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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New Human Lands - Kul Tiras

I have a confession to make:

I like playing humans in RPGs.

My main character, who has held that position since Burning Crusade, is a Human Paladin, and while I think that, if I weren't attached to the character (with a whole backstory - he and my Undead Rogue are brothers with a kind of MCU Thor/Loki relationship going on,) I'd probably have changed him into a Draenei (my "vice main" is my Draenei DK,) I honestly feel pretty good playing a human character.

One of the odd things about WoW is that while humans are a very big part of the world - standing as the flagship race of the Alliance - we actually haven't gotten new human territory in a long time.

Human lands are almost exclusively on the Eastern Kingdoms, and that region was mostly put in the game at the outset. After vanilla, the only zones you could really describe as "Human" zones added to the game were Grizzly Hills in Wrath and Gilneas and Tol Barad in Cataclysm. Now, you could make the argument that Icecrown also counts (when it comes to the Scourge, the distinction between Undead and Human - as in the playable race - gets a little muddled.) And you could also argue for the inclusion of Vrykul zones, though I'd say that if you're going to group Vrykul and Humans together, you'd have to also group up Trolls, Night Elves, and Blood Elves.

But in Battle For Azeroth, we're going to be getting an entire continent (granted, one of two) that is all human territory. And I'm actually really excited about that.

Humans in WoW have the most classical fantasy settings - medieval towns and villages, typically in forests or grasslands with a European aesthetic. And while it is a bit problematic that in WoW, Humanity and Whiteness are kind of entwined (I'd love to see a long-lost continent of forgotten kingdoms with complex non-white humans at some point,) I also find that when we get human-themed zones, Blizzard really nails the tone.

See, the odd thing is that while Diablo's Tristram setting is 100% gothic European style, I find that WoW does it better. Maybe I just like the over-the-top nature of WoW's aesthetic. I love the Tim Burton-esque aesthetics of the Forsaken, but I also really like the classic Arthurian (or Robin Hood-ian) green forest of Elwynn. I think another big part of it is that, because WoW goes into such profoundly different kinds of settings, from the Sha-blasted Dread Wastes to the alien landscapes of Draenor, returning to the more traditional fantasy setting that we see in human lands feels, oddly, refreshing (especially because we know that our next stop could be anything from the inside of an enormous sea monster to an alien planet swarming with space demons.)

These zones were great for me to level up my Paladin way back in 2006, but the degree to which the game looks better now is pretty staggering. Much as I love Elwynn and Silverpine, they're not really up to the zone-design standards we have now.

And that makes me super-excited for Kul Tiras.

I mean, look at Drustvar: we're getting a zone that has evil witches using death magic! How did we go so long without having evil witches? Warcraft has built out really fascinating new lore to flesh out races that in most fantasy games would simply be monsters, and I never want them to stop doing that (though I appreciate getting a break from Orcs 24/7 - wouldn't mind seeing Goblins and Tauren fleshed out a bit more, but I'll take Trolls.) But I'm also really happy to see a bit more of the classic fantasy stuff - which feels less boring than it might in a game that is all classical fantasy stuff.

And I'm sure that whatever comes after Battle for Azeroth will be very different - if we don't kill N'zoth in this one, maybe we'll get an "Underdark but not called that because I'm assuming Wizards of the Coast has a copyright on that word" expansion, which would probably feel incredibly different from you standard haunted forest ripe for monster-hunters.

Call me lame for being into humans, but I'm actually really happy to see WoW doing more with that most common of fantasy races.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Desolate Council

Sylvanas is a problematic leader. Not just for the Horde, but for the Forsaken.

Having the advantage of looking on her as a character in a work of fiction, I think she's a fantastic piece of the Warcraft universe and embodies contradictions that make for interesting characters. But if I were a member of the Forsaken, I'd have really mixed feelings about her.

One of the fundamental questions that the Forsaken have to answer is what exactly they are. Formerly members of the Undead Scourge, their free will was returned to them after Illidan cast a spell that cracked the Frozen Throne, weakening the Lich King. But that's first-generation Forsaken. Newer Forsaken were raised by Val'kyr that Sylvanas took from Icecrown after Arthas' defeat.

That's kind of a big difference. For a player character, it was sort of ambiguous in Vanilla how much your character had been actively undead prior to regaining free will - you would awaken in the crypt in Deathknell (post-Cataclysm you awaken in the graveyard,) meaning that you may have simply just come back to life at that point, but with no Val'kyr assisting you, which to me suggests you were probably a mindless zombie who was stuffed into the crypt, or that perhaps you had succumbed to the plague but for some reason had not risen until that connection to the Lich King was already broken.

The point is: if you started your Undead character prior to Cataclysm, then you don't owe Sylvanas for your existence.

So, on the question of what the Forsaken truly are:

Playable Forsaken are former humans. They were the people of Lordaeron (though many might have also been refugees from Stormwind who moved north after the First War,) which was one of the largest human kingdoms.

And the Forsaken remember their lives as humans. They remember living in a far healthier Lordaeron, under the benevolent rule of King Terenas, whose son Arthas was maybe a bit impetuous but seemed likely to be a good king when the time came - he was being trained by Uther the Lightbringer, after all.

Now, they're not exactly human anymore. Undeath mutes emotions, dulls senses. If you were a baker, for example, when you were alive, you're probably going to really lament the fact that your sugary confections would not taste as good as they used to. There's a lot to be bitter about - even if you retain physical strength, every time you look in the mirror you will see a rotted corpse.

And beyond the inner problem, you also have to deal with the fact that the living fear and resent you. If you were one of those Stormwind refugees, you might wish that you could sail south and walk along the streets of your home town, but the fact is that most people there would think you were a threat and probably kill you on the spot - even, or maybe especially, the ones who knew you in life.

So Sylvanas gives the Forsaken another option: to forget about the past and embrace a new future. She gives the Forsaken a new identity that is divorced from the idea of simply being the kingdom of Lordaeron in a new form. As the Forsaken (and let's remember that that's really her term, and that the "Forsaken" as I've been referring to them are really "Free-willed undead,") the expectation of putting everything back to normal when that's fundamentally impossible is let go, and the people can now embrace a new identity. Rather than inhabiting ruins, the Forsaken have torn down the old and built new things that match their new identity - look at how Brill was rebuilt in Cataclysm.

And it does look like the Forsaken have, in general, embraced Sylvanas' ideas about their identity. It's seen a cultural shift, but also a rather alarming political one: Sylvanas is worshipped almost like a goddess, and she rules as an absolute dictator. She's encouraged the use of Scourge tactics, particularly the development of plagues to use as weapons against all enemies. She has even begun to raise other humans from the dead to serve her. And while these people supposedly have free will, the speed with which they declare their loyalty to Sylvanas (sometimes mere minutes after being living humans fighting against her) makes it very hard to believe that's actually true.

And there's one element that we rarely talk about: Sylvanas is an elf.

While the High Elves and the Humans had been allies since the Troll Wars, there was always a little racial resentment between them. The Elves had been very reluctant to share their knowledge of the arcane with the humans, and the humans had dominated the continent of Lordaeron without providing much room for the High Elves to expand. Again, they were still allies, but we saw, for example, with Garrithos' treatment of the Blood Elves after the Third War, that some humans harbored some deep racial hatred toward the elves.

So if you're a Forsaken who holds onto that human identity, it might not be a purely positive thing. You might resent Sylvanas because she's essentially a carpetbagger. Lordaeron should be ruled by a human, not some elf of Quel'thalas.

So that's where we come to the Desolate Council.

In the preview chapter for the new novel, Before the Storm, we learn that Sylvanas has been forced to spend most of her time in Orgrimmar, given her duties as Warchief. In her absence, the Forsaken have created a new local governing body called the Desolate Council.

Now, obviously, there's a good chance that they guys are not going to last long, as we know the Alliance is going to capture and more or less destroy the Undercity. But I still want to know more about these people.

One area in which they dissent from Sylvanas is that they are generally not interested in her goals to enslave Val'kyr or otherwise find a way to perpetuate the Forsaken. After the death of Arthas, Sylvanas found new purpose (after killing herself and getting resurrected by the Val'kyr) in safeguarding the continued existence of the Forsaken.

But to a lot of Forsaken, I imagine the goal was just to be able to live out what extra time they had and then slowly fade away. They don't want to force this existence on others or live perpetually in this half-life.

Sylvanas has basically made the decision for countless people that they will live on, whether they like it or not. But even though most people are generally in favor of, you know, staying alive, this flies in the face of the one thing that defines the Forsaken: Free Will.

Literally, the difference between Scourge zombies and Forsaken undead is that the latter have a choice in how they act. They don't have to attack the living, spread undeath, and serve some powerful overlord. The problem with how Sylvanas has been running things is that she has basically created a culture in which people do those things anyway, with her as the stand-in for the Lich King.

And she has created a narrative in which it was she who freed the Forsaken from the grasp of the Scourge, and thus they owe her their loyalty. But she wasn't. She is a political leader, and free people don't have to embrace the goals and mission of their political leader. At best, Sylvanas waged a successful campaign to push the Scourge out of the Undercity and dominate the land, but that doesn't make her a messiah, it makes her a revolutionary.

So even if they'll only appear in this novel, I'm actually really happy to see a different point of view among the Forsaken. I can see why plenty of them would happily follow Sylvanas to the very gates of hell, but when the literal defining trait of your people is your free will, it seems important to point out that not everyone is hopping on her bandwagon.

Imagining the Battle for Azeroth Arc

WoW has, through most of its expansions, generally focused on a particular villain. Sometimes it's a red herring - Illidan wound up not being the final boss of Burning Crusade, which would seem obvious given the name of the expansion, and in Warlords of Draenor, the Iron Horde wound up being a paper tiger that fell in order for us to fight what I like to call the "Fel Iron Horde" as a kind of prologue to Legion. This time around, we're facing the Legion, even if the final boss is not Sargeras, but another Titan we'd never heard of (though the planet whose name he shares is well-known.)

However, I would point to two previous examples of times when it wasn't really clear what main villain we were building up to (other than out-of-game announcements.)

The first of these periods was not an expansion, but rather the original World of Warcraft. At the time, the game was not designed around particular stories, even if we got some, but was instead much more about exploring the, well, World of Warcraft. One could make the argument that building up toward C'thun as a final boss sort of worked as the original arc, given that we dealt in previous raid tiers with Ragnaros, who had served the Old Gods, and then Nefarian, a Black Dragon whose flight was corrupted by the Old Gods.

Of course, following C'thun and Ahn-Qiraj, we then got Naxxramas, which, unless we get some new unexpected lore about the Scourge, has nothing in particular to do with the Old Gods.

Even if the Old Gods were a theme through much of Vanilla, in part I think that was because they had only just been invented - we saw the first glimpses of them in the Frozen Throne expansion for Warcraft III, but Vanilla was when they were explicitly named, and obviously they've become a crucial part of Warcraft lore.

The next period like this was Mists of Pandaria. While Blizzard let us know rather early on that Garrosh Hellscream, then Warchief of the Horde, would be the final boss of the expansion, the in-game plot didn't really suggest him as the big bad until he tried to have Vol'jin killed. While the Alliance was never going to defend Garrosh or his actions, especially after Theramore, it was this act against a fellow Horde leader (one who had, to be fair, threatened him in the past) that created the need for Horde players to turn against him.

But the key to that expansion was that it was also very much about exploration. Yes, threats like the Sha and Lei Shen emerged, but both of them were somewhat tied to this idea of outsiders coming in and disrupting an existing culture (the Zandalari, as a kind of third faction, were responsible for Lei Shen's resurrection.)

In Battle for Azeroth, there is once again a kind of arms race between the factions - much of the motivation for going to Pandaria was to make sure that "we" got it before "they" did. But in BFA, we're actually dealing with somewhat familiar territories, and it's less about winning land an resources than about ensuring that "our" side can firmly establish people who would be natural allies (to be honest, I think the Alliance getting Kul Tiras seems like it ought to be simpler than the Horde getting the Zandalari, but I'm sure there will be plot complications on the Alliance side to make it a bigger challenge.)

What's interesting is that even if Mists did focus a great deal on the faction conflict, it was still putting exploration of this new land front and center. While I'm very excited to see... well, every new zone they announced on both continents, the theme of the expansion seems to be focusing on the factions themselves.

And there is some logic to this, actually. When you've beaten the Burning Legion, who else do you have to fear? The uplifting stories we hear about how the mortals of Azeroth are actually the strongest force in the cosmos actually becomes a dire threat when you consider that those speeches aren't just about you, but also your hated foe.

Now, I count myself among the players who wish that we could at least get the option in-game to be the kind of character who wants to work with the other faction. If this were a free-form RPG like a tapletop game, I think you would naturally be capable of making that decision, and I long for the day of a motley dungeon group that's half Horde, half Alliance (remainder 1?)

But where does it lead?

There are two issues that arise with an Alliance versus Horde expansion, even if we ignore the large portion of the playerbase that doesn't want to see the plot go in this direction (and I surprise myself here by feeling kind of ok with it.) The two issues, as I see it, are the following:

First, the main threat can't be different between the factions. Yes, we got Alliance and Horde variants in the Icecrown Gunship Battle in Icecrown Citadel, but ultimately, the end of that raid was the defeat of the Lich King, a huge threat to both Alliance and Horde.

Having both sides come out victorious against one another would create confusion as to what was canon. Consider the original Warcraft game, where they had to retroactively explain that the Human campaign took place before the Orc one, retconning the fact that the game's ending played out totally differently depending on which side you played.

Now, this is something that Blizzard people have already addressed: they say that there's an insidious threat lurking underneath everything in the expansion, and that we'll eventually have to turn our focus to that. How that plays out is an open question, as is what that threat happens to be (I'm still thinking N'zoth, but we'll see.) Having the two sides put their differences aside to face a common threat would hardly be a new plot, but you could also have them kind of ignore each other when the bigger threat is revealed, maybe even competing to be the side responsible for saving the world.

The second issue is how the story gets resolved. We've heard Blizzard people talking about taking this Alliance versus Horde plot to its conclusion, but hold on, how does this plot conclude? They've said time and again that AvH is always going to be part of Warcraft, but that makes me wonder how one would conclude that plot. Even if, Light forbid, this is actually the last expansion and they're going to end the game, you still couldn't just come to the end and say "oh yeah, and the Horde wins in the end" because that would seem to invalidate over a decade of heroism for half (more than half, given that a lot of us play both sides) the players.

There are only two ways I can see this "resolution" of the Alliance/Horde conflict playing out: the first is that it doesn't actually get resolved. We maybe see this flare-up of war end, but the factions are still opposed to each other and struggling for the planet. The second is exactly what they've been telling us we'll never actually see, which is a permanent peace between the factions.

We're sure to see more shocking developments, maybe character deaths and great offenses between the factions over the course of BFA, but I do think that the ultimate arc is going to curve toward some greater villain who poses a threat to both sides.

Frankly, I'm really suspecting that this war, which seems to get kicked off with the burning of Teldrassil, is actually being orchestrated by someone outside of both factions, with the explicit goal of exploiting the mirrored strength of both sides in order to cancel them both out. I'm thinking Teldrassil will be a third party, and we're going to spend much of the expansion playing into this manipulator's hands, fins, or tentacles.

Is it N'zoth? Azshara? Bolvar? Time will tell. But this is a premise that does not announce its big bad immediately. That gives us an opportunity to speculate for months or even years (well, year and change, probably) to come!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Acq Inq: The "C" Team

Literally seconds ago as I write this, the first season of Acquisitions Incorporated: The "C" Team ended. I'm basically just going to gush about it, but let's give you some background first:

About ten years ago, the guys over at Penny Arcade started doing a webseries/podcast of a D&D game (something that I think was less common then than it is now) called Acquisitions Incorporated, in which their characters were an adventuring party/corporate hell mixed-level-marketing company, run by Jerry Holkins' character, Omin Dran. It later became a regular feature of PAX.

Basically meant as a way to promote the then-new 4th edition (and later converting to the far more popular 5th edition) of D&D, it managed to mix classic fantasy role-playing stuff with the odd Penny Arcade sensibility (if you ever played the On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness games, you'll have a good sense of that.)

This year, Holkins started a new series as a spin-off of the main games (which tend to only take place about two or three times a year at PAX) in which Omin creates a franchise in his own home town staffed by the player characters, who, unbeknownst to them at first, are there to investigate a deeply personal tragic mystery of Omin's past.

I want to avoid hyperbole, but I think this is one of my favorite shows (not just gaming streams, but like TV shows and that sort of thing) of the year. The players have such a great sense of character and the plot that Holkins weaves for them is a fantastic combination of utter silly ridiculousness and really compelling mindbending supernatural horror.

The characters:

Donaar Blit'zen, played by Ryan Hartman, a Dragonborn Paladin who is apparently a prince, and certainly acts entitled, but oddly never seems to want to talk about his illustrious family.

Walnut Dankgrass, played by Amy Falcone, a Wood Elf Druid who is the last member of her matriarchal enclave after it was destroyed by those seeking to build a city in her enclave's forest.

Rosie Beestinger, played by Kate Welch, a Halfling Monk who is an old lady with seemingly a million children, but also seems to have some sort of dark past she may be trying to atone for.

K'thriss Drow'b, played by Kris Straub, a Drow Warlock who has been desperate to seek out information about an elder god he believes is greater than anything else in the universe.

While there are some silly names there, and the characters certainly get up to silly things, the series is remarkably good about giving them all real character moments, and not forcing everything into combat all the time. It actually feels like a TV show, with characters getting to step in and out of the spotlight every now and then, and not just a bunch of people rolling dice to see if monsters get splattered on walls (though that does happen sometimes.)

Anyway, if you're looking for something entertaining, I highly recommend checking it out. It's also in podcast form, which is great if you're working or commuting or for whatever reason can't have your eyes on a video screen.

Also, the "C" Team has for some reason spawned an absurd amount of high-quality fan art, including a series of animations by Zeebashew that include some recap videos for the first few episodes, as well as little clips from other episodes.

I'm basically just evangelizing, partially because now I'm sad that it'll be a few months before we get more episodes. (I'm starting Critical Role now.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Bwonsamdi, The Loa and the Shadowlands

Several Azeroth cultures have powerful nature spirits that are practically gods as a key part of their cultures. In Chronicle Volume 1, we learned that these spirits fall under an umbrella term: Wild Gods.

The Night Elves have the Ancients, including figures like Goldrinn, Ursoc, Ursol, Ashamane, Malorne, Aviana, and Tortolla. We encountered many of these on Mount Hyjal, and they play key roles in Druidism. Ursoc is the basis for the Druid's bear form, as Ashamane is for cat form. The Druids of the Pack attempted to create a wolf form using Goldrinn, but they were unable to control the power, thus spawning the first Worgen.

Notably, the Orcs also worship Goldrinn, which is a really odd curiosity, given that Goldrinn is pretty firmly tied to Azeroth, and the Orc version is called Lo'gosh. Is it possible the Wild Gods transcend the outer space of the Great Dark Beyond? Or perhaps there was another powerful spirit called Lo'gosh that died when Draenor was ruptured, and the Orcs saw in Goldrinn the same proud ferocity of their own world's deity?

The Pandaren have the August Celestials - Chi-Ji, Nizuao, Yu'lon, and Xuen. Interestingly, the Celestials seem to be able to reincarnate into new bodies of previously lifeless material - in the Jade Forest, we see the new body being constructed for Yu'lon that is destroyed by Alliance/Horde conflict, thus delaying the Jade Serpent's renewal.

The Trolls have their own variant, known as the Loa.

On the surface, the Loa seem to really just be the same thing as the Ancients - only a different group that aren't as closely tied to the Night Elves. Perhaps they are Wild Gods who aren't as deeply connected to Elune, but retain the connection to the Emerald Dream and Keeper Freya.

But there's one figure amongst the Loa who doesn't really fit, and he's someone very important to the Darkspear Trolls. And he's going to be making an appearance in Battle for Azeroth:

Bwonsamdi.

Now, Bwonsamdi's name is presumably a reference to a real-world figure in Hatian Vodou, Baron Samedi. Baron Samedi (Samedi is French for Saturday, but I couldn't tell you why - I'll just throw this disclaimer that I'm a casual enthusiast of world religion and mythology, not an expert) is a Loa of the dead (Loa is also a term from Vodou,) and while he's known for debauchery and obscenity, he's ultimately a benign figure, as he's a sort of caretaker of the dead, ensuring that the dead rest in peace.

To what extent Bwonsamdi fits in with the real-world religion is an open question, but if we assume (I think safely) that Bwonsamdi is also a kind of lawful neutral or even lawful good death deity, that puts him in a really interesting place in the lore of Warcraft.

First off, we know he's going to show up in the swampy part of Zandalar known as Nazmir. There is a temple called the Necropolis (at least as of the Blizzcon demo) in which Horde players encounter him as a quest giver (also Zalazane, apparently, which is intriguing - Zalazane was the guy who usurped the Echo Isles from Vol'jin, and it was the blessing of Bwonsamdi that allowed us to take them back in the pre-Cataclysm events.)

I would hazard to guess that Bwonsamdi, as the patron of the Darkspear Tribe, would probably play a big part in the announced Vol'jin plotline - a plotline that surprised many of us, given that Vol'jin was killed at the beginning of Legion (way too soon.)

The thing is, there are two really big things that distinguish Bwonsamdi from the other Loa we've encountered.

First of all, aside from Bwonsamdi, all the other Loa have been animals, while Bwonsamdi appears as a ghostly troll (there's a really cool-looking new model in BFA.) Aside from the notion that humanoids are also animals (you know, like how we're technically apes,) and so perhaps Bwonsamdi was just a super-ancient troll that Freya took a liking to, this would seem to put him in a distinct category from the other Wild Gods.

Second of all, Bwonsamdi is closely tied to death (his temple in Nazmir is called the Necropolis, after all.) That suggests that, rather than being tied to the Emerald Dream, he's probably instead connected to the Shadowlands.

This reinforces a sense I'm getting about Battle for Azeroth: that the lore of the Shadowlands is going to be greatly expanded in the new expansion.

We've already seen some of it in Legion - the Shadowlands were first explicitly mentioned in Legion, with Death Knights' Wrath Walk ability referring to it and also the Val'kyr found in the Warrior class hall of Skyhold talk about how they "dwell in the Shadowlands." We can probably extrapolate that Helheim is in the Shadowlands, and that the various "death realms" from those that the Lich King presided over in Wrath (think the quests below Utgarde Keep for Alliance or the ones in Angmar's Hammer for Horde) were probably taking us into the Shadowlands. I'm also firmly convinced that we go there when we're in ghost form.

Now, we have the Drust spirits on Kul Tiras and Bwonsamdi on Zandalar showing up, all tying things to the Shadowlands.

With the Legion being eliminated (not to say that demons couldn't be a thing again,) Warcraft lore was in danger of having only one major cosmic villain in the form of the Void (which the Old Gods are only local expressions of.) But now, we seem to be seeing many facets of the Shadowlands.

And what's interesting is that they don't seem obviously connected to one another.

If we accept that Helheim was a part of the Shadowlands, and that the Lich King also has control over part of it, and that Bwonsamdi also has control of some of it, and the Drust have a piece of it, what does it all mean?

Don't get me wrong: if they want to retcon/"reveal new lore" about the Lich King to make it an entity independent of the Burning Legion that existed long before Kil'jaeden tore Ner'zhul apart, I'd be really excited about that as a lore development - knowing that the Lich King really did stand at or above the power level of figures like Yogg-Saron.

But the other possibility is that the Shadowlands are actually a diverse realm with no single ruler. And maybe even as monstrous entities emerge from it for us to beat back, there can always be other things hiding in the background, waiting for their turn to strike.

With its apparent "back to the basics" approach, Battle for Azeroth has the potential to really expand the lore of Warcraft in interesting ways. I'm super excited about that.

Allied Races versus New Races

Before Battle for Azeroth, neither faction every got more than one new race in an expansion. The five races added to the game have alternated with new classes, usually, except in the case of the Pandaren, who were introduced alongside the Monk "out of turn," with no new races introduced in Warlords (though the new models for old races were very welcome.)

In BFA, we'll be getting six new races - three per side. But not only is there established lore for five of the six, they're also closely related to existing races.

The logistics of this make a ton of sense: with existing skeletons, it's relatively easy for Blizzard to create new skins and perhaps new postures (in the case of the Zandalari.) It's both easy for Blizzard to do several of these in a single expansion and it's sort of required. If we were only to get, for example, the Highmountain Tauren and the Dark Iron Dwarves, these would feel very underwhelming as an expansion feature.

Allied races are quickies, essentially, and while they have unique racial abilities and will have new voice acting, the fact is that they're only sort of new.

But given the complexity of adding subraces as a new system in its entirety, it's a worthy headline feature for a new expansion, especially as it opens the door to new allied races like Mag'har Orcs or Broken Draenei (not sure if they want to add two Draenei variants in a row.)

That being said, I would not expect all future playable races to all be "allied races." If, for example, we return to Outland or (far less likely) Alternate Draenor, adding Arrakoa and Ogres would make perfect sense. But these would be totally new models, and thus would probably come without any other Allied races.

As patch content, though, I have to wonder if Allied Races are going to be something that can show up in the middle of an expansion, rather than at the beginning of one. We'll be getting these six with 8.0 (presumably - though you never know what things might change,) but when 8.2 comes around, who knows what we might see?

One thing if interest is that they clearly aren't tying these allied races specifically to the current story - I don't think the Nightborne or the Highmountain Tauren are going to be front-and-center on Zandalar. I actually see this as really good news, as a lot of people we've encountered and then left behind may still be added into the game.

If I'm wrong about the distinction between allied races and fully-fledged new races, this could open the door for Ethereals, Naga, Arrakoa, Ogres, and all sorts of playable races that I had kind of given up hope on as it looked like we had surpassed any clear opportunity to add them to the game.

7.3.5 Details

With all the excitement about Battle for Azeroth, the fact is that we're probably roughly a year away (hopefully shorter, but that's how it tends to go,) and while the final major patch of Legion has come out, the final raid has not opened (it's opening on the 28th of this month.) Likewise, a new in-between patch is going to be deployedL 7.3.5.

I'm actually a bit surprised that we're just getting details on this now with the raid coming out so soon - typically the x.5 patches this expansion have come with the release of a new raid (I think 7.1.5 came with Nighthold's opening.) Maybe that's still the case, and we'll see 7.3.5 this month, but there are some big things happening:

Level Scaling in Old Content:

Probably the biggest thing (unless you don't play alts) is that they're going to adapt the scaling tech from Legion to all levels of the game. Now, that doesn't mean you can hit 110 in Elwynn Forest: they're wisely putting level ranges on various zones, so you'll still need to move on to newer content eventually.

Starting zones (like Elwynn, Durotar, Tirisfal, or Teldrassil) will now scale from level 1-10, which is more or less how those zones are designed anyway (though things will keep up with you.) From there on, all the original Old World zones besides those will scale from 10-60, meaning that yes, you can hit level 60 doing quests in Westfall. Honestly, I think this is the area where this is going to make things feel best: even right after the revamp in Cataclysm, I remember taking my then-new Draenei Mage through Ashenvale and having all my quests turn green or grey before I was done with the story there.

The other huge impact this will have is that Outland and Northrend will both scale from 60-80. Cataclysm already screwed up the timeline, so doing Wrath content before Burning Crusade isn't really any worse. And while even Northrend is getting a little long in the tooth, I think that being able to skip Outland and head there instead is probably for the best, as the quality of quests really stepped up between those expansions. One thing I have to wonder about is when you can get the appropriate flying skill - hopefully Cold Weather Flying will be available before you get to Storm Peaks or Icecrown, given that those zones kind of require it.

Similarly, Cataclysm zones and Pandaria will scale from 80-90, allowing you to choose between (or perhaps the order in which you do) these areas. As far as I know, Draenor is still 90-100 and Broken Isles are still 100-110, but the former is getting the scaling of the latter.

This is actually going to be somewhat complex, as prior to level scaling one's level was a good gating system for which zones you could start. Is your garrison going to erupt in quests as soon as you step into Draenor?

Dungeons will also scale in the same brackets as their zones.

Ulduar Timewalking:

Much like the Black Temple's timewalking feature, with Wrath timewalking (which started this week, but, you know, the patch isn't out yet) you'll be able to do Ulduar as a timewalking raid. No word yet on cosmetic rewards like the Warglaives of Azzinoth appearances, but I would not be shocked to see Val'anyr (this might be just the way that they allow legendary transmog from now on.)

Seething Shore Battleground:

Actually, this is also a pretty big deal: the Seething Shore, which is a new battleground tied to the story that leads between Legion and Battle for Azeroth, is going to open up.

Set on the shore of Silithus, this is going to work similarly to Arathi Basin, with several locations to take control of, but over the course of the battle, new ones will pop up and old ones will deplete, so neither side can just secure their defensive points and wait for their resources to build up.

There's no ETA on 7.3.5, but I'd expect to see it on the PTR pretty soon.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tin-Foil Hat: An Actual Conspiracy Theory

We have now heard that the burning of Teldrassil happens before the invasion of Lordaeron, which suggests that the siege of Undercity we see in Battle for Azeroth's cinematic is most likely a retaliation for this act. The end result is that Kalimdor is now firmly Horde territory while the Eastern Kingdoms becomes firmly Alliance.

And the factions are back to full-scale war.

Now, there's little misinterpreting the Siege of Undercity - we see Anduin leading the Alliance army with Genn Greymane at his side, while Sylvanas and Saurfang defend the city. We know how this battle will end - the Horde puts up a good fight, but the Alliance ultimately comes out victorious, though perhaps it is a Pyrrhic victory, as the Undercity is left in such disarray that it won't serve as much of an Alliance stronghold, much as the flaming tree of Teldrassil probably won't be really active Horde territory.

From the Alliance perspective, this is fully justified: turnabout is fair play, and while they've always wanted to re-take Lordaeron, now there is no diplomatic or tactical justification not to.

Following the Siege of Orgrimmar, Varian offered peace - sure, this was partially dictated by game mechanics, as you can't have either side "lose" and expansion while the other wins, and you need to keep areas around for people to call home (though apparently if it ain't Stormwind or Orgrimmar, it ain't sacred.) But through Warlords of Draenor (aside from the practically non-canon Ashran) and Legion, where Alliance/Horde conflict was more of a personal feud between Sylvanas and Genn, the factions were mostly cooperating. On my Paladin main, I personally saw the consolidation of the Hand of Argus, the Blood Knights, the Sunwalkers, and the Argent Crusade into the unified Knights of the Silver Hand. The class orders were all about seeing past faction lines, not only to face a greater threat, but also to embrace shared values (the only one that really worries me is the Knights of the Ebon Blade, who seem to be falling under the sway of the Lich King once again and have done some seriously messed up things.) Hell, Lady Liadrin is always there to lead a charge of Blood Knights against whomever I am fighting (which is especially weird when I'm doing a PvP world quest.) Lorewise, we've forged strong friendships across faction lines, which makes a fall back into war feel so hurtful to those of us who really liked to see WoW moving past Alliance versus Horde.

And I'll confess that I'm still mostly on the "tired of this faction conflict stuff" side of things - though I can see how it's a logical next step after facing down WoW's big bad in Legion, and I'm also super excited that both factions are going to have entirely different leveling experiences in Battle (are we calling it Battle or BFA? I've been hearing the former.)

But obviously there's something else going on. I don't think we're going to get a Siege of "Insert Capital City Here" raid like in Mists, and I don't think Sylvanas, Genn, or Jaina is going to be the expansion's final boss. If the final boss is not Azshara (they seemed to suggest she'd be either the first true tier's boss, or maybe the mid-tier) then I'm still putting a fair amount of fictional money I won't be paying anyone on N'zoth as being the main threat here.

And I think there's a clear gambit for the big bad to kick the expansion off:

The art we see of Teldrassil before and after it burns shows some interesting figures. They're all backlit, so we only get silhouettes. The first, before it burns, shows what appears to be Sylvanas in the center next to potentially Nathanos and Saurfang, with a pincushioned female elf (who doesn't seem quite dead) waiting nearby.

The next shot shows (presumably) Sylvanas in front of a wildly burning Teldrassil, with only what looks like the same wounded elf lying on her side, watching the fire.

The implication seems to be that the Horde attacked Teldrassil and burned it down. But what if that's not what happens?

Sylvanas is not a sentimental person (though maybe moreso than she likes to think,) and she certainly has no qualms about killing people from the Alliance. But given her nearly identical position in those two pictures, what if she never gets a chance to attack Teldrassil?

What if it's not the Horde that does it? What if it's a set-up?

We know from the preview chapter of the new novel that Sylvanas is looking forward to an attack on Stormwind, but let's imagine the following sequence of events: Horde spies discover that the Alliance is preparing for massive attack from Teldrassil - that they're going to sweep in and destroy Orgrimmar. Sylvanas has to put her attack on Stormwind on hold to protect her flank, but as they fight their way up through northern Kalimdor, they find resistance to be surprisingly light - it's not the full Alliance military, just the usual Night Elf forces. The Horde chalks it up to their superior military might, as they are wont to do. But when they reach Lor'danel, having swept through the Night Elf resistance easily, Sylvanas confronts a figure (the wounded elf,) who announces that Sylvanas has fallen into her trap, and as the Horde army watches from across the water, the enormous tree bursts into flames.

There is no way that the Alliance doesn't interpret this the way we have - that the Horde, in an act of savagery (and the Horde is known for its acts of savagery, especially with a person as cruel as Sylvanas Windrunner leading it,) has massacred innocent people, not content to simply conquer, but to exterminate. The story is accepted at face value by the Alliance - it's just Theramore all over again.

And if Sylvanas wants to protest, what is she going to say? Her troops were seen slashing and burning their way up through Kalimdor and her army was last seen just across the water from Teldrassil, so who else could have done such a thing?

And now, anyone who wanted to keep the forces of Azeroth divided, distracted, and fighting each other has a massive war raging across the globe. And with her armies concentrated near Teldrassil, she has to rush to defend Lordaeron, barely having any time to prepare her defenses, which allows the Alliance to get right up to her walls with what appears to be great ease.

The Burning of Teldrassil is incredibly suspect. Narratively, I just don't think that the Horde is the one that does it. But that's what the Alliance believes, and that's all that is needed to start the war.

So who is behind it?

Well, I don't think that the mystery elf (assuming she's part of that evil faction) is Alleria, given that she's going to be the racial leader for the Void Elves. But in a way, it doesn't totally matter who it is, because it's probably someone working for N'zoth.

Why N'zoth?

Well, this is where I stretch a little and really go into tin-foil hat territory: N'zoth is famously the weakest of the Old Gods, but what he lacks in magical power and strength of arms, he makes up in being utterly insidiously clever. Consider, for example, that the Emerald Nightmare was created by Yogg-Saron. But it was N'zoth who managed to usurp control of it, infecting it with Ilgynoth and most likely securing Xavius as his servant. And the defeat of the Nightmare may have ended that plot, but according to Xal'atath (which, yeah, I know we maybe shouldn't trust,) ending the Nightmare probably just woke up N'zoth. As she states elsewhere, N'zoth had a knack for turning his defeats into failures. Maybe he was never the weakest of the Old Gods, but he allowed his fellows to believe that he was.

With a wounded Azeroth, N'zoth is the last Old God standing, and this is a prime opportunity to try to make the final push to corrupt the Final Titan. But something C'thun and Yogg-Saron learned the hard way was that the heroes of Azeroth are really good at killing basically anything that threatens the world soul. Even the Legion falls before our might. But you know who we can never defeat? Each other. The Alliance and Horde clash with one another, but it's an unending mirror match that can never be resolved. Wrathion lamented this, hoping to see one faction conquer and then incorporate the other.

The conflict between the factions is filled with hatred and grief, and it's clearly not good for individuals. But in an odd way, the two sides act as sparring partners with one another. The constant conflict between them forces them to become stronger. And we have proven time and again that once a true threat to the world emerges, we tend to set aside that fight in order to deal with it. So N'zoth's gambit is a bit of a gamble - he's got to try to do his work before we figure out what is going on.

Given the nature of WoW as a game, I don't think he's going to succeed. And now he's going to be facing two battle-hardened factions coming at him from both sides.

(That's my take on the arc of the expansion. We'll see how accurate it is.)

The War in Warcraft: Alliance vs Horde and the Open-World RPG

After two expansions of inter-faction cooperation following the Siege of Orgrimmar, a giant fight is going to erupt between the factions, and it's going to be worse than it has ever been, with both sides losing a major city.

As someone who plays both sides, I have to compartmentalize a bit: I've always had trouble justifying the Horde side of things, as they've typically, in the past, been the aggressors (particularly egregious was the Horde's attack from behind in Icecrown that left a whole bunch of fresh corpses for the Scourge to raise.) The justification for Garrosh, for example, to hate the Alliance (when he had probably just encountered them a couple years before he became Warchief) felt really odd.

So I had a raised eyebrow of skepticism when Battle for Azeroth was announced, and I think I'm not alone. However, what I think I see in this is an opportunity: one that could allow WoW to go back to basics.

Don't get me wrong, I love facing off global threats, and the fact that we're actually fighting the Burning Legion on its home territory right now is very exciting. But as we've built up our prestige to the point where we're not only our faction's go-to commander for interdimensional expeditions, but also the leader of our respective class orders, one does not tend to have that old, low-level feel of being a wandering adventurer, exploring places and righting wrongs along the way.

Higher stakes are required to get both factions to cooperate, and that means that you need to be facing something that is an all-out military threat, where it makes perfect sense to combine to two greatest armies on the planet.

While clashes between armies is the bread and butter of the old Warcraft RTS games, the open-world RPG is less suited to that kind of story. While there are rules in Dungeons and Dragons for massive battles and such, the game is in its groove when you have four or five adventurers delving into some forgotten vault filled with monsters and treasure.

Make no mistake: the faction conflict will mean large-scale battles, and you're going to see that big military threat, potentially from not only the other faction, but also figures like Azshara, who we know will be a raid boss (though it's unclear if she's the final boss or an earlier tier.)

But beginning the expansion without a clear big bad beside the other faction - which will be locked away on another continent until the level cap - we have, perhaps, the opportunity to keep things low-scale as we investigate new and different threats as wandering heroes rather than Commander, Highlords, Huntmasters, and Slayers.

It remains to be seen. But even though my dream (which is almost certainly never going to happen) is for my Tauren Shaman to be able to run a dungeon or two with my Alliance guild, I'm actually not too disturbed about the faction conflict coming back to center-stage. Just give me a Bronze Dragonflight person so I can revisit Undercity (it took us so long to get those Abomination guards back!)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Drust and Spoilery Details from a Blizzcon Interview

The southwest region of Kul Tiras is called Drustvar. Home of House Waycrest, Drustvar was the source of weapons and armor for Kul Tiras' navy, but the Waycrests have mysteriously disappeared.

In a Blizzplanet interview with Senior Game Designer Jeremy Feasel, in addition to details surrounding Uldir and the Blood God (see previous post,) he gave us more details about the spooky area of Drustvar, with an explanation of the witches and spirits there.

The Kul Tirans were originally Gilneans who discovered the islands that would become Kul Tiras and settled there. In the southwest, they encountered a race called the Drust and more or less wiped them out in the conquest of the land.

As it turns out (and here come the spoilers,) the Drust were hardy enough of a race that they managed to stick around in the area as spirits within the Death Realm (the Shadowlands, I assume.) Lady Waycrest, seeking more political power among the Houses, has chosen to make a pact with the Drust, who are trying to emerge from the Shadowlands (I'm going forward on the assumption that that's the "Death Realm" they're talking about.) The Drustvar witches are powerful spellcasters who infuse figurines with the souls of the dead in order to serve as their minions (those are the wicker-man-like creatures that you see in the videos.) The witches reach a certain level of power and then, at the behest of the Drust, slit their own throats to become these powerful monsters.

This is super interesting, and I'm really happy to see an expansion of the exploration of the Shadowlands. I'd like to hear an explicit confirmation that this "Death Realm" and Helheim are both part of the Shadowlands, but I'm operating on this assumption for now.

Notably, we haven't seen, as far as I can tell, the Drust themselves. I'm eager to find out more about them, and I hope to see some connection to the Scourge and the Lich King, but as of yet, there's nothing explicit.

Still, I love Warcraft's undead and spooky stuff, and I suspect Drustvar is going to be my favorite zone.