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Know Your Lore: The Horde vs. the Horde

Matthew Rossi

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.

Spoilers for patch 5.3 to follow

Back in the day, and be not mistaken the day was well before The Burning Crusade was even a glimmer in our eyes, I rolled a tauren warrior. His name was Vorn. Vorn went on many quests, because questing was my favorite way to level. Vorn went all over the world, exploring the Horde and the lands under its control, and he found a lot he liked about his allies. He could respect the orcish ferocity and skill in war, the trollish craft, guile, and restrained sense of humor (the Darkspears are sardonic in their way), and even the forsaken seemed to have a wide disparity of personality types. I met forsaken in Thunder Bluff who sent me across the world to return a locket to a tombstone, and that quest moved me to explore the forests of Silverpine, and in time to go to Undercity itself. To be sure, I found there to be aspects of their unlives that disturbed me, but they displayed a strength in adversity that I found admirable.

And then they ruined it.

This wasn't my Horde

I was given a quest by a forsaken apothecary., There was a sick shu'halo woman, and would I go to Azshara and see if I could find the color pools that had poisoned her. She was one of my people, after all - how could I say no? And so I went, and found the pools, and brought the samples back to the apothecary as asked. And he used them, and then, poisoned the tauren woman to death while laughing in my face. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I couldn't draw the seven feet of sword I had strapped to my back and chop him in half with it. I couldn't even take her body back home for ceremonial burial. I was helpless to respond to it. It was a powerful quest, but it was also a thoroughly unsatisfying one. I could neither stop the atrocity nor take any action to redress it. In a way, this is why I find the design of Mists of Pandaria and especially the incoming patch 5.3 story so fascinating, because in a very real way the Horde has finally gotten fed up with itself.

When I play Horde and discuss these issues with other Horde players, i see a variety of responses, some which seem valid to me and some which don't. One of the most invalid is the idea that "Al that stuff is in the past" or "That was the Old Horde" which I find invalid for many reasons.

The Old Horde never died

First, the past informs the present. Who you were tells you who you are now. Just as the orcs of the Horde can never forget the internment camps and their imprisonment, neither can they forget their time as Doomhammer's Horde, or the reign of Blackhand the Destroyer. They can't forget Grom's sacrifice to save them from the Blood Curse, nor can they forget Grom's choice (a choice, mind you) to drink from the Blood of Mannoroth in the first place. Yes, it can be argued they were tricked by Kil'jaeden, but the arch demon tricked them by freely offering them power that they willingly seized to make genocidal war on neighbors who had never offered them harm. Likewise, the forsaken were created by a hideous plague unleashed by those who willingly betrayed their own people to serve the Lich King, and that can never be forgotten, but neither can the fact that the forsaken have willingly done to others what has been done to them. In each case, each Horde race has been sinned against, but many of these concerns are self-made - the blood elves betrayal by Garithos and his racist treatment of them doesn't erase that they willingly turned their backs on their putative allies and earned a reputation as users and racists themselves. The Darkspear plight at the hands of the Sea Witch doesn't erase their years as one of the tribes in Stranglethorn committing cannibalism. No faction in the Horde comes to it with clean hands.

In fact, that could be argued to be the real strength of the Horde, that it is willing to accept peoples warts and all. Many have argued (successfully) that the only real difference between the Horde and the Alliance is that the Horde is up front about what it is doing. The Alliance had the upper hand with resources, after all - it didn't have to take what it wanted, it already had done so. Even before Deathwing's emergence created world-wide calamity and forced the factions to battle for even more scarce resources, the Horde was struggling to feed and house its people while the night elves hoarded lumber they weren't even going to use and fertile land for cultivation they had no interesting in growing food on. Human kingdoms can afford to let lands like Westfall, Darkshire and Redridge go unattended to and still feed themselves, while the tauren struggle to tame Mulgore and the orcs and trolls make do with the Barrens and Durotar. It was inevitable, you could argue, that war was going to erupt. Starving bellies know no morals.

I have to admit I've always found that combination - the willingness to be up front about the motivation for war and the acceptance of people with checkered pasts, even entire races like the goblins and blood elves and forsaken - to be one of the Horde's greatest storytelling strengths. The Horde is flawed. The Horde is made up of people who've come back from the brink - addiction to demon blood, to arcane magic, being totally enslaved by the Lich King, the depradations of the Sea Witch, pushed to the edge of extinction by the centaur - and they've endured to come out the other side stronger and willing to push back against a world that doesn't want them. Vol'jin's statements in 5.3 that the Horde is a family united to defend against a hostile world really struck home with me. The Horde can definitely be seen as underdogs under assault by a hostile world.

This world is hostile because you slapped it

The problem is, the Horde can also be seen as belligerent antagonists who not only invite that hostility, they foment it.

The Horde as it now exists grew out of the kernels of the Old Horde left at the time that Thrall, the former slave gladiator, escaped from his human captors. It's thanks to orcs like Grom Hellscream and Orgrim Doomhammer that Thrall ever became Warchief, and he honored them in his heart, going so far as to name the city he founded after Doomhammer. The problem here is, Doomhammer's Horde wasn't some group of underdogs being persecuted by a hostile world, it was a force of demon blood drunk alien invaders who stormed onto a planet with the goal of murdering its inhabitants and stealing all that they had because it had already defiled its own planet to the point where it couldn't support them any more. And by his choice, Thrall ensured that legacy would remain part of the Horde today. Garrosh Hellscream's actions as Warchief are a direct return to that kind of Horde leadership. The reason the Blackrock orcs are so willing to be part of Hellscream's power structure is because they never stopped being the Old Horde. Everything done by the Horde under Hellscream - the conquest of Azshara and invasion of Ashenvale and Stonetalon, the support of the forsaken invasion of Gilneas, the bombing of Theramore - these are all actions that could easily have come out of the Orgrim Doomhammer playbook.

Any student of Horde history would recognize them. If we name our capital city Orgrimmar, how can we decry Hellscream for using the tactics of his predecessors? The difficulty here is in the dichotomy between Vol'jin's family conception of the Horde vs. Hellscream's concept of the Horde as a collection of military force under orc leadership. Doomhammer's Horde had ogres and goblins and troll allies, true, but that didn't make it a multi-racial family in the way that Vol'jin sees it - Doomhammer and Zul'jin were allies, not friends, and either would (and did) dispense with that allegiance when it suited him to do so. The ogres were cannon fodder (with the exception of powerful ogre mages like Cho'gall) and not to be trusted or respected. If Hellscream has a difficult time adjusting to the modern Horde, it's not surprising, since the Horde preserved so many trappings of its past. As Mists of Pandaria has unfolded we've watched the new Horde, the Horde of Thrall, the Horde Vol'jin sees as an expansive and forgiving family to provide shelter for its members fly apart from the stress of Hellscream's attempt to resurrect the old Horde of Doomhammer and Blackhand which is the only real Horde Garrosh has ever known.

The Horde has preserved these elements of the old Horde throughout its history. Yes, one can point a finger at the forsaken and their cruel experiments on imprisoned humans and gnomes, their poisoning of the people around Hillsbarad, their naked expansionism and biological warfare - but what did anyone expect of them? The forsaken were born in plague and death, it is the only means open to them to increase their numbers. A true parasite, the forsaken can only reproduce by killing other hosts. Hellscream's Horde, like the Horde of Doomhammer, ignores this unnatural process because it needs troops to spread its domination over the world. Why shouldn't it? Doomhammer allowed Gul'dan to live after he had murdered Durotan and Draka, Thrall's parents because he needed Gul'dan's undead death knights to battle the Alliance. Hellscream ordered Sylvanas not to use the plague, but after she did, he didn't protest or order other Horde forces out of Silverpine because he knew that he needed her forces to serve as cannon fodder for his own plans.

The blood oath of the Horde that recuits swear today? Old Horde. Lok'tar Ogar, victory or death? The Old Horde. The Old Horde never died. The Old Horde lives today in Orgrimmar, named after the Old Horde's greatest leader, lead by the son of Hellscream.

Are we family or are we servants?

This conflict of paradigm - this battle for the very identity of the Horde - is so compelling that yes, it has eclipsed the Alliance this expansion. How could it not? The Alliance has no such conflict. The Alliance isn't standing there, locked in battle with itself, to determine which version of the Horde will survive and move forward into the future. The Horde is perched at the very edge of a precipice and it could totter in either direction, and that very battle for the soul of several factions of people is gripping. It's interesting. It's not a question of what the Alliance is missing. It's a question of what the Horde has.

When the United States of America was formed, one of the greatest controversies was that it could not find the political will to deal with the issue of slavery. As a result, over time, this issue became ever more divisive and ultimately only open war could answer the question: which nation will we be? In our fiction, rarely do we get a chance to see a people deal with such a division, but at last the Horde will. Which Horde are we, Doomhammer's or Thrall's? Are we orcs and their subordinates or a family? Are we underdogs united against a hostile world or conquerors who tread the world under gore soaked boots? Do we fight for blood and plunder, or to defend our own? Patch 5.3 is a Horde story. It can not be mistaken for anything else. In the end, only one vision of the Horde can prevail. The Horde simply has more to lose... and more to gain... than the Alliance does.

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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