In recent years, I've stated often that Blizzard didn't pull from the established stable of World of Warcraft characters nearly often enough. They focused primarily on characters from the Warcraft RTS games and, beyond that, only on the few new characters they've selected as "faction leaders." I've always felt that players rarely had real attachment to those characters. The faction leaders often played a part in a narrative outside of the player character; they had their own things happen wherein the player often played a small part, if any part at all. Players become more attached to the characters that play a role in gameplay -- memorable faces and personalities that are a part of the leveling process, ranging from questgivers to vendors. Though there are a few notable exceptions, those familiar faces never returned, with each expansion bringing in a whole new cast rather than utilizing the rich pre-existing world.
I have to give credit where it's due: Warlords of Draenor changed that. While yes, it does commit the same sin of reusing RTS characters for the umpteenth time (and in the most egregious way yet), it's also the first expansion that has pulled from the little people of World of Warcraft's history. Familiar faces from all corners of Azeroth make appearances, some in big ways and some in small, and that is what has driven me to invest in the world of Warlords of Draenor, not the return of the orcish warlords. Let's look at some examples, shall we?
Before we really get started here, I'll make an admission: if you didn't already know, I'm primarily an Alliance player. I have nothing against playing Horde, I just haven't played it enough to be familiar with many NPCs -- recurring characters would be lost on me. As such, I'm going to be talking about the Alliance. Cool? Cool.
During the Warlords of Draenor beta, before garrisons were fully implemented, I wondered who would be the Alliance's architect. The Horde had their architect implemented through Gazlowe. You only need to be passably familiar the Horde to know him -- he's a pretty well-known guy. Not only could Alliance players have met him in Ratchet, but he had a role in the Founding of Durotar campaign in Warcraft III. I mused about the possibilities on Twitter. The Alliance had no equivalent, right? Wrong. A few of my followers displayed excellent foresight in suggesting Baros Alexston.
Baros Alexston, city architect of Stormwind, was a character easily forgotten. Prior to Cataclysm, he provided a quest to retrieve an item from the Alexston Farmstead in Westfall. He had no involvement in the game beyond that. His existence completely slipped my mind. Despite that, when it turned out he was the architect for the Alliance garrison, I was thrilled. When I saw him, those old memories came flooding back. In that moment of recognition, I felt more personal engagement with my garrison than I might have if Varian Wrynn (or any other Alliance faction leader) showed up to help. Baros is part of my character's long narrative -- and that's awesome.
Spires of Arak
While additional familiar faces showed up throughout the narrative, it was the Spires of Arak that I found overwhelming -- in the good way. Alliance players begin their trek through the zone by aiding arakkoa refugees, eventually stumbling across a captured scout by the name of Jasper Fel. That name seems familiar, I thought. I think I know this guy, but I can't quite place it. A trip to Wowhead later and I was grinning like a fool. My rogue bought her poisons from him back in vanilla WoW. In his small way, Jasper Fel played a deeper role in my rogue's gameplay experience than nearly any other. In the years where poisons were reagents, not spells, Jasper Fel singlehandedly kept my rogue combat-ready.
Jasper Fel directed my character to her Spires of Arak outpost, whereupon I chose which structure to buid: the Smuggler's Den, of course. The brewery, despite being a nod to developer Cory Stockton, held little appeal. I step inside and I recognize the name of the woman there immediately: Milly Osworth. Milly? I can imagine my character asking. What are you doing here?
Milly Osworth is one of the first questgivers a new human character meets in the game. The sight of Milly standing in your outpost in a suit of armor tells a story all its own. Once the owner of a quiet vineyard in Northshire Abbey, the wars that have ravaged Azeroth forced her out of the wine business. The Cataclysm, and the orcish raiders of Blackrock Mountain, took away her livelihood. Now she works as a smuggler on behalf of the Alliance military ... and gives you the final bottles of wine her vineyard ever produced so you can use it to secure a trade route. She never asked for the military life, but war took from her the life she had before.
Spires of Arak is also home to -- spoiler alert -- the conclusion of Admiral Taylor's long story. I'm not so enamored with this one. I understand that sometimes characters die, but killing off Admiral Taylor seemed cheap -- something done exclusively for parity given what happened to his Horde counterpart. His death drove home the longstanding camaraderie we've had with him. In an expansion that seems to be killing off beloved characters left and right, losing Taylor cut deepest. And maybe that was the intent. If so, bravo. I can't help but feel it was a cheap death (cheapened further by his ghost sticking around as your minion) that squandered future opportunities to evoke that feel of camaraderie with Alliance players. In Admiral Taylor, we had an equal. He wasn't a hero that stood above us, he wasn't a Faction Leader with a secondary, outside narrative. He was our brother-in-arms. He embodied the strength of the recurring character.
It didn't help his death that we have no idea what really went down in his garrison. Is that a plot thread we'll follow up on one day, or a big mess made just to kill him off?
When the 7th Legion appeared for the Alliance in Mists of Pandaria, I voiced some criticism -- which I'll continue to stand by. The 7th Legion is meaningless if the faces we've come to associate with that organization are missing. The 7th Legion members that were there in Ahn'Qiraj and Dragonblight were all absent. The organization's name isn't enough. You can certainly introduce new characters, but it helps to blend the old with the new. It would have been easier to invest myself in the new characters introduced in Mists of Pandaria if they stood alongside the familiar -- individuals like Highlord Leoric or Commander Lynore Windstryke. A small piece of familiarity can go a long way. It engages me in the story, and while I'm engaged in it, those new guys are suddenly much more interesting.
Warlords of Draenor's treatment of SI:7 is much better than Mists of Pandaria's treatment of the 7th Legion. With SI:7, there is an aspect of the familiar. The aforementioned Jasper Fel, for example. In the Alliance garrison, the new character Bodrick Grey is the SI:7 agent you interact with most often -- and he stands alongside the recurring, familiar character of Amber Kearnen. The blend of old and new makes you actually take notice of the organization. The SI:7 is slowly coming to embody the Alliance military effort. They're an everpresent network of intelligence agents. Everywhere you go, there they are. SI:7 is now a character unto itself. You see someone with that label, you take notice.
One of my favorite interactions in this expansion is between SI:7 agent Kia Herman and Rangari Laara, each debating the merits of their respective organizations. Meeting them is a great moment because Warlords of Draenor has established both organizations so well. You totally get it and every player that meets them is immediately going to pick a side in their mind.
To me, storytelling in an MMO is about the players. Those big faction leader characters work just fine for framing the narrative, but it needs to be understood that not all players will feel invested in that. Some might, and that's fine. Don't throw out those big narratives. But, in my opinion, the strength is in the smaller stories. Jasper Fel, Milly Osworth, and Amber Kearnen mean more to me than Thrall and Varian Wrynn combined. And if we run into Rangari Laara and Kia Herman hanging out together in the next expansion, you bet I'll remember them.
Warlords of Draenor is not only a love letter to Warcraft the RTS series, but to World of Warcraft itself. For the first time, I feel like what I'm doing is meaningful. Not because NPCs have started to call me Commander, but because I'm surrounded by familiar faces in an unfamiliar world. I'm not alone in the narrative. I have comrades. I have brothers and sisters-in-arms. I have a recognizable history in the gameworld. That's awesome.
Honorable Mentions: Hansel Heavyhands, Thaelin Darkanvil, and Fiona's caravan.