The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
Alliance lore and the Alliance storyline in general have both been subjects of contention since some point early in Cataclysm, and the complaints don't seem to be getting any quieter. In the upcoming patch 5.3, the Alliance will be taking a direct hand in the events playing out near Orgrimmar, but not in the way you would readily expect. And oddly, this has Alliance players worked up in a near frenzy on realm and story forums, bitter and angry about the direction the Alliance storyline has been taking and repeatedly demanding more.
And it is incredibly difficult to understand just what all the fuss is about. There isn't a tangible moment that one can point to, there isn't a cohesive example of what has been happening. There's just a sense of unhappiness that is, to Alliance players, absolutely real. So this week, we're going to take a slightly different route for Know Your Lore. We're going to look at the nuts and bolts behind Mists of Pandaria, the Alliance, and the story so far. And we're going to do so in as analytical and constructive a manner as possible, to try and find that specific what-happened that seems to be bothering so many players.
Let's take a deep breath, dive in, and ask ourselves not "what is wrong," but instead, "what is the Alliance missing?"
Please note: Today's Know Your Lore contains some spoilers for patch 5.3 content. If you're trying to avoid spoilers, you may want to turn away.
To even begin to address this question, we're really going to have to go back to where it all began. What is the Alliance? What is their purpose on Azeroth? The current Alliance is an evolution of sorts of the original Alliance of Lordaeron, an alliance composed of the original assorted kingdoms of Lordaeron as well as a few different key races in the Eastern Kingdoms. It was formed as a direct response to the destruction of Stormwind and the continued efforts of the Old Horde to sweep a conquering path of destruction across the continent.
At that point in history, Azeroth was not prepared for a sudden invasion by aliens from another world, especially not of the demonically-infused variety. This was illustrated in vivid detail by the sudden fall of Stormwind and the assassination of King Llane. When the survivors of that original attack fled north, Anduin Lothar knew that there was no hope of just one army defeating the orcish army of the Old Horde. He convinced the other leaders of the seven kingdoms to work together as one -- and when he died, King Terenas took the lead, with Turalyon as its commander.
But that original alliance unequivocally worked. They didn't just defeat the Old Horde, they crushed it. The orcs, on the other hand, had a curious reaction to their defeat. Oddly lethargic and unwilling to fight back, the orcs simply allowed themselves to be captured en masse -- leading to the rise of internment camps, and the costs associated with them. King Terenas didn't wish to resort to wholesale slaughter, which didn't sit well with the other members of that original alliance, and that led, in part, to the eventual crumbling of the Alliance of Lordaeron. It further disintegrated during the Third War, when Terenas was killed by his son, Arthas.
In the midst of all of this, a young Varian Wrynn grew up and became king of Stormwind, married, and had a son. And on Kalimdor, the Third War reared its head, requiring the unity of an unlikely group of allies. Humans, orcs, and night elves worked together as one to push back against the Burning Legion's assault and kill Archimonde, at the behest of the Prophet Medivh. After all was said and done and the war was over, the night elves kept their alliance with the humans, unwilling to share their forests with the orcs, and rightfully wary of another brutal attack in the same vein as the one that killed the Ancient, Cenarius.
That's how the current Alliance was born. The dwarves and gnomes were already friends of humankind, the night elves were an addition born out of the fallout of the Third War. Other races were added over time, leading to the assorted races of the Alliance as we know them today.
Differences in formation
But there are a few key differences between the Alliance of Lordaeron and the Alliance of today. First, the Alliance of Lordaeron had a strong, heroic leader that brought the kingdoms together in Anduin Lothar. The Lion of Azeroth was a hero the likes of which the Alliance has not seen since, to be perfectly honest. He was a beacon of hope and heroism that the Alliance of Lordaeron could gather around, point to, and say with utter certainty, "We want to be just like that guy." A hero in every sense of the word, Lothar's death was a bitter blow to the Alliance of Lordaeron, and it was almost inevitable that the original Alliance would crumble without Lothar as a guiding light for it to follow. Turalyon made a bold effort, but was lost in Draenor after the Second War ended, his current whereabouts unknown.
And as much as Varian Wrynn would probably like to fill that position, he simply...doesn't. Looking at Varian from the perspective of the character as he is written, his place in the lore simply doesn't have that grand flavor that Anduin Lothar carried. He was young when he took the throne, he was young when he was kidnapped, and he was absent as his kingdom was merrily used as some sort of puppet, literally carved into two aspects of his personality by Onyxia. Which leads to the second difference in the two Alliances -- formation.
The original Alliance of Lordaeron was formed out of dire necessity to defeat the forces of the Old Horde. There was a threat, a major threat looming on the horizon that brought those kingdoms together and made them agree to work under one banner. It was a heroic response to the reality of the orcish onslaught, and even the process of getting all of the assorted seven kingdoms to work together was a heroic deed in and of itself, one that Anduin Lothar struggled with, and triumphed.
On the other hand, the Alliance of today was not formed out of any response to any dire threat. The assorted races of the Alliance simply banded together because they had already been working together to begin with -- and the night elves were added after the Third War, having proved themselves valuable allies. Thrall and his new Horde didn't pose any kind of major, world-ending threat. The assault that caused the death of Cenarius was made by an orc who succumbed to bloodlust, and then sought out and killed the source of that bloodlust, leaving the orcish race to live their lives in relative peace and quiet -- which was what Thrall wanted.
What is the Alliance?
And that leads us to a compelling question -- what is the Alliance? What is its purpose? You can ask the same of the Alliance of Lordaeron and immediately come up with an answer -- a gathering of kingdoms and races put together to stop the Old Horde. But what is the Alliance? They weren't put together to put a stop to anything. There was no noble cause that united them, no hero for them to stand behind. There was no dire threat that led to their formation. In fact, their formation was a direct result of the end of a dire threat.
So who is the Anduin Lothar of the Alliance as it stands? Well, that's the tricky part to answer. Varian Wrynn was absent through all of vanilla WoW, leaving his young son and Bolvar Fordragon in charge of Stormwind with Katrana Prestor -- a.k.a. Onyxia -- to rule in his stead. Nobody knew where he'd gone, although a fairly long and epic storyline with an unsatisfactory resolution led the player to discover he'd been kidnapped by the Defias.
The various smaller kingdoms surrounding Stormwind had each fallen into their own kind of chaos in his absence, and while the night elf, dwarf, and gnome storylines all had their perks, none were quite as compelling as that final tale that led the player to Blackrock Depths and back again to the gates of Stormwind, where Katrana Prestor was ultimately unmasked. And that ultimately led to the answer of the question of the Alliance's hero -- it was you. All along. The player, who had fought their way through various heroic deeds to level 60, and then managed to save Stormwind from certain doom at the hands of a pesky, meddling black dragon.
That was what made the Alliance experience in vanilla so compelling -- it wasn't the presence of some hero that everyone could band together with and follow under one banner. It was the fact that you, the player, were that hero. In King Varian's absence, you stepped up and managed to right what had gone horribly wrong, in a storyline that, although removed, is still talked about to this day with glee.
The return of King Wrynn
This story carried through to the next expansion, even. Alliance players in Outland were hailed as heroes and fought their way through the worst of what Outland had to offer, secure in the knowledge that there were a really big deal to the rest of the Alliance and had made an impact, a difference in what they had done in vanilla. But in Wrath, that all changed -- because Varian Wrynn made a return. And rather than a heroic beacon of light for all to follow, he was instead a bitter, angry man struggling desperately with his own inner demons and trying to fix everything that had fallen apart in vanilla, all in the face of an assault by the Lich King and attacks by the Horde.
Is Varian Wrynn a compelling character? Yes. Absolutely yes. His struggles with the demons within and the resolution of those struggles in the novel Wolfheart are really quite the epic tale. His relationship with his son and the other leaders of the Alliance makes for a really compelling read. But is he the next Lion of Azeroth? Well ... he might have been, but that space was filled by players in vanilla. And then that space that Alliance players had filled was abruptly ripped away, and Varian placed in that spot instead.
You were that hero. Once upon a time, in vanilla, in Burning Crusade. And then King Varian was abruptly written in to take your place. Part of me thinks that this is where a lot of the underlying problem with Varian Wrynn comes from. It's not that he isn't a good character. It's not that he doesn't have his own compelling storylines. It's that he was hastily written in and shoved into the space that, prior to his comeback, you the player had occupied. You had your shining moment of heroism, and that moment was taken away and erased from existence.
So let's not ask what's wrong. We know what's wrong -- Alliance players aren't happy at the moment. There are enough of them unhappy that this is likely a legitimate concern. Pointing out what's wrong in this situation doesn't really do anything towards beginning to untangle the issue or coming to any kind of solution. Let's ask, instead, what's missing? What is it that Alliance players don't have, the presence of which would infinitely improve their outlook on the game? That's the real issue here, and there's a few things we can immediately point to for reference.
That feeling of being a hero. It was there in vanilla, when you fought side-by-side with Bolvar -- who was the only real Alliance figurehead of "hero" that players could really point to. It was taken away with the arrival of Varian Wrynn, which resulted in two things: that really epic, amazing storyline in which you got to be the big damn hero was removed, and Bolvar, that one bastion of epic Alliance heroism, was shuttled off to Northrend, where he promptly met his demise.
From a purely construction standpoint in terms of story and development, Alliance players don't really have a reason to be fighting right now. There are no accolades when they manage to accomplish anything. In fact, they spent a lot of time hearing about how other characters and NPCs are doing heroic deeds, and they neither see them in game, nor do they get to participate. Even Theramore -- especially Theramore -- points to this. Alliance players don't arrive in the midst of a battle and get to fight off throngs of crazy Horde; they arrive after the city has been destroyed and are asked to take on some light clean up duty.
It's like arriving to the aftermath of what was clearly one hell of a party, and coming to the unhappy conclusion that you weren't invited. Meanwhile, Horde players have never had this problem. Why? Because in vanilla, not once were Horde players placed in that position of superhero. Horde did not have an equivalent to the Onyxia chain. This was because Horde players had a leader to look up to in Thrall. Players didn't take on the role of hero that saved everything -- they took on the role of loyal member of an already existing, tightly-knit society that had a very definitive reason for being there.
It has always been Horde vs. the world. That never changed. Alliance, on the other hand, was hero vs. the world -- and later became Varian vs. himself, and the rest of the Alliance went along for the ride. Horde players had an intimate connection to Thrall at the onset of their journey back in vanilla. Alliance players had their choice of gnomes that destroyed their city, dwarves that had some interesting political issues, the night elves and that always undefined tension between Tyrande and Fandral -- and a missing leader to boot in Malfurion Stormrage -- and a king who was simply ... missing.
In vanilla, Alliance players took the initiative to pull things together, uncover what had gone horribly wrong, and be the big damn hero of it all. In Burning Crusade, the focus shifted to the Horde to some degree, as Thrall rediscovered his roots. And in Wrath, the lore itself received a dramatic shift and a re-write of Alliance heroics, placing all those important deeds on a character who was newly introduced in a comics series, a completely unknown to the majority of players who didn't bother to read the comics and instead did what they'd been doing all along -- played a game that suddenly had a leader pop up out of nowhere, demanding respect.
Yet the problem isn't Varian Wrynn. It's never been Varian Wrynn -- he's a good character, solidly written with more than enough intriguing backstory to keep him really compelling. It runs far deeper than that, and the struggles continue all the way through Mists of Pandaria. Let's take a look at the scope of the Alliance storyline on page two, shall we?