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.
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.
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 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.