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Dwellers in Shadow
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

W e're still in the planes, and this week we're looking at another monster introduced in a Fiend Folio—but in this case, the 3rd Edition Fiend Folio. The monster in question is the shadar-kai. This is a pretty weird case. Let me delve a little bit into the monster's history, since I was involved in it.

One of the goals of the 3rd Edition Fiend Folio was to create another race that might have the potential to become a "new gith"—another race that, if it got traction, could claim a similar solid place in the D&D universe. Each of the designers working on the book was assigned to create one such race and was asked to give it special attention—additional history or society information, new items, that sort of thing. Of them all, it was Jesse Decker's creation, the shadar-kai, that got the most traction—enough to carry them forward into 4th Edition.

That said, there are some pretty significant differences between the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition incarnations of the shadar-kai, so this week I'm asking you to help us sort them out.

The Tortured Fey

In their original incarnation, the shadar-kai were a fey race with strong ties to the Plane of Shadow. Long ago, threatened by the rise of nonfey humanoid races, they made a pact with a dark power of the Plane of Shadow, intending to cast the world into an endless twilight in which the shadow fey would reign supreme. "The experiment went awry," the Fiend Folio tells us without elaborating, the world was not swathed in shadow, and instead the shadar-kai ended up bound to the Plane of Shadow. A curse was laid upon them, such that the Plane of Shadow forever tugged at their souls until eventually it would swallow them up and subsume them in its depths.

This shadow curse now defines the race of shadar-kai. The pull of the Plane of Shadow is constant and inexorable. At any time, all or part of a shadar-kai's soul might flee from the body and get sucked into Shadow, leaving the shadar-kai weakened and despairing. In a desperate attempt to stave off the effects of this curse, the shadar-kai keep themselves in constant pain, typically by wearing a cold iron armband called a gal-ralan, set with needles that impale the forearm. The pain fixes the shadar-kai's soul to the body, at the cost of unending agony.

The constant pull of the shadow curse leaves the shadar-kai grim and anxious, and the constant pain of the gal-ralan makes them vicious. With each generation, the shadar-kai have become more and more violent and cruel.

The shadar-kai are tall, lithe fey, exuding grace and uncanny stealth. Gray-skinned and dark-eyed, they are draped in shadow that clings to the folds of their clothing, and they can hide in shadows even if nothing else obscures them. They prefer light weapons suited for their grace and agility, especially spiked chains. Most of them are rogues, but many others become wizards or clerics. Powerful illusionists rule their sparsely populated realms.

Wards of the Raven Queen

In 4th Edition, the story behind the shadar-kai changed significantly. According to The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, the shadar-kai were once human, and like other humans, they lived in fear of death. In desperation, they turned to the Raven Queen and beseeched her to end their fears. For reasons only she can name, she taught them to embrace the inevitability of death. She promised to protect their spirits after death and reshape the best of them into powerful new forms to serve her—the sorrowsworn. Over time, the shadar-kai migrated to the Shadowfell and built somber cities and grim fortresses across the plane.

Their life in the Shadowfell left them changed, however, infecting them with the dreary malaise of the plane. Some just faded away into the shadows, and many others sought constant stimulation to stave off unbearable ennui. Lives of passion and excess became the norm, and extreme emotions and incredible appetites came to rule the race.

Some shadar-kai revel in pleasure and pain, torturing themselves, piercing or abrading their flesh, covering themselves with scars and tattoos for no other reason than to feel something. Others find satisfaction in complex fighting styles and difficult weaponry, such as the spiked chain. A few master the magic of the Shadowfell, controlling shadow instead of letting it control them. These efforts have paid off, making the shadar-kai one of the most successful races in the Shadowfell.

True to their origin, the shadar-kai look mostly human, but with gray skin and eyes like lustrous black orbs (like a raven's). Shadows deepen around them as they move. They wear loose, dark garments, and thry keep their hair long—whether loose, elaborately shaved, or braided. They share the magical ability to teleport a short distance through the shadows, reappearing in a wraithlike insubstantial form that only gradually fades into solidity.

Different Stories

Let's spell out the differences:

  • Shadar-kai are fey (3E) or were once human (4E).
  • Shadar-kai made a pact with shadow (3E) or appealed to the Raven Queen (4E).
  • Shadar-kai souls are drawn to the Plane of Shadow, which they fear (3E), or shadar-kai have willingly taken up residence in the Shadowfell (4E).
  • Shadar-kai live in constant pain to tie their souls to their bodies (3E), or some of them inflict pain on themselves to keep the ability to feel in the face of the Shadowfell's overwhelming despair (4E).
  • Shadar-kai often wield spiked chains because the weapon is suited to their agility (3E) or because the effort to master exotic weapons staves off their ennui (4E).
  • Shadar-kai can hide in plain sight (3E) or can teleport through shadows and become insubstantial for a round (4E).

See what we're faced with?

My approach throughout this whole process has been to remain as inclusive as possible, defining monsters in such a way that fans of any edition will find something recognizable in the monster's next incarnation. Having cyclops as slaves of fomorians is not our default approach, but it will still make sense in your game if that's what you want. So is there any way to take that same inclusive approach to the shadar-kai? Maybe there is.

Long ago, the shadar-kai made a pact with "a dark power of the Plane of Shadow" (according to the Fiend Folio)—perhaps a god of death like the Raven Queen, or a god of despair like Shar in the Forgotten Realms. I like it better if this pact had evil intent, as in the 3E version, though perhaps it was more local than global.

Making a pact with death is never safe, and in payment for whatever boon she gave them, she claimed ownership of their souls. Many shadar-kai still fight against that pull, remaining in the world and relying on constant pain to keep their souls pinned to their bodies. Others have lost or given up the struggle and been drawn into the Shadowfell or Plane of Shadow. There, they became servants of the dark power who owns their souls, while struggling against the despair of the plane. Some have faded into shadow, but others rely on their old habits of pain to stave off the ennui.

The specific game abilities that define the race are comparatively trivial. They're certainly stealthy, and some kind of "hide in plain sight" ability fits well with their appearance as described in both editions. Stepping through shadows is a common feature of shadow magic and will probably remain as at least an option for some shadar-kai.

There's one element that's hard to resolve: Are they fey or transformed humans? The answer might not affect their story at all: If they're fey, some of them might still dwell in the Feywild if you use that plane in your campaign. Or perhaps their ties to Shadow made it impossible for them to live in the Feywild, so even those who have not migrated to the Shadowfell live in exile in the Material Plane. If you don't use the Feywild in your campaign, it's even easier—they originated in the Material Plane, whether fey or human, and either remain there or migrate to the Plane of Shadow.

The biggest impact is probably in their depictions in art. Are they lithe, elflike people with pointed ears? Or are they built more like humans, with rounded ears? I don't know which way to go on that. Maybe we'll do concept art both ways and see which we like better, and maybe Jon will give you a chance to weigh in on the art. But please share your opinion in the polls!

What Do You Think?

And there are the twin races of the gith. Again, the polls this week aren't so much about how we're doing but about where we should go from here.

  Were shadar-kai originally fey or human?  
Fey, as in 3rd Edition.
Human, as in 4th Edition.
Let the art decide!
I don’t know or care.

  What was the nature of the pact that defines the shadar-kai?  
They appealed to Shadow to smite their enemies and were cursed as a result (3E, and the compromise I outlined above).
They pleaded with Shadow to stave off their fear of death and were transformed as a result (4E).

  What’s the relationship between the shadar-kai and the Plane of Shadow/Shadowfell?  
They chose to migrate there (4E).
Their curse pulls them there, which they resist (3E).
Their curse pulls them there, and some have gone willingly and become servants of the power they bargained with (the compromise I outlined above).

  Why do shadar-kai hurt themselves?  
To keep their souls attached to their bodies so they’re not drawn to Shadow (3E).
To stave off the despair and ennui of the Shadowfell (4E).
Both (as in the compromise I outlined above).

  How important is the shadar-kai ability to “shadow jaunt”—teleporting through shadow and emerging insubstantial?  
Not important at all—it can go away or be relegated to leaders or witches.
It’s important that they can teleport through shadow, but not that they become insubstantial afterward.
It’s important that they can become shadowy and insubstantial, but not that they can teleport.
They need this ability to make them shadar-kai.

  How important is it to be able to play a shadar-kai character?  
It should not be allowed.
Let people do it if they want, but not in my campaign.
Sure, I’d allow a shadar-kai character in my game.
My campaign (or my character) can’t go on without shadar-kai PCs.

Previous Poll Results

Overall, how does my description of the neutral, monastic githzerai fit with your sense of the iconic D&D creature?
1—This is vile illithid propaganda. 42 3.2%
2—There are bits of truth scattered amid the lies. 58 4.4%
3—Like order within the chaos, there is a balance of truth and falsehood here. 233 17.8%
4—You begin to understand the greatness of the githzerai. 501 38.2%
5—Zerthimon is pleased. 476 36.3%
Total 1310 100.0%

Do you think githyanki and githzerai should be playable races?
Just githzerai, not githyanki. 157 10.7%
Just githyanki, not githzerai. 3 0.2%
Both, as two distinct races. 315 21.5%
Both, as a single race with two subraces. 705 48.0%
Neither. 288 19.6%
Total 1468 100.0%

What should the default alignment of the githzerai be?
Chaotic neutral, as it was in the beginning. 115 8.0%
Any neutral, as in later editions. 356 24.9%
Lawful neutral, to reflect their monastic society of order in the midst of chaos. 958 67.0%
Total 1429 100.0%

Should githzerai fighters use silver swords, or should that be a githyanki thing?
No, save it for the githyanki. 1063 75.7%
Sometimes, but they're inferior to githyanki swords. 190 13.5%
Yes, just like the githyanki. 152 10.8%
Total 1405 100.0%

Overall, how does my description of the evil, marauding githyanki fit with your sense of the iconic D&D creature?
1—This is vile illithid propaganda. 35 2.7%
2—There are bits of truth scattered amid the lies. 56 4.3%
3—Your life may be spared if you correct your ignorance. 169 12.9%
4—You begin to understand the greatness of the githyanki. 524 40.1%
5—Vlaakith approves. 524 40.1%
Total 1308 100.0%

What do you think about crazy, apostrophe-filled githyanki names like hr’a’cknir and Tu’narath?
Change them so I can read and pronounce them! 295 21.1%
Leave them as is. I like the exotic feel. 876 62.5%
Tu'narath should have at least two more apostrophes. 230 16.4%
Total 1401 100.0%

What makes a monster or race power feel psionic to you?
Mind reading and other telepathic elements. 89 6.1%
Telekinesis—moving stuff around. 28 1.9%
Mind reading and telekinesis. 23 1.6%
Mental assault like a mind flayer's blast or a single-target attack that dazes and/or does psychic damage. 123 8.5%
Mind reading, telekinesis, and mental assault. 624 43.1%
Pseudo-scientific names like inertial barrier or molecular agitation, even if the effects are just like shield or heat metal. 107 7.4%
Ectoplasm! Dripping gooey stuff all over the place. 8 0.6%
All of the above. 446 30.8%
Total 1448 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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