an updated starting experience on an island called "Exile's Reach", which will introduce them to the game and its systems. For players new to World of Warcraft, characters who finish the starting experience on Exile's Reach will proceed to Battle for Azeroth content, while veteran players who create new characters can choose the expansion experience they wish to play through to level 50, at which point they would proceed to the Shadowlands.
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 can be seen as a shadowy version of the physical world, and can be routinely visited as a spirit when player characters die. Governed by the Covenants, the four ruling realms of the Shadowlands are Bastion, Ardenweald, Revendreth and Maldraxxus (although countless others exist), which serve as the main setting of World of Warcraft's eighth expansion.