Because of the way we experience the setting, the story of World of Warcraft progresses in bursts. It's fair to think of each expansion as a new series, and the patches as episodic, in the same manner as British TV series such as Doctor Who or Turning Evil. Therefore, each expansion brings new settings, new dangers, and a new, overarching storyline, while each patch is an advancement of that storyline, bringing it to a conclusion with the ultimate patch of each expansion. In this way, Patch 4.3 is effectively a multi-part episode concluding the story of our confrontation with Deathwing.
I bring this up because with Mists of Pandaria, we're going to see a whole new place and explore it. In essence, it will be an expansion that introduces a great deal of new -- new lands, new peoples, new experiences. While it will still be part of Azeroth and still part of the unfolding storyline, it's also a change to switch gears and get away from the familiar. In a game like WoW, it's necessary to introduce new elements in this way to keep the setting engaging. It may be hard to relate now, but Ragnaros, Ahn'Qiraj, the Old Gods, the Silithid, all were introduced in World of Warcraft and not any of the RTS games. Look at the Warcraft III map of Kalimdor. You'll notice pretty much everything south of Feralas is blank on it.
This puts me in mind to speculate on the future of the game and where the lore is going to take us. Not just in Mists, of course, as I expect that much of the lore of the expansion is well and truly fleshed out already, and I'm as eager as anyone to see it. But we've got expansions down the road and trends to consider. None of this absolutely will happen ... but some of it might.
The Blackrock clan and the Horde
The Blackrock clan of orcs is placed in an unusual position as the war between Alliance and Horde continues. They still hold Blackrock Mountain, but with the death of Rend Blackhand and many of the corrupt leaders of the Blackrocks and the rooting out of Nefarian once and for all, the Blackrocks are at a tipping point. Consider that this was the clan of Blackhand the Destroyer, the clan of Orgrim Doomhammer, the clan that led the charge through the Dark Portal and that shaped the very destiny of the Horde entire for decades. Now, for the first time, they're leaderless and not under the control of an outside force like Nefarian. What does that mean?
Considering that we know that Eitrigg and his son Ariok are Blackrocks, it's possible that we'll see a renaissance for the clan. For one thing, they still hold a bastion of power directly north and south of Alliance territory. From Blackrock Mountain, Blackrock orcs can threaten Redridge and Northshire and can even strike north into the Searing Gorge. They're at war with the Dark Iron dwarves, who are also free of Ragnaros at the same time that the orcs are free of Nefarian, and we know that Moira Thaurissan is making progress toward claiming rule of both Bronzebeard and Dark Iron for her son, Dagran Thaurissan II. This puts the Blackrocks in a position where they need alliances to survive.
Furthermore, the Dragonmaw offered a port and a toehold into the Twilight Highlands, a territory fairly distant from any other Horde base and with minimal strategic importance aside from bringing war to the Twilight's Hammer. The Blackrocks can offer a fortress right in the heart of the Eastern Kingdoms, quite close to Kargath and Stonard for ease of resupply and reinforcement, that divides Khaz Modan from Redridge. If you want to eventually move to sack Stormwind, this is a tempting forward base.
Keep an eye on the Blackrocks. They have nothing to lose at this point and nothing stopping them from agreeing to recognize Garrosh as Warchief. And if they do, the Alliance will find the wolf is now squatting directly on their door. A stronger Blackrock/Horde relationship doesn't need to happen during Mists, but it almost seems inevitable once we move past it.
The Prophecy of Velen
Pandaria and its wonders and dangers are compelling and new, and I for one am looking forward to exploring them. But I definitely see our sojourn there as an interlude where we get to see a place that developed on its own for 10,000 years and experience their different perspectives and histories. Always looming in the background is the prophecy that Velen spoke to Magtoor and Avuun. Azeroth is not merely a world torn apart by wars, with a history of conflict and clashes against great, terrible forces of destruction. There's a war coming, a war of cosmic significance before which even Deathwing is merely a harbinger. And that ultimate conflict between equal and opposite cosmic forces will be fought on this small, twice-sundered planet.
One of the creatures mentioned in previews of the upcoming expansion is the Sha, living manifestations of dark energy. The Sha remind us not only of Entropius (the dark cycle form of M'uru) but also of the stained glass entities seen in the Descent Into Madness in Ulduar.
We definitely need to keep an eye on the Sha and their origins and genesis. They're the first clue that Mists is more than just a fun change of pace. It's a new chapter in the story we've been seeing since we stepped foot onto the alien soil of Outland. It may not be a coincidence that the ethereals have returned and set foot on Azeroth proper for once. They lost a world to a Void Lord named Dimensius the All-Devouring, who bears a striking resemblence to Entropius. We know little about the origins of Voidwalkers, after all. They could well be a cosmic form of the Sha or akin to them. If negative emotions can create negative entities, how much negativity can the destruction of a world generate?
The Abyss and our tendency to stare right into it
We're going to Pandaria as part of the escalating conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. Our presence there and the fact that we bring our wars with us will destablize a world that's been apart for 10,000 years, bring back the Sha, set the ancient Mogu on the path to reclaiming their empire from the Pandaren, and otherwise upset a whole mess of apple carts.
One of the aspects of this conflict that I think will need to be sharpened is the tendency to try and show that neither faction is composed of plaster saints or Snidely Whiplash clones. We'll need to see the Alliance attack more often, more aggressively, and in a more convincing manner than the half-hearted Camp Taurajo massacre. No more We tried to leave them an escape route through the Quillboars; we had no idea the Quillboars hated them so much! back doors out of looking bad. We need to take a page from the real history of warfare and see the Alliance pull a Dresden, striking hard and without mercy at the Horde, even if it means civilian casualties. We need to see people who we identify with on both sides take actions that normally would be unthinkable.
I expect we'll get that in the lead-up to Pandaria and that a great deal of the Horde or Alliance specific questing and exploring is going to be couched in terms of the growing war and choices. Do you destroy that village, or let the Horde have it and an advantage over you that could well win them the war? Do you let the Alliance alone while they're battling a host of Mantid warriors, or do you take advantage of their weakened state to crush them even when they were offering no threat to you? By going to a new land, we get to see ourselves through an entirely new context, and I expect some of us might really dislike what we see. I even hope for it, because that kind of conflict is storytelling gold.
Next week: the Scholomance.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.