We don't know a whole lot about death knights in WoW yet, but what we do know is already enough to show that death knights are the class with the most background story already laid out for them ahead of time: The death knights we will be able to play are former servants of the Lich King who have now turned against him and joined the Alliance or the Horde instead. This background story is built into the class -- something each and every death knight roleplayer will have to take into account when they roleplay their character, and it will have ramifications upon everyone else in the entire global society of Azeroth as well.
Some other classes have a great depth of lore behind them as well, such as druids, paladins and shamans, who look to Malfurion, Uther, and Thrall for inspiration. These classes certainly look up to their heroes and follow in their footsteps, just as, in some ways, death knights follow in the footsteps of Arthas. And yet for other classes that has little effect on each individual's path to becoming a practitioner of his or her particular abilities. The transition from normal shmoe to level one hero is left vague for the player upon character creation, unless, as a roleplayer working on a backstory, he gives it special attention.
Indeed, some classes are pretty straightforward, and don't necessarily suggest a story at all. Instead, they present us with an image, or an idea -- when you play one of the existing nine classes, you can fit right into the role without a story, because the role feels like a basic archetype you already understand.
When you think of "Warrior" for instance, you imagine a great fighter clad in impressive plate armor, wielding a deadly weapon of some sort. Likely you might think of his fearsomeness, his recklessness, or his strength. If someone asked you, however, how it is he got to be a fighter, your mind would probably leap to the most obvious answer: "by... fighting!" Presumably, at some point, a warrior decided not to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," but to "take arms against a sea of troubles," and by opposing, kill 'em dead. The basic template for this type is so simple that it could fit any number of interesting characters.
The same is true with many other classes, such as a mage (who studied lots and learned to wield magic), or a priest (who joined some sort of priestly order). Each WoW character went through a character twist: some sort of change in life that caused him or her to choose a certain path. In the case of rogues and warlocks, this path is not universally accepted by the society at large.
Warlocks in particular have a tougher time of it, being as they ride a tide of evil energies, just barely succeeding (or failing) at keeping themselves sane in the midst of it. Indeed warlocks are the class most thematically similar to death knights in that both of them try to bend evil powers towards good purposes -- although, if anyone wants to roleplay a truly evil character, a warlock is the most obvious choice.
The death knight double-twist
Death knights, too, are so obviously evil at first glance that they require quite a bit of background storytelling to explain why players should be able to control them in the first place, let alone take them into battles against their archetypal hero figure, the very one who made their powers possible. Death knights are not merely characters who stepped onto a certain path in order to perform heroic deeds -- they are former heroes who fell into the temptation of the dark side (so to speak), became twisted versions of their former selves, tainted with all manner of wicked magics, and yet finally managed to reject all the purposes for which the Lich King instructed them and become something of true heroes again -- only this time they fight their former master with all the same powers he taught them to use.
When you create your death knight character, you will begin in a floating necropolis, somewhat akin to Naxxramas, and undertake a series of quests that will teach you how to play your class and give you some sense of how your character got to be this way. No one knows for sure, but I think it's safe to make some assumptions about how this is going to go: From the very beginning, the Scourge will be your enemy rather than your friend, and your first quests will put you in conflict with it. I imagine these quests will probably be geared towards wresting control of the necropolis away from the Scourge and into the hands of some as yet unknown death knight group in opposition to Arthas. Getting a sense of who your new allies are, and why they have turned against the Lich King, will be just as much part of the death knight experience as learning how to kill assorted zombies, skeletons, and other sorts of unfriendly phenomena.
New twists on an already twisty twister
In light of all this, players need to realize that their characters are not Lich-King wannabes. As attractive as it may seem to play a character who seeks to steal the Frozen Throne direct from under Arthas' icy butt, that particular motivation is going to get old fast. We will have to work out our own reasons for joining the Scourge and then fighting it again, and hopefully Blizzard's introductory quests will help us with that without necessarily spelling it out and making all death knights the same.
After all, stories like those of death knights are tricky. What kind of character starts out good, turns evil, then turns good again? How can a server full of such characters all do this in different ways? Here are a couple of ideas that come to mind:
- A gnomish scientist who obsesses over creating life: In his quest to unravel this mystery and bring inanimate objects to life, he stumbles upon knowledge of undeath, and gradually falls into the clutches of the Lich King. Later, when he and the other death knights break free, he resumes his quest for the mystery of life, believing that the phenomenon of undeath holds the key.
- A blood elf mystic who tries to find freedom from addiction to magic by embracing the power of undeath: For her death magic is like a form of tantric secret ritual -- it is alluring and attractive because it is the very opposite of everything her people holds dear, and she believes that embracing her opposite will result in her freedom. Just because Arthas is such a nasty guy, she protests, doesn't make his power any less real.
What sort of character do you have in mind to fit the death knight backstory?