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 while back I did a history of the Pandaren Campaign that just gave a bare bones overview of what exactly happened between patch 5.0 and 5.4 in terms of the story. I understand that nine years of World of Warcraft can't be easily summed up. I don't expect I'll be able to do more than a cursory retelling of the major events, and I'll probably miss and leave out quite a few. So why do it at all?
I have a few reasons. The first is that some of this stuff is gone in game - it happened, but you can't go back and experience it any more. That makes it a part of the game that needs reminders from time to time, in my opinion. The second reason is because all of this lore shapes the game as it evolves - everything that has happened - it helps place things into context. And the third reason is because this stuff is all pretty awesome. It deserves to be retold.
We're going to try and do the game at launch this week, and come back to it on a regular basis.
So let us retell it.
Before Expansions - The Story of Four Years Passing
We were first introduced to the World of Warcraft four years after the conclusion of Warcraft III. Events had progressed, some surprisingly so - the undead forces under Sylvanas Windrunner, the self-styled Banshee Queen, has joined Thrall's New Horde while the night elves of Kalimdor (formerly part of a triple alliance with Jaina Proudmoore's forces of survivors from Lordaeron and Thrall's Horde) had chosen to ally themselves with the humans against the orcs. The peace won with the defeat of Archimonde was sliding inexorably towards war.
Unseen and unheard of during the Legion's advance, the humans of Stormwind had completed the reconstruction of their city, but not all was well - with tensions on the rise outside her walls and a conflict with the masons who'd helped rebuild those walls in the shadows, Stormwind could ill-afford the disappearance of her King - yet Varian Wrynn was gone, lost on a mysterious diplomatic errand, and in his place his young son Anduin, still only a boy, ruled the city. His rule was tenuous, more a figurehead, and real power lay in the hand of Highlord Bolvar Fordragon and Lady Katrana Prestor.
The people of Azeroth
While there were whispers that the kingdom was going to ruin, leaving its outlying territories undefended against threats like the Defias in Westfall, the Dark Riders and worgen in Darkshire, and the Blackrock Orcs in Lakeshire, it would take the rise of heroes to discover what was amiss. And Stormwind wasn't the only city that had dealt with internal strife while the Legion had threatened the world - the kingdom of the gnomes, the city of Gnomeregan, was beset by treachery and an attack by underground dwelling troggs. Thanks to poisoned advice by one Sicco Thermaplugg, High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque and the gnomish people who followed him were forced to flee to Ironforge and live as dispossessed 'guests' of their dwarven allies, for once proud Gnomeregan was now a toxic wasteland haunted by troggs and presided over in dementia by Thermaplugg.
Things over on the Horde side of the equation had settled down from the events of the founding of Durotar four years previously - as mentioned, Thrall had been convinced to allow Sylvanas and her forsaken to join with his orcs, the Darkspear trolls led by Vol'jin, and Cairne Bloodhoof's Tauren. Interestingly, it was one of Cairne's shamans - a mysterious Elder Crone named Magatha Grimtotem with her own agenda - who had interceded on behalf of the forsaken. Why would a tauren shaman do this? Cairne already knew he didn't entirely trust Magatha - allowing her a place in the new city of Thunder Bluff the tauren had constructed for themselves being a way to keep an eye on her and her Grimtotem tribe, an unusually hostile and xenophobic tribe of tauren.
While the forsaken were adjusting to life as part of the Horde, they had their own problems to deal with. A fanatical group of surviving humans called the Scarlet Crusade didn't see any difference between Scourge and Forsaken, and from their Scarlet Monastery in the very heart of the Tirisfal Glades waged a campaign of extermination against the undead. Further bastions at Hearthglen and Tyr's Hand served the order as well, giving them a presence throughout the former Lordaeron.
The Darkspear, for their part, were confined to a village on the southern coast of Durotar, the new orcish homeland - for they had been betrayed by one of their own. Zalazane - this troll witch doctor had used powerful dark magics to enslave many of his own tribe and sought to rule over the Darkspears as mindless slaves, due to his belief that Vol'jin was selling the Darkspear trolls out to the Horde and Thrall's ideals. Despite the best efforts of the Darkspear settled in Sen'jin Village, Zalazane would endure for many years as de factor ruler of the Echo Isles.
This is not to say that the Alliance on Kalimdor were faring any better. The humans of the Theramore settlement, barely having survived the Horde onslaught of four years previous, now sat precariously balanced between Horde forces dominating the eastern coast of Kalimdor. Ruled by Jaina Proudmoore, it was said that King Varian Wrynn had been heading to Theramore for a proposed peace summit with the Horde when he vanished. Northern and western Kalimdor was the domain of the kaldorei, or night elves - they were divided on many issues thanks in part to Malfurion Stormrage's having returned mysteriously to his sleep and the rise of Archdruid Fandral Staghelm, hero of the war of the Shifting Sands and constant bitter rival to Tyrande Whisperwind over the proper course of night elf society.
Following the near-destruction of Nordrassil, Fandral and other druids had proposed the creation of a new world tree to replace it and regain the blessing that had made their race ageless and practically immortal, a blessing lost when Nordrassil burned to kill Archimonde and end the Legion's invasion. Malfurion had opposed this plan - without the blessing of the dragon aspects and the presence of the Well of Eternity, there was no guarantee that this new world tree would work - a previous attempt to create a world tree in what is now Northrend had ended in failure. But when Malfurion suddenly succumbed to a mysteriously unbreakable sleep, Fandral became the leader of the druids among the night elves, and bent his people towards the project. Within four years, Teldrassil soared above the ocean to the north of Kalimdor, with the massive reconstructed city of Darnassus cradled in its boughs. Still, the tree was not blessed by the aspects - it brought no immortality, and worse, strange and malign entities seemed to lurk in its shadows. Even some of the firbolgs who had come to settle its branches degenerated into feral madness.
Fandral and Tyrande's conflict over who should lead the night elves divided their people, and Teldrassil's problems meant that they spent little time watching over lands like Azshara, once a bustling center of the ancient Highborne night elves. This would have repercussions in the future.
A rising tide that will wash over this world
As events progressed, it soon became apparent that several forces imperiled the world. The Shadow Council, under a variety of names, haunted the underside of Horde society, seeking always to return the orcs to a state of demon worship and servitude. This spit in the face of Grom Hellscream's sacrifice, and Thrall chose a policy of containment, allowing Horde warlocks to exist so that he could watch them and determine which ones needed purging. The forsaken, for their part, engaged in a host of sinister experiments while trying to wipe out any living humans still remaining in the lands they now perceived as theirs - lands including Alterac, Hillsbrad, and the Silverpine region that had once belonged to Gilneas, none of which were part of Lordaeron at its height. Borders no longer concerned the forsaken - victory for their Banshee Queen was the only concern. And aside from a human town maintained by those loyal to Stormwind, all of the region quickly fell under the forsaken's control. Southshore proved a tougher nut to crack at the time - many battles raged as Horde and Alliance forces fought for control of a strategically unimportant backwater.
In time, these battles would erupt in other hotspots - the mountains of Alterac, the basins of the Arathi Highlands, the gulches claimed by the Warsong Clan in night elf territory - each pushing the fragile detente between Horde and Alliance further and further towards a final end. But neither the Alliance nor the Horde could focus all of their ire on one another. The Scourge, loyal to the Lich King and his agent Kel'Thuzad the lich, were amassing sorcerous lore in the Scholomance and running rampant in the burning ruins of Stratholme. The ancient Highborne sanctum of Dire Maul, now infested by demons and imps, ogres and other monsters, threatened all of southern Kalimdor. Blackrock Mountain played host not only to the Dark Iron Dwarves and their sinister Blackrock Depths, a city rivaling even Ironforge in size and scale, but was also the home of a grand conspiracy aimed at crippling the Alliance and seeing the Blackrock orcs propped up as the dominant force in the region. These orcs, claiming to be the true Horde, were a clear and present threat to Warchief Thrall and all he'd sought to do with his Horde since moving it to Kalimdor.
Sojourns to Blackrock soon brought a deeper mystery to light, as Marshall Windsor revealed that Katrana Prestor was in fact the black dragon broodmother Onyxia herself, daughter of Deathwing - giving his life, he managed to free Highlord Bolvar Fordragon from his spell, and so the truth was revealed. But while Onyxia herself was a great threat, the expeditions to the mountain had revealed still greater ones - the Dark Irons were themselves effectively the slaves of Ragnaros, the ancient Firelord, and the elemental lord of fire was engaged in a titanic battle for control of the mountain with the Blackrock orcs and their shadowy master, Lord Victor Nefarius from within his bastion atop the mountain. Worse yet, Emperor Dagran Thaurissan had apparently kidnapped Moira Bronzebeard, daughter of Magni Bronzebeard, King of Ironforge. And so the assaults upon the mountain increased.
Great and unpleasant truths were revealed - Princess Moira chose Dagran, she hadn't been kidnapped and the baby she was pregnant with was the now deceased Emperor's own. Ragnaros held sway over the molten core of the mountain itself, populating it with elemental forces drawn from his demesne within the Firelands. Once these threats were dealt with and Ragnaros was driven back to the plane of fire, then the long climb up the mountain to its peak could begin in earnest, and in time the black dragon Nefarian joined his sister Onyxia in death. Yet this provided not even a moment of peace - while the menace of Blackrock Mountain's many threats was being dealt with, other new threats had come forth.
Great threats and the harbingers of disaster
The first of these were a series of four great green dragons, twisted and corrupted, that came forth from portals at long-forgotten locales once held by the night elves. These dragons, called the Dragons of Nightmare (named Ysondre, Taerar, Emeriss and Lethon) were seemingly corrupted by some dread power lurking within the Emerald Dream itself, and a nightmare engulfed object would offer a tantalizing clue as to Malfurion's true whereabouts. Worse was to follow.
A long trail of investigation by both Horde and Alliance forces had revealed a growing infestation of strange insect creatures - Horde forces had encountered them in the southern barrens, while the Alliance stumbled upon them in Feralas. Soon, these insects seemed to be everywhere in the south of Kalimdor, and eventually work in Tanaris and Un'Goro Crater pointed in the direction of the wasted deserts of Silithus. In those deserts, the true threat became apparent - the Silithid were back, and behind them, as before during the War of the Shifting Sands a thousand years gone, lay the massed forces of the Qiraji of Ahn'Qiraj seeking to boil forth and enslave or destroy all other life on the continent. Known to a few at this time was the true architect of the Qiraji threat, the ancient old god C'thun. Soon, an army called the Might of Kalimdor, consisting of Horde and Alliance forces and commanded by Varok Saurfang (the orc war hero) would stand fast opposing C'thun's vast armies, while a smaller elite force would breach the Qiraji ruins to weaken the enemy forces before plunging deeper into the Temple complex, seeking to kill a god.
At the same time, another god rose in the jungles of Stranglethorn - the dread Blood God Hakkar, once confined to the Sunken Temple of the Atali in the Swamp of Sorrows, now free thanks to unsuspecting treasure hunters who retrieved his essence for a disguised worshipper. Alarmed at the prospect of the Blood God's return, the ancient Zandalari tribe of trolls sent some of their most skilled in to the Gurubashi city of Zul'Gurub, where Hakkar was revived, but these agents ended up slaves to the Blood God. In desperation, the Zandalari turned to any hero, Horde or Alliance, who would take up the call and breach the city to destroy the corrupted priests and Hakkar himself.
Yet even these titanic threats, fallen on the heels of Ragnaros and Nefarian, bought but a momentary respite. For the sacking of the Scholomance and the invasion of Stratholme had not gone unnoticed. Kel'Thuzad himself moved the massive aerial necropolis Naxxramas to the skies over Stratholme and unleashed a wave of Scourge upon Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms as a show of strength, an invasion that led to a counter-attack. Hardened by constant battle, the forces of the Alliance and Horde, working alongside the Argent Dawn and even some members of the Scarlet Crusade. Eventually, Kel'Thuzad was struck down and his phylactery brought to a Father Inigo Montoy, who promptly disappeared with it.
The Portal Opens
With the defeat of Kel'Thuzad and the sudden departure of Naxxramas, it seemed as if peace might come, or at least a chance for it. But then, the Dark Portal flared to life for the first time in over a decade, and from its swirling portal, a host of demons invaded Azeroth. The dreaded Doom Lord Kazzak, who had haunted the southern Blasted Lands, had found a way to escape Azeroth through the portal, and his minions, led by Highlord Kruul, were besieging the cities of Azeroth as a prelude to a full-scale invasion. In order to put an end to the threat once and for all, more was required than simply defeating the forces that had already come through - once the Alliance and Horde had driven the Legion back, the next step was clear.
The Dark Portal was open. And portals work both ways. The time had come to leave Azeroth behind, and explore what was beyond that dark and sinister gate between worlds.
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.