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.
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.
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.
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.
In classic World of Warcraft expansion "Wrath of the Lich King," Alliance soldier Bolvar Fordragon replaced Arthas Menethil as the avatar of the Lich King, ruler of the undead Scourge on Azeroth. Pledging to keep the ravenous dead at bay, Bolvar was sealed into the Frozen Throne, entombed in the haunted armor of the Lich King. It looks as though Bolvar is set to play a central role in the next WoW expansion, tentatively dubbed "Shadowlands."
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.
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.
Sylvanas Windrunner, fallen leader of the Horde, has pierced the veil between Azeroth and the realm of the dead, setting in motion a series of events that threatens to upset the cosmic balance between life and death. World of Warcraft players entering the fabled Shadowlands will find the realms of the dead in upheaval. Under the normal order, departed souls were delivered to a realm appropriate to the lives they led, but now, all souls are being funneled into the Maw, where the most wicked are damned to suffer for eternity. As they seek to right the cycle and uncover the extent of Sylvanas' designs, players will forge bonds with the Covenants who hold domain over different planes within the 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.
Spirit healers decide when it's time for a mortal soul to pass into the Shadowlands. When a mortal dies and their soul crosses the veil between life and death, it is shepherded by the kyrian to Oribos so that they can be judged by the impassive Arbiter. All of the soul's contents—deeds, misdeeds, thoughts, accomplishments, and failures—are instantly laid bare before the Arbiter, who then judges in a mere instant and sends the soul off to one of the infinite realms of the Shadowlands, each of which is ruled over by a powerful Covenant. The Covenants are ancient and powerful orders who have existed since the Shadowlands were shaped long ago, and who bear sacred duties to help maintain the afterlife's ecosystem. Not every soul is filtered into the main four Covenants. Each soul brings with it a vital force known as anima, the product of all of the soul's experiences and actions in life. Anima is the lifeblood of the Shadowlands, making trees grow and rivers flow and is the source that's drawn upon to conduct the magic of death. Great souls—both good and evil—have a lot of anima, while those who have lived humbler lives have less. Four of the realms—Ardenweald, Bastion, Maldraxxus, and Revendreth—are especially vital to the functioning of the Shadowlands. However, there could be infinite afterlives, some small and tailored to a single person while others are vast and full of either splendor or torment. Between each realm is a cloudy space which was once rich with streams of anima connecting the different domains, but the current anima drought has caused the realms to become cut off from one another, breeding fear and mistrust among the inhabitants.