While the Material Plane is easy enough to comprehend -- it's where Azeroth exists, after all -- the rest of the Warcraft cosmos is not nearly as simply understood. Along with the Material Plane, there exists a host of other, alternate planes of existence, each with its own unique features and (in some cases) denizens. But the part that's so difficult to grasp is that each of these planes exist in nearly the same location. Azeroth is not alone in the world, and the Burning Legion has to come from somewhere.
That's the tricky part about understanding the Warcraft cosmos. It's not just about physical locations and planets that we can see and understand. It's also about these other places we don't see -- not first-hand, anyway. Yet despite the fact that these are locations we may never have been to in the physical sense, they affect the world of Azeroth and the other worlds around them just as solidly as if they were physically present. Seem like a lot to comprehend? Get ready for some more brain-bending.
Planes of Existence
Each plane in the Warcraft cosmos exists simultaneously with -- and in many cases, overlap -- the Material Plane. These places aren't necessarily visible to the naked eye, and in most cases, trying to travel between planes takes special effort. Most recently, we've come into physical contact with the elemental planes of the universe, strongholds that exist as the home and prison of elementals. But beyond the elemental planes are others that we've been in contact with for countless years without even realizing they were there. There are three major alternate planes of existence that we know of and a handful of smaller ones that may or may not actually exist.
The Elemental Plane was only just recently opened to exploration, yet it's hard to comprehend exactly how this plane relates in regard to Azeroth itself. Think of the Material Plane, the plane on which all planets and mortals exist, as a sheet of paper. Now picture the other planes of existence as pieces of tissue paper layered on top of the first. Each exists and takes up the same space. They may even look like one sheet of paper, but they are separate realms of existence.
In the case of the Elemental Plane, what happens when someone takes a sharp pencil and jabs a hole through the stack of paper? You get overlapping chaos, as witnessed in the Maelstrom -- and you get an easy point of access for all those elementals that were imprisoned in the Elemental Plane. Suddenly, things aren't separate and distinct anymore, and we as mortals are able to cross over and interact with these elementals, some angry about their imprisonment, some considering their new home to be far superior to Azeroth. Deathwing jabbed the pencil through the paper when he emerged from Deepholm into Azeroth; now we as players are dealing with the consequences of his actions.
The Emerald Dream is also considered another plane of existence. It exists separately from the world of Azeroth, yet it is layered on top of the Material Plane in a way that allows us to access it through special means. There are a few ways to do so. Druids can simply fall into slumber and let their subconscious travel into the Emerald Dream. There are also four portals around the world that allow mortals to travel through in a physical state.
What the Emerald Dream is, however, is the fascinating part. It's an echo of what Azeroth would have been had it not been altered by any meddling or tampering. It's essentially a backup copy of Azeroth, a backup of the Azeroth from well over 10,000 years ago, before the Sundering ripped the continent of Kalimdor into pieces. So what's so special about the Emerald Dream? The Green Dragonflight have been charged with preserving the Emerald Dream by the Titans themselves. Ysera enlisted the help of the night elf druids after the War of the Ancients to assist her in keeping the Emerald Dream safe.
What the Emerald Nightmare essentially represents is a corruption of that backup data file. The Emerald Nightmare was a virus sent to corrupt that backup file, and Ysera's been fighting off that corruption because she needs that backup pristine.
But then, what exactly do you use a backup file for? That's right -- to restore a file to its original state, should the file become corrupted or unusable. Think about it; in the event that Azeroth becomes too unstable or too overwhelmed, the Emerald Dream is there, waiting to be used to essentially reboot the planet.
In The Burning Crusade, players were allowed to travel from Azeroth to another planet, Outland. Outland was once known as the planet Draenor in the Material Plane. However, it now exists out there in the Twisting Nether. So what's the difference, how'd it get there, and why can we see Azeroth in the sky when we're in the Black Temple?
The easiest of these questions to address is how Draenor traveled from the Material Plane to the Twisting Nether ... well, not exactly "traveled." After the Second War, the orc Ner'zhul attempted to open portals to other worlds, in the hope that the orcs of Draenor could escape from the Burning Legion. The planet couldn't handle the stress of so many portals and simply exploded into the bits and pieces of Outland we know today -- blown clear off the Material Plane and into the Twisting Nether.
The Twisting Nether itself is another plane of existence, much the same as the Elemental Plane or the Emerald Dream; however, where the Material Plane, the Elemental Plane and even the Emerald Dream are places of general order, the Twisting Nether is chaos. The Twisting Nether actually exists around the various worlds of the Material Plane and serves as a connecting point between these worlds. It's like a chaotic, multi-dimensional net that overlays the rest of the planes and connects to them at various points.
It's very likely that every dimensional gateway currently used in game, from the portals that mages create all the way to the Dark Portal itself, actually tunnels through the Twisting Nether and uses it to travel from point A to point B. This would explain why Draenor shattered the way it did. The portals Ner'zhul created essentially opened up an infinite amount of tunnels through the Twisting Nether, resulting in planetary disruption and destruction and subsequently being blown through and captured in the plane the orcs were trying to travel through.
As a realm of absolute chaos, the Twisting Nether makes an ideal home for the demons of the Burning Legion, and it's also why it's so difficult to really "kill" a demon. Think of it this way: A druid sleeping on Azeroth is present in the Emerald Dream, appears to have a physical form and can be imprisoned or harmed. He can walk the worlds of the Dream as if he were actually there, but his physical body still remains on Azeroth. If you kill a druid in the Emerald Dream, he's going to wake up in the "real world" -- perhaps shaken, perhaps mentally damaged, but otherwise fine.
For the demons of the Burning Legion in the Twisting Nether, the same concept applies. We can kill those demons -- but they are "banished back to the Nether." You cannot truly kill a demon simply by destroying its form on Azeroth, any more than you can kill a druid by destroying its form in the Emerald Dream.
- Spirit plane The spirit plane is the land of the dead, the land our ghosts walk through while we travel back to our corpses. While some think that the realm of the spirits and the Twisting Nether are one and the same, it hasn't really been proven or disproven either way. However, the fact that mortals on the Material Plane can resurrect those who are present in the spirit world tends to lend itself to the theory that the spirit plane coexists with the Material Plane. Spirit healers exist on this plane of existence. The blue dragon Azuregos was also able to move from the Material Plane to the spirit world with no difficulty -- and without, presumably, dying. Whether other mortals can cross that line is unknown, but the spirit plane remains largely a mystery.
- Shadow realm The Realm of Shadows is a shadowy dimension accessible by death knights. It's essentially a dark, shadowy version of the real world. Death knights are sent to the Realm of Shadows to obtain their Deathchargers. While this realm may have something to do with shadow magic, it's still largely unexplored and unexplained.
- Twilight Realm The Twilight Realm is something different altogether. All members of the Twilight Dragonflight can pass through to the Twilight Realm, and they are able to send mortals to the Twilight Realm as well (usually resulting in said mortal's demise). The Twilight Dragonflight was created by extracting the essence of the Netherwing -- dragons that were infused with the essence of the Twisting Nether itself when Draenor shattered -- and fusing it with a regular dragon egg. This indicates that the Twilight Realm may have some connection to the Twisting Nether. Either it exists as a part of the Twisting Nether itself, or perhaps the Twilight Realm is to the Twisting Nether as the Emerald Dream is to Azeroth -- coexisting side-by-side, but never really in contact with each other, the planes only able to be crossed by certain individuals in most cases. In the case of the Emerald Dream, that would be druids; in the case of the Twilight Realm, that would be the Twilight Dragonflight.
What we can draw from all of this is that the Warcraft cosmos is a terribly delicate place indeed. The balance between planes is vital to maintaining order in the universe, yet mortal intervention keeps throwing that careful balance off-kilter. The events of Cataclysm may seem mundane enough -- after all, a dragon bursting through the earth is going to create chaos, no matter how you look at it -- but they affect the universe of Warcraft as wholly as they affect the physical land of Azeroth. And though we may only be dealing with the physical events at this point in time, we may have to deal with the aftereffects on a much larger scale -- a universal one.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
- The Sources of Magic, part 1
- Interbellum Part 3 -- To rule a world
- War of the Ancients
- Tinfoil Hat Edition: Silence of the Titans
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.