Know Your Lore: Breakout Characters of 2014, Part One

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.

Since 2014 saw the end of one expansion and the beginning of another, it's actually got quite a list of characters that got an expanded role in the lore. Some of these are fairly predictable, and others less so. Since I like to talk about lore (it's what the column is about) I decided to round up some of the ones I found the most interesting. I've set myself a few arbitrary rules for this. One, Mists of Pandaria characters are fair game. I know the last patch was in 2013, I don't care. Secondly, they had to do something in terms of story. Sorry, Varian, but you really didn't do much at all in Siege and you haven't done much in Warlords, either.

This isn't listed by priority - the last character we talk about isn't more or less important than the first. So let's get down to brass tacks - who do I think broke out in the past year? (If somehow you still haven't had any exposure to Warlords of Draenor's story, be warned, Here Are Spoilers.)

This one is kind of borderline for me - while he certainly took a big role in the end of Mists of Pandaria, he hasn't done a whole lot yet in Warlords. But I think it's an indisputable fact that Vol'jin's mere presence as a non-orc (a troll, even) atop the Horde power structure is a very significant change in terms of what it means for the Horde going forward. Before Vol'jin's rise to power, there had only been four warchiefs, two from the old Horde and two for the new, and all were orcs - the institution of warchief itself was an orcish one, brought over from Draenor when the Horde invaded.

No other change in the history of the Horde has done more to draw a strong line of demarcation between past and present. The ascension of Vol'jin says to the world of Azeroth (and beyond it) that the Horde is no longer Orcs and their Amazing Friends, but instead a collective of races banded together for mutual survival, and one where no particular race predominates (at least in theory). We have yet to see how successful Vol'jin is in the role, but he definitely changes the status quo dramatically for the Horde.

General Nazgrim
In a way, Nazgrim personified the struggle for Horde players who liked Garrosh Hellscream as warchief, and liked the idea of bringing more war back to the Warcraft franchise., And make no mistake, there were a lot of players who did - when I raided Horde side in Cataclysm and for the early stages of Mists, there was a lot of player talk both for and against Garrosh. He was a polarizing figure, and Nazgrim became kind of a stand in for players who liked being Horde, but who couldn't decide if they were okay with the stuff the Horde was doing under Garrosh - not all players wanted to rebel, and quite a few expressed the wish that they could play as Horde loyalists even in the face of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms becoming the Vale of Eternal Sorrows.

Nazgrim evolved from his first appearance in Wrath of the Lich King to his solid role in Cataclysm's Vashj'ir, and in many ways he got a star turn in Mists - his story of conflicted loyalties, friendship (by the time you raided Siege, if you were a Horde player, you and Nazgrim had been through a lot together) and ultimately being willing to give his life for his honor was one of the better ones to come out of that raid. I won't say he deserved a better death, but perhaps he deserved a better reward for all that honor and loyalty that ultimately killed him.

Warlord Zaela
I'm going to admit that I find Zaela a little troubling. Her character seems to have changed between Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria and by the time she shows up in Siege she's a full-bore orc supremacist, which makes sense for a Dragonmaw but not necessarily for her, based on her first appearances. Still, Zaela's appearances span three expansions and she's got a role of importance in the last raid of Mists and one of the big dungeons of Warlords, and she plays a major role in the novel War Crimes in getting Garrosh free to go to Draenor in the first place. It's primarily her role in War Crimes, the pre-expansion event, and Upper Blackrock Spire that gets her on the list - she'd basically one of the reasons we even have an Iron Horde to fight in the first place.

Vindicator Maraad
Before Warlords of Draenor, Maraad didn't have much of a personality. He appeared in the original Burning Crusade cinematic, made an appearance in Northrend, and popped up in the comic book... and that was basically it for Maraad. But the Lords of War shorts and the role Maraad played in the Alliance leveling zones gave Maraad a personality, and one we'd not yet seen in a draenei - he was vengeful. He held the genocidal attack of the orcs against them, he didn't simply hand wave it away with vague talk of forgiveness. Maraad was flawed, he was angry and bitter, he felt driven to try and put right what had gone wrong not just in his life but for his people.

The draenei got two standout characters and a host of smaller but still important ones this expansion - if you are (as I am) a draenei lore fanatic than this has been an amazing expansion. And we'll talk baout other draenei lore characters. But right now I feel safe in saying that for me, Maraad's life and death make him the Alliance version of General Nazgrim - he lived and died for his people. I'm a little sad we won't get to see any more of Maraad - I wish he'd gotten to survive Talador and make an appearance later, but if he had to go out, at least he went out saving someone's life and fighting for his people. He'd failed to save lives in his greatest moment of regret - but he got to go back, and he got to do it right this time. Sometimes that's all we can ask for a character.

Garrosh Hellscream
It's impossible to argue that Garrosh Hellscream wasn't a major figure this year. I know, it's hard to argue that he was a breakout character - he's been important since Wrath and dominant since Cataclysm - but I think it's worth discussing his character arc. Garrosh Hellscream is a character who grew up with us, in a manner of speaking - he debuted in Burning Crusade and changed as he went, going from a morose failure who doubted himself and everything he'd ever done to an orc looking for a destiny, a means to connect with the father he'd only ever heard about. He marched through Northrend, lead the Horde to victory against the Lich King, and found himself elevated to leadership of an organization be really knew very little about. Taking the not-unreasonable stance that if it was a Horde he would lead it like a Horde, Garrosh soon proved that he was neither a diplomat nor a politician, but he was a warrior.

In the aftermath of Siege it behooves us to remember that Garrosh took on the entire world and, had he been able to unleash the power of the Heart of Y'Shaarj before a group of adventurers showed up, he would have done it. His defeat was a near thing, and his escape and return to Draenor served as a kind of coda to his existence - having gone from his roots to the heights of power, in his fall, he sought to go back and try again, make a Horde that he understood. If Vol'Jin's elevation to warchief showed how much the Horde had changed, the creation of the Iron Horde shows what it changed from - Hellscream's version of a Horde cleansed of demonic influences but still a conquering force shows exactly what he was trying to make on Azeroth.

I still have issues with how he died - Thrall's words ring hollow to me. He did make Hellscream, he did leave him to pick up the pieces, and an acknowledgement of his responsibility there would have been nice. But I have hopes that Garrosh's story will leave long lasting consequences that Thrall will have to deal with in the future.

And that's half of this done. Who else do I think deserves mention? Well, of course Yrel. Let's be honest, she's going to be the big dog of part two of this. But who else? For that, you'll have to come back and find out.

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.