At first blush, the Shadowfell seems much like the world. It is not a lush and verdant hunting ground like the Feywild, nor is it the tumultuous battleground of the Elemental Chaos. Its appearance can be deceiving, though, for the Shadowfell’s differences are woven into the fabric of the plane.
In this dark and imperfect reflection of the natural realm, shadows and gloom replace light and hope, suffusing everything with melancholy. A sense of fear and isolation fills living creatures with the urge to surrender to fate. Only those who are strong of heart and mind can survive in such a place.
Creatures of shadow plague both travelers and residents of the Shadowfell. Souls drift across the desolate landscape, sometimes becoming trapped or tormented. Great forces vie for control of this land, waging war for dominion over death. For these reasons and more, the Shadowfell beckons heroes who have a thirst for adventure and a desire to do good.
Chapter 1 of Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond is a primer on how to use the Shadowfell in a campaign, or as the focal point of one. It includes the following sections:
A Dark Mirror: Even though it’s an echo of the natural world, the Shadowfell is nevertheless unique in both its fundamental nature and the mood it evokes.
Getting to the Shadowfell: Brief treatments of the ways that characters can travel to the plane—and, if they’re lucky, back again.
Powers in the Shadowfell: The plane is full of monsters and deities and other entities, the most noteworthy of which are discussed here.
Shadowfell Adventures: Culled from the myriad of reasons why adventurers might enter the Shadowfell, here are some situations that make for compelling adventures.
The Despair Deck: How to use the deck of cards in this boxed set to translate the Shadowfell’s influence into game effects.
A Dark Mirror
The Shadowfell is a bleak realm that houses both the dead and those among the living who have embraced a dismal existence there.
As a shadowy reflection of the world, the Shadowfell can manifest differently to visitors. The plane is an amalgam of differences and similarities to the world. Each person finds something both recognizable and disturbing in its grim landscape.
The Shadowfell is in a state of flux. These alterations can be dramatic or subtle: A giant sinkhole might swallow up a swath of land, or a path that leads through a forbidding mountain range might alter its course to descend into the Shadowdark. These transformations can be physical, but they can also be a by-product of the plane’s ability to warp the memory and imagination of those who walk its shadowed paths.
Fear, Isolation, and Death
In a game that’s set in the Shadowfell, it’s important to convey an atmosphere of terror, isolation, and death.
The Shadowfell is not inherently evil, but evil creatures are strong and plentiful there. Fearsome opponents await heroes in the Shadowfell, for the darkness provides a safe haven for dark and sinister things. Adventurers can expect straightforward fights against mindless undead and shadow beasts, as well as intrigue and conspiracy as they face off against cunning sneaks and master manipulators.
Creatures in the Shadowfell use darkness and fear to their advantage, surprising and ambushing unwary foes. A situation need not lead to a battle in order to instill tension and fear. A narrow alley with dark windows where assassins could be hiding can put players on edge, even when no threat is present.
The monstrous denizens of the Shadowfell can be as insular and dejected as those of the world. The people of the Shadowfell are more xenophobic and mistrustful, though. They are apt to draw steel first before talking. A band of travelers in the Shadowfell, for example, represents a greater threat than one in the world. The constant danger of attack can lead adventurers to feel suspicious of anyone they encounter.
Death is a fundamental part of the Shadowfell, as ubiquitous as life is in the mortal realm. Any heroes who come to the Shadowfell should expect to stare straight into the face of death. Creatures of death roam the dismal landscape, feasting on the vitality of those foolhardy enough to wander the desolate landscape. Also, the Raven Queen keeps a watchful eye on those who visit her domain, dispatching her sorrowsworn to deal with any who threaten her rule.
Passage of Time
Creatures sometimes perceive time differently in the Shadowfell from how they do in the world. Rather than passing with the rise or fall of the sun, time moves based on the gloom infecting one’s mind. As a person succumbs to depression and apathy, time seems to slow to a crawl. If one sinks into the deepest depths of despair, time seems to stop entirely.
A visitor to the Shadowfell might feel as though days or weeks have passed, when in fact years have gone by on his or her native plane. More than one traveler has ventured into the Shadowfell, only to find that when he or she returned home, everything that person loved and cherished was gone.
Setting the Mood
The first challenge a Dungeon Master faces with a game set in the Shadowfell is to inspire fear and gloom—to challenge the players’ normal confidence and comfort level.
Sitting around a table with your friends, with snacks and beverages right at hand, can make it difficult to capture the visceral terror that characters in the Shadowfell might experience. Even small changes to the playing environment can help to set the mood around your gaming space. First, try turning off any monitors or TVs, dimming the lights, and closing the curtains, leaving just enough light for everyone to clearly read notes and character sheets. Add some brooding or unsettling music, such as the sound track to a horror movie.
During the game, batter the players’ nerves with ambushes, surprises, and sudden twists. Keep the players off balance. Build up tension by alluding to an imminent attack, only to have it occur at some later, unexpected time. Don’t throw the adventurers against high-level opponents, but rather, turn seemingly straightforward encounters into challenging scenarios by having enemies or traps suddenly appear. Constantly remind the adventurers of the proximity of death in the Shadowfell.
Create a sense of isolation by giving the heroes few allies. Their current allies might be brutally murdered or else turn against them at a critical moment. Apparent allies can make terrifying enemies. A group of merchants might hire the adventurers to guard a caravan. Then, after several uneventful days, the merchants might reveal themselves as vampires that plan to make the heroes into a meal on the long journey through the Shadowfell.
After a few such betrayals, the characters will become suspicious of anyone who appears to be a friend. To facilitate this suspicion, have monsters attack the adventurers at auspicious times or else exploit a weakness that only one of their allies would know.
You can also use the Despair Deck to incorporate game mechanics into the gloom affecting the characters.
The Despair Deck
Those of you at D&D Experience had a first look at the Despair Deck: the deck of cards in the Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set used to translate the Shadowfell's influence into game effects (namely, the unnatural behaviors and neuroses that can come over those who visit the Shadowfell).
The Despair Deck consists of 30 cards, most of which represent an aspect of gloom: apathy, fear, or madness. Over the course of adventures, players draw cards from the Despair Deck to find out what aspect of despair afflicts their characters.
People from beyond the plane who travel through its dusky landscape find that cheer turns to gloom, friendship becomes enmity, and reason transforms into madness. Usually, these changes occur over months or years. Adventurers suffer the effects more rapidly, for they are constantly engaged in life-or-death struggles that test their physical and mental limits.
A character usually becomes beset with despair when he or she takes an extended rest after having encounters in the Shadowfell. Usually, this extended rest occurs in the Shadowfell, but a character might also experience despair after returning to the world. At the end of an extended rest, each player whose character completed the extended rest draws one card.
Sometimes, you might have the players draw despair cards when their adventurers are subject to particularly horrifying or gloomy conditions. For example, the players might draw despair cards after the adventurers discover a lair where ghouls have been feeding off townspeople. Having players draw cards in this way can challenge the players, but it can also be a distraction, since it's more difficult to keep track of multiple cards. If you have players draw additional despair cards, it's a good idea to make sure that a few characters have already overcome their initial despair cards.
The effects of despair cards can be debilitating, but adventurers have opportunities to overcome them.
Whenever a character reaches a milestone, the player rolls a d20 to see if his or her character overcomes a despair effect. On a result of 10 or higher, a character overcomes the effect.
When an adventurer overcomes a despair effect, he or she is bolstered by the success. When the despair effect ends, the adventurer gains the benefit in the "Boon" entry on the respective card. In addition, that card no longer counts as an active despair card.
End of the Day
Unless noted otherwise, at the end of an extended rest, all despair cards are discarded, including those that have been overcome. The discarded cards are shuffled into the Despair Deck. Players then draw any new despair cards for the next day.