The word “Shadow” is a loaded term in Dungeons and Dragons. Are we talking about the plane? The mechanics of certain classes? The general edge-lordian gestalt of aesthetics and power?
This mystery is encapsulated in the monster called Shadow. In this post we will talk about where you may find one, how to survive against one, and how to use one as a DM.
Let’s start with the basics. We will discuss the Stat Block before going into depth on where and how you may expect to find one and deal with it.
What Is a Shadow in DnD 5e?
A shadow is an incorporeal undead that ambushes its prey and leaves them weakened with their Strength Drain attack. Dying this way creates a new shadow from the victim’s corpse.
Medium Undead, Chaotic Evil
Armor Class: 12
Hit Points: 16 (3d8 + 3)
Speed: 40 ft.
STR 6 (-2), DEX 14 (+2), CON 13 (+1), INT 6 (-2), WIS 10 (+0), CHA 8 (-1)
Skills: Stealth +4
Damage Vulnerabilities: Radiant
Damage Resistances: Acid, Cold, Fire, Lightning, Thunder, Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Nonmagical Attacks
Damage Immunities: Necrotic, Poison
Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 10
Challenge: 1/2 (100 XP)
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Amorphous. The shadow can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing.
Shadow Stealth. While in dim light or darkness, the shadow can take the Hide action as a bonus action.
Sunlight Weakness. While in sunlight, the shadow has disadvantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws.
Strength Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) necrotic damage, and the target’s Strength score is reduced by 1d4.
The target dies if this reduces its Strength to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until the target finishes a short or long rest.
If a non-evil humanoid dies from this attack, a new shadow rises from the corpse 1d4 hours later.
Shadows are undead that resemble dark exaggerations of humanoid shadows.
Dark Disposition. From the darkness, the shadow reaches out to feed on living creatures’ vitality. They can consume any living creature, but they are especially drawn to creatures untainted by evil.
A creature that lives a life of goodness and piety consigns its basest impulses and strongest temptations to the darkness where the shadows hunger.
As a shadow drains its victim’s strength and physical form, the victim’s shadow darkens and begins to move of its own volition. In death, the creature’s shadow breaks free, becoming a new undead shadow hungry for more life to consume.
If a creature from which a shadow has been created somehow returns to life, its undead shadow senses the return. The shadow might seek its “parent” to vex or slay.
Whether the shadow pursues its living counterpart, the creature that birthed the shadow no longer casts one until the monster is destroyed.
Undead Nature. A shadow doesn’t require air, food, drink, or sleep.
Basic Rules, pg. 344
To begin, a Shadow is a dark humanoid shape made of shadows. It’s just a dark figure, which, if you have any background in any kind of folklore, should be sufficiently freaky.
Everybody’s ancestors (probably) had some kind of monster like this in their cosmology.
Even today with cryptozoology and a natural childhood fear of the dark, we still have shadow people lurking in our subconscious.
The Shadow in D&D is an incorporeal monster, meaning, like a ghost, it has no body.
In Dungeons and Dragons 3e, this meant you couldn’t hope to deal damage to them unless you had a magic weapon.
At that point, you only succeeded at hitting them 50% of the time thanks to an annoying little mechanic called concealment.
In 5e, this lack of a body is represented by their various immunities and resistances.
Shadows have resistance to every type of elemental damage and slashin, piercing, and bludgeoning damage from nonmagical sources.
It is immune to poison and necrotic damage. Force damage affects it normally.
Most importantly, it has vulnerability to radiant damage! *Cue the cheering divine spellcasters*
In addition, because of its shadowy nature, it has disadvantage on all rolls while in sunlight; although that probably won’t happen unless you have a druid or a specific type of cleric in the party.
A Shadow’s Tactics
From a player’s perspective, a Shadow generally follows two rules when engaging in combat.
Rule #1: Location Is everything
Shadows are ambush hunters. They have the Shadow Stealth and Amorphous abilities, which means you can not only find them in corners and pockets of darkness, but they can easily escape if threatened beyond their ability to handle.
Furthermore, rarely will you encounter a shadow on its own. Again, they don’t take up any space, and they like it in the dark.
Considering how they create more of themselves, this means you are more likely to run into a nest of shadows than a lonely hunter.
Their stat block has them as urban or underdark creatures.
The Underdark is understandable. They will be able to stay far out of sunlight that way and set up their ambushes in tunnels and caverns.
In Urban environments they get much more interesting.
You could find them in darkened rooms, perched above or in doorways. They could be in the cookie jar, under your bed, or in your closet.
They could be inside the latrine. You know, dark places where the sun doesn’t shine. *shudders*
(If you’re a DM, scroll to the bottom of this guide for more interesting places to hide a shadow for your
unsuspecting victims friends to encounter.)
Consider how frightening an encounter with Shadows could be underwater.
In general, a shadow will wait patiently until you step too far into the dark where they can hide as a bonus action. Once within reach, they will attack with their Strength Drain.
Rule #2: Drain All the Strength!
A Shadow’s signature ability is Strength Drain. In addition to 2d6 necrotic damage, this melee attack deals 1d4 damage to your Strength Stat.
This means that everything that uses Strength is lowered. Your attack bonuses, your athletics score, your Strength Saves, your damage rolls — everything!
Once your Strength hits 0, you die. If you stay dead long enough, you rise up as a shadow yourself.
If this seems harsh, just remember that back in the days of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition D&D, Shadows had an ability called Level Drain, which was much, much worse.
Level Drain in Old-School DnD
In previous editions, Shadows and other Undead actually drained levels from you.
This meant that instead of your strength draining, your base attack bonus (what 5e calls the proficiency bonus), your total HP, and your highest granted class abilities all went bye-bye.
What’s worse is that this could only be healed by high-level divine magic.
You couldn’t just lie down for a week to heal it. You had to go out and adventure again, loaded down with all kinds of trauma.
Strength Drain is easier to handle on the character sheet, AND in your psyche.
How To Fight A Shadow
Two words: Radiant Damage.
Everyone protect the cleric and distract the Shadow by making yourself an easier target.
You probably have a magic item available somewhere, so hit it with that while the Cleric loads up their guiding bolt and sacred flame spells.
This will be difficult, considering the Shadow can move through your spaces, so keep your opportunity attacks available while it chases the cleric down.
If there is a Paladin in the party, get out of their way so they can smite the creepy little monster.
Torches and fires do not count as sunlight, so a simple fire will not be strong enough to give the Shadow disadvantage on its rolls, but if anyone casts daylight, now is the time to do it.
Furthermore, keep the restoration potions and spells handy, as even one hit from Strength Drain will annoy you until your next rest.
For the DMs
Alright, it’s time to put the kids to bed. This next bit is for DMs only.
Shadows are great mechanically and all, but what do they represent metaphorically, ecologically, and narratively?
Yeah, we’re going there.
Shadows in folklore represent emptiness and hunger, like Mr. No-Face in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
In psychology, Shadows represent the repressed things we try to hide in ourselves. The darker, lower self that pushes us into the en-light-ened, higher self.
In the ecology of a dungeon, Shadows will stay in the gloomy places where they can pool in great numbers to swarm and drain the life of passing creatures.
So therefore, when and where should we use Shadows in our stories?
When and Where To Actually Use Shadows
A journey through the shadow self in psychology has two manifestations. It can be a single confrontation or a journey.
A Single Confrontation
The shadow self in the Hero’s journey is the point where the hero experiences the Dark Night of the Soul.
It is when Luke opens Vader’s mask to reveal himself, when Jesus dies after promising eternal life, and when Harry faces Voldemort and is killed by the AvaCadavera curse.
To get this epic feel into your campaign, consider putting the treasure before the final confrontation but surrounding the loot with Shadows.
For example, Luke discovers his inner Vader right before he gets his Jedi power and faces his foes.
Jesus has his moment of despair before he dies and is resurrected as a savior.
Harry dies before he can cleanse himself of the horcrux and get what he needs to achieve victory.
The point is… as Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter in where your treasure lies.” (Paraphrased)
So put the treasure the PCs need in order to defeat the Main Boss in a room filled with Shadows.
Then make the Shadows speak in voices of the people the PCs have hurt or left behind. Make the Strength Drain ability bring horrible memories and flashbacks.
In other words, use the Shadows to make the PCs deal with their hang-ups and trauma before giving them the magical weapon or tool that will be necessary to take down the final boss.
Sometimes the characters need to learn a lot of life lessons. Therefore, a whole journey is required.
Make the players take an extended walk, hike, swim, or all three through a darkened cave or complex.
While inside, assault them with Shadows to the point where they can not rest and where they use all of their magical resources until they can solve a riddle or a puzzle that you give them before they enter the cave.
This puzzle should be applicable to their backstory and should make them confront what they have done in the past and come to terms with it.
One way to make this type of Shadow journey interesting is to modify the Strength Drain ability of the Shadows into something that requires more endurance for a long haul as opposed to a single glorious confrontation (see below).
Tweaking the Shadow
If the Strength Drain just isn’t scary enough or you’re an old-school player who remembers the visceral panic of level drain, here are three other ideas to alter and ramp up the horror.
1. Instead of Strength Drain as it stands, force the player to make a Charisma or Wisdom (DM’s choice) save vs. DC 11 or suffer one level of Exhaustion. If they die of exhaustion, they become a shadow 1d4 hours later.
2. Instead of Strength Drain as it stands, make it so that the players automatically lose one of their resting HD. This means that at their next rest, they have that many fewer HD available for healing. Restore these HD only by casting lesser restoration, remove curse, or a similar spell or ritual.
3. Have the players hit by Strength Drain take one point of a special number called Despair instead of losing Strength. Each time they gain Inspiration, it lowers their Despair score by 1. They can not benefit from any Inspiration they receive until their Despair score is 0.
I hope you can do something awesome this weekend with what we’ve talked about here.
Roll on, and be great.
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I played the game a lot as a kid, back in first edition. Over the past few years since 5e was released, I’ve really started getting back into it. Currently, I run a campaign online for some friends and my brothers, and we also play a side-sesh just to mix things up.