Sunday, November 19, 2017

Denizens of the Shadowlands

If you've been reading this blog roughly since World of Warcraft Chronicle Volume 1 came out, you'll probably already know that I'm obsessed with one of the realms of existence mentioned early in the book: the Shadowlands.

The Shadowlands are the opposite of the Emerald Dream - they're not the Nightmare, which is a corruption of the Emerald Dream, but still on "that side" of reality. Instead, while the Dream is a reflection of the natural world and the home of the Wild Gods, the Shadowlands are a realm of death.

We know very little about the Shadowlands, and while there are several elements in-game that seem connected to it (that this post will attempt to list,) there are actually two explicit places where the word is mentioned:

The Val'kyr within Skyhold, the part of the Halls of Valor that serves as the Warrior class hall, mention that they live in the Shadowlands. We get far more detail about how they were created in Chronicle. Keeper Odyn traveled to the Shadowlands and sacrificed one of his eyes to a powerful, as-yet-unnamed entity there for the knowledge of how to create the Val'kyr. He transformed Helya into the first of them against her will, which ultimately led to her alliance with the corrupted Loken and her rebellion against Odyn.

The description of benevolent rogue Val'kyr - those who decided not to serve Helya even though Odyn was trapped within his Halls - perfectly lines up with that of the Spirit Healers, and their mission to resurrect any heroes who might help safeguard Azeroth lines up perfectly with their in-game purpose, which to me suggests that the ghostly world we find ourselves in within the game if we die is the Shadowlands, full stop. It's a clever lore-justification for a mechanic that has been in game from the start, but it has never been 100% unambiguously confirmed by Blizzard.

And that's true for basically everything else we know about the Shadowlands. Aside from the Val'kyr traveling there to rescue the souls of the valorous, the only other confirmed mention of them in-game is the Death Knight ability, Wraith Walk.

But while the specific word "Shadowlands" is used very rarely, we've heard about the Realm of Shadows and the Death Realm plenty of times, and there are places we've gone that seem closely tied to the Shadowlands even if we never heard the word used.

One thing to wonder about is whether the Shadowlands have anything to do with the Void.

While it's certainly up for debate, I tend to come down firmly on the "no" side of that question. While the types of dark magic within the Warcraft cosmos are often used in tandem with one another, the truth is that there are really three specific kinds: Void/Shadow Magic is tied directly to a kind of cosmic non-existence, the hungering nothingness that is home to the Void Lords, who themselves gave form to the Old Gods. Fel Magic is literally the magic of chaos, and is hardly "dark" because it's actually extremely exothermic and fiery in nature - a kind of corruption of the Light (actually the result of Light and Void annihilating each other) that is like the nuclear fallout to the Light's warm summer day. Necromancy is death magic, and while we've typically seen in practiced by either adherents of the Void (like Ner'zhul on Draenor B - his universe A version is more complicated: see below) or demonic adherents of the Fel (like Balnazzar raising the dead Scarlet Crusaders to serve as his Risen,) it is apparently a type of magic unto itself, not reliant on Void or Fel.

The Shadowlands, thus, seem to be the perfect realm for Death and Necromancy, where Fel has the Twisting Nether and Shadow magic has the Void.

But what is in there? Other than some Spirit Healers, Death Knights who want to move faster, and a big vortex in the sky everywhere, what does one find in the Shadowlands? Let's get this speculative list:

Helheim:

Given the description of the place as a land of the dead, Helya's realm, in which she resurrects dead Vrykul, turning them into Kvaldir, seems like a pretty obvious spot within it. While generally, the Shadowlands and the Emerald Dream are a reflection of the physical world, we know the Dream has some locations that are not found in the real world (like the Dreamways that Druids gain access to or the Heart of the Dream that we see after defeating Xaivus,) and so it would stand to reason that Helheim is one of those parts of the Shadowlands that has no physical counterpart within the prime reality.

The Drust:

We know that Drustvar, the southwest part of Kul Tiras, will be plagued by witches using Death Magic. In an interview, we found that there was a population there known as the Drust, whom the early human settlers killed. The Drust didn't just go away, though, and instead stepped into the Death Realm, from which they have been corrupting humans and turning them into foul witches to plague the humans in the area.

Bwonsamdi:

Most Loa are Wild Gods, tied to the Emerald Dream - basically, what Trolls call Loa, the Night Elves call Ancients, and the Pandaren call Celestials. But Bwonsamdi, the patron of the Darkspear tribe, first off, looks like a Troll rather than some animal, and secondly, is very clearly died to death as a force (his real-world counterpart, Baron Samedi, is also connected to death.) It seems highly likely that Bwonsamdi has some connection to the Shadowlands as well.

The Lich King and the Scourge:

During quests for Alliance in Howling Fjord and Horde in Dragonblight, we cross over into the realm of death, where we see the Lich King, who informs us that he has total dominion over this "spirit realm." If the spirit realm is the land of the dead, it makes sense for a being like the Lich King to have a great deal of power there, and given that Death Knight have an ability tied to it (and they also seem to get their Acherus Deathchargers there,) it seems inevitable that the Lich King, probably the most powerful necromantic force on Azeroth, has got a very strong connection to the Shadowlands (my favorite tin-foil hat theory is that the Lich King, maybe under a different name, existed long before Ner'zhul, Arthas, or Bolvar, and that this entity is what Odyn traded his eye to.)

Azuregos:

This is mostly just silly, but when you quest through the post-Cataclysm version of Azshara, you discover that Azuregos, pissed at all the adventurers who attacked him during vanilla (something you can do again during the 13th anniversary event!) hid away in the spirit realm, and he's currently dating a Spirit Healer. (Given that both Val'kyr and Dragons are Titan-empowered beings, maybe that's not all that weird?)

The Val'kyr:

These we know the most explicitly, which ties into Helheim, mentioned above. Not much more to be said about these guys, except that we know that the Lich King also employs Val'kyr. When we first encountered them in Wrath, I think most of us just assumed that Val'kyr were a special type of female undead Vrykul that Arthas had invented. Instead, he seems to have co-opted a whole ceremony, replacing the Valarjar with his Ymirjar. But maybe we've got it backwards - if the Lich King is what Odyn gave his eye to, then perhaps it is Odyn copying the Lich King's ceremony (perhaps unwittingly.)

Yogg-Saron:

I know I said that I didn't think the Shadowlands was related to the Void, but I could be wrong. Yogg-Saron is referred to as the Old God of Death, even though there's no clear connection that he holds to that aspect of the cosmos more than the other Old Gods. We know that it was his infection of the Emerald Dream that created the Nightmare (which somehow N'zoth usurped,) but if he was connected to the Dream, was he perhaps also connected to - or even the creator of - the Shadowlands? If we assume that Helya and Helheim are within the Shadowlands, could this explain why a Vrykul-turned-Val'kyr has a whole bunch of tentacles? I mean, yeah, she's kind of Ursulla from the Little Mermaid, but what if her form mutated due to corruption from Yogg-Saron (we know she teamed up with Loken to lock Odyn away, and Loken's mind had been totally poisoned by Yogg-Saron.) Is it possible that the being Odyn gave his eye to was actually an Old God - the very Old God over whom Odyn had been meant to watch? And damn, if Yogg-Saron is the Old God of Death, that means his defeat in Ulduar might be, wait for it, only a setback (and a minor one at that.) We did, after all, see Old God minions appear within the facility right at the beginning of Legion.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Fate of the Late Vol'jin

Sometimes you need to raise the stakes.

In Legion, we've faced the biggest threat that we've ever seen in World of Warcraft. While you could make various arguments about the relative danger of Arthas, Deathwing, or Old-God-Infused Garrosh (even though I'm a Lich King fan through and through, I'd argue 2, 1, 3 in terms of danger rank,) the Legion had to be the biggest thing yet. The Legion was responsible for the existence of the Horde and the very war that started the Warcraft games in the first place - they've been the Bigger Bad lurking behind things since 1994, so they had to come swinging hard.

And boy did they. The failed counter-attack on the Broken Shore was perhaps the most crushingly decisive defeat that the combined forces of Azeroth have endured (unless you count "the Elemental Lords uniting against the Old Gods way, way back.")

To sell that defeat, the narrative required the sacrifice of important character. Central ones.

Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind, High King of the Alliance, had had quite the arc. Recovered from his kidnapping and amnesiac journeys as a gladiatorial pit fighter and restored to the throne in Wrath of the Lich King, Varian began as a warrior fueled by rage, actually officially starting the war that would end with Garrosh's defeat in Orgrimmar after he saw what the Forsaken had been doing in Undercity. While Varian's anger guided him and threatened to alienate him from his son, he gradually got to know Anduin better and the relationship between the two developed, as Anduin convinced Varian that peace was a viable option and that, in the end, Azeroth was stronger when Alliance and Horde fought together.

The Broken Shore was the culmination of that arc; he and Sylvanas - the same Sylvanas whose apothecaries had convinced him to declare war on the Horde - fight side-by-side across the demon-infested beaches.

He had come around. He had learned to respect his son and to hope for a brighter future. His story had concluded. And so, he was ready to die.

And while he did die in an apparently horrifyingly painful way, he died in the most heroic way one could - sacrificing himself to kill the Fel Reaver that threatened to kill the escaping Alliance forces and then taking out several demons before they could take him down. He died a great example of Alliance heroism and self-sacrifice.

The Horde lost its leader too.

But Vol'jin got none of that. He had only been Warchief for a single expansion, leading from behind as forces traveled to Draenor and while he was cleaning up the mess that Garrosh left him. It isn't as if Vol'jin never got a story - he led the revolt against Garrosh, saving the soul of the Horde as he did. And he had led the resistance against the Zandalari under Prophet Zul, even enlisting the aid of the Alliance to do so.

Vol'jin was a man of iron principles and integrity, unwilling to stand aside while tyrants rose. Not only was he the first non-Orc Warchief of the Horde, he may have also become its greatest leader, a statesman who would rally the myriad nations of the Horde under a banner of inspiration.

But it was all cut short on the Broken Shore.

We barely got a chance to see Warchief Vol'jin at work before he was unceremoniously stabbed by a demonic blade, the fel curse within poisoning his body. He had the luxury of naming a successor, and made the shocking choice of Sylvanas Windrunner, but he did so with his literal dying breath.

The Broken Shore established the great stakes of Legion as an expansion, and that's a crucial aspect of storytelling. But Vol'jin's death was so sudden and seemed to cut off so many potential stories (in ways that Varian's death did not) that it left many if not most players with a bit of a sour taste in their mouths.

So when Battle for Azeroth was announced, those same players (and probably even the ones who were ok with his dying) were intrigued to hear that, among the five characters they claimed the story would focus on (the others being Jaina, Thrall, Anduin, and Sylvanas,) the Darkspear leader was among them.

But Vol'jin is dead. His body is a bunch of ashes in an urn. How do we keep telling his story?

Obviously, a person's story continues in a way thanks to the people they have affected. We haven't seen a ton of Horde NPCs mourning the lost Warchief, but that's also not generally where WoW focuses its story (and it's also not very useful while you're in the middle of the biggest demonic invasion in Azeroth's history.) One thing they've never addressed is who the Darkspear's racial leader is. We actually don't have a whole lot of friendly big-name Troll NPCs in the first place, and while Saurfang has stepped in as the de facto Orc racial leader after Thrall retired (for now) and Garrosh was arrested, escaped, and killed, the Darkspear don't seem to have an official leader, at least that one can see in-game. That's a story that could go forward.

But I imagine that we're going to be dealing with Vol'jin on a more supernatural level. This is a fantasy game, after all, and being dead is not always a death sentence, if you get my meaning. Illidan was dead after we killed him in the Black Temple, but he got better after Nighthold.

We know that Bwonsamdi is going to play a role in Battle for Azeroth, and as a Loa of the dead, it would make sense that Bwonsamdi took Vol'jin's soul after he died. Vol'jin said that the spirits had told him to name Sylvanas his successor - was it Bwonsamdi in particular that told him?

Indeed, between Bwonsamdi and the Witches of Drustvar, there seems to be a lot of exploration of the Death Realm (presumably the Shadowlands) in Battle for Azeroth. Could the retrieval of Vol'jin's soul from the land of the dead be a major part of the Horde's efforts in the expansion? Was Sylvanas meant to be Warchief permanently? Or was she meant to keep his seat warm (which has got to be super-hard for someone whose body temperature is the same as room temperature) while he spent a couple years dead?

If we're going to see Vol'jin either brought back to life or becoming a spirit powerful enough to return to the land of the living, what role does he then serve? If he simply becomes Warchief once more, what does that mean for Sylvanas, and what does it mean for the Warchief to not merely be undead, but someone who really triumphed over death in a way that Sylvanas never did? If he does not become Warchief again, what does he do? Is he a literal spiritual advisor? Does he bring tidings of a greater threat that we've never addressed? Is he still a voice of Horde-Alliance cooperation?

The truth is that we really just don't know practically anything about how this plot will evolve. We're going to have plenty of Trolls in Battle for Azeroth, but while the Zandalari will be joining the Horde, we don't yet know how big a role the Darkspear will play.

In fact, there's something of a reckoning due between the Darkspear and the Zandalari, as it was the former who foiled the ambitions of the latter to reestablish a united Troll Empire across Azeroth. That conflict might be resolved by taking down the Prophet Zul, but if Vol'jin's spirit is not involved in that plot, I don't know where else he would fit.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Threats of Battle for Azeroth

A typical World of Warcraft expansion has maybe a little over ten dungeons and three raid tiers - often with several non-tier (though with the removal of tier sets, that distinction is becomes way less clear) instances coming in early on.

While the aforementioned removal of tier sets makes the distinction of "full tier" raids like Nighthold less distinct from "non tier" raids like Emerald Nightmare or Trial of Valor, let's make the assumption that we'll get a similar number of dungeon and raid instances in Battle for Azeroth as we've gotten in Legion.

We already have the full list of launch dungeons, so that's a known quantity. But let's look at Legion:

Launch Dungeons: 10

Total Dungeons: 12

Total Raids: 5

Raid Bosses (not counting World Bosses): 40

I include the number of raid bosses to account for the fact that not all raids are the same - Trial of Valor is no Antorus. For example, not counting world bosses or Tol Barad, Cataclysm had 27 (28 counting heroic-only Sinestra) raid bosses among 5 raid instances, while Warlords of Draenor had 30 within only 3 instances.

While tier sets are not happening in Battle (I'm going back and forth between Battle and BFA as the shortened version, though I tend to prefer the "first word" nomenclature except with Burning Crusade,) I still imagine we're going to get periodic raid releases along a similar schedule.

That means we're likely to get two or three raids in 8.0, with perhaps a small one popping up in 8.1 if 8.0 only had two, and then we'd get a big new raid roughly after six months and then another along a similar timeframe.

The only announced raid so far is Uldir, which will delve into Titan and Old God themes and lore, apparently detailing what a Blood God is - an unholy amalgamation of Titan experimentation and eldritch Old God physiology. (Supposedly the thing is called G'huun, though I'm wondering if it is actually, or is perhaps related to, Hakkar.)

Uldir is going to be an 8-boss instance, which kind of puts it on the border between "full tier" and "non tier" raid - Emerald Nightmare was 7 bosses, but Dragon Soul was 8, so... I don't know.

Of course, without raid tier sets, the distinction is only important as far as it relates to whether Uldir is truly the headline raid of 8.0 or if it's more of an introductory raid like Mogu'shan Vaults or Highmaul rather than the expansion's first central climax.

We know that Azshara is going to be a raid boss at some point in Battle (I guess I'm sticking with that one.) As someone who could probably headline an expansion, she's almost certain to be the final boss of her raid.

I'd be pretty surprised if we didn't fight Azshara in Nazjatar, which has not been announced as a zone yet, which to me suggests that she'd have to come in later in the expansion so they could bring in the zone that would hold the instance. But given that she has already been announced, I could also imagine her playing the Gul'dan role of the expansion - the first really central villain we defeat in the headlining raid of the first patch (first-ish, I know Nighthold didn't open until after 7.1 launched.)

Beyond these known instances (and looking at an interview about armor art, they've described gear in Uldir as having a mix of Troll, Titan, and Old God looks while the Azshara raid will have a long-underwater High Elf look,) what else might we see?

A big part of that is how important the various known threats in the new continents are.

We have six zones to look at in 8.0, three per continent. Each seems to have its own theme and villains. Obviously we're likely to get new zones added over the course of the expansion - I'm expecting Nazjatar once we're going up against Azshara.

So let's look at the zones and consider what we might see there:

Zandalar:

Zulduzar: We know that this is an ancient temple-city, and there is some mention in the dungeon journal of the Prophet Zul as being behind the final boss of the Atal'dazar dungeon. To me, that suggests Zul is probably going to be a raid boss, though whether he's a final boss or pulls a Tichondrius/Mannoroth (namely, being a recognizable name that is not the final boss of the given raid) remains to be seen. Given that this is the capital of the Zandalari Empire and Zul is probably the biggest internal threat to said empire, I'd expect us to face him here, and a raid would make a lot of sense.

Nazmir: This is where Uldir will be found, and this swampy region does seem to focus on the Blood Trolls, who are presumably tied to this Blood God. I suspect Uldir will be where the plot of Nazmir wraps up.

Vol'dun: We know that there is a race of snake-people who seem to be a threat in this desert zone, and I suspect that the announced Temple of Seth'raliss dungeon will probably involve them. These guys seem very much in the Drogbar/Arrakoa/Botani vein of being a threat that can probably be handled in a dungeon (even if I would have loved to have a Skyreach raid in Warlords.) Unless there's something much bigger going on in Vol'dun, I think this zone might be raid-free.

Kul Tiras:

Tiragarde Sound: It seems that the main plot of Tiragarde Sound is going to be about the political intrigue between the major families of Kul Tiras. We know that Boralus is the capital city there, and thus Siege of Boralus will probably be an instanced version of the city like Court of Stars. This zone is home to Freehold, the pirate dungeon (man, that's a fun phrase,) and we don't know who it is besieging Boralus, but I think we might just have a raid-free zone here as well. One thing to wonder about is, if this zone's story is all about internal intrigue, what do the Horde get out of coming here and running dungeons?

Drustvar: This depends entirely on how major the witches of Drustvar are as villains. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I'd be so, so, on board to find that these monsters are tied to a seriously big, multi-expansion threat born out of the Shadowlands, but we really don't know if their style of evil is a focus for this expansion or if this area will be just some extra flavor, perhaps only hinting at future threats in later expansions.

Stormsong Valley: There is almost no way that the Stormsongs' Sea Priests aren't in some way connected to N'zoth. They love kraken imagery and have creepy eyes on their priestly attire. If there's going to be some kind of Old God cultist-themed raid (as opposed to Old God creatures,) the idyllic fields of Stormsong Valley seem like the perfect place to do it. With one raid announced on Zandalar, there's got to be at least one raid on Kul Tiras, and I think this is the most obvious place.

Elsewhere:

Clearly, Battle for Azeroth is going to take us to other locations. We know Kezan will be a dungeon, perhaps taking us back to Bilgewater Port from Cataclysm or, what I bet is more likely, through the subterranean metropolis of Undermine. But Kezan is very clearly a distinct island from either of the major continents, which suggests we'll be going beyond the announced zones for our instancing.

An Azshara raid, as I've mentioned here, would probably be in the sunken capital of Nazjatar. And if N'zoth winds up being the expansion's big bad, we could perhaps journey (like Ilgynoth) to Ny'alotha, wherever that is.

Of course, the big theme of the expansion is Alliance versus Horde, and so I could also imagine raids that take us to older, familiar territory. I don't know if they'd go so far as to make separate raids for the different factions - like having one side battle through the ruins of Undercity while the other fights through Darkshore while Teldrassil burns in the background. But setting a new raid in the old world, a bit like Siege of Orgrimmar, could also work. (Consider that the first and last raids in Burning Crusade actually took place in the Eastern Kingdoms.)

As of yet, we still really only know how the expansion will start, and the overall progression of the plot remains very much to be seen. Aside from knowing that Azshara is going to make an appearance (and presumably we'll kill her,) we don't really know exactly how this faction conflict will resolve, and to what extent the shared threats between the factions will be center-stage.

Allied Race Speculation: Forsaken, Alliance Edition

The playable Undead race can be described with two narratives.

One, the official one that the Forsaken generally believe and promote, is that they are the rightful inhabitants of Lordaeron - that the fact that they died is irrelevant to their claim on that land because they're alive again. They escaped the domination of the Lich King, and now they are besieged on both sides (or at least were in Vanilla) between the Scourge's attempt to pull them back under the Lich King's thrall and the zealous humans of the Scarlet Crusade who wish to purge them from the land, making no distinction between the Scourge's mindless zombies and anyone afflicted with the curse of undeath.

Within this narrative, the Forsaken are innocent, forced to reluctantly take up arms against their former allies and even family members just to defend their own existence. Their fight is for nothing short of survival.

The other narrative, I think, generates less sympathy:

The Forsaken, under Sylvanas' leadership, are worse than the Scourge. At the very least, what you could say about the Scourge is that they did all their evil against their wills. The Lich King forced them to spread plague and death over the land. They had no choice, because they were not in control of their own bodies or minds.

But the Forsaken, by definition, are. And despite the fact that they have their will restored to them, they have chosen to not only continue using Scourge tactics - raising fallen enemies to serve in their army, creating abominations from the flesh of prisoners - but trying to innovate, like developing ever-more virulent strains of the plague, such that they seem to have agents in gaseous form that can liquefy people.

Rather than re-embrace their fellow humans and attempt to restore Lordaeron to its former glory, they have actively attempted to exterminate the surviving humans in their territories, and the list of backstabbings and double-dealing that they've committed even within the Horde is quite long.

The thing is, both of these narratives are true.

The Forsaken were probably right to turn against the humans while Garrithos (by the way, where was that guy even from?) was leading the forces up in Lordaeron. The guy wanted to lock up every last Blood Elf just for accepting (not seeking out) aid from the Naga.

But that only justifies so much.

As I wrote about in an earlier post, the Forsaken have something of an identity crisis. Sylvanas wants them to become immortal using the Val'kyr or any other magic she can get her hands on. The new Desolate Council (which, given the future of Undercity, is probably not long for this world, unless they play into my point, which I'm getting to) has members who aren't interested in that, but would prefer to just live out what extra time they have in this new form and let that be it.

Sylvanas has really pushed for the Forsaken to have an identity independent of having been humans in Lordaeron - something that serves her well politically, given that she was an elf from Quel'thalas. But you could easily be a Forsaken who still feels very much that they are the same person who was once a living, breathing human, and that perhaps you look back on King Terenas fondly, and wish that Tirisfal was green and bright once again.

So here's the curveball: if that describes you, you have a living Queen.

Priests in Legion get a couple of surprising champions. Among the first is Alonsus Faol, who, unbeknownst to, well, everyone, had actually risen as a zombie as part of the Scourge but then regained his will along with the Forsaken. He's undead, but does not seem to have any loyalty to Sylvanas, and still practices the Light despite the difficulty that poses for someone in his position.

But along with him is a woman named Calia Menethil.

If that last name did not tip you off, Calia is the younger sister of Arthas and the daughter of Terenas. And given that Arthas obviously never produced any heirs, that means that his little sister, Calia, is the rightful Queen of Lordaeron.

Does she want the job? Hell no. As she says, she's "just Calia now." Declaring herself Queen of Lordaeron would not only raise the question of "ok, how many living subjects do you even have?" but would also put a massive bullseye on her back for Sylvanas to shoot with one of her Black Arrows.

Reluctant though she may be, if you know any Joseph Campbell, this is practically a prerequisite to becoming the sort of hero who becomes a leader.

Sylvanas rules the Forsaken with a powerful cult of personality - probably bigger than even Garrosh had. Everyone seems to serve her with utter devotion - but remember, these people have free will. And what do you think happens to people who don't wish to serve the Dark Lady?

How many of the Forsaken are serving out of fear, rather than actual dedication?

If Sylvanas were suddenly put off-balance - say, perhaps, by losing her city to the Alliance (purely hypothetical, of course) - would that not be the perfect opportunity for those who remembered Lordaeron, and remembered the glory of the Alliance, to rally behind the True Queen of Lordaeron and restore their land to its rightful sovereign, welcoming their ancient allies and kin?

Now, there's a big problem to deal with here, of course: the Alliance is not likely to be eager to have the Undead walking its cities.

But on the other hand, when you consider that the Dark Iron Dwarves - long seen as the most bitter enemies of the Bronzebeard clan - and the Void Elves - people who are suffused with what is literally the opposite of what is "good" in the Alliance's main religion - will both be welcomed in, is it really that hard to imagine a faction that already allows Death Knights within its ranks couldn't possibly allow a group of dedicated, proud humans that just happen to have a little case of the deads?

One would need to come up with a visual distinction for it to fit the Allied Race model as we've seen with the six announced races - you could go so far as the Nathanos/Death Knight human form, or you could do something to show that these people, say "New Lordaeron," have somehow severed their link to Sylvanas in a magical way.

And man, if you ever wanted a chance to do Undead Paladins, I think this would be your opportunity.

Which Classic?

I've got to say that I was not terribly excited by the announcement of World of Warcraft Classic Servers. I started playing in Vanilla (admittedly at the tail end) and I never really got the nostalgic hype for it. Actually, the odd thing is that it still informs my attitudes about certain classes - I still have at the back of my head the image of my Protection Paladin as something of an underdog, proving to others that Paladins can tank and don't just have to sit at the back and heal, even though Tankadins reached public credibility back in Burning Crusade, and have generally been closer to the top in the ever-shifting perceptions of tank viability even as three new tank classes have been added to the game.

My general sense is that the appeal of Classic servers is that we'll be able to experience the game as it was when the oldest players (and I guess I count among them, even though to me, coming in a year and a half after launch makes me feel like a newb compared with a lot of my guildies) first experienced it.

Unfortunately, I think that most of the change that people lament is on their side, not Blizzard's. Even if all is restored exactly as it was, it will no longer be new to you. If you've gotten used to min-maxing, checking Icy-Veins or Noxxic to perfect your spec, and expecting to get a full set of raiding gear and feel kind of disappointed if you don't have one, none of those attitudes are going to disappear just because you've stepped into a recreation of the time before you thought to do any of those things. You're never going to walk into the Barrens after getting your Troll, Orc, or Tauren to level 10 and be awed by how enormous the world just became, because you already knew it was that big, and you know what lies beyond its borders.

One of the most concrete aspects of that state of the game is that we'll have the pre-Cataclysm world. And while I stand by the revamp to questing as the most impressive thing they've done in a single expansion (such that I was never able to call Cataclysm an overall bad expansion, even if its high-level content was deeply flawed,) I, too, sometimes wish that I could revisit the dry canyons of Thousand Needles or a Plaguelands in which the Scourge is still at full strength.

In the desire to create a relatively dynamic game world - which is mostly a good thing - Blizzard has left us unable to see old things. For example, I suspect that Battle for Azeroth is going to reintroduce Hakkar the Soul Flayer as an important figure within the lore of the Trolls. But at this point, both of the major instances that involve Hakkar - the Sunken Temple (technically called the Temple of Atal'Hakkar) and Zul'Gurub have both gotten revamps. The former was shrunken down to a single floor, when it used to involve a basement and an upper floor that made the whole dungeon crawl a much longer experience. Zul'Gurub does retain Hakkar as a character, but not as an enemy. The infamous Corrupted Blood debuff from his fight, which scientists used to study the spread of disease, can no longer be attained (though of course it was also fixed during vanilla after people started spreading it outside of the instance.)

I'm sure there are many who honestly would rather level to 60 and run Molten Core and Blackwing Lair (and old Zul'Gurub) instead of continuing to move forward with modern WoW (or perhaps along with it,) but to me, the value of Classic servers is more to serve as a kind of museum piece for those things that have been lost in the game. We don't know exactly how the servers will work - whether they'll progress into the expansions after time or if they'll be stuck at some point in 2006 forever - but I think that for most people, this is going to be an interesting exercise in comparing memory and nostalgia with what Vanilla actually was.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

No Tier Sets in Battle for Azeroth

In a rather shocking move, Blizzard has announced that there will be no tier sets - to be clear, no sets gained in the expansion's major raids that have 2- and 4-piece set bonuses designed for specific classes.

This has been a feature of the game since vanilla, and has been a rather defining trait of how raiding works in WoW. So what does it all mean?

First off: we don't have all the details yet. Philosophically, the developers said that the decision was made primarily because of the way that tier sets lock a character's gearing possibilities: you might get a really great new chest piece, but if it breaks your tier bonus, you'd have to ignore it. Or, during Legion, you might have a great legendary in, say, your helmet slot, and thus even if you get that last piece to complete the set, if it's a helmet, you're out of luck.

Now, I think a very reasonable argument could be made that making such decisions gives the game some depth. If we see a strict progression of item levels, the game of putting together your kit is kind of negated.

However, that's not what I'm worried about:

One of the most noticeable aspects of the tier set tradition is that we get gear that fits with each class. Rogue sets are dark and stealthy (or in the case of the latest one, fancy and decadent.) Paladin sets make their wearers look like beacons of light in a dangerous world, while Death Knight sets give their bearers an aura of dread.

One of the highlights of seeing a new raid tier come out has been getting to see the new designs for class-themed armor, and how that class is interpreted either through the lens of the raid (such as in Ulduar, Icecrown Citadel, or Firelands) or as a new take on the general class theme (such as in Black Temple, Nighthold, or Antorus.)

To be clear, we don't know for a fact that class appearances are going away, but with the absence of the mechanical distinction, I worry that this is what we'll be seeing.

One of the other ways in which tier sets have defined the game is the way in which they have imbued certain raids as particularly important. Emerald Nightmare and Trial of Valor, for example, are raids, but they don't hold the gravity of Nighthold, Tomb of Sargeras, or Antorus (though I'd argue you could have easily made Emerald Nightmare a tier raid, and that it maybe deserved to be.)

One of the oddities of Vanilla is that there were, officially, three raid tiers, despite the fact that there really should have been four. Molten Core is tier 1, Blackwing Lair tier 2, and then we got Ahn Qiraj, which was a pair of raids, one of which was a full-blown 40-player raid. While the small (or what was considered small at the time) 20-player raids like Zul'Gurub and Ruins of Ahn Qiraj reasonably were kept out of the raid tier designation, as was the one-boss instance of Onyxia's Lair (if you're a new player, you might not realize that Onyxia's Lair was a vanilla raid and was revamped for level 80 as a celebration of the 5-year anniversary of the game during Wrath.) But it never really made sense to me why Temple of Ahn Qiraj wasn't tier 3 and Naxxramas tier 4 - except for the fact that AQ40 didn't have a tier set.

Which is funny, because it kind of did. In fact, there were sets that each class could collect using items from bosses in there, but they were only recolors of each other - all the plate sets looked the same, etc.

Of course, then, Trial of the Crusader could have easily been designated a "non tier" raid, with ICC becoming tier 9, especially given that the tier 9 sets wound up having models based on faction instead of class (with just different colors for each class within a faction.)

So what does all this rambling tell us? Well, the fact is that raid tiers have always been kind of messed up.

To me, the only huge downside to getting rid of the tier sets is that I think we're likely to see just one kind of armor for each armor class in each raid, which means that your Druid and your Demon Hunter are going to be wearing the exact same stuff. To be clear, we don't know that's the case, but that's my interpretation.

On the bright side, the gear that I saw in the brief demos at Blizzcon show that even the green questing gear in Battle for Azeroth looks incredible. We have yet to see what this gear will look like, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised (not that I'm expecting it to be bad.)

The other thing to note is that they specifically said (as I mentioned above) that they want to have gear themed around the actual instance. That could turn out really cool, actually. So far we only know of two raids, one that is a run-down Titan facility (and generally the Titan aesthetic has been really cool,) and the other with us facing Azshara, which I expect will mean a major nautical theme.

This is a bold step, but I'm going to wait for more details before I really come down hard on one side of the issue or the other.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Faction Conflict and Resolution

At the end of Mists of Pandaria, we besieged Orgrimmar. Not just the Alliance (though the Alliance definitely did,) but also the Horde, which did create some odd world/lore dissonance as a player who had literally just fought through the city against heavy opposition and then arrested the Warchief could, moments later, walk freely into the Valley of Strength and go talk to Garrosh in Grommash Hold.

But the point is, while Garrosh was, for most of his NPC career, a Horde NPC, by the time he was a raid boss, he wasn't really Horde anymore. He had stepped out of the faction dichotomy and into the ranks of villains like the Lich King and Deathwing. Thus, we had both sides fighting against a common foe. Was it more complex and nuanced? Definitely. While the Alliance had the simpler task of attacking a heavily fortified enemy city, the Horde was forced to fight against former friends and launch an attack on the very city that many of them called home. But the Garrosh's arc as a villain was the ascension of a tyrant, overthrowing what had been a freer Horde, one with room for everyone, one for which Vol'jin and his revolution carried the banner.

In Battle for Azeroth, there does not seem to be the same kind of internal threat to be defeated. Could that change? Certainly. Sylvanas might follow in Garrosh's footsteps, or perhaps Jaina or Genn might overthrow the order of the Alliance and become a dictator that both sides would need to defeat.

But not only is that played out (as described above, they've literally already done that,) it also seems like Battle for Azeroth is trying to keep things balanced. While the faction conflict was important in Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, the focus of both expansions was definitely elsewhere - either on Deathwing's apocalyptic natural disasters or the mysterious newly-discovered land of Pandaria. Battle for Azeroth is not only taking us to two places we already knew existed and whose citizens we've already interacted with, but it's putting that faction conflict as the central premise of the expansion.

Now let's be clear, I still expect that the plot of the expansion is going to pivot away from that conflict and toward a third party villain (who I'm 99% sure is actually who will burn down Teldrassil, in order to get the war started,) but one interview really fired up the speculation neurons in my brain:

In a PC Gamer interview with Ion Hazzikostas and Alex Afrasiabi, the latter said that, while they've always danced around the faction conflict, they've never resolved it, and that their goal for Battle for Azeroth is to do just that. While he responded with snark after being asked to clarify that (claiming the losing side would be "deleted," which I'll just say I highly doubt will happen,) the interesting thing here is that this suggests that there will be some, you know, fundamental resolution.

The closest thing we got to that was the end of Mists - in which Varian agreed to pull the Alliance out of Orgrimmar if the Horde would end its aggression. Talking to various NPCs, you even find details of a potential peace treaty - Tyrande mentions allowing the Horde to keep Azshara in exchange for pulling out of Ashenvale, and Varian mentions that the time would come soon for the Alliance to officially re-take Gilneas. None of this was reflected in-game, but that's to be expected, given that the zones as they are exist within a Cataclysm time-bubble.

But we did get two expansions of relative peace between the factions. I don't really consider Ashran to be canonical - just an opportunity for a PvP zone as an evolution of the Wintergrasp/Tol Barad model. And while Genn and Sylvanas clashed in Stormheim, it's pretty clear that the Alliance was only unofficially endorsing Genn's campaign against her, cold-war style.

BFA is going to be all-out war. So how is that going to resolve?

While I'd love to have my Undead Rogue hang out with a bunch of Alliance players, I recognize that the mechanics of the game just kind of require the existence of two opposed factions. So how do you have this war play out in a way that resolves in a way that is more final than the end of Siege of Orgrimmar, but still retains the mechanics of the game?

It's a tough question, and one I don't have a real answer to.

To me, the most natural state of Azeroth is to have the Alliance and Horde in a perpetual Cold War. So often the threat to the world is existential, and ultimately, both sides are seeking the same goal - a world that is still habitable. Indeed, I think most of the character even understand that without old resentments, both factions would make natural allies of one another. But neither side has the trust to put down their sword first - and when it comes to the Alliance, every time they give the Horde the benefit of the doubt, it winds up backfiring, which is why Jaina is so understandably done with the Horde. (For my part, I wish the Horde had a better reason not to trust the Alliance - not since Garrithos has an Alliance person acted crappily to the Horde without the Horde doing something worse first.)

So a Cold War works really well, because there's that mistrust even while people are acting reasonable.

Would "resolving" the conflict simply put the two into a Cold War state? That works, but it's also the end of Mists of Pandaria all over again. Stuff like Ashran and Stormheim, compartmentalized as they are, totally fits within the skirmishes of a Cold War kind of conflict.

But perhaps this only ends after a massive fight between the two sides. That brings up new questions, like "Who is the winner?" Siege of Orgrimmar managed to avoid making the Horde feel like the losers by separating out the "good Horde" and the "bad Horde" and allowing the good one to emerge victorious over its inner demons, ironically taking what might have been a moment of triumph for the Alliance and turning them into supporting players in a family dispute.

But even if it perhaps made the Siege feel less impactful, really only reinforcing a status quo that had been briefly interrupted by Garrosh, it worked with the mechanics of the game - both Horde players and Alliance players got a win out of it.

If BFA ends with one side triumphant over the other, what does that even look like for the losing side? If the Horde wins, how does your Alliance raid group defeating the final boss somehow end with you guys defeated? And furthermore, where do you go?

So it seems to me that there are effectively two ways for this to resolve.

First is the conservative version: that this talk of "resolving" the faction conflict is kind of false, and that what we're really going to see is either a Siege-style rapprochement between the factions that cools down the war into another Cold conflict.

The second, radical version: that the faction conflict truly ends the only way it could really, truly end, namely, with both factions merging, Orcs and Humans, Undead and Worgen, Tauren and Dwarves, Pandaren and different Pandaren, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a bright utopian future that only has to worry about the undead Scourge, the Old Gods, the Void Lords, freelance demons, and the other million freaking things trying to destroy all life on the planet.

We'll have to wait and see.