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Realms steeped in life and death, shrouded in myth and mysticism, the Mirror Planes are a strange reflection of the mortal world. Unfortunately, the Feywild and Shadowfell have been largely ignored in 5e source material, providing very little guidance to DMs on what these planes are and how to use them. This article aims to fill that gap by pulling inspiration from previous editions, from real-life mythology, and from outside media.
The Mirror Planes
There is no known cause for the creation of the Feywild and Shadowfell in 5e, but we can look to other sources for lore. In 4e, after the Material Plane was created and shaped by the forces of the multiverse, the elder gods found parts of it too vibrant and other parts too dark. They cast these parts aside to form the Feywild and Shadowfell.
Alternatively, to take a different approach to their creation, when the Material World was formed out of the four elements, it sent ripples through the cosmic fabric of the universe. These ripples reached the Positive and Negative planes, which reflected back the ripples suffused with their energy. When these ripples collided with the Material Plane, they formed planes copied from the Material Plane that are reflective of life and death, the Feywild and Shadowfell.
Because they are mirror planes of the Material Plane, their geography is like an echo, sometimes very accurately reflecting the other plane, and sometimes just a vague gesture in the general direction of the other plane. An ocean on the Material Plane could be reflected in the Feywild as a forest where the tops of the trees stay constant but the ground slopes down until the sunlight no longer reaches the forest floor, or it could be an above-water coral reef populated by fey-animal lookalikes. On the Shadowfell, the ocean could be echoed into a massive desert of black sand where powerful winds cause the sands to swirl and shift like water, or it could be a sea of brackish, fetid water.
The Feywild is a vibrant plane of life, the air thick with illusion and enchantment. The sky is set in an eternal twilight, the sun sitting just over the horizon. Plants grow wild and tall, and the terrain is unlike anything on the Material Plane. Trees scrape the clouds, rivers run tens of miles wide, forests of crystals glow with inner fire, and the settled areas weave nature and civilization together.
The fey are meant to be otherworldly creatures, mystical and ethereal, capricious but not necessarily malicious. Their perspective is entirely unlike mortals, which makes them strange and often unpredictable. Personally, I conceptualize this as that they do not understand death. They are immortal, and, in my worldbuilding at least, being killed merely returns them to the weave of the Feywild for a time before they are reformed. To them, death is never final. The eldest fey might have only a child’s grasp on mortal concepts like time and morality. Fey are often known to be tricksters, pulling pranks on passersby. If they find physical violence funny, they might not understand that some violence is deadly. If they find misfortune funny, they might not understand that losing months of your life would not amuse a mortal. Some fey, however, are malicious, and purposefully deal out the most extreme forms of harm.
The Archfey and Their Courts
The two courts of the Feywild are the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. While many mortals conceptualize these two courts as the good fey and the bad fey, the two courts are actually split along loyalty lines. While many good fey are part of the Seelie Court and many malicious fey are part of the Unseelie Court, the fey themselves do not make such a distinction. Additionally, some fey do not even belong to either court, either too ugly to be accepted, like hags or fomorians, or independent spirits who reject the hierarchy.
Archfey are ancient, powerful spirits who are similar to but not quite gods. They make up the royalty of the two fey courts, but many exist outside the court, such as ancient hags like Baba Yaga.
The Summer Court
Titania, Queen of the Faeries, is the ruler of the Seelie fey. Alongside her is her consort Oberon, the Green Lord. Joining them is Hyrsam, the Prince of Fools. These Archfey frequently serve as patrons for Warlocks and seem to be more willing to interact with mortals.
Outside of 5e lore, other members of the Seelie court could include Eachthighern, the Lord of Horses, Verenestra, the Oak Queen, and Emmantiensien, the Treant-King.
The Gloaming Court
The only named Archfey of the Gloaming Court is the Queen of Air and Darkness. Some lore suggests she is the sister to Queen Titania, but regardless, the two queens are no longer on friendly terms. Their relationship is one of rivalry, and while that sometimes involves battles, it mostly manifests as contests and politicking.
Other Unseelie Archfey you could include are Neifion, the Lord of Bats, the Lantern King, and Herne the Hunter. While hags almost always do not want to be part of the courts, the Gloaming Court could be a good place to take advantage of the “almost” qualifier, even if the hag is part of the court for only a short time.
Expanded Feywild Mechanics
The DMG has optional mechanics on pg. 50 for creatures who visit the Feywild. The magic of the plane can cause visitors to forget their experience after leaving the plane and can cause time to move differently, slowing down or speeding up. I also imagine that space is reflected differently on the plane, so distances can shrink or stretch depending on the time or the Archfey who control that particular area.
The eladrin are elves who, over centuries, have become saturated with the magic of the Feywild. Expanding on this idea, those who spend long enough time in the Feywild could begin to change and take aspects of the Feywild into themselves. This could manifest as a longing to stay in the Feywild, maybe having to pass a Charisma saving throw where the difficulty depends on how long they’ve been in the Feywild. Failing could mean being unwilling to leave or, if already gone, trying to find a way to return. Additionally, creatures could find themselves suddenly knowing new spells, like Dancing Lights, Minor Illusion, Faerie Fire, Charm Person, or even Summon Fey. Finally, they could have physical changes to reflect the Feywild, like their skin turning a shade of green or leaves sprouting out of their armor.
Location, Location, Location
The two courts are as much locations as they are groups of archfey. The Summer Court could be a place where magical light makes it feel like midday. White stone architecture effortlessly twists and combines with moss, ferns, and trees. Smells of feasts, the sound of laughter, and sweet music drift through the air. The court itself is an open-air platform where any visitor may petition Queen Titania, if they’re willing to wait.
The Gloaming Court may be masked in darkness save for the lights coming from giant fireflies lazily buzzing through the air. The architecture twists and turns in a maze-like fashion, but the fey who live there navigate it easily. The air is warm and humid, but bursts of cold air blow at haphazard times. To travel without a sponsor is dangerous, as Unseelie fey will attack any hapless mortal who wanders near.
Underneath the Feywild, in caverns that echo the Underdark, is a sprawling expanse of luminescent mushrooms and jungles that grow without light. Called the Feydark, it is home to the Fomorian King. The fey that live in the Feydark are twisted and dangerous, a reflection of the dangers of the Underdark.
The Plane of Shadow is a land drenched in misery and darkness. The sky is a black void with neither sun nor stars. The color has been leached from everything, leaving behind only dismal blacks and grays. The very air of the plane is steeped in despair and malice.
The Dark Powers
Comparable to the Archfey, the enigmatic Dark Powers are powerful beings that have control over parts of the Shadowfell. However, they only concern themselves with trapping Dark Lords in Domains of Dread, quasi-demiplanes within the realm of the Shadowfell, for their own nefarious purposes. This concept is explored in the book Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
The Domains of Dread form entire adventures or campaigns by themselves, but the mists that transport and trap people within the demiplanes could serve to create dramatic tension as the players are traveling through the Shadowfell. They could be warned to avoid the mists and thus have to carefully navigate around them, or the mists could be chasing the players to give haste to their journey through the Shadowfell.
Expanded Shadowfell Mechanics
To bring to life the palpable dread of the realm, the DMG has optional rules for extended forays into the Plane of Shadow on pg.52. Under these rules, if the creature fails a saving throw, they could be afflicted with apathy, dread, or madness. Building on this, you could add physical components to the journey through the Shadowfell. Strong emotions could risk summoning Sorrowsworn, and you could tie the Sorrowsworn even further into the emotional state of the players. Rather than being defeated in straightforward combat, these monstrosities could be defeated by the players mastering their emotional state and steadying their nerves.
Time in the Shadowfell could flow differently than on the Material Plane, stretching in such a way that even short journeys on the plane feel like weeks afterwards. Space could also function differently, bending and reorienting specifically to confuse travelers, like the plane itself is working against them.
For very long stays, you can take inspiration from Shadow Dragons, who were physically changed into new creatures by staying on the plane too long. While this specific transformation is due to their dragon magic being susceptible to the Shadowfell, you could cause smaller changes to make the players feel like the plane is starting to work its way into their very bodies and minds. A character could start to feel like they’re becoming translucent, gradually slipping away. Another character could start to have the color of their hair, eyes, or clothes slowly fade away. These could be permanent and tied to saving throws or simply temporary effects while they remain on the plane.
Inspiration for Adventures
Beyond the realms of Ravenloft, the only established location in lore is Evernight, a city of necromancers, cannibals, cultists, and hordes of undead, sentient and otherwise. This shadow city can reflect a central city on the Material World. Evernight is a city of cracked stone, rotting wood, and open graves. Your players could seek this place out for dark artifacts or forbidden knowledge, or they could be hunting a particular refugee for crimes on the Material Plane.
For non-canon inspiration, consider a lifeless desert that stretches beyond the distant horizon. Bones from creatures as tall as mountains stick out of the sand, creating valleys and hills in the otherwise flat desert. Mummies wander, attacking any living thing on sight. Necrotic energy won’t allow them to be destroyed, only temporarily decoporalized. At the center of the desert, underneath a ribcage, in a pyramid of black marble, a Mummy Lord from a bygone civilization lairs. Built by cultists of a death god, the pyramid serves as a resting place until the mortal realm is ready for the return of the forgotten tyrant. The party could be trying to thwart an ancient prophecy before it comes to pass, or they could be seeking knowledge only the Mummy Lord knows and must barter with evil for their own needs.
Another location of interest could be a Shadow Dragon lair in a stagnant, boggy bayou. The trees are massive but blackened and dead, like they had burned in a forest fire. Underneath the murky water float Will-o’-Wisps, forsaken souls of lost travelers trying to lure others to their doom. Skeletal creatures stalk the waters to steal and wear the skin of living creatures. The Shadow Dragon lairs on top of the trees, a nest of bones and stone. She hides gold, artifacts, and sometimes prisoners in her den, and she takes advantage of a nearby portal to raid the Material Plane.
In many settings, the Feywild and Shadowfell, if even brought up at all, remain mysteries that the players rarely explore. However, these two Mirror Planes are bound to the Material Plane, and their influence seeps into it. Since travel between planes, especially with the Mirror Planes, don’t require powerful magic users, these are locations that can be used even at low level or with non-magical characters.