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Know Your Lore: Pandaria's mark on Warcraft lore

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

A little over two years ago, Mists of Pandaria was officially announced as the next expansion at BlizzCon to the puzzlement of many players. The idea of an expansion built around the pandaren race was a polarizing one -- some people loved the idea, and some were less than enthused. Although the pandaren were included in game lore as early as Warcraft III, there were those that scoffed at the idea of an expansion built around a race of giant talking bears, saying that they had no place in Warcraft at all. A year later, Mists was officially launched, and a little over a year after that, the events of Mists of Pandaria are wrapping up in a suitably dramatic conclusion.

And to the delight of many, myself included, this expansion has been anything but lighthearted and silly. Mists of Pandaria wasn't just a random expansion about giant talking bears, it was a revolution in the way that story and gameplay intertwine. While it may have had its faltering moments -- the inclusion of enough daily quests to make players dizzy among them -- the story took a life of its own, and the tale it told has definitely left its mark on future lore to come. Let's be clear, here: For a continent left cloaked in Mists for thousands of years, Pandaria has managed to work its way into the face of Warcraft lore in a manner that won't be forgotten, and has given us enough material to spur the story of the game for quite some time.

Horde in distress

In Cataclysm, Horde players witnessed the rise of Warchief Garrosh Hellscream, an appointment that was widely regarded as a pretty bad move by Thrall. But Cataclysm's main storyline barely touched on the new Warchief, instead focusing on the efforts of Thrall after he had stepped down. The development of Garrosh as a character in his own right was relegated to both written material like the short story Heart of War, and low-level quests that weren't necessarily experienced by those who already had max-level characters.

But Mists of Pandaria brought Garrosh to the front lines within seconds of players accepting the quest that would lead them to a new continent and a new expansion. While the new Warchief wasn't particularly visible in the first bout of leveling content, he later headed to Pandaria in patch 5.1, sparking a tidal wave of conflict that wouldn't be resolved until the final patch of the expansion. The rise of Garrosh Hellscream and the subsequent splintering of the Horde was a story that began all the way back in Burning Crusade, when Garrosh was introduced.

This was a long, long time coming, and the repercussions of Garrosh's actions will be felt by the Horde for years to come. Vol'jin may be Warchief, but we've been shown over the course of nine years that being a Warchief isn't exactly a walk in the park. How is Vol'jin going to handle the appointment? Are the Horde going to rally behind him? Or is this just another triumphant moment, like Thrall's liberation of the internment camps, that will eventually fade, leaving the Horde just as disillusioned with the Darkspear leader as they were with Thrall?


Alliance struggles

Unfortunately, the Alliance didn't get quite the same treatment. Beaten down in Wrath and Cataclysm, the Alliance rallied in Mists and claimed a victory in Siege, but Garrosh Hellscream has yet to actually pay for his crimes. And given what we've seen of Warlords of Draenor, he won't have to -- at least not yet. Although Alliance story development was a little lackluster in comparison to what the Horde saw, there were still shining moments, moments that will continue to influence the story in the future.

Jaina Proudmoore went from peaceful diplomat to the head of a war campaign in Pandaria. The destruction of Theramore, while unspeakably horrific, gave the character the kick in the pants she needed. No longer the outspoken proponent of peace, Jaina's character has gained a new outlook on her life, the Alliance, and the Alliance's relationship with the Horde. Jaina has been a voice of optimism and peace since the days of Warcraft III. By taking off that leash, Blizzard has opened up an entirely new path of development for the character and her relationship to the Alliance.

Varian Wrynn also saw some screen time in Mists as a military leader, and his outlook has also changed significantly. No longer the violent, hate-ridden gladiator we saw make an explosive debut in Wrath, Varian is now a tempered weapon -- willing to wait where necessary, but particularly lethal when he strikes. He was given an opportunity to show a moment of mercy at the end of Siege, and it looks like that moment will come back to bite him in Warlords. What will that do to Wrynn, and how will we see his character evolve in the future?

Perhaps most importantly, we have Prince Anduin Wrynn, who has grown from the small boy we saw in vanilla to the young man we see today. But Anduin in Mists seems to be shifting into that optimistic role that Jaina vacated -- a mistake that nearly cost him his life at the end of patch 5.1. Given his penchant for optimistic forgiveness, what will happen when Warlords comes into play? What will he do, when confronted with the evidence that sometimes there is no redemption to be had -- sometimes, a bad orc is simply a bad orc? Will he learn more from Velen -- lessons that we'll actually see in action? And when the time comes and Anduin has to take the crown, what kind of man will he be?


World history

Beyond the obvious influence this expansion has on faction relations is a shift in what we know about Azeroth and how it came to be. Pandaria was thought lost to time, its reveal a mystery, a riddle whose answer we've only just discovered. The mogu weren't just nameless villains, they were Titan constructs gone horribly wrong -- objects left to their own devices, another victim of the Curse of the Flesh first given a name in Wrath. The klaxxi are eerie cousins to both the qiraji, who we first saw all the way back in vanilla, and the nerubians of Northrend, first seen in Warcraft III.

Point being, although the faces might be new, everything introduced in Pandaria firmly ties back with everything else we've been presented with in lore. Yes, this is new lore -- but it's lore that meshes seamlessly with what we already knew. It made sense that the klaxxi were another branch of the aqir race, one lost to time with the rest of Pandaria. It made sense that the mogu, first thought as a race of hateful brutes, were in fact creations of the Titans.

And Pandaria's fate made sense as well -- the story of Emperor Shaohao, desperate to save his land on the eve of the Sundering, was beautifully told in several different iterations over the course of the expansion. The difference between the pandaren of Pandaria and the pandaren of the Wandering Isle was also something that was given enough of a highlight to be easily understood. The new lore introduced wasn't just hastily made up bits of new information, Blizzard took great care to integrate it with what we've already seen. The end result is an expansion that sheds new light onto history, without resorting to changing existing lore in the process.


Titans and Old Gods

Speaking of history, we got plenty of new and tantalizing information about the Titans and the Old Gods as well -- more than enough to fuel a ridiculous amount of speculation about the origins of Azeroth. What have we learned? That the Old Gods are not as indestructible as was blatantly stated in Wrath. They can be killed, even though it took the work of a Titan to put an end to Y'shaarj, and then an army of mortals thousands of years later to clean up the aftermath. The klaxxi reverently worshiped Y'shaarj, even as they quailed at the thought of their Empress being possessed by the sha. When push came to shove, they sided with the Old God -- and now that Old God is well and truly gone.

And then we have the history of the mogu and their keeper, Ra-den. Ra-den watched over the mogu, Titan creations that were in turn charged with watching over Pandaria. But something went horribly wrong -- the mogu were stricken by the Curse of Flesh, and Ra-den fell silent. This would be an eerie enough tale on its own, but what happened next was absolutely chilling. Left to their own devices and now possessing emotions such as anger, fear, and pride, the mogu fought each other for untold years.

The birth of Lei-Shen was a groundbreaking moment for the mogu. Lei-Shen wasn't just a leader, he was the only mogu to actively try to figure out what went wrong with Ra-den. Instead of showing a flash of sympathy or empathy for the fallen keeper, Lei-Shen instead stripped Ra-den's power to twist and use for his own. Lei-Shen imprisoned Ra-den, using the keeper's blood to fuel horrific experiments, further strengthening his own power, and the power of his Empire. What does this tale tell us? That while the Titans may be creatures we've viewed as benevolent and kind, their creations are not guaranteed to be the same.

And perhaps more chilling than that, is the observation that there does not seem to be an inch of Azeroth that hasn't been touched by the Titans. This world is crawling with Titan constructs. Even on continents we haven't yet discovered.


Wrathion

The black dragon Wrathion was introduced in Cataclysm, and while any player could view his origins simply by playing through the Badlands, rogues were the ones who received a more formal introduction during the quest for their legendary daggers. Yet Wrathion was unlike any black dragon we'd encountered to date. Purified by an ancient Titan artifact, Wrathion held no trace of the Old Gods, unlike the rest of his kin -- and he was quick to engineer the extinction of every tainted black dragon on Azeroth, to his knowledge, including his father Deathwing.

But Wrathion made the journey to Pandaria right along with the rest of us, and took players on a whirlwind journey of the entire continent, sending them on multiple tasks in an effort to try and engineer a quick end to the Alliance and Horde war. Why? Because of one simple vision -- an Azeroth bathed in the flames of the Burning Legion. It was enough to terrify Wrathion, and more than enough to spur him into action at a tender two years of age. Between each quest, Wrathion reassured players both Alliance and Horde that he was on their side, only showing his true hand at the moment of Hellscream's defeat in Siege.

And he made a promise as he flew away in a fit of temper -- he would be back, and he would stop at nothing to prepare the world for the terrifying fate foretold in his vision. We may not see Wrathion in Warlords -- he has no vested interest in Draenor, only Azeroth. But Wrathion made an observation that may give us a hint to his next appearance. He planned for another year or so of fighting, but then the world would be ready -- ready in time for that vision of destruction. If Warlords takes place over the course of a year, this almost certainly means we'll see Wrathion, and possibly the Legion as well, in the following expansion.


The pandaren

And then, at last, we have the pandaren race. You would think, with a title like Mists of Pandaria, that the pandaren would be at the forefront of the plot. That's what most players were worried about, after all -- how do you take pandaren seriously? While the pandaren did play a heavy hand in ushering us through Pandaria's history, they were supporting players at best. The tales of pandaren history weren't just stories that were for pandaren ears alone -- they had an impact on every race that heard them. We were strangers in a strange land -- but the pandaren were more than willing to accept us ... for the most part.

Our arrival set off a chain of events that forever altered the continent. Our war forced the pandaren to take action against enemies they weren't prepared to fight. And when push came to shove, the pandaren had wisdom that they were willing to share -- if we were willing to hear it. Taran Zhu might not have been a fan favorite, but the Lord of the Shado-Pan did have a point: We fight in an endless cycle of aggression that will never, ever stop -- until we decide to put down our weapons and walk away. Whether or not that point actually sank in is still up in the air. But the point stands.

Lorewalker Cho was so eager to share his world with us, and to hear about our world. Do you think, in the wake of the Jade Forest, in the swath of destruction that now scars the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, that he regrets that decision? Have we changed the storyteller for good, or will he continue to gather and share tales from not only Pandaria, but the rest of the world? I hope he chooses a life of wandering, now that Pandaria's tale is coming to a close.


The future

Mists of Pandaria wasn't just an expansion about the pandaren race. It was a deftly orchestrated glimpse into parts of Azeroth's history that we'd never before seen, and never knew existed. This chapter of Warcraft's overall story is one riddled with violence and war -- but the enemy isn't the Burning Legion, it isn't the Scourge or the Lich King or even Deathwing, it's us. Mists turned the mirror on our own factions, giving us a glimpse of who we are as Alliance and Horde, and as inhabitants on a world that is far, far more complex and important to the rest of the universe than we may have even begun to imagine.

While Mists may have done a good job with wrapping up most of its stories, we still have more than enough loose ends to fuel future stories for years to come -- although we might not see those threads immediately. Between the history of Pandaria, the character development seen in both factions, and the mysteries of the keepers, the Titans, the Old Gods, and even the Timeless Isle, Mists has left a solid mark in Warcraft lore, and in future content. Warlords may or may not pick up the loose threads, but you can be sure we haven't seen the last of Pandaria's effect on the story of Azeroth.


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.

Filed under: Lore, Know your Lore

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