Last Updated on January 22, 2023
The Shadar-Kai are a mysterious subrace of elves sworn to serve the Raven Queen, goddess of death and ruler of the Shadowfell.
They were officially introduced to Dungeons & Dragons 5e as part of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and make for both compelling, dangerous enemies and a powerful basis for your next player character.
The Shadar-Kai: What We Know
From the gray, lifeless depths of the Shadowfell – plane of darkness, shadow, and death – come the Shadar-Kai, elves forever changed by their connection to their home and the power of the Raven Queen who rules it.
Much like the Eladrin (elves native to the Feywild also found in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) were changed over the centuries by the magic and raw emotion of their home plane, the Shadar-Kai have taken on many of the characteristics of the Shadowfell.
They are nearly devoid of all emotion, existing in a shadowy state between life and death – no longer fey and not truly undead but something new and terrible.
The magic of the Shadowfell makes Shadar-Kai hardier than other elves, and they’re probably the most survivable of all elven subraces.
Although their ability to teleport over short distances mirrors that of their fey cousins, doing so causes them to become momentarily incorporeal as they slowly return to their material state, making them resistant to all damage.
All Shadar-Kai have resistance to necrotic damage due to their prolonged exposure to a realm of death and decay.
The Raven Queen, Lolth, and the Birth of the Shadar-Kai
It’s impossible to talk about the Shadar-Kai at length without discussing the Raven Queen, goddess of death, hoarder of glittering memories, ruler of the Shadowfell.
We’re also going to need to talk about Lolth, demon goddess of Spiders, and her being responsible for the fracturing of elvenkind far back in the mists of prehistory.
Long ago, the elven people found themselves without a home – cut off from Arvandor, the “heavenly plane” said to be the original home of all elves.
Lost, wandering the multiverse, the elves were presented with two options.
First, Lolth, the Spider Queen, tempted the elves with power and a home on the material plane. A way forward paved with dark deeds and corruption.
The elves that succumbed to her temptations “went below,” building great cities throughout the Underdark and embracing Lolth’s cruelty. They became the Drow, or dark elves.
Another faction of elves, led by a powerful sorcerer-queen, was promised another path – not forward but back to Arvandor.
This elven queen began siphoning magical power from her disciples (the Shadar-Kai), growing in power until she began to approach godhood. It might have worked too.
Unfortunately, the growing magical energy of the elven queen was corrupted, stolen by a cabal of evil wizards who (to quote Jeremy Crawford) saw her as “a nice big magic mattery.”
They siphoned power from the queen and caused a great magical calamity.
When the dust settled, the elven queen was utterly destroyed, but she was so infused with magical power that she was reborn as a godlike being in the Shadowfell, reincarnated into a deity of death and memory: The Raven Queen.
The Raven Queen’s transportation to the Shadowfell also had the effect of bringing along those Shadar-Kai who followed her.
Now, they serve their mistress, stripped of all independence and emotion, like a race of worker bees.
Of course (much like how not all drow are fanatical, spider-worshiping lunatics), there are some exceptions.
Some Shadar-Kai forsake the Raven Queen, fleeing the Shadowfell to wander the multiverse as adventurers.
Others leave their home plane on their Queen’s own orders, wandering far and wide through the planes – agents of her inscrutable will.
The Raven Queen’s obsession with memories (particularly tragic ones) leads her to send her Shadar-Kai agents on missions to capture and retrieve such memories, souls, or information she desires.
Her ravens fly from their roost, leading the Shadar-Kai to the places where the walls between worlds are weakest so that they might slip through the cracks between realities and complete their mission.
All Shadar-Kai still in service to the Raven Queen are effectively immortal. When their bodies die, she reclaims their souls and resurrects them in the Shadowfell.
As such, death means little to a Shadar-Kai, and they tend to be quite careless about protecting their mortal shells.
While many see this as a blessing, a sign of their Queen’s power, it’s also easy to imagine how some Shadar-Kai might just as easily see it as a curse, an eternal torment from which they will never be free.
The Raven Queen’s ability to capture, resurrect, and control the souls of the dead has long drawn the envy of one of the D&D multiverse’s most powerful villains.
Vecna, lord of evil liches and minor god in his own right, has sought for centuries to find a way to seize the Raven Queen’s power for his own, using it to raise an army of undead capable of conquering all of creation.
Shadar-Kai Abilities and Traits: Creating a Shadar-Kai Character
If you choose to play a Shadar-Kai in D&D 5e, it’s likely you’ll fall into one of two camps: a servant of the Raven Queen sworn to do her bidding, exerting her will upon the rest of the multiverse; or a rebel, a refugee, a renegade elf looking to forge a new destiny for yourself.
When you choose to play a Shadar-Kai, you take on the same traits as all other elven subraces. You gain access to the following:
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
Age. An elf typically claims adulthood and an adult name around the age of 100 and can live to be 750 years old.
Alignment. Elves love freedom, variety, and self-expression, so they lean strongly toward the gentler aspects of chaos.
Shadar-Kai are an exception; their existence within the Shadowfell has dulled their emotions, making them more prone to neutral and lawful alignments.
Size. Elves range from under 5 to over 6 feet tall and have slender builds. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light and in darkness as if it were dim light.
Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.
Trance. Elves do not sleep. Instead they meditate deeply, remaining semi-conscious for 4 hours a day. After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit a human would from 8 hours of sleep.
Keen Senses. You have proficiency in the Perception skill.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Elven.
Then, as a Shadar-Kai, you gain the following additional features.
Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 1.
Necrotic Resistance. You have resistance to necrotic damage.
Blessing of the Raven Queen. As a bonus action, you can magically teleport up to 30 feet to an unoccupied space you can see. Once you use this trait, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest.
Starting at 3rd level, you also gain resistance to all damage when you teleport using this trait. The resistance lasts until the start of your next turn. During that time, you appear ghostly and translucent.
Let’s break this down.
The Shadar-Kai’s racial traits (assuming you’re using the “classic” 5e rules for character creation rather than the Custom Lineages from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or the emerging anti-bioessentialist character creation rules from Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse) are relatively short, sweet, and simple.
They’re also some of the most powerful traits available to any race in D&D 5e.
First of all, there’s virtually no class in the game that can’t benefit from a buff to its Constitution.
Barbarians, fighters, paladins, and other martial classes love a few extra hit points, and spellcasting classes all tend to be a bit light on hit points (so the buff is appreciated), and extra Constitution helps when maintaining concentration spells.
Twinned with the +2 Dexterity bonus enjoyed by all elves, this makes the Shadar-Kai an amazing foundation for any Dexterity-based class.
Rangers, rogues, Dex-based fighters (and even barbarians or paladins if you want to get a little weird with it) are all possible.
If you want to play a character class that needs a high score in a spellcasting-ability modifier (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma), then your fate is a little more in the hands of the dice when you roll up your character.
Still, there’s very little about the Shadar-Kai that should make you feel like you’re being pigeonholed.
Next, resistance to necrotic damage is fantastic, especially if you’re playing in a campaign where you know you’ll be fighting lots of undead (like Curse of Strahd, for example).
Even if your DM isn’t into gothic horror, undead are still one of the most common monster types in D&D 5e, and there are plenty of other monsters (from the Topaz Gem Dragon to the Violet Fungus) that deal necrotic damage.
Lastly, the Blessing of the Raven Queen trait provides an amazing mixture of utility, offense, and survivability depending on how you use it.
The ability to teleport 30 feet once per long rest is a great way to either start a fight (it virtually guarantees you take your enemies by surprise) or get away in the nick of time using a bonus action.
Then, at third level, the fact you get resistance to all damage for a turn after you teleport just serves to crank the usefulness of the effect up to 11.
Shadar-Kai Appearance: What They Look Like
Centuries spent in the Shadowfell have helped to make the Shadar-Kai contenders (along with the drow) for the title of “Multiverse’s Most Totally Goth” elf.
While in the Shadowfell, the Shadar-Kai’s bodies reveal the full extent of the trauma that their existence inflicts.
They appear withered and colorless, like ravaged husks. For this reason, many Shadar-Kai choose to wear elegant, beautiful masks – though these too often present a melancholic face to the world.
When the Shadar-Kai leave the Shadowfell, they once again take on their youthful, elven appearance – though their skin, eyes, and hair still tend to be colored in shades of ashen gray or black.
The Shadar-Kai have naming conventions similar to other elves – tending to favor melodic sounding names, although a Shadar-Kai’s name will probably still sound harsher than that of a wood or high elf.
Masculine Shadar-Kai Names: Baelo, Carishal, Hone, Innel, Oriel, Mothel, Nadarian, Videos, Zoron
Feminine Shadar-Kai Names: Cigna, Hashkadrin, Irneli, Lervathra, Thenndann, Velis, Yildi, Yilve
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.