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.
Alpha Beta PTR Vanilla 1.1.0 1.2.0 1.3.0 1.4.0 1.5.0 1.6.0 1.6.1 1.7.0 1.8.0 1.8.4 1.9.0 1.10.0 1.11.0 1.12.0 Burning Crusade 2.0.1 2.0.3 2.0.4 2.1.0 2.1.2 2.2.0 2.3.0 2.4.0 2.4.3 Wrath of the Lich King 3.0.2 3.0.3 3.0.8 3.1.0 3.2.0 3.2.2 3.3.0 3.3.3 Cataclysm 4.0.1 4.0.3a 4.0.6 4.1.0 4.2.0 4.2.2 4.3.0 4.3.2 Mists of Pandaria 5.0.4 5.0.5 5.1.0 5.2.0 5.3.0 5.4.0 5.4.7 Warlords of Draenor 6.0.2 6.0.3 6.1.0 6.2.0 Legion 7.0.3 7.1.0 7.1.5 7.2.0 7.2.5 7.3.0 7.3.5 Battle for Azeroth 8.0.1 8.1.0 8.1.5 8.2.0 8.3.0 Shadowlands 9.0.1
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.
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.
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.
Blizzard hasn't talked about what it plans to do after Shadowlands. I speculate that the longterm solution would be to do this every expansion—so in the next expansion, Blizzard might move Battle for Azeroth into the multitude of choices for new character-leveling experiences and push level-cap characters back down to 50 to start whatever expansion comes after Shadowlands—an odd hybrid of traditional MMO and a seasonal model common in plenty of modern multiplayer games.
The spell called "spiritual projection" or "astral projection" brings the caster to the Twisting Nether instead of the Shadowlands; and the Twisting Nether is also referred as "realm of ghosts". However, both planes don't appear to be related, as Outland is floating on the Twisting Nether, but the Shadowlands can be reached in Outland in The Burning Crusade.
That might seem odd or negative to those who aren't currently playing WoW, but it's actually something a great number of today's WoW players have been asking for. As the levels rose in this 15-year-old game that frankly wasn't designed with a 15-year plan in mind, Blizzard encountered all sorts of frustrating game design problems that players have been cranky about, too. The WoW team has already crunched player stats like health and mana down on multiple occasions as a way to postpone fully solving the problem, so this is the culmination of something that has been underway for a few years now.
But it gets even more interesting when you look at how it will work for alts (second or later characters made by existing players). New characters made by existing players will have the option of leveling up the old way in all the same old zones from the start. But they will also be able to go through the new-player starting experience if that's what players prefer.
After rumors about this possibility for the last several expansions, Blizzard has finally followed through on a level crunch. Whereas characters in the current Battle for Azeroth expansion cap out at level 120, the cap in Shadowlands will be 60—just as it was when the game first launched and just as it is in World of Warcraft Classic. Level-120 characters will be scaled down to level 50 when Shadowlands launches.
The experience curve is adjusted to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they'll be able* to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it's easy to try a zone you've never played.