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Spiritual Guidance: Of lore, the forsaken and shadow priests


In addition to being the author of Wednesday's shadow priest edition of Spiritual Guidance, Fox Van Allen is an accomplished songwriter. After Dawn Moore refused to use Power Infusion on him during a lengthy raid encounter, Fox wrote the song In the Air Tonight. He mailed Dawn front-row tickets to his first concert performance, and as he reached the chorus, a bright spotlight engulfed Dawn. She cried in shame. It was awesome.

Regular readers of Spiritual Guidance know that over the last month, I've been putting together a leveling guide for aspiring shadow priests. In the last installment, I made a seemingly innocuous comment about shadow priests' being able to take the talent Shadowform at level 40:
We're able to make that fateful decision to forsake the light in exchange for causing more destruction more effectively.
I was literally describing the game mechanics; staying in Shadowform requires you to give up the spells in the holy tab. One of our commenters, aramis, used the line as a launching pad for an interesting comment that addressed a very basic question for us shadow priests: What the heck are shadow priests supposed to be, anyway?

I won't reprint the entire comment here, but it's definitely worth reading. The gist of it can be understood by reading just the first few sentences:
Mr. V-A, we don't FORSAKE the light as Shadow Priests. On the contrary, we embrace it ... We accept the light as the balance of ourselves. Life is about balance: pleasure and pain; good and evil; life and death; light and shadow.
Is aramis right? Follow me past the break as we explore a little bit of shadow priest lore, dip our toes into the cold waters of shadow priest roleplay, and try to solve an identity crisis that most of you probably don't even realize exists.

Religion in World of Warcraft

Wrath of the Lich King
brought a standardization to the priest profession that, for better or worse, erased a lot of lore-rich distinction between the races. If you're a night elf priest, for example, you're likely going to be deriving your power from Elune, the moon goddess. Night elves used to have access to a special priest-only racial called Starshards, an Arcane-based ability that served as a special connection between your night elf character and Elune. Forsaken priests had Devouring Plague (though in a much different form than the one we have today). The racial spells the game developers liked stuck around and were given to all priests; the ones they didn't like got junked. Game mechanics triumphed over lore.

Dealing with topics of religion is certainly nothing new for the video game industry, but World of Warcraft has gotten increasingly skittish about it as the game has increased in subscribers worldwide. A lot of the religious aspects of the game are now glossed over, and some have even been retconned. Those seeking a lot of specific answers about the priesthood in Warcraft may be disappointed in what they find.

Still, some lore does exist. Perhaps the most familiar means of spirituality in World of Warcraft is the Holy Light. Embraced primarily by humans and draenei, the Holy Light is more a way of life than a deity (retcon!). Light is about love and beauty -- akin to a religion based around the amazing feeling cats get when they fall asleep in a sunbeam. Though one can eventually trace the light back to a supreme being, the magic behind the spells comes from the belief of the caster.

Built around the three virtues of respect, tenacity and compassion, the Light is good and holy. The domain of the righteous.

But we, dear friends -- we are the shadow. We are the antithesis of the light.

The forsaken and the Cult of the Shadow

Though the majesty of the shadow tree is available to all players, it is primarily the domain of the forsaken. In most respects, it was born from the forsaken.

As a mental exercise, consider this: You are a great priest of the Holy Light, fighting to defend Lordaeron. After decades of dedicating yourself to respect and compassion -- to the Light -- you find yourself falling to the scourge. Even after the bonds of the Lich King have gone, as a forsaken, the light is still physically painful to you. Hostile.

You are forced to accept a new reality: Your new form was born of a darkness from which you cannot escape. Through no fault of your own, you've been abandoned by the Holy Light. All that is left for you is the shadow. The Cult of Forgotten Shadows -- the premiere forsaken religion -- is based on that principle.

Deathknell, the forsaken starting area, is a stronghold of the Cult of the Forgotten Shadow. While there's no law that says undead priests have to be followers of the shadow, we should at least acknowledge the societal expectation. Just as you would expect a person born of Mecca to be a Muslim, so too should you expect a forsaken born of Deathknell to be a part of the Cult of the Forsaken Shadow.

Deathknell's priest trainer, Dark Cleric Duesten, is a member of the cult. If you have any question about the adversarial nature of the shadow and the light, let him help put that to rest:

Ah, so between fire, plague, rioting, and much worse, one more of the "faithful" comes to my door. Well, let me bid you welcome, priest. And allow me a moment to explain a thing or two before you decide it's time for you to seek whatever drives you forward: the Holy Light no longer concerns you, the spirits of your forefathers are fairy tales, and creatures from the Nether don't want you. Do you understand me so far?
Any priest, forsaken or not, can eventually become a shadow priest. In terms of named NPCs, however, virtually every shadow priest in the game is a forsaken. Further, virtually every shadow priest has an adversarial relationship with the Holy Light. If you need more proof, just head to your local library for a copy of Shadow Priest Allister's book, Holy Bologna: What the Light Won't Tell You.

So, what's the main difference between the religion of the Light and the religion of the shadow? Primarily, two things:
  • As part of the three principles, the Light values respect. The shadow values power.
  • Followers of the Light absorb greatness from the universe and reflect that onto others. Followers of the shadow believe that power comes from within themselves. They use this power to shape the universe.
Notable though, is the fact that followers of the shadow never actually forget the Light. Dark Cleric Beryl, another forsaken follower of The Cult, puts it fairly well:
There are many lessons that the Forsaken have learned through experience -- things that some races can only begin to fathom. And although our path lies in darkness, you will find that a great many things rely on both the light and the dark. Your lessons shall teach you to use both... and with discretion. But heed my words: never forget we were forged in corruption and left to rot like so much carrion. The Darkness is our home.

Ascending into the shadows

Of course, as they are no longer "Mindless Ones," the forsaken do have a choice. Some merely turn their back on the light, just as they perceive the light has turned its back on them. The Cult of the Forgotten Shadow goes one step further -- instead of merely rejecting the light, they develop a loathing for it. Incredible power can be found by embracing the shadow, the essence of darkness that caused their new form.

To follow the shadow is to embrace a path into darkness. According to the Horde Player's Guide, that to which we aspire as shadow priests -- our ultimate reward -- is ascension:
The ultimate goal of practitioners of the Forgotten Shadow is to ascend. Ascension occurs once a person achieves complete control over herself and the power to transcend death. A Forsaken who ascends becomes invulnerable, invincible and eternal. In essence, she becomes a god.
Through embracing the concept of "Divine Humanism" -- that is, each individual has the power of a god, capable of shaping the world around him. Ascension is the apex of that power, the end point of the path from physical being to a god formed of naught but eternal shadow. For the player, this is more than just a theoretical concept; through training and investment in the shadow tree, ascension is a possibility. At least, that is, for a short time. After all, the same Horde Player's Guide explains ascension:
At the culmination of this path, the ascendant's body fades, and they become a living shadow. While the Forsaken loses the strength of an undead body, they gain the perfection of undeath, an incorporeal and inhumanly powerful free soul. This form resembles their old form, but without facial features. Hair and body shape remains, formed of the stuff of shadows, and eyes remain as burning balls of unholy light. The Forsaken still has a body, however, and is not truly incorporeal as a ghost is. The ascendant's shadow body bears some substance, almost like an ephemeral, inky fluid, but it is so wispy that it almost doesn't exist.
Ascendancy is ascribed to the domain of the forsaken. Still, it's hard to miss the clear references to shadow priest mechanics that are accessible to a priest of any race. A shadow priest experiences a major event in his ascendancy at level 40, when he enters Shadowform for the first time. Twenty levels later, ascendancy can be had with Dispersion -- if only for six seconds at a time. There is no question that the beliefs of the forsaken and the powers enjoyed by non-forsaken shadow priests are closely tied.

Shadow priests outside the forsaken

While classes come with race limitations, specs do not. If they did, I suspect the shadow priest tree would be limited to the forsaken. As it stands now, however, the forsaken need not follow the shadow to the exclusion of the light. Similarly, a human or draenei need not follow the Light to the exclusion of the shadow.

That doesn't mean that following the light or shadow doesn't have it's consequences, however. The concept is illustrated beautifully by a recent comment made by blue poster Bornakk during one of Blizzard's recent "Ask a CDev" event:

Bornakk - Re: Ask CDev #1 Answers - Round 1

Can you please explain how "light" works? The lore states that undead are physically incapable of using the light, much like the Broken, but then we have Forsaken players casting healing spells, and Sir Zeliek in Naxxramas using pseudo-paladin abilities.

Without spoiling too much, we can tell you that wielding the Light is a matter of having willpower or faith in one's own ability to do it. That's why there are evil paladins (for example, the Scarlet Crusade and Arthas before he took up Frostmourne). For the undead (and Forsaken), this requires such a great deal of willpower that it is exceedingly rare, especially since it is self-destructive. When undead channel the Light, it feels (to them) as if their entire bodies are being consumed in righteous fire. Forsaken healed by the Light (whether the healer is Forsaken or not) are effectively cauterized by the effect: sure, the wound is healed, but the healing effect is cripplingly painful. Thus, Forsaken priests are beings of unwavering willpower; Forsaken (and death knight) tanks suffer nobly when they have priest and paladin healers in the group; and Sir Zeliek REALLY hates himself.

If the Light is wieldable (yet harmful) to the forsaken, then the shadow is just as wieldable (though probably just as harmful!) to the rest of us. Whether you're a troll witch doctor who consorts with spirits, a dwarven worshipper of the Holy Light, or a night elf priestess of Elune, it is your internal willpower and faith that allows you to conjure the shadow. We use our faith to mold our power. A follower of the Holy Light can utilize and embrace the shadow as a means of furthering their belief in the Light. Like in real life, what you believe and how you make these beliefs manifest in the world is entirely up to you.

But still, it is important to keep in mind the clear, inescapable link between the Cult of the Forgotten Shadow and the powers given to shadow priests. World of Warcraft doesn't say an awful lot when it comes to religion, but the game does put forward the general principle that all religions in the game are valid, based in fact and real. The Holy Light exists. So does Elune.

And, of course, so does the shadow. And we are its gods. Amen.

Are you more interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? Think it's neat to dissolve into a ball of pure shadow every few minutes? Hunger for the tangy flesh of gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered (occasionally through the use of puppets).

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