Know Your Lore: Quests, story, and you in Warlords of Draenor

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.

A new expansion is certainly about delivering new content, but it's also a vehicle for story progression -- and the end of Mists of Pandaria left behind plenty of questions waiting to be answered. Unfortunately, any questions having to do with Pandaria or Azeroth will have to wait, as we have other, more pressing matters to think about. In Warlords of Draenor, the Iron Horde looms just over the horizon, a threat eerily reminiscent of the old Horde that began the First War so many years ago. Except the Iron Horde is stronger, more organized, and bolstered by the knowledge of just what's on the other side of that Dark Portal they are constructing, thanks to Garrosh Hellscream.

That story, the story of Warlords of Draenor, is taking us in a different kind of direction, the likes of which we haven't seen before. While Mists may have pushed the button on innovation as far as max-level content was concerned, its seemingly never-ending cycle of daily quests upon daily quests quickly grew from entertainment to frustration as players quickly grew tired of the cycle of daily gated content and rewards. Warlords has none of that -- but it does have a whole host of new ways to make the story feel important, without overpowering how the player approaches the game.

Please note: The following Know Your Lore contains small spoilers for Warlords of Draenor.

Center of attention

Mists of Pandaria was very much centered on the cycle of war between the Alliance and Horde, and the disastrous consequences that warfare could bring. It brought the continent of Pandaria to its knees, releasing the Sha, sending the Mantid and Yaungol into overdrive, unlocked the secrets of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, and then utterly destroyed those secrets due to one orc's overwhelming greed. And through it all, players were helplessly dragged along, compelled to follow orders and take care of business for a faction they may or may not have been entirely certain they really wanted to be following in the first place.

One would think, with its orc-centric box art and promotional material, that Warlords of Draenor is more of the same. But the focus of Warlords isn't on the Alliance or the Horde. It's on you, the player. The moment you step through that portal you are addressed as though you are the most important person on Azeroth, and in a way, you are -- your strength in light of the deeds you have carried out over the past ten years is highlighted by the way that NPCs refer to you and what you can do. Even Thrall, the World Shaman who shot Deathwing from the sky with the Dragon Soul, thinks you are more important than he is, and says as much.

And to those that you save, you are even more important. You are the reason they aren't dead. You are the mysterious savior from another world, one who burst through the mysterious portal the Iron Horde constructed and ushered an entire fleet of survivors safely home to their friends and loved ones. To those that choose to follow you, you are an example of heroic deeds done right, a shining beacon of leadership, a role model, a commander in every sense of the word. It's a far cry from Taran Zhu's abrupt, angry arrival in Pandaria, and his sharp words about the foolishness of your actions.

Shelter in the storm

And that's where your garrison steps into the picture. Some players have been reluctant about this feature, but it's so seamlessly woven into the quest experience, there is never a point in which it feels like a burden or something you "have" to do. It is your home base on Draenor -- the place where you, the Commander, have set up shelter and a base of operations. Not for the Alliance or the Horde, for you, and for those like you who were stranded after the events of the opening experience. In the mad, chaotic whirlwind of Draenor, it is the one place where people feel like there is some semblance of both safety and structure.

And when I say "people," I'm not talking about you, the player -- I'm talking about those that choose to follow you. As you progress through the usual dose of quest and zone leveling, NPCs are paying attention to you. They're taking notice. And if they are impressed enough with your deeds -- which many of them are -- they'll offer their services and ask to follow you. You don't have to do anything special to gain these followers, you simply continue being your badass self and those around you begin to take notice.

This is where it gets interesting, because this garrison experience begins a meta-game in which you, the player, essentially take the place of quest giver for these NPCs. It's a far cry from Welcome to the Machine, however, because these NPCs are all determined to follow orders. You send them on missions -- quests of their own to complete -- and they bring back rewards and give those rewards to you. There is some strategy involved, because you want to pick the best soldiers for the missions you have, those that are best suited to counter the threats they'll inevitably face while they are away -- but that's as much involvement as you have in their personal journeys. They take the orders from you, then set off to complete them as ordered, and you're free to continue doing what you're doing on Draenor.

Orcs, orcs, and more orcs

One of the common pieces of critique I've heard about this expansion is that it's yet another orc-centric expansion solely focused on the Warlords of the Iron Horde. It certainly seems that way when you begin the story process, but as you move from zone to zone, it quickly becomes apparent that while the Iron Horde may pose a threat, there are other issues on Draenor worth addressing. Yes, you spend a good chunk of time invested in stopping the Iron Horde's advance across Draenor, but while you are doing so, you discover that the Iron Horde is only one of a multitude of problems that need to be solved.

What's interesting about the leveling process is that we seem to spend our levels, 90-100, dealing with the majority of what the Iron Horde has to throw at us. We do not face the seat of the Iron Horde directly -- that's the Tanaan Jungle that will be introduced in a later patch. But we begin our journey in Tanaan, quickly discover we're going to have to amass a substantial army a-la Valley of the Four Winds in order to combat the threat, and make a hasty retreat to begin doing just that. 90-100 is spent traveling the world, stomping out the fires that the Iron Horde has started, gaining followers, building up the ranks and preparing for that confrontation. You'll note I didn't say that final confrontation.

That's because the Iron Horde isn't the biggest problem we're going to face on Draenor. At level 100, more content and story begins to open up in every zone. Gone are the days of multiple rounds of endless dailies, zones with linear progression. You don't finish a zone while you're leveling -- it's there, waiting, with more content to be explored once you hit level 100 in the form of weekly story quests. This sort of back and forth quest zone design is reminiscent of vanilla WoW, but designed much more elegantly than the original game. Instead of being sent all over the world in one quest chain, your work is simply not done on Draenor, even when you hit max level -- there's still more to do out there, just waiting to be discovered and conquered by you. The Commander. The person that even the heroes of this expansion look up to.

Story threads

It's a refreshing, welcome change from an expansion in which the worst side effects of our actions were highlighted. In Mists of Pandaria, what we did in the names of our respective factions had disastrous consequences on the continent we discovered, and the natives who lived there. In Warlords, our actions and what we do are viewed not as a disaster, but as the last glimmering beacon of hope in a world that is teetering on the brink of ruin. The Iron Horde has many pieces, and the helm of that Horde is Grommash Hellscream. But while the Iron Horde and Grommash may both be formidable enemies, that Iron Horde is not the only threat present on Draenor.

Gul'dan may be an orc, but he's not working with the Iron Horde -- he has his own agenda with the Shadow Council. Cho'gall seems to be working with the Shadow Council, but he also seems to have his own agenda focused on harnessing the dark powers of the void. Beyond that, there are the Sargerei, who may or may not be working with either Cho'gall, Gul'dan, and the Shadow Council. This sect of draenei seems to be bent on doing the Burning Legion's will, working with demons and bringing about their own plans, none of which seem to be entirely clear just yet.

And then we have the arakkoa, whose motives and internal conflicts I have yet to fully explore in the beta, but given that they have an entire zone dedicated to their exploits, we can pretty much assume they have some larger role to play. And on top of all of that, we have the weird, underlying story going on with the magnaron and the ancients of Draenor, as well as the mysterious botani. In short, there is way more story in this expansion than just the Iron Horde. The beta, and the eventual release, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Warlords may seem bleak at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that this expansion is a series of battles in which you, the player, are the star. And although this expansion features a cavalcade of familiar faces and powerful names from the annals of Warcraft's history, the most familiar face of all seems to be you. To the heroes like Khadgar and Thrall, to the soldiers who choose to join your garrison and your forces, to the up and coming heroes like Yrel, who watch and learn what you have to teach. Although we've only just scratched the surface of what we're going to see in Warlords, it's safe to say as a player, I have never felt more important -- and after ten years of battling in Azeroth, maybe it's about time for a little of that.

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.