Almost 10 years later, people still talk about the Southshore vs. Tarren Mill battles, the most infamous and celebrated world PvP in WoW history. They go on about how glorious it was, how they'd like to see that kind of intensity return to world PvP. It's not often, however, that they discuss the details.
If you want to know exactly what it was like to fight in those battles, keep reading. I lived it. My old Tauren Hunter still bears the scars. Pull up a bench and pour yourself a glass of ale. I will tell you about the war.
Several places on Azeroth in classic WoW had two faction-specific towns in close proximity. You had Astranaar and Splintertree in Ashenvale. Arathi Highlands featured Refuge Pointe and Hammerfall. Theramore and Brackenwall squared off in Dustwallow Marsh. A few others had proximity also.
So why didn't any of these pairs become as legendary as Southshore and Tarren Mill? The fact is that battles did happen here -- some fairly major ones, too. World PvP ran rampant in the early days, even on PvE realms, and even before the honor system arrived to reward you for doing it.
Many raided faction villages for the simple joy of denying your enemy a stronghold, a questgiver, or a flight point. Such players sought out undefended towns, which these others often were, at least when you first struck.
Other players wanted resistance. They wanted to march forward as part of one vast army of players into an equally imposing force. They wanted the chaos, the rush, the endless bloodshed, the death cries of their foes echoing all around them. And they knew exactly one place you could find that experience, at virtually any hour of the day or night.
It had to be somewhere. Early forum threads began to buzz about such battles taking place. As word of mouth spread, more players wanted to make it happen on their own realm. It became the thing to do.
But why there?
During the first few months of vanilla, the population was overwhelmingly Alliance. The majority of players hadn't spread out or explored much yet. Because the Horde's only starting area in the Eastern Kingdoms was in Tirisfal Glades, nearby Hillsbrad was the first contested zone where most Alliance players encountered actual enemies. The zone became associated with world PvP in players' minds.
Hillsbrad also lay near two zones where both factions spent a lot of time during their late 50s and at max level: Eastern and Western Plaguelands. A new battle could be reinforced within just a few moments by high-level players from either side, burgeoning from a minor skirmish to an all-out brawl. No other town pairing was located so close to so much high-level questing and multiple endgame dungeons.
From a strategic standpoint, a short distance separated the two towns, which made graveyard runs fast. Neither had a choke point that could discourage advances. That made them ideal for these sorts of battles. Plus, the landscape afforded certain entertaining twists, but more on that in a moment.
Into the heart of battle
You get a whisper from your guildmates that Southshore vs. Tarren Mill is heating up again. You hop onto your regular mount (you can't afford an epic one yet) and make for the nearest flight point. The flights don't connect automatically. You land at each town and have to click the next destination in sequence.
Your guildmates whisper you again, asking for an ETA. They're losing the town. You take a deep breath as you click the last flight to Tarren Mill. This one sounds bad.
When you arrive, the flightmaster is dead. Alliance are rampaging through the streets, murdering every player and NPC. Corpses and skeletons litter the ground. The odds don't look impossible, though. You only spot about 20 enemy players, many of them not even max level. What's the big deal? you wonder.
But as you try to engage, your character responds slowly. Attacks and spells take a few seconds to go off, and you're not able to cycle your abilities like you're used to. Then the server catches its breath, and a slow horror creeps over you. There aren't 20 enemies here. The game just hadn't loaded them all.
There are at least 100. As you watch, even more come swarming out of the old church.
You die during a lag spike. You didn't even know someone had targeted you. You message everyone on your friends list that Tarren Mill needs help. You tell them to gather at the southern end of Silverpine. If they fly in, they'll arrive alone and be murdered one by one, like you were.
You run back to your body and rez there, but it's useless. The Alliance are camping the town, waiting for players to spawn.
Soon the cavalry arrives: max level players, still a bit of a rarity these days. Some even have epic mounts. They charge down from the nearby hills and assault the Alliance flank, carving a path into the town square. Everyone who was dead rezzes at their body and attacks. NPCs respawn and reaggro. The Alliance retreat, hoping to shake off the NPC guards.
You're firing at a holy paladin who's been healing other players left and right, keeping them alive while they disengage from the town. He's at low health. You've even got him snared with a Wing Clip you landed on him. Then you start to see "Immune" where you once watched numbers scroll over his head. And you see the cast bar. He's hearthing out, and there's nothing you can do about it. You grit your teeth in chagrin. Only Alliance players have access to such cowardly tactics.
Even more Alliance forces arrive, summoned when the Horde began to put up a stauncher resistance. But the two forces are tentative now. A line has formed, just out of range of rifles and fireballs. Nothing but an open field of no man's land separates them. People step forward to take pot shots, but those they strike move back from the line. To pursue them into the teeth of the opposing force is suicide.
But you've got a trick up your sleeve. "Focus on my mark," you tell your guildmates. You put a bouncy red Hunter's Mark on a warlock. A dozen players step forward from the line and focus him down. A Priest shields him and he's about to go out of range, so you take a few more steps forward to land one more DoT on him. The DoTs finish him off, but now you're under fire.
You Feign Death. Not everyone is fooled, but enough are to take the pressure off and let a friendly Druid heal you up. You get back up and retreat behind the lines once more.
It should be safe there, but you know that's not always the case. A group of healers is standing near the inn. Wary, you set a flare down next to them. And there he is: a max-level Rogue sneaking around the front lines to ambush the healers. You snare him with a Concussive Shot, but he Vanishes before you remember to mark him. You stay near the healers for now. He isn't likely to try it again with a Hunter around.
The Alliance surge forward. The first few who charge are cut down, but the swarming mass of 100+ players fills you with awe. The Horde retreat into the town. Within the maelstrom of combat, the Alliance begin to shout at one another. You don't know what they're saying, but you can guess: Don't aggro the flight master.
It's too late. Someone got him with an AoE. The Horde and the NPCs push back and once again repel the invaders. This time, the Horde was well prepared for the assault. Known healers were targeted and brought down first whenever possible.
Repelling the incursion
The raid that you're in has a leader giving orders. Not everyone fighting there is part of it, even though it's a full 40, but it's enough. He gives the order to drive the Alliance out, and you do. You cut down runners with Multishot and Aimed Shot. You let your pet raptor finish off a Priest.
"Regroup at the tower," the raid leader says. "We'll push on to Southshore once we're all there."
You chase a Warrior across a field alone. He's heading for the barn, and you have a bad feeling. "Help me at the barn," you say in raid chat, "I think some survivors are holing up there."
Sure enough, as you approach, four or five players spring out of the building and ambush you. Despite your best efforts, there are too many, and you fall down dead. Some fellow Horde show up a moment later and drive them out, killing two. They rez you and you head for the stone tower halfway between the two towns.
Inside of it, a vast army of players can hide without being detected, and by now almost everyone is there. Of course, the enemy knows this also. A Druid is caught stealthing around the corner to peek in and killed in less than a second by 20 players attacking him at once. She's accomplished her mission, though: she's whispering the Alliance raid about your location already. It's time to move.
The raid leader gives the command to move out. "Let's circle around to the dock," you say in gchat. "Come at them from the sea." You and your guildmates mount up and split off from the main force. You circle to the right, past spiders, bears, and murlocs. Out of visual range of the town, you dive into the ocean. The Shamans cast Water Breathing on everyone as you begin the long swim.
You group up under the dock jutting out into the sea, thankful that no one has spotted you. Above, you don't yet hear the sounds of combat. It's likely another standoff. "Should we go?" someone asks. "Sure," you reply. "Let's stir it up."
You spring out of your hiding place as one and mow down Southshore's defenders from behind. Guards aggro you, but you snare them with a Frost Trap as you push into the enemy's rearguard to give your healers a break. The majority of the raid sees the opportunity and seizes it.
Despite their numbers, the Alliance are surrounded. They can't retreat to safety to heal up. But enemies respawn to defend the town and new players arrive. The battle drags on and on. Ten minutes go by, then 20 and 30. You've lost track of how many Alliance you've shot to death.
Eventually, after an hour of vicious fighting, there's nothing left of the enemy but bodies. You know the ghosts are lurking out there, and sometimes one will spawn, only to die in moments. Southshore is yours.
On and on it would go, sometimes all night long. And no one got a single honorable kill out of it. The honor system was months away.
When the honor system finally released in May 2005, players actually had a reason to PvP. Because the system awarded endless grind above all, Southshore vs. Tarren Mill became not just a fun way to pass an evening but one of the best ways to grind for HKs. Some players even worked in shifts on the same character, so you could end up fighting that one frost Mage who was always there no matter what time of day it was. For an entire patch, the SS/TM wars were the one place on most realms where world PvP was guaranteed. Those seeking higher ranks flocked to it.
Then patch 1.5 made the honor system literal. If you acted without honor by killing NPCs marked as "civilians," you would earn a dishonorable kill. The system was punishing. One DHK could undo hours or even days of work for those who were at the top end of the ranks.
In the madness of these battles, it was easy to hit a civilian target. Clever players would even lure enemies into hitting civilians. In a time when everyone was obsessed with ranking up, DHKs were devastating. They took most of the fun out of the SS/TM wars.
In the same patch, Blizzard added the first battlegrounds: Warsong Gulch and the original Alterac Valley. Almost overnight, players migrated from Hillsbrad into the instanced, civilian-free battlegrounds.
World PvP would never be the same again.
The fine people at Blizzard are not fools. They knew players really enjoyed the Hillsbrad wars. Many Blizzard developers likely fought alongside us in those early days. So why kill off such a fun and storied part of the game?
The game engine hadn't been designed with that kind of focused, large-scale PvP in mind. Due to the server architecture, the lag from Hillsbrad battles hit not just those in the immediate vicinity but everyone on the continent. If you gathered up enough players in one place, the entire Eastern Kingdoms would crash.
It wasn't uncommon for it to happen during the most frenzied part of the battle. It was always disappointing. Players were actually fairly understanding about it. We knew that we were pushing boundaries, but we always hoped that Blizzard would find a way to enhance or replace its servers and make it a better experience.
Blizzard tried to recreate the feeling of large-scale world PvP in Wrath of the Lich King with the Wintergrasp zone. But the battles still caused lag for everyone on Northrend, just like the old Southshore vs. Tarren Mill dust-ups. Cataclysm gave us Tol Barad, but the prison island felt too isolated from everything else and wasn't well designed.
Now, in Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard is trying one more time with a new zone called Ashran. Since it's instanced, it shouldn't affect the rest of Draenor. It's also using shiny new tech so you can cross into it without a load screen to help it feel more connected to the rest of the world.
It still warms my heart that the Horde won the battle for Hillsbrad, and Southshore is now nothing more than plague-ridden ruins. For those of us who fought in that campaign, who bled and died for the Horde there, it was all worth it at long last.
WoW Archivist is a column by WoW Insider's Scott Andrews; it runs on Massively by permission. Every other weekend, Scott explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?