The lore of Warcraft isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to follow. It's not a straight line of cause and effect that you can simply trace from beginning to end. It's an endless chain of events intertwined with each other in a ball that is so tightly wound together, it's almost impossible to untangle and pick apart. This is a large part of the reason why it's so hard to answer a seemingly simple question, "I want to try and get into Warcraft lore, so where do I start?"
That said, there are several standout moments in lore, moments that have influenced far more than one character's development or one chain of story progression. While the following list isn't every moment, it contains some of the most influential, those events in history that have shaped the world of Warcraft and will continue to shape it for years to come.
1. The First War
The First War began when the Horde poured through the Dark Portal for the first time and began systematically wrecking everything in sight in a campaign of domination and destruction. It ended with a resounding Horde victory, resulting in the destruction of Stormwind, and the death of King Llane Wrynn.
Why it's influential This one was really a no-brainer addition to the list. The First War was pretty much where the long saga of Alliance vs. Horde began, and that conflict has carried us all the way through every Warcraft game to date. Sure, there might be Old Gods. Certainly the Burning Legion poses a looming threat. But when it comes down to it, the destiny of Azeroth's natives was signed and sealed the moment that the orcish race decided to use Stormwind as a convenient punching bag and starting point for their campaign of global domination. Nearly every moment on the list below was spawned, in one degree or another, by the First War.
Varian Wrynn would not be the man, and king, he is today if he hadn't witnessed his father's assassination at Garona's hands during the First War. Certainly the Alliance itself never would have formed -- there would have been no real reason for its conception. The Horde would also never have begun, because the Horde wouldn't have existed on Azeroth in the first place. Racial hatreds never would have escalated, future wars never would have been fought -- and the entire reason we're playing this game in the first place never would have existed.
2. Theramore's Fall
The moment of Deathwing's defeat signaled the dawn of a new age -- the Age of Mortals, as so elegantly put by Alexstrasza. I don't think she intended the dawn of this new, glorious age to earmark the first real, brutal, devastating strike the Horde had delivered to the Alliance since the First War. Warchief Hellscream launched a campaign to dominate Kalimdor for the Horde, rallying his armies to attack the human port city of Theramore as a first strike. And just when the Alliance thought they'd successfully beaten back the Horde army, Garrosh pulled out his ace in the hole -- a mana bomb that wiped out the city in an instant, leaving nothing more than a crater where it used to proudly stand.
Why it's influential For one thing, this marks the first time a major Alliance stronghold has been decimated by the opposing faction since the Horde destroyed Stormwind in the First War. Certainly Southshore was also destroyed, but Southshore was a much smaller town, and didn't hold quite the same importance to the Alliance as Theramore did. It was the only major human settlement on Kalimdor, and an important port town. Not only that, it was home to Lady Jaina Proudmoore -- which made this moment all the more influential.
Jaina's been a proponent of peace between the two factions ever since she worked with Thrall during the Third War. She's been pretty much the only Alliance diplomat that actively tried to foster that tentative peace into something real. Because of this, Theramore was never really a giant target for the Horde, although skirmishes broke out here and there. In one fateful moment, Garrosh Hellscream managed to shatter whatever hope of peace lay between the two factions -- and unleashed the wrath of Lady Proudmoore in the process, setting off a chain reaction of events that led to the Kirin Tor, a once neutral organization, siding with the Alliance. Way to go, Garrosh.
But that's not all. In the process of setting up the main attack on Theramore, Garrosh decided not to inform anyone of his real plans, save a few select people that knew about the mana bomb gambit. Why? Maybe it was a test to prove the loyalty of those that swore themselves to the Horde. In Tides of War, Garrosh was deliberate with his orders, and carefully watched the actions of his allies to determine their loyalty. Those that were deemed not quite loyal enough were swiftly taken out of the picture. Those that were smart, hid their dissatisfaction and followed orders to the letter -- no more than that -- while holding private meetings to discuss how they felt about Hellscream's "leadership." These quiet talks were the first stirrings of rebellion that would blow up in Garrosh's face in Mists.
3. The Wrathgate
Certainly the Lich King was the main target of the war in Northrend -- his downfall was something eagerly sought by both Alliance and Horde. Yet an attack at the Wrathgate went horribly wrong when both Alliance and Horde forces were suddenly forced to deal with the surprise treachery of Grand Apothecary Putress, and the subsequent rebellion in the Undercity led by Varimathras.
Why it's influential The Wrathgate wasn't just an unfortunate attack -- the fallout from that event still affects the game today. The treacherous actions of both Putress and Varimathras came as a supposed shock to Sylvanas, who barely escaped the Undercity with her life. Both Alliance and Horde lost influential heroes in the process -- and the loss of Bolvar Fordragon stoked Varian's irritation with the Horde into a rage that escalated faction tensions to an all-time high. Thrall and Varian's confrontation in the Undercity was likely the moment Thrall's doubt in his own competence as a leader began -- a doubt that eventually led to his ultimately stepping down as Warchief.
But there were far more subtle effects to this event, effects that still haven't been well and truly resolved. Because of this internal treachery, it became obvious to Garrosh Hellscream that Sylvanas had no real hold over her people -- and her worth as a Horde ally was brought into sharp question in his eyes. That worth has been tested time and time again ever since Wrath -- and the unease with Sylvanas and the Forsaken is still present in the Horde, even today.
Those tests of worth have driven Sylvanas into even more activity -- assaulting Gilneas, wiping out Southshore, taking over Andorhal -- all presumed attempts to prove the worth of her people in the Horde's eyes. But it remains unclear whether Sylvanas is actually trying to prove herself to the Horde, or simply trying to carve out an acceptable amount of space for her people in the event that alliance with the Horde really does end up coming to an end. In addition to this, Sylvanas' actions have only served to fuel the fire between Horde and Alliance, escalating the tensions between the two factions and provoking even more aggression, leading into all-out war.
Which leaves us with the question of whether Sylvanas is truly thinking of what's best for the Horde ... or has been quietly hoping and encouraging good old fashioned war to break out, in order to provide more corpses to bolster her people's numbers. We still don't know the answer to that.
Rather than an event, we have a person -- a person that was delivered into a space of utmost influence, a person who, given the choice, probably never would have taken the position to begin with. Medivh may be gone in game, but his actions in the short time he was around managed to effectively set the stage for the majority of what we're seeing in Warcraft today.
Why he's influential Medivh was the man responsible for the First War -- but he didn't ask for it. The son of Aegwynn, Medivh was born unknowingly carrying the dark influence of Sargeras inside of him. It wasn't until he fully came into his Guardian powers in his teens that Sargeras was unleashed. Once he was capable of action, the leader of the Burning Legion was free to use Medivh as his own personal puppet, orchestrating the creation of the Dark Portal and the beginning of the First War. Medivh was beheaded during the First War, which one would think would end any and all influence he had on Azeroth's history -- but you'd be wrong.
During the Third War, Medivh reappeared again, this time without the dark influence of Sargeras. In an attempt to atone for the sins committed by Sargeras, Medivh deftly orchestrated the relocation of the new Horde and Alliance forces to Kalimdor. Once there, he managed to convince human, orc, and night elf forces to work together and put an end to Archimonde on the peaks of Hyjal. And when Archimonde was at last destroyed, Medivh supposedly faded into history, taking his place among the legends of the past.
This might seem like a nice story -- sorcerer goes bad, sorcerer dies, comes back, makes up for his past sins -- but it's far more than that. Medivh set up that tentative alliance between the new Horde and the Alliance. He encouraged the ties that ultimately led to the kaldorei joining the Alliance in earnest. He fostered a sense of diplomatic peace that Thrall and Jaina Proudmoore desperately tried to keep on even while the world around them frothed in factional warfare. On top of that, he was directly responsible for the First War that brought about the need for diplomacy in the first place.
5. Siege of Orgrimmar
When, exactly, do the bonds of an alliance reach the breaking point? We found that out this expansion, when the iron-fisted rule of Warchief Garrosh Hellscream managed to splinter the Horde, rather than bring it together into the war machine he'd hoped for. In just a few short years, Hellscream turned the Horde from motley band of outcasts to former allies openly fighting with each other in rebellion.
Why it's influential Hellscream didn't sit on the Warchief's throne for long, from a timeline standpoint, but his reign managed to shake up the status quo in a major way. Prior to Garrosh's arrival as Warchief, the Horde was sitting in a fairly stale place from a story standpoint -- not quite allies of the Alliance, not quite enemies, with a Warchief that wanted nothing more than to bring the two factions together in peaceful coexistence. It's a lovely thought, an admirable ambition, but does little to push the story forward in any kind of meaningful way.
Enter Garrosh Hellscream. Maybe it was due to his isolated upbringing in Outland, but Garrosh's idea of what the Horde should be definitely didn't line up with Thrall's idea -- and perhaps Thrall should have seen that coming in the first place. He didn't, Garrosh stepped in to embrace the Horde -- his vision of the Horde. A Horde with few trusted allies. The goblins were fine, because Hellscream knew they were loyal to whoever was the more profitable prospect. But by and large, Hellscream's perfect Horde was a Horde of orcs, nothing more -- other races were merely allies of convenience, there to be utilized only when they held some kind of value, otherwise tossed aside.
With this shift, the Horde has suddenly entered a period in which they are not a dominant force. How can they be, when they aren't even certain what they are anymore? Thrall may have united these races under one banner, but Thrall's not around anymore -- and Vol'jin has some nice ideas, but it's going to take time to see if they'll be effective. In that time frame, the Horde is a sitting duck, and Horde leaders are fully aware of that. One wrong move, and the Alliance will close in -- and unlike the Horde, the Alliance is fully united, working as one unit, and won't hesitate to go on the offensive if the Horde dares step out of line.
It's an interesting place for the Horde to be -- because they are once again outcasts. Real outcasts, fighting to establish their place in the world, and their purpose. In a way, the events of the Siege of Orgrimmar have re-established the division between factions and placed both Horde and Alliance neatly back where they were at the beginning of WoW back in 2004 -- the Alliance stands proud, poised to strike as necessary, and the Horde is once again trying to scratch out a foothold and figure out where, exactly, on Azeroth they belong.
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.