World of Warcraft was originally released in the US on November 23, 2004. That is eight years of our lives that we've been playing this game ... for some players. For many players however, their experience with WoW began in Burning Crusade, or Wrath, or Cataclysm -- or even right now with Mists of Pandaria. And because of this, it means these players have missed out eight years worth of lore and story from before they began to play.
One of the questions and suggestions I see pop up most frequently, be it on Reddit, Twitter or even WoW Insider, is what happened during all of that time? What was the story behind these expansions? Sure, there are novels and comics aplenty available for reading, but these are side aspects to the original games that didn't really tie into the game so much. The game itself had its own story going, particularly in those first couple of expansions.
So let's step back in time and take a look at WoW and the basic ongoing story that has kept it going all these years -- not the novels, but the game itself. Get ready for WoW for Dummies: the vanilla years.
Back story you should know
World of Warcraft begins four years after the end of Warcraft III. In Warcraft III, chaos hit Azeroth from all directions -- the Scourge began their campaign of terror in Lordaeron, and the Burning Legion began their reign of terror everywhere else. Originally, the Scourge and the Burning Legion were working together. However, Prince Arthas Menethil, heir to the Lordaeron throne, was slowly taken over by the Lich King's influence. And as far as the Lich King was concerned, the Burning Legion wasn't anything worth allying with.
Because of this, there was a split between the two. While Arthas happily murdered his father and sought out a shiny hat and sword in Northrend, the Burning Legion was busy in Kalimdor. Kalimdor was far from empty at that point, because both human and orcish settlers from the Eastern Kingdoms fled to Kalimdor when the Scourge reared its ugly head. In addition, Kalimdor had its own inhabitants. There were the tauren, a nomadic race seeking to settle and end their wandering in the sacred lands of Mulgore. And there were the night elves, who were incredibly familiar with the Burning Legion and the threat it posed.
In the end, Archimonde came to Kalimdor, seeking out the World Tree Nordrassil at Hyjal for his own dark purposes. And the orcs, humans and night elves came together as one to defeat him. This was no easy task -- Tyrande Whisperwind was not happy with the orcish race that settled and began chopping down the precious forests of Ashenvale for firewood. Warchief Thrall was simply trying to gather supplies and get his people settled in the harsh deserts of the Barrens, eventually settling on Durotar as a home of sorts. And Lady Jaina Proudmoore remembered well the days of the Second War, when orc and human brutally fought against each other.
But come together they did, and Archimonde fell -- although Nordrassil was destroyed as a result. Since then, the tentative alliance between these three races evaporated. The orcs still needed resources to survive, and the night elves were entirely unwilling to let them simply take what they needed. The humans of Theramore still remembered the days of the old wars, and weren't quite willing to ally with orcs, regardless of Jaina Proudmoore's feelings on the subject. In fact, it seemed that only Warchief Thrall and Jaina were willing to continue that mission of peace between their two races. The rest of their people weren't quite as willing to follow.
Factions unite: The Alliance
Fast forward to World of Warcraft. In those four years, the kaldorei decided to join up with the Alliance in an effort to keep the orcs at bay. The original Alliance of Lordaeron, formed by King Terenas during the Second War, had evolved. Now Stormwind was at the helm, and recruited the dwarves, gnomes, and kaldorei in a different Alliance -- one of united races, rather than united human kingdoms.
But the kaldorei were struggling with the loss of Nordrassil. Arch Druid Fandral Staghelm stepped up to lead the druids due to the mysterious absence of Malfurion Stormrage, and authorized the growth of a new World Tree, Teldrassil. Although Malfurion had original objected to the idea of Teldrassil, he was no longer around to stop Fandral from doing what he wanted. Teldrassil was far from perfect -- in fact, it seemed to be slowly being corrupted by satyr and other agents of the Burning Legion.
On the Eastern Kingdoms, the rest of the Alliance were having plenty of problems as well. The King of Stormwind, Varian Wrynn, had gone missing. This left his incredibly young son Anduin in charge, although he was more of a figurehead at this point. The two people really in charge were Bolvar Fordragon and Lady Katrana Prestor, both of whom were nobles in Stormwind society and supposedly capable of handling the kingdom while the king was away. But the outlying reaches of Stormwind's kingdom were suffering as well.
In Westfall, the Defias had become an organization of brutes intent on robbing anyone who dared roam the open roads. The Defias were formerly the Stonemasons of Stormwind that were not paid what they were due when they rebuilt the kingdom from the ground up. Because they were not paid, they turned to petty theivery as a result. In the Redridge Mountains, the tiny town of Lakeshire found itself besieged by orc forces, with the looming threat of the Black Dragonflight growing ever stronger to the north. In Duskwood, the equally tiny town of Darkshire was under threat from undead and the mysterious worgen in the darkened woods.
Meanwhile, the dwarves of Ironforge had problems as well -- King Magni's daughter Moira had been kidnapped by the Dark Iron dwarves, a faction of the dwarfish race more concerned with dark arts and magics than learning the secrets of the earth. The Dark Iron, Bronzebeard and Wildhammer clans had clashed together years before, during the War of Three Hammers, and King Bronzebeard assumed the abduction was some sort of revenge for the outcome of that war. But the dwarves were not alone in Ironforge.
The gnomes of the Alliance had been forced out of their home due to the invasion of the troggs and the treachery of Mekgineer Thermaplugg. In order to get rid of the troggs, High Tinker Mekkatorque ordered the gnomes to vent the city's radioactive waste into the city, but this only made the troggs stronger, and killed thousands of gnomes in the process. Forced to flee, the gnomes took up residence with their friends the dwarves in Ironforge, hoping that the radiation would clear out at some point in the future.
Needless to say, the Alliance was not terribly well put-together at this point, and the sticking point seemed to be Stormwind itself. With the king missing and the Council of Nobles, led by Katrana Prestor, unwilling to take any action against anyone or anything, the various races of the Alliance struggled to keep afloat.
The Original Raids
What the Alliance did not know was that it had a dragon in its midst -- namely Katrana Prestor, who was in reality the black dragon Onyxia in disguise. Onyxia was the one who orchestrated King Varian's disappearance, and Onyxia was the one keeping Stormwind in an essential stalemate, tricking Bolvar, Anduin, and the entirety of Stormwind in the process. Part of this was because Onyxia just liked messing with the mortal races of the world, and part of it was because she was doing so in order to keep attention away from her brother Nefarian, who was up to no good in Blackrock Mountain. Both were following orders from their father, Deathwing, who was presumed missing at this point in time.
As for those pesky Dark Iron, they had their own history that spelled disaster for Azeroth. Back during the War of the Three Hammers years before, the Dark Iron leader, Emperor Thaurissan, summoned the elemental Firelord Ragnaros into the world via the Molten Core. When the war ended, the Dark Iron ended up slaves to Ragnaros and his minions. Ragnaros was bound to the Molten Core, unable to stray from its depths. And so he bided his time, waiting for the day when his power was great enough to emerge once more and wreak havoc on Azeroth, burn the land, claim it for his own and then return to his proper home in the Firelands.
So the Alliance had several problems to contend with. First there was the matter of Stormwind and its missing king. Over the course of vanilla, players discovered Katrana Prestor's true identity and unmasked the black dragon, forcing her to flee to her lair in Dustwallow Marsh. Unwilling to simply let sleeping dragons lie, Alliance players were sent to go kill Onyxia before she could come up with any more plans of global domination. Once Onyxia was dead, Stormwind would be free to try and regain the trust lost by its lack of support of those outlying kingdoms, and to help the other races of the Alliance with their problems, too.
Moira stayed in Blackrock Mountain, but there were more threats to contend with than an incredibly angry mother-to-be. Ragnaros needed to be stopped, before he fully rose to power and managed to break free. So adventurers were sent to the depths of the Molten Core in order to put a stop to Ragnaros and his minions once and for all. The mission was a success, and Ragnaros was sent back to the Firelands -- exactly where he wanted to be. In the Firelands Ragnaros waited, biding his time until he could strike once more. And this is why we see Ragnaros return much later in the Cataclysm expansion. It was sort of our fault for getting him un-stuck from the Molten Core in the first place.
Onyxia had been stopped and Ragnaros' return put to a halt -- but this was only the beginning. Of course, this was just the Alliance side of things. From the Horde perspective, Azeroth's history looked quite a bit different. And although Warchief Thrall was on a mission of peace, the Alliance didn't really see it that way. After all, Redridge was still under attack by orcs, and as far as the humans are concerned, an orc is an orc. They're all in cahoots with each other.
What they didn't consider was that there were two very, very different factions of orcs out there, and they had very different versions of their place in the world. Next week, the Horde's side of the original vanilla tale.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
- The Third War, part 1, part 2 and part 3
- By Fire be Purged: The Elements, part 2
- Blackwing Descent and the Prestor Legacy
- Grim Batol
- The Black Dragonflight
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.