Know Your Lore: NPC evolution from TBC to Wrath of the Lich King

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|09.25.11

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Know Your Lore: NPC evolution from TBC to Wrath of the Lich King
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.

Last week, we talked about the evolution of NPCs from classic WoW to The Burning Crusade. It was a quiet beginning to the evolution, starting with just a few NPCs in classic WoW that spawned world-altering events like The Great Masquerade. But in The Burning Crusade, we not only saw major movements from major-name players like Thrall, who actually got off the throne in Orgrimmar and traveled all the way to Nagrand to visit his long-lost relatives, but also minor players. These seemingly minor players gradually won the hearts of the playerbase through storylines that progressed with each patch in the expansion.

Characters like Cro, Jadaar, Asric and even the shifty Griftah weren't just NPCs. They were subtle reminders that those characters we barely interacted with had lives of their own, and it breathed a new energy into the game. Suddenly, the world wasn't just about you and whatever quest you happened to be on. It was also about Griftah's "unfair" persecution, or Cro's struggle to get that blasted fruit cart out of the way -- mundane, ordinary, everyday events, the sort of events we witness on a daily basis in the real world. Bringing the mundane to the game made Outland feel just a little more real, too.

The struggles of The Burning Crusade culminated in a stand against the Burning Legion, which spurred the Aldor and Scryer into asking Horde and Alliance to band together under the banner of the Shattered Sun. This introduced another subtle brand of NPC interaction to the game -- reputation recognition. As players completed quests with the Shattered Sun Offensive and improved their reputation, NPCs began to react accordingly, thanking players for their efforts.

The Isle of Quel'Danas wasn't just an interactive, innovatively phased quest hub -- it was also the first point where NPCs actually began to recognize and acknowledge player effort. It was subtle and understated, but it worked. After all, when an NPC stops what he is doing to suddenly praise your existence, you have to admit, it's a pretty nice feeling. In fact, The Burning Crusade ended on a pretty high, positive note for all concerned. Alliance and Horde had worked together, evil had been vanquished from the world, and the future looked bright.

Wrath of the Lich King

This was, of course, the most opportune moment for all hell to break loose, and it certainly did. On Oct. 23, 2008, players who happened to make their way to Booty Bay found Conspicuous Crates sitting along the path. Players who happened to touch a crate would become infected. If the infection wasn't cured in a timely fashion, the player turned into a zombie. This spurred the launch event for Wrath of the Lich King -- and Wrath turned out to do far more for NPC evolution than anyone could have surmised.

What was a happy and light note to end an expansion on quickly turned to chaos as more and more players were infected. After five days of zombie infection, a cure was found, but it didn't stop what ultimately had to take place -- a full-scale attack on Stormwind and Orgrimmar by the minions of the Lich King and an invitation to come to the Lich King's frozen home. With that, Wrath was launched, and players said goodbye to Shattrath and its eccentric host of NPCs and continued on, to Northrend.

What players didn't expect was that the eccentric host of NPCs would be called into service too.

Reputation recognition

Players liked the recognition they received for their heroic deeds on the Isle of Quel'Danas, and they saw that recognition continue in Wrath. NPCs no longer stood silently or chased each other in circles; they recognized the players that walked the halls and streets of wherever they happened to be. From the moment a player stepped into Northrend, it was clear that that player was a hero, that his deeds in The Burning Crusade were much appreciated and that the various NPCs of the world were happy he had arrived.

It was a warm welcome to a bitter, death-filled landscape. Promptly after receiving the warm welcome, players of either faction were immediately thrown into the fray. Whether it was fighting in the Borean Tundra or conflicts in the Howling Fjord, both starter zones had unique quests and storylines designed to draw the player in -- and NPC interaction continued to be a driving force that pulled the player through the story.

In addition to simply talking to NPCs for quests, players also experienced whispers from NPCs, asking them to come over to discuss things and take a quest in the process. This unique method of interaction had two immediate effects. First, it made certain that players wouldn't inadvertently miss a quest that had opened up for them to complete. Second, it made players feel as though they were a rooted part of the world. They didn't have to walk up and talk to an NPC -- the NPC simply realized that they were there and responded accordingly.

The continuing trials and tribulations of Budd Nedreck

Players eagerly leveled through the various starting zones and noticed a familiar face in Grizzly Hills. Budd Nedreck, the obnoxious treasure hunter from Zul'Aman, had apparently made the trek to Northrend too. But his fate at Zul'Aman had an unfortunate side effect: Budd had pretty much lost his mind and thought he was a Troll. His band of cohorts, not wanting to leave Budd behind, used him as Troll bait by using his fragile state of mind to sic him on the local Trolls of the area. Budd thought he was playing "Troll tag," but mostly what he was doing was knocking Trolls silly with a frying pan, all the while happily shouting "tag!" to any he happened to hit.

Budd and his band weren't the only familiar faces wandering Grizzly Hills, however. Harrison Jones was an NPC also found in Zul'Aman. He stood in the entrance of the zone, and when players spoke to him, he'd run to the gong that opened the inner gates of the Troll fortress. Unfortunately, a gang of angry Trolls immediately jumped him once the gates were open, and it was assumed he died in the encounter.

This wasn't the case, however -- who can kill Harrison Jones? He simply recuperated at his own speed somewhere, and when the call to move to Northrend was put out, he followed with everyone else. Harrison's efforts were concentrated in the Troll ruins of Drakil'jin, where he was imprisoned in a cage. He gave an escort quest, which was typical in classic WoW, but the way in which he offered it was anything but typical. Rather than the player escorting him to safety, he offered to escort the player to safety. The switch in dynamic was an entertaining break from the standard escort quest, and once freed, Harrison ran off, never to be seen again.

... well, not quite.

The return of Bolvar Fordragon

Not to be outdone by minor NPCs, Alliance character Bolvar Fordragon, who was integral to the Great Masquerade, also made an appearance in Wrath -- one that led to a sacrifice that would not be soon forgotten. However, there wasn't an Alliance player from classic WoW that forgot Bolvar or his epic battle against a small fleet of dragonkin in the Stormwind Keep throne room. Unexpected, however, was the fact that Bolvar didn't forget them, either.

Players who had completed The Great Masquerade before it was removed from the game with Wrath got a surprise when they ran into Bolvar. He actually told players that it was nice to see them still alive and thanked them for their help in Stormwind so long ago. For those who had been playing for years, this was a unique moment of joy -- the joy of being recognized by a hero. The thought of an NPC hero like Bolvar having a memory that stretched back that many years was a bittersweet reminder of how far NPCs in the game had come.


The city of Dalaran was another neutral capital like Shattrath but considerably smaller in size. Despite the size difference, the city was filled to the brim with NPCs that lived out their day-to-day lives to the delight of the playerbase. Dalaran's NPCs were all named; there were no random "Dalaran resident" NPCs to be found. In fact, Dalaran took the opposite tack with NPC names. In Dalaran, every NPC had a name that suggested a distinct personality behind it; it was the visitors to Dalaran who didn't rate a name.

Also unique to Dalaran were an entirely new type of NPC. These NPCs were mimics of players. They had full names and titles, and they wore various armor sets and tiers from patches past. They had lives of their own; they would interact with Dalaran residents, appearing to ask for directions. They'd wander into a local shop, presumably looking for the latest and greatest upgrade. They would stroll into the bank to check what they had on hand, and they'd venture into the local inn to grab themselves a drink.

But these NPCs weren't the only draw to the city. In Dalaran, the city was constantly buzzing with life, and it needed no players present to seem like it was truly alive. However, having players certainly helped things along -- particularly at dusk.

Windle Sparkshine Windle Sparkshine is an NPC who stands just outside the Alliance inn, A Hero's Welcome. As the day goes by, Windle merely stands, watching the world go by. But when it gets dark, everything changes. At 9 p.m. server time, Windle suddenly moves from his claimed spot by the inn and begins his trek around the city. His mission? To turn on the lights, of course. As he walks past the various lamps on the street, Windle zaps them with a wand and turns them on -- very helpful to players wandering around the city at night.

Once he's done making his circle, Windle returns to his favorite spot outside the inn. But wait -- he hasn't turned on every light in Dalaran, just most of them. So what are players supposed to do, stumble around in the dark? Nah, Windle's got you covered. After returning to his starting point, Windle sells his lighter to anyone who asks, Alliance or Horde. This actually puts city interactivity in the hands of the player, who can then run around and turn on any lights that Windle may have missed. Is there a point to doing it? Nope, none whatsoever -- but it encourages players to interact and play with the city, much like they'd play with an NPC.

Minigob Manabonk, the Mischievous Mage Perhaps you've seen this odd character strolling around Dalaran with no particular destination in mind. Or perhaps you've been a victim. As his name implies, Minigob has a mischievous streak, and he'll take it out on anyone who happens to be around at the time. Minigob will randomly appear at a few different locations in Dalaran, looking for a suitable target to vent his mischievousness on. Once he's decided on a target, the unlucky player will promptly find himself Polymorphed out of nowhere.

Minigob has nothing to say to players; he'll simply break out laughing and teleport away. But he isn't all bad -- players who find themselves Polymorphed only need to wait for a little while, and they'll find a note from him in the mail along with a wand called The Mischief Maker, which allows players to Polymorph another player whether they're a mage or not. Sadly, the item only works in Dalaran -- but it was a nice surprise for those who had been on the receiving end of a slightly less pleasant surprise.

Sheddle Glossgleam the Cobbler Dalaran was full of shops -- some with toys, some with useful items, and one with an NPC who would go out of his way to give players an unexpected treat. On the second floor of The Threads of Fate, players can find Sheddle Glossgleam, a cobbler who sells boots to those in need of footwear. But that's not Sheddle's only task in Dalaran.

Players who take a seat in the chair on the landing will immediately get Sheddle's attention, and he'll wander over to shine their shoes. This gives players a buff called Shiny Shoes that makes their feet sparkle, and it lasts for a full hour or until you get your feet dirty. What makes your feet dirty? Combat, for one thing -- or falling off a tall building and scuffing your shoes. It's all right, though; if you lose your shine, Sheddle is more than happy to give you another one.

These are just a few of the NPCs in Dalaran. I'd recommend that players give the city another visit, if they haven't been back since Cataclysm -- there are far more NPCs with more adventures to share, even when there are no players around. But Dalaran wasn't just a creatively interactive experience; it also hailed the return of another pair of players that hadn't been seen since Shattrath.

The continued adventures of Jadaar and Asric

Players who ventured into the sewers of Dalaran to Cantrips and Crows soon discovered that Peacekeeper Jadaar and Investigator Asric's journey did not end with the final days of The Burning Crusade. In fact, the two had apparently been fired for the whole Griftah debacle and, with no other options readily in mind, made their way to Northrend -- where they continued to bicker relentlessly about their misfortune.

Jadaar says: Look at us, Elf. Look at us. Unemployed, destitute, and drinking swill from an establishment in the sewers named after a carrion bird!
Asric says: Disgusting, I agree.
Jadaar says: And above it all, I somehow find myself saddled with you, the very man who caused me to lose my job in the first place!
Asric says: That was your doing, not mine, windbag. I found myself unemployed due to my unfortunate association with your failure.
Jadaar says: My failure?! MY FAILURE?! It was your incompetence that landed us here, you insufferable prat!
Asric rolls his eyes.

Those that had enjoyed their escapades in The Burning Crusade met the return of Jadaar and Asric with delight. And as time went on in Wrath, it was clear that no matter how the two bickered, they had strangely become friends. And though they originated in Dalaran, they were on a mission just like the rest of the players in Wrath. When patch 3.2.0 launched and introduced the Trial of the Crusader, Jadaar and Asric made the move to Icecrown, right along with the rest of the player population.

Jadaar says: If we do succeed here, you realize what comes next.
Asric says: The Citadel, correct? Facing the Lich King's most powerful minions.
Jadaar says: The two of us against the vast undead sea.
Asric says: Indeed.
Jadaar says: ...perhaps we should seek our fortune somewhere less likely to be fatal.
Asric says: Discretion is the better part of valor, after all.

It was, unfortunately, the last we'd see of Jadaar and Asric -- the two have not made an appearance in Cataclysm. Still, it was nice to think that the two had settled their differences and made peace with each other, though they tried their best to hide it with bickering and insults.

Though Wrath was in and of itself a fairly dark expansion, featuring countless fights against the undead and a return to the warring ways of the Alliance and Horde, it also hailed a turning point in NPC interaction. Through the clever use of NPC interactivity, Wrath managed to bring to Northrend what hadn't been brought to Outland -- the idea that a player is simply one character in an expanding canvas of story, and that the NPCs are characters in their own right, as full of life and with as much purpose as the players themselves.

Next week, we'll look at the next leap in NPC evolution, a jump from playful interactivity to full-on immersion brought about in Cataclysm.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
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.
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