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Out of the Mists: Reclaiming Warlocks in Pandaria

This is the seventh, and final, post in the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

The first few weeks of the beta release of Mists of Pandaria was filled with all sorts of amazing news about changes to Warlocks. Every class received some changes, but it really seemed like Warlocks were getting a complete overhaul. Demo and Destro got new resource systems, Affliction’s Soul Shards were revamped. New demon models were added alongside the old stalwarts. Spells were simplified or redesigned, cruft was removed. Many spells were limited to specific specs.

Then came unexpected news: Demonology as a tanking tree. Green fire through a quest. Massive changes to the class were coming. The Cataclysm Warlock was going away, and in its place was going to be a something … very different. Even as things changed and the dual bombshells of Demon Form Tanking and Green Fire were retracted, the reports from the beta showed a class getting completely gutted and rebuilt.

The changes are pretty staggering.

I remember starting this series right around the time the beta came out and feeling a huge sense of urgency to get it done. I needed to get my findings online so people could see the reason for the attention. It’s not that Warlocks can’t DPS or PvP, it’s that the class is shedding players. It’s not that other classes don’t need help too, it’s that Warlocks were vanishing. More than a quarter of them quit. The trends were all going in the wrong direction.

But I also remember glancing at the changes and wondering: will these changes really fix the problems which caused the decline of the Warlock population, or are they just bandaids? New demon forms can get people excited, but if the demons weren’t the original problem then it’s wasted effort. Cosmetic changes can help sell a spec and class, but they can’t solve underlying mechanical issues. Cosmetic changes aren’t bad, at all! But there need to be major mechanical changes, too, or players won’t stick with the class.

I’m done with Cataclysm. Let’s move on to Mists.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Holy shit. Warlocks are going to be so much fun in the next expansion.

I can’t bring myself to level my baby Forsaken Warlock on the live servers anymore. Why? Because the leveling process is so much better on beta. If you are wondering if you should level a Warlock now or in Mists, wait for Mists. Gone are the awkward talents and abilities; in their place are simple, logical spells which fit the theme of the spec. Leveling Destro, for instance, I no longer shoot Shadow Bolts and dot on the run. Instead, I:

  1. Set people on fire.
  2. Explode people and stun them.
  3. Throw fire at people.
  4. Drop fire on groups of people.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s wonderful.

Simple for leveling? Yes, and that’s great for new players and new Warlocks alike. Affliction DoTs. Demo gets demon form early and gets to use it often. Destro slings fire at everything. By the mid-40s all the new resource systems are in place and you’re starting to learn the basics of how things work at endgame.

The class is very different at endgame. If you are going from 85 to 90, mentally start preparing to learn a new class. Affliction still feels familiar, but the changes have made it faster, more frantic at times. Demonology and Destruction are completely different; not only do they have new resource systems, they have jettisoned much of the shared Warlock abilities used in Cataclysm and are focused on the fantasy of the spec again.

The biggest problem, I think, will be the transition for current endgame Warlock players. I went in not knowing any of the new systems or having read any guides and was overwhelmed by how different things were. I had to start over from scratch to get used to the new way of doing things, nuking both my UI/keybinds and my preconceived notions of how the specs should work. The transition from Wrath to Cata was easier because it was just more stuff on top of stuff I already knew; Cata to Mists is new stuff. Jettisoning old concepts is hard but vital to the changeover.

I can already see that the developers recognize this is a problem by the appearance of clear, concise in-game directions on the Core Abilities tab. It’s relatively easy to put together a clear out-of-game guide, but a bit harder to teach people in-game. The Core Abilities tab wasn’t there when I started but it’s a really useful guide. The What Has Changed tab is another recent addition which I think will be helpful in-game advice for returning Warlocks.

CORE ABILITIES

I think the Core Abilities tab is a great addition to not only the Warlock class, but to every class in the game. Each spec gets a tab in the spell book summarizing their key abilities for use so that players understand the intended way to play, like this:

I love this tab. It provides a good overview of the endgame rotation of a spec. It lets you drag the abilities down to your action bars and go, okay, I’m playing Demo, here’s what I’m supposed to do: keep Corruption and HoG on the target, cast Soul Fire when MC procs, turn into a Demon when my Demonic Fury bar is full, otherwise cast Shadow Bolt. Got it.

It seems so logical in retrospect, but if there is a way a spec is supposed to be played, it makes sense that the game should teach it. This allows new and old players alike to pick up a class and get the basics quickly, while still allowing a lot of room for player growth. Mastery of the nuances of a class won’t be taught through the Core Abilities tab, that’s not what it’s there for. You won’t see things like “time your DoT refreshes with trinket procs with Demon Soul for max damage” or “use Fel Fire while moving” in these tabs, and that’s okay.

Core Abilities are the basics. Great addition. Love it.

LIMITED SPELL SELECTION CREATES FOCUS

You’ll notice that the number of spells on the Core Abilities tab is pretty low – the page supports six, which is a good number to try to get your head around when learning any spec.

One of the things I like best about the changes to Warlock in Mists is how the Core Abilities are not just the suggested abilities for the spec, they’re usually the only abilities. Competing abilities are just not available. Looking at Demo above, you might ask what happened to Immolate? It’s not available anymore to Demo! You can’t cast it, don’t even try!

This focus is created either by only granting abilities to certain specs, or transforming basic spells when the spec is chosen. Corruption turns into Immolate for Destro, so now there’s not a choice between the two, or a possibility that Corruption will enter the rotation. It can’t.

Locking many abilities to individual specs not only reduces player confusion, it eliminates the possibility of unintended crossover and the complexity that goes with it. The number of shared Core Abilities between specs is very low – Corruption is the only one, and it’s only shared between Affliction and Demonology. Everything else is different.

While this means we will likely see the three Warlock specs drift further apart in Mists, I think this is a very good thing for the flavor of each class and reducing overall class complexity.

The Destro Core Abilities (above) are a good illustration of how much more focused each class is on a few central, thematic abilities in Mists, and not presented with the dozens of choices you have in Cataclysm. I’m reminded of Bruce Lee’s quote on expertise:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

This was drilled into me when I was learning martial arts: most black belts only really use 5-10 moves, but they know how to use them in dozens of configurations and combinations, and adapt them to any situation or environment. I feel like that’s what we’re seeing here. The cruft is being cleared away, leaving us players to focus on using those abilities we have.

MORE USEFUL SPELLS

Spells which weren’t useful in Cataclysm have either been jettisoned or made useful in Mists.

Searing Pain is gone. This was mostly a PvP spell, but Fel Flame can replace it nicely.

Shadowflame is gone. I love this spell, but it was both awkward to use and very, very mage-like. It’s been rolled into Hand of Gul’dan now.

Fel Flame generates Burning Embers and Demonic Fury now, making it an easy choice for whenever a Warlock moves. You move, you cast Fel Flame for damage or Life Tap for mana, period.

Curse of Enfeeblement takes the place of Curse of Tongues and Curse of Weakness and is actually attractive now, especially while leveling!

Demon Soul now has spec-specific iterations, decoupling it from the deployed demon and eliminating Demon Twisting.

Demons appear (and this is, of course, subject to change) to be chosen based on utility, not on spec association or DPS. Any given spec doesn’t have a specific demon that benefits it through talents or abilities, which I think is a great change.

Spells transform into new versions when Warlocks do things. Demon Form doesn’t give you new abilities, it changes the ones you have into new, related abilities. Curses become Auras. That’s clever. If you use Burning Embers to do AoE, your spells change to reflect that.

All of these things are pretty damn cool.

SIMPLER CLASS BASELINE DOES NOT MEAN A SIMPLE CLASS

That said, there’s a set of other abilities that are shared across Warlock specs that are also needed – things like Life Tap, Demon Soul, Guardian Demons – that still need to be cast. There are also talents which are independent of spec.

The division of abilities into Core/Non-Core is great for playing multiple Warlock specs because it allows players another way to chunk up their abilities. I can look at my UI and go, Core (DPS) abilities go in one place, baseline Warlock abilities (defensive, movement, utility) go in another, and maintain a great deal of consistency in layout between specs.

Compare my Affliction and Demo setups in Beta:

This is Affliction, arguably the spec with the most buttons right now. You can see that most of the Core Abilities are grouped in the lower bars and the primary 1-10 keys, while utility spells are on keys around the QWES keys, like ADFGT.

This is Demo. The utility keys are almost identical between specs, withthe only variation being different talents or glyphs I’m testing out. The Core Ability section is different, but not overwhelmingly so – there’s still a relatively uniform layout there.

I’m amazed at how much space I have with my keybindings, to be honest. I know some people have been able to play Warlocks in Cataclysm without using all their keybinds, but I have had fully loaded binds from the start. I’m a bit in shock that I won’t need 60 binds and can use WASD without feeling like I’m sacrificing valuable keybinds space to do it!

The Talent system revamp is excellent. Instead of trying to shape your character by taking certain necessary abilities, you’re choosing utility and options instead of possibly making mistakes which affect your core abilities. What I like best about the Warlock talents is that you can often tailor the complexity of the spec based on your choices – often you are selecting between another button to push, replacing an existing button, or adding a passive ability to a button. This allows Warlock players to take 3 or 4 different damage absorption CDs if they like, or just have two.

I saw this with the Glyphs, as well. The Glyph of Demon Soul is fantastic, because it gives a passive bonus when DS is not on CD, effectively allowing players who don’t want to have a burst CD to ignore it – yet still get some benefit from it. The Glyph of Wild Imps is working like this too, only in reverse! It takes a passive and adds a button with CD, which is awesome!

The abilities are simpler, but I wouldn’t call them simple. Not by a longshot. The interactions with each new resource spec are still up in the air, but there is still a lot of mental juggling going on. Affliction feels much faster now with changes to Malefic Grasp and Haunt. Destro feels very rhythmic, where you build up to this absolutely massive discharge of damage (oh god, 6 Chaos Bolts on 2 targets with Havoc and Demon Soul, be still my beating heart) and then start over again. Demonology is in the strangest place right now, with a hybrid melee-caster rotation that’s unlike anything Warlocks have seen before. Meta form is no longer just a CD you use to increase your damage, instead it’s an entirely different way of playing.

VISUALLY EXCITING ABILITIES = SPEC WISH FULFILLMENT

Near the beginning of the beta there was a report that Warlocks would get a quest which would allow them to change the color of their fire to green.

There are times that I feel like I’m in the minority because I don’t really care one way or another about green fire for Warlocks. I mean, would it be cool? Sure? But I’d rather see mechanics fixed than spell graphics updated?

Well, that’s really a crumudgeon’s attitude, and it took me playing in the Mists Beta to realize it.

I chose the screenshots above deliberately because they show off some of the very cool new spell effects that are available for Warlocks. Chaos Bolt is now a HUGE green energy dragon with a swarm of smaller dragons launched at the target. Shadow Bolt can be made to swarm in a pack of three instead of a bolt, and it’s AWESOME. Soul Fire is huge, like, HUGE. Harvest Life is wild when you can get 3-6 targets in range. These spells are great.

I was leveling my baby Warlock when I realized how much happier I was that she was slinging sheets of fire instead of shadow bolts at her targets. This is how Destro is SUPPOSED to feel! I yelled more than once at the screen.

And that’s really what the new graphics are all about; fulfilling the fantasy of a spec. The abilities have to do it, the mechanics have to do it, but the graphics have to do it, too. And the new graphics are delivering on that fantasy. They are making each spec different from each other – you will not have to wonder for long what kind of Warlock you are facing. They’re also making the class visually distinct from other classes very early on – you won’t wonder if you’ve got a Fire Mage or a Destro Lock in your group anymore. You’ll know.

I know Blizzard came out and said that green fire wasn’t happening, but given the scope of graphical changes I’ve seen in the Beta – I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

WARLOCK TANKS

I have not seen a class community polarize faster than Warlocks did over the discovery of the Glyph of Demon Hunting, which allowed for Demon Form to work… well, to work like a tank. A real tank, not an off tank. Huge amounts of armor. Taunts. Melee attacks. Defensive cooldowns. All the basic abilities were there, they just had to be fleshed out.

Then there was lore that appeared, later – about how the Demonologists on the Council of Six Daggers went to the Demon Hunters of Outland to learn their secrets.  The reason for the name of the glyph became clear, at least.

But, after all that excitement, it was not to be.

Greg Street wrote:

Just to make our intent clear, the Glyph of Demon Hunting isn’t intended to turn Demonology warlocks into a tanking spec. You won’t be able to queue as a tank for Dungeon Finder for instance and won’t have the survivability or tools of say a Protection paladin.

Thus the dream of Warlock tanks ended.

If there was anything that indicated to me that Warlocks were really in trouble in Cataclysm, and that no idea was too wild to save them in Mists, it was this one. Tanking Warlocks represented the most outrageous thinking I’d seen yet on the class. Oh, sure, bloggers had talked about it before, but nothing had ever come out of Blizzard indicating it was a possibility. Taking a pure DPS spec and turning them into a hybrid? This is madness!

No, this is amazing.

Let’s assume for a moment that the intent really was to make Demo a tanking spec. Humor me.

Let’s consider the benefits:

  • Turns the class into a hybrid, resolving issues with the Simplicity Tax and Bring the Player, Not the Class model. This also invites players to try Warlocks who might otherwise be hesitant to roll a pure DPS character due to the needs of their raid composition.
  • Increases the number of potential tanks in the game. This both helps the general tank shortage, as well as offset the main quality of life disadvantage of a pure DPS – queue times for PvE dungeons and raids – by letting them jump in as a tank.
  • It is new and unusual, which can be quite a draw for players looking for something different. It also gives long-term Warlock players an opportunity to experience a different role in the game without rerolling.
  • Sets up the possibility of a fourth spec for other classes. Demo tanks would be an experiment in making one spec fill multiple roles (DPS/Tanking), much like Feral Druids did. If both roles are successful, spinning off a separate 4th spec becomes a logical extension of the tanking experiment, which opens up possibilities for other classes extending their specs.
  • Fits the theme and fantasy of the spec. Instead of transforming into a demon to make your spells hit harder, you turn into one to rip and tear into your enemies, using demonic magic to augment your physical prowess to be the equivalent of a giant dire bear or warrior in armor.

There are some challenges to overcome with this idea, though.

  • Automatic role determination by spec. Splitting apart Feral into two specs allows Blizzard to code LFD/LFR to only allow characters who have learned a tanking spec to queue as a tank. If this restriction comes to pass, Demo either needs to become a full-time tank spec or have the tank spec be split off from the DPS spec entirely.
  • Automatic quest reward determination by spec. If quest rewards are going to be chosen by your current spec, should Demo get DPS or tanking gear?
  • Attachment of Demo DPS players to their spec. Given the massive changes made to Demo in Mists, it doesn’t really resemble the Demo DPS spec we’ve enjoyed since Wrath, but current Demo players may not want to give up their DPS play style of choice. There is a related argument that Warlock players don’t want to be a hybrid and be pressured into tanking.
  • Balance with other classes. Demo tanks brings the number of tank classes up to 6, which can be a challenge for balancing under the Bring the Player model. There are also PvP concerns to consider, though to be frank those concerns exist with the glyphed version anyways.
  • Tank Cloth itemization. Honestly, I think this is the biggest obstacle for Warlock tanks. How will they gear for avoidance? A conversion of Intellect, Haste, Crit, Mastery into Dodge, Parry, or Expertise might be possible, but how will that work? New gear would be an easier answer, but adding in an entire new class of Tanking Cloth gear is a monumental undertaking, and fraught with the same perils as Intellect Plate.

The problem of making a cloth-wearing tank viable is an interesting one. Do you follow a Bear/Guardian model and convert Intellect into Dodge? Well, that probably needs to be coded, and only for Warlock tanks (since Agility gives Dodge already as a default).

What about health pools, do you make it so their damaging attacks suck life out of the bosses and give them a large effective health pool (but then how do they survive the big hits?) What about Parry, Expertise, melee Hit – how do you make it work, exactly, when there’s no available gear with tanking stats?

There’s also a question of theme. Demonology, as it stands today in Cataclysm, provides both the conjuror and  metamorph archetypes in one package. In some ways those concepts are at odds with each other – a conjuror summons other beings to do their dirty work for them, while a metamorph transforms to do the job themselves. Tanking stresses the latter philosophy, of internalizing the demons and becoming them, more than the former, which is more of a ranged DPS idea. Spinning off the transformation of Demonology into a separate tanking tree would allow both themes to flourish, but if only one can be chosen – I’d rather have some flexibility in my theme.

The Glyph of Demon Hunting is an interesting experiment. Because it’s a Glyph you can’t enable it in the middle of a fight, but perhaps it could be changed into an ability which allows Demo to activate tank mode for 5 minutes? That at least makes it an attractive option for tank death or tank swap fights. As it stands now, the best use will be for soloing or – as gear gets better – tanking 5-mans with a friendly guild group who likes pushing the limits.

That’s pretty cool, but I know that if there was more time in the development cycle this could be even cooler.

I would not count Warlock tanks out of the picture just yet. If not now, look for them in the expansion after Mists.

THE REBIRTH OF WARLOCKS IN MISTS OF PANDARIA

I find it ironic that I named this series after Gibbon’s masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireGibbon assembled a wealth of material around the collapse of Roman governance in Western Europe in the third through sixth centuries, but he used it to formulate a monocausal theory – that the Roman Empire’s fall was inevitable because of the influence of Christianity. This theory overlooks much in pursuit of forwarding an Enlightenment viewpoint of the Medieval period and Christianity as bad, and the Greco-Roman classical tradition as good.

As a historian, I have always preferred the works of J. B. Bury, who did not dispute the evidence Gibbon presented, but rather interpreted them differently. Bury posits that Rome’s fall was not inevitable, but rather the result of a series of incidents which lead to a catastrophe. Internal political pressures, external migratory pressures on the Germanic tribes, inflation, increased taxes to deal with the Sassanid Empire’s threat, a series of terrible decisions by Imperial and Provincial leaders alike – all these contributed to the calamity of the fourth and fifth centuries. I recommend reading Gibbon so you’ve read him, but I recommend Bury if you want to see the vast scope of problems in Late Antiquity, and how monocausal theories need to take them all into account.

To quote Bury:

The gradual collapse of the Roman power … was the consequence of a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable.

It’s my hope that this series has been more like Bury than Gibbon. While there has been a central theme to this work –  inelegant complexity without reward led to the decline of Warlock populations in Cataclysm – it is my firm belief that it was a series of design decisions and balance changes during the expansion which contributed to the decline of this class. Attributing it to any one specific change misses the big picture. Our personal reasons and agendas need to take a back seat to the data.

The Warlock class declined in Cataclysm. Based on what I’ve seen so far in the Mists of Pandaria Beta, it is too early to write its epitaph, but its recovery is by no means a certain thing. It is transforming into something very different what came before, and it is my sincere hope that it flourishes and thrives in its new incarnation.

Let’s see what the future holds for this great class.

THANKS

I honestly thought this would be a two-post series at the beginning. More than thirty thousand words later, I realize that I had a lot more to say about Warlocks than I thought I did, so, first and foremost, thanks to the hundreds of people who commented and shared your thoughts and opinions in comments, forums and emails, for promoting this work in the Warlock community. Thank you.

I’d like to thank Xelnath for his for his insights and convincing me to give the Mists beta a try. It’s been a delight discussing this work with you, and I can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve next.

I have to also give many thanks to my undercover editors, Catulla and Narci of Flavor Text, for their unflagging support in the face of a mountain of text regarding a class they didn’t play. Narci deserves special mention as the one who convinced me this needed to be a series, and then stayed with the idea by reviewing every single draft, even the ones I threw away. Thank you both for your ocular fortitude.

Finally, thank you for reading. This has been a long journey, and I’m humbled and thankful that you chose to go on it with me. Thanks!

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?

This is the first post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Where have all the warlocks gone?

I heard this question more and more often as Cataclysm progressed. Raid leaders struggled to recruit them. Players didn’t see them in LFD, or later, in LFR. Battleground appearances became increasingly rare. Leveling warlocks became an elusive beast for me to find on my own leveling tanks and healers.

It’s not like warlocks were hugely popular in Wrath of the Lich King, but I didn’t recall quite so many people asking me questions like this one. Some of the major kills of that expansion featured warlocks prominently – remember Stars doing Yogg-0 and all those Drain Soul beams? – but Cataclysm had those kinds of moments, too. I remember several Demonology warlocks in the world first Heroic Rag video. DPS was never so lackluster that it couldn’t keep up. Warlocks weren’t getting benched for playing warlocks … they just became scarce.

At the same time, I went through my own problems playing my warlock main, Cynwise. At first I thought it was due to my dissatisfaction with the PvP endgame at the end of Season 9, but as the months ticked by and I made no effort to pick up a warlock, any warlock, I found myself wondering if it was really the endgame I didn’t enjoy in Cataclysm – or warlocks. I had become one of the missing warlocks, and I didn’t even really know why.

Was it me? Was it the class? I felt very uncomfortable extrapolating my own experience out to warlocks in general. The specific incident that knocked me off my warlock main was too personal, too isolated. It didn’t really have anything to do with warlocks at all – it had much more to do with the gear transition in endgame PvP, a lack of interest in raiding, and a desire to see more of the lower brackets.

Maybe it was just perception that there were fewer warlocks out there. Just because I’ve fallen out of love with a class doesn’t mean that the class is broken, right? People change. I changed. I learned to love healing and tanking, for crying out loud! What kind of a warlock likes to tank things that aren’t the floor?

The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I stopped playing a warlock when 4.2 was released. She went from my main to a neglected tailoring alt over the course of Cataclysm.

But the months ticked by, fewer people talked to me about the hexenfreude of playing a warlock, and more asked me what was wrong with the class. I had to wonder:

Was I the only one?

THE POPULARITY CONTEST

Are warlocks less popular now than they used to be? That’s the question we must start with – is the decline one of perception only, or is it based in fact?

Comparing WoW census figures from the end of Wrath (patch 3.3.5) and what is presumably the last patch of Cataclysm (4.3.2) indicate that the answer to this is definitively yes.

Warlocks are less popular now than they were at the end of Wrath.

This data is taken from two sources: Armory Data Mining (fortunately, not updated since 3.3.5) and World of Wargraphs. (Here’s the spreadsheet if you want to follow along.) Without knowing the methodology between these two censuses it’s difficult to assign a high certainty between comparing between different data sources, but these numbers appear to be consistent across other census sites. Let’s go with them as being at least relatively accurate.

  • Three classes experienced significant declines in their playerbase: Paladins, Death Knights, and Warlocks. All three of these had substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm.
  • Two classes had statistically significant increases: Mages and Hunters. Hunters received substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm; this is somewhat counter evidence to the opinion that the change to Focus from Mana was bad for the class.
  • Three classes had small gains in popularity: Shamans, Druids, and Warriors.
  • Two classes stayed about the same: Priests and Rogues.

There are several key points I’d like to raise from this data set.

Paladins and Death Knights suffered a larger decline in popularity than Warlocks (2.1% and 1.9% respectively), but because their relative popularity (#1 and #2 in Wrath) was so much higher, the loss was less noticeable.

The Wrath numbers for Death Knights and Paladins may have also been inflated by the Legendary Effect, where more players were playing classes with a current tier legendary (Shadowmourne) available for them. What’s interesting is that we don’t see a corresponding rise in warlocks competing for their legendary, which is only one raiding teir past current (and still exceptionally good), while we do see a corresponding rise in the popularity of Rogues with their legendary in this tier.

Class popularity concentrated in a few classes in Wrath, with the outliers (Paladins, DKs) skewing high. There’s a nice little clump of 6 classes between 7.5% and 9.1%, Warriors are pretty close to even at 10.1%, and then there are the popular classes (Druid, DK, Paladin.) There isn’t an absence of Warlocks, Rogues, Hunters and Shaman in this distribution – rather, there’s a lot of people playing Paladins! Players notice that there was an abundance of a certain class, not an absence.

In Cataclysm, the popular classes became less popular and – overall – classes were more evenly distributed. There’s a nice clump of 4 classes at 10-11%, a clump of 2 at 9.3% and the popular classes (Paladins and Druids) at 12-13%. There’s less of a range between those 8 classes than in the previous model.

But notice that the outliers shifted from the high to the low end. Rogues are, relatively speaking, less popular compared to Hunters and Shamans than they used to be, even if their popularity hasn’t changed. Warlocks are even worse off – not only did they decline in popularity overall, they’ve declined relative to the standard set by other classes. No longer do you notice that there are Paladins everywhere; you notice the absence of Warlocks.

The salient feature of Wrath’s class popularity distribution was the abundance of Paladins and Death Knights; the salient feature of Cataclysm’s class distribution is the dearth of Warlocks.

It’s interesting that this is both a decline in fact and in perception.

UNDERPOWERED, OVERPOWERED, OUT OF POWER

So why are Warlocks in decline? Are they particularly bad at a particular area of the game? Is this a problem of balance, or power? Is this a case where warlocks are just plain underpowered? Are people making rational choices in raiding by shunning warlocks? Are they just bad in PvP? While I hadn’t heard of any of these problems, perhaps there was a rational reason to choose another class.

I first looked at DPS in heroic raids. While heroic raids don’t represent the entire universe of PvE, they’re a good place to start when looking at DPS. I took a quick look at Raidbot’s DPSbot and 25m H encounters:

Huh. Nothing in the last two months, really. Warlocks are solidly middle of the pack performers in hard mode raiding. Unlike some classes, their three specs are pretty well balanced between each other.

Maybe we need to look further back. Let’s expand our view for the last year.

Okay, now we’ve got a lot more data, with more diversity in the data set, so we can see trends over the expansion.

  • In 4.1, Affliction is one of the top DPS specs, sharing the lead with Shadow Priests and Arcane Mages. Balance Druids, MM Hunters, and Arms Warriors are also very strong. Demo and Destro are in the second tier of DPS.
  • In 4.2, Affliction is no longer top of the DPS, but still competitive. Demonology remains mid-tier, while Destruction drops like a rock to the bottom of the charts.
  • In 4.3, Affliction, Demonology, and Destruction are all mid-tier DPS performers. If you zoom in to various displays of the data on the linked site, Affliction is still the top Warlock performer, while Destruction has improved substantially.

So the picture that emerges of Warlock DPS is … it’s fine. I know that’s a judgement call, but realistically, it hasn’t been bad, and it’s even been pretty good at times. It hasn’t been so awesome that it’s an outlier (like Fire Mages an Shadow Priests), but at the same time, it hasn’t really struggled. It’s a solid performer.

What’s interesting is that all three specs have had a pretty good run of it in Cataclysm – more so than any other pure DPS class. Mages have tended to have one superior spec in PvE at any given time, either Arcane or Fire. Hunters have had wildly erratic performance in PvE, with Survival either great or terrible, but Marskmanship and Beast Mastery lagging behind. Rogues have also been forced into Combat or Assassination, mostly Combat. Except for a period in 4.2 with Destruction falling way behind, all three Warlock specs were viable for Cataclysm raiding.

That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You’d think that having viable choices for your PvE spec would be a benefit, wouldn’t it?

Nothing in the DPS rankings says that the class needed to be buffed dramatically. While there are some superior choices at specific times, there were few classes that were consistently better. Shadow Priests, maybe? Mages weren’t until they got the Fire buffs of 4.3.

So maybe there’s something more going on here than just straight DPS problems. Let’s go back to popularity and see if that sheds any light on how warlocks have done in raids.

One of the great things about the World of Wargraphs site is that it allows you to drill down to a specific environment, and compare how a class/spec combo does there, versus its overall popularity. This is important, because it allows you to avoid bias. If you looked at population distribution and said: 15% of everyone who killed 8 HM bosses was a Druid, therefore druids are overpowered in HM PVE content, you’d be making an erroneous statement. You have to compare this to the overall population – if 30% of all players played Druids, but only 15% killed HM bosses, Druids might be underpowered. Or Druids might have a disadvantage in PvE. Or there might be another class which is simply better than Druids at their tasks.

Let’s take a real example of this. Here’s the current distribution of classes of all characters who have killed at 4+ heroic raid bosses this tier.

Class Distribution in Heroic Raids, 4.3.3 (From World of Wargraphs)

Looking at only this data, you might conclude that Paladins, Priests, and Druids are better at heroic raiding, and Death Knights, Hunters, and Warlocks are worse at it. But this would be incorrect. You might have more Priests raiding than Shaman simply because there are more Priests playing the game, not because Priests have some natural advantages in raids.

When we take the data and mash it up against the global popularity percentages, we get numbers like this:

Class Popularity in 4.3.3 - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

4.3.3 Class Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This allows us to see which classes tend to be brought to heroic raids a bit more than average (those with green Popularity Deltas) versus those who are not (those with red scores). Priests and Hunters make up about the same amount of the player base, but one gets brought to the heroic raids more often (Priests).

The remarkable thing about Warlocks? They appear to be properly represented in heroic raids. They’re appealing enough to bring at the same rate as the general lock population. No advantages, but no real disadvantages, either.

The hybrid nature of some classes might throw these numbers off, though. We’re not really being fair to hybrids by lumping them all together – you might have a great healing spec but an awful DPS spec, which would balance things out.

Okay! Let’s look at it by spec, then.

4.3.3 Class/Spec Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This chart not only shows which specs are currently raiding hard modes successfully, but which ones are disproportionately good (or bad) at it. Survival Hunters make up only 3.1% of the WoW population, yet account for 7.5% of successful hard mode raiders. I think it’s safe to say that Survival is a good raiding spec. A Beast Mastery hunter, on the other hand, is scarce in hard mode raiding (only 0.3%), yet is 2.7% of the total population.

In this case, the results we see here match the results we saw looking at DPS. That’s good! This shows that for Hunters, at least, if you want to do Heroic Raids, you go for the one that produces the best DPS – which, right now, is Survival. I like it when data matches up like this, and we see it in other specs and classes, too. Fire Mage? Overrepresented. Frost Mage? Under.

Warlocks are a pretty small sample size, but we still see some parallels between the DPS scores and popularity. Each spec is equally represented, 2%-2.6%. Interestingly, Destruction is the most popular spec, and both it and Demonology are slightly more popular than their global populations. Affliction is less so. These don’t quite match the DPS figures that we saw earlier, but this might be because the current tier requires more burst, which both Destro and Demo deliver better than Affliction. The perception is that Destro was buffed and Affliction is weak right now. We find statements like the following boilerplate from the Elitist Jerks warlock guides:

With the release of Patch 4.3 the warlock class sees a number of changes, in particular the Destruction spec, along with a few changes to the Demonology spec. Following these changes we see that all 3 specs are quite close, and all have something to bring to the table. For single target DPS, the following should be true at all gear levels:

Demonology > Destruction >= Affliction

While Demonology does pull ahead in single target DPS by ~2k DPS, this is only in close to perfect conditions where there is minimal to no movement and the player is able to stand in melee range. This means that in most situations Destruction and Affliction will perform better than Demonology.

On multi-target fights with strictly 2 DPS targets Affliction and Destruction should be quite even. However once any additional targets are introduced Affliction will perform considerably better than Destruction. Heavy AoE fights are where Demonology really begins to shine, followed respectably by Affliction and then Destruction behind by a considerable margin.

As confusing as they are, I think these observations are pretty accurate. All three specs are quite close, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses is important when deciding which spec to play on which fight.

This leads to an interesting observation about specs. When there’s a clearly superior DPS spec for a class in raiding (e.g. Survival, Fire) players will flock to it. When two or three specs are raid viable, other considerations factor into the decision making process and muddy the water. We should not assume that having three viable raiding specs is better than only having one; Warlocks might have choices, but that isn’t drawing people to raid with the class more than, say, Survival Hunters or Shadow Priests. It may be more flexible, but it isn’t necessarily more appealing.

For Warlocks, there isn’t an easy choice of spec in raiding right now. Should you go Demo/Destro on Spine for burst, or stay Affliction? Do you have the gear to switch between Destro and Demo? Will you be multidotting, or just handling a few adds? Which spec is the player more skilled at playing?

Aside from having more spec choices than any other DPS class, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Warlocks in PvE raids.

Warlocks aren’t underpowered in heroic raids, but neither are they overpowered.

THE GREAT MYSTERY OF PVP AND RLS SYNERGY

If Warlocks are doing okay in PvE, perhaps poor performance in PvP is driving players away from the class.

I dunno. It could happen!

I toss this theory out because if you’ve leveled a Warlock lately in PvP, you know that battlegrounds can be tough on you. You have to have exceptionally good gear to succeed, and even then you’ll probably die a lot. I don’t think this theory holds at the endgame – warlocks have traditionally been pretty potent in PvP – but we should test it out.

The following graph presents all classes in all rated PvP environments  - Arenas, Rated Battlegrounds – with a rating of 2200+.

This is the first population chart where Warlocks are not on the bottom. Not only are they not at the bottom, Warlocks are disproportionately well represented in highly ranked PvP.

Class Distribution in 4.3.3 PvP (Season 11) - 2200+ Rating

There are classes which do better at rated PvP play than others, and Warlocks are on that list. If you look through the current 3v3 comp ratings, Warlocks are part of the dominant comp (RLS, Rogue Lock Shaman), and integral parts of most of the other comps.

3v3 Comp Popularity in Season 11 - 2200+ Ratings

The structure of 3v3 is usually straightforward: healer, controller, burst. Affliction Warlocks have the right tools to apply constant pressure on the healer, they’re hard to kill, they have great CC, and they can put out a lot of damage. What they can’t do is burst, which is why pairing them with a Rogue works so well. And Shaman healing works really well with Affliction PvP – Spirit Link totem is one of the keys to this synergy.

The PvP data on World of Wargraphs tells this story in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t matter what Arena size it is, there are a disproportionate number of ranked Warlocks in it.

  • 5v5 they are practically essential (Affliction is top spec, 12.7% of all players).
  • 3v3 they are dominant (#4, 8.5%).
  • 2v2 they’re respectable (#7, 6.1%).
  • Even rated battlegrounds, which I thought might have some falloff, sees 10.2% of all players as Warlocks – just behind Rogues.

That pretty much means every rated BG team is going to have a warlock – if they can find one.

The data tells a story about a class which is exceptionally good at ranked PvP, especially when working with several other players. They might be weak on their own, but they are very potent in a group. They are a damage support class, providing pressure everywhere. Other classes keep them alive or burn down the opponents; Afflocks provide the control and damage needed to create those openings.

Rogues are in a similar position; great PvP abilities, great PvE output, relatively low numbers. Both classes have received legendaries in Cataclysm, though Warlocks shared theirs with other caster DPS. Rogues are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Dragon Soul, with their legendaries providing both class interest and top DPS for a class which has deserved some love for some time.

Hunters are in the opposite position. Terrible in ranked PvP, a single PvE spec doing well in raids after struggling for much of the expansion, and a completely reworked resource system. But Hunter popularity is up, and Warlock popularity continue to slip.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Warlock numbers.  That’s what’s so frustrating about this problem. The class isn’t out of balance, it’s not pulling in low DPS, and it’s doing really well in PvP.

So why the hell are people not playing warlocks anymore?

WHEN YOU HAVE ELIMINATED THE IMPOSSIBLE

The preceding sections tried to establish facts of the case:

  • Are Warlocks in decline? Yes.
  • Do they have DPS issues in raids? No, they even have some advantages over other pure DPS classes. DPS looks okay.
  • Are there problems in rated PvP? No. They’re part of the most dominant comp this season. Locks are consistently represented with high rankings.

The two most obvious reasons players would not choose Warlocks at the endgame – that they have performance issues in PvE, PvP, or both – are just not there. Especially when we look at the expansion as the whole, the data simply doesn’t support the idea that Locks can’t hack it. They can. They can shine.

They just aren’t.

So we must look elsewhere for answers.

My first theory about the data we’ve looked at is that it is very focused on level 85 play – and the upper tier of endgame play at that – which is why it fails to explain the lack of Warlocks. Heroic raiding and 2200+ PvP are not the activities of the majority of the player base, but they are activities which receive a lot of scrutiny from both players and developers. This upper tier endgame bias allows us to focus on the potential maximums of each spec, as well as see how a class is performing in demanding conditions, but it doesn’t represent everyone at 85, let alone everyone in the game.

PvP is not balanced around any level other than 85, and arguably it is only balanced for rated PvP play at level 85. Several detrimental changes were made to regular battlegrounds during the course of Cataclysm to solve problems that only existed in rated play. Changes were made to classes based upon their performance in Arenas, not regular battlegrounds. The emphasis of Cataclysm was getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, which meant that they were the (flawed) yardstick by which all PvP was measured.

PvE is a different beast, but the fundamental assumption is that balance still happens at 85. I think that the different buff and nerf cycles experienced in Cataclysm support this. I can’t say that they’re not looking at performances in 5-man content or daily content, but we don’t see a lot of changes aimed at fixing balance in those activities. Raids are where the logs are. Raids drive the nerfs and buffs.

So this theory surmises that the problem with Warlocks is not visible in the endgame data because the data is looking at the wrong activities. It’s looking at the endgame. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the class at endgame – people rolled warlocks, but end up not playing them at the endgame.

There could be a few things going on here.

  1. Warlocks attempt to raid/PvP at endgame, but stop for some reason other than their performance. Possible reasons include class mechanics, better buffs from other classes, easier to gear other classes through raid content/5-mans.
  2. Warlocks get to 85, don’t attempt to raid at all, but enjoy other endgame content.
  3. Warlocks get to 85, but are not played in the endgame at all, and the player rerolls or quits.
  4. Warlocks never get to 85, and therefore never get to endgame content.

The population popularity comparison is about the only data that we have to go on for the first point, but it’s telling that Warlocks are fairly represented in heroic raids compared to the general population (6.7%). If you want to raid, you can, and you can do well. If you are a serious raider leveling to 85, you’re about as likely to raid on a Warlock as a different class.

Casual raiders, of course, might have a different story. Warlocks might do well if executed perfectly, but if their rotation has less margin for error, then there could be a problem between the upper tier or raiders and the masses at 85. So we can’t rule the first possibility out just yet.

The second possibility is that people level their locks to 85 and choose to not raid on them, but do other things. Hunters and DKs appear to be in this situation – they are underrepresented in their raid popularity compared to their overall population. Warlocks, as break even, don’t seem to be here.

Three and four are different but would look the same to most of the data we have, just because the data appears to measure active 85s. We need to look at different data – in this case, realm population data across all levels, not just endgame data.

We have to find out if people are even bothering to level warlocks.

RISING THROUGH THE LEVELS

I was talking about this post with Narci from Flavor Text, and she was kind enough (thanks, Narci!) to cull the following data on class populations in different level ranges from Warcraft Realms:

Class population percentages, by leveling bracket, in 4.3.3

Let’s look at these graphed out, too.

Active Character Level Distribution by Class in 4.3.3

The Warlock line is there below everyone else. It doesn’t start there, but once it crosses the Shaman line around level 20 it never really recovers.

The introduction of Death Knights at 55 causes a population depression in all the other classes because, without warning, over a quarter of the player base is playing a DK at level 55-60. So we should ignore that anomaly, throw out the 50-69 data, and keep it in mind for the the 70-80 data. It skews comparisons for all the other classes, too, because there are only 9 classes represented at 1-10, and 10 at 85. Mages might be 11% at 1 and 11% at 85, but that’s actually an increase in popularity because of the larger number of classes at 85.

Look at Paladins! They start off behind a lot of other classes, but the loyalty shown at 85 is remarkable! There’s a 2% gain of total population share between 84 and 85, which means that people level them to 85 and play them there. Paladins like playing at the endgame. It looks like Druids – and Shaman – do this as well.

Hunters are almost the complete opposite – heavily loaded at the low levels, with a constant decline all the way up. Hunters are excellent leveling toons, and are extremely strong at low level PvP. As they get older they get more complex and less dominant, driving people to put down the class for a while.

It’s really amazing how popular Hunters are at the character selection screen. I wonder if this is because of the new races available to them? Does adding a class to a popular race increase its popularity? It’s something we have to consider when talking about class changes – Hunters got Humans and Forsaken, Warlocks got Dwarves and Trolls.

I like Dwarves, but very few people actually play them.

There are 3228 Dwarf Warlocks and 3867 Troll Warlocks on US and Euro servers versus 34,366 Human and 10,783 Forsaken Hunters (data from Warcraft Realms again).  Even if those numbers aren’t absolutely correct, they’re relatively correct. Hunters benefited more from their new races than Warlocks.

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there. The trajectory is never one of growth, unlike Paladins.

I think if I had to break apart this data, I’d summarize it as follows:

  • Hunters and Death Knights are initially very attractive at character creation and for early leveling, but are normally represented at endgame. Death Knights are probably skewed because of farming/banking toons.
  • Rolling a Rogue is extremely popular right now, likely due to the Legendary Effect, but leveling them to endgame is a challenge.
  • Warriors and Warlocks are somewhat more popular at character creation than at endgame. There may be leveling problems with these classes.
  • Priests, Shaman, Mages, and Druids all increase their popularity  from 1 to 85. The relatively consistent numbers (or slight increases) are subject to the DK effect, making 11% at 85 mean more than 11% at level 10.
  • Paladins dramatically increase in popularity at endgame. They may not be the easiest class to level to 85, but once there, people play them.

Warlocks aren’t a popular choice at creation. I think it’s safe to say that – they’re not Hunters or Death Knights or Druids. But they are also not complete pariahs – people are choosing Warlocks at about the same rate as Priests and Shaman.

I had a theory that one of the reasons Rogues and Warlocks aren’t popular classes is because they’re the “bad guys” of the character creation screen. Both classes have evil flavor and feel to them – Warlocks perhaps even moreso than Rogues. Warlocks aren’t paragons of virtue, defenders of nature, or even very heroic – at best they’re ruthlessly efficient, at worst they’re evil incarnate.

But the data doesn’t really support that. People do choose to try out Warlocks, just not a lot of them – and even fewer make it all the way to the 85 with them.

Update: There is a followup post to the data in this section, Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought, based on Jason’s comment on this post. I was wrong about some of the data this preceeding section – I was overly optimistic and conservative in my interpretation of the leveling data on Warlocks, and should have been more open about how bad the situation is. Looking at the data in a different way revealed a different situation.

Thanks to Jason for his comment and guidance in building this data model.

THAT WHICH REMAINS, NO MATTER HOW IMPROBABLE

Where have the Warlocks gone?

I started this post with some ideas in my head about what caused the decline between Wrath and Cataclysm, and why Warlocks are just not getting played. The problems with the class’s unpopularity in Wrath were only exacerbated by Cataclysm. 

Fewer players are playing Warlocks. People who are noticing that there aren’t as many Warlocks in game are absolutely correct. It’s not that there is something wrong with their performance at the endgame – both PvE and PvP performance is adequate at the high end – but something is driving players away.

Leveling data suggests that the character concept is not the problem. People are rolling them, albeit not as many as other classes. Something happens between rolling the character and getting them into endgame content which causes the class to fall into disfavor. It may be questing, it may be dungeons, it may be battlegrounds. It may be class mechanics.

But something happens.

Here’s the conclusion I was hoping to avoid: people simply don’t like playing warlocks. It’s not that they don’t try them; they do.

Players simply stop playing them.

Some of them, no doubt, give up on Warcraft entirely. There’s plenty of evidence that that has happened. But it’s also likely that they look at other classes and switch. It’s likely that players are migrating to the classes which they find to be the most fun.

And they aren’t finding Warlocks fun enough to stick with them.

Next week, I’ll dig into why this is happening to Warlocks, and what Blizzard is doing to address the problem.

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

On Silverpine Forest

Silverpine Forest.

I didn’t know if I’d come back to it after On The ForsakenI know that I’d said:

I think the best leveling in the Forsaken zones is yet to come. I have actually enjoyed my time leveling in Trisifal, and fully intend to hit Silverpine and Hillsbrad on the Forsaken Cynwise, so I can see it firsthand.

But the reality turned out that I wasn’t ready to hit Silverpine yet. I’d finally given voice to some strong opinions on the Forsaken, finally articulated what it was that bothered me about them so much – so I needed to step back and let the project lie fallow for a bit.

I couldn’t tell you why I decided to pick my Forsaken Warlock up again about a month ago, but I did, and sent her off to finish the last few quests in Trisifal before heading off to Silverpine Forest, to see what the Dark Lady had in store for me.

Obviously, I will be talking about the events in Silverpine Forest a lot in this post. This is a long post – a really long post, with a lot of different topics – which will only make sense if you’ve played the zone. Spoilers will abound. I also wrote it under CFN rules, so when I say long, I mean long.

Consider that several warnings, all rolled in to one.

LILIAN VOSS AND THE DAUGHTERS OF LORDAERON

Lilian Voss is the key figure in the final quests of Trisifal Glades, accompanying you to steal your kills and present what is perhaps the most interesting, dramatic, traumatic storyline in Azeroth. She is the bridge between the worlds of freedom and slavery; the convergence of indoctrination, willing subordination to authority, loyalty to causes greater than our ourselves, and our struggles to find places for ourselves in this world.

Not to put any more pressure on Ms. Voss, of course.

This is a mighty burden to put on a single character in lore, but it was only after Silverpine that I realized how absolutely critical Lilian is to the heart and soul of the Forsaken story. Everything that comes after depends on her, because she frames the Forsaken dilemma in stark purple flames.

Are you free, or are you a slave?

The questline is relatively simple: High Executor Derrington sends you off to find Lilian Voss, who you’d met when you awakened. You find her, this strange young woman possessed of tremendous power, in the middle of a camp of slaughtered Scarlet Crusaders. You accompany her to visit her father, her father who had ordered her slain as soon as she returned to him.

Lilian’s story was discussed by Rades in his speculative post Why I would love to see Heroic Scarlet Monastery and Anne Stickney in The Unfortunate Tale of Lilian Voss, both of which cover the details of how she came to be here, in Trisifal, and why you help her kill her father. She doesn’t really need much help, but it’s through the player’s agency which we see these events unfold, and her revenge illustrates the choice Forsaken characters face.

What happens when you resolve your debts from your lifetime? What happens when your life’s purpose is fulfilled, and endless days stretch before you filled with horror and despair?

The question of purpose in the face of death and horror occupies the Forsaken; the strength of the Banshee Queen’s cause is that she gives the Forsaken that purpose. Choose to serve her, and find purpose in that servitude. The cause of the Forsaken people – of Sylvanas – becomes your own.

Catulla’s wonderful short story about Lilian Voss, Daughter of Lordaeron, captures this question perfectly:

Satiated at last of her need for vengeance, Lilian felt herself gripped by terror as it was replaced by a void demanding answers she could not give. Who am I now, without someone to kill?

Who is Sylvanas, now that Arthas is dead? Who am I, if I reject the Dark Lady? Alone, bereft, hunted by friend and foe alike, no one to turn to, no one to trust?

I spoke before about how the story of Trisifal Glades was getting you to accept the cult of personality around Sylvanas; I remember that I went along with the indoctrination campaign with a raised eyebrow and assurances to myself that I would betray the Forsaken at my first opportunity.

But it’s here, in the final quests of Trisifal, where you’re presented with what will actually happen to you if you choose to not go along with the Banshee Queen. Alone at best, but most likely hunted by those who want to use your power.

Keep Lilian in mind. We’re going to talk about her again.

KNEEL BEFORE YOUR QUEEN, CYNWISE

Holy shit, Silverpine Forest is epic. Epic. You report for duty at the Forsaken High Command and Lady Sylvanas is there. But I was impressed at how quickly the story moved you from the Dark Queen as a object of veneration for a cult of personality to her as a presence in your story.

I was stunned when I delivered a report to Sylvanas and interacted with her for the first time. She greeted me with the following:

Kneel before your queen, Cynwise.

… and at that moment, I was struck by role-playing paralysis.

Do you kneel, or not? That is the only question, and the story pulls no punches here. This might be a throwaway greeting of a quest giver, but if you care about the story to this point it’s huge. Before 5 quests have passed, Silverpine delivers the crisis point that Trisifal has primed you – are you ready to become one of the Forsaken, or not?

The phrase ‘kneel before your queen’ has so many wonderful layers. With the arrogant poise of royalty, she’s already assumed that you are one of her subjects and that you will render her obeisance without question. This isn’t the paternal Cairne or relatively genial Lor’themar here, nor the military Warchief. This is the Dark Queen, and when you approach her you fucking get on one knee and look down at the ground before you speak.

I’m not going to lie; I stopped there for a few minutes, just looking at that screen, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I was really glad Rades was in the game at that time, because I needed to joke about it with someone who would understand that I couldn’t just accept this quest. I either had to kneel, or not kneel.

When you are awakened by the Val’kyr in Deathknell, you are shown three different paths of coping with becoming Forsaken; fight, flight, or acceptance. If you accept – reluctantly or not – then you’re going to be considered one of the subjects of the Dark Queen. Up to this point, you hadn’t taken an oath, you hadn’t had to demonstrate your loyalty to her person, not just the Forsaken kingdom.

  • If you don’t kneel, you take the blue pill and the zone ends. You walk away from Silverpine Forest and believe whatever you want to believe.
  • If you kneel, you take the red pill, and see how far down the rabbit hole swearing allegiance to Sylvanas goes.

This is one of the big limitations of the linear storytelling model introduced with Cataclysm – you don’t really have a choice if you want the story to continue. Normally that’s a criticism, but here I think it’s actually pretty realistic.

See, it’s not just the kneeling that does it; the kneeling is symbolic for what’s going to happen throughout the entire zone. This is a zone which takes you from a new recruit to Sylvanas’s most trusted soldier, where you become an extension of her will. You will become her confidant, you will heroically advance the Forsaken cause by tackling missions no one else can complete. Through your actions you will deliver a significant setback to the Alliance, expand the borders of Lordaeron, and smash the Gilnean resistance. You will watch the Dark Lady die and come back to life through your actions.

If you try to go through Silverpine uncommitted – an angry former citizen of Lordaeron who doesn’t want to see it twisted into a mockery of what it was, an ex-Scarlet Crusader, an ex-Alliance warlock brought back to life who’s trying to be a double agent – then you won’t complete the zone. At some point you’re going to say, okay, wait, stop, now would be the perfect time for me to be a turncoat. At some point you’ll say, this is crazy, why am I doing this for an upstart Ranger General from Silvermoon?

At some point you realize that if you complete Silverpine Forest in character, you do so as one of the Banshee Queen’s most trusted servants, and that you have chosen to serve her.

For me, as a player, that moment came with that fateful command, kneel before your queen, Cynwise. It will probably be different for you, but at some point it will hit you – either you go forward or you don’t.

Are you going to make Lilian Voss’s choice, or are you going to make your own choice to serve the Banshee Queen?

Perhaps the highest praise I can lavish upon a zone is that even simple dialog boxes stopped me in my tracks to consider what had been asked of me.

PROPERTY DISPUTE: REAL ESTATE AND THE UNDEAD

I loved that so many of these quests get you right into the dispute over Lordaeron’s future. You ride with Sylvanas to The Sepulcher, and along the way she tells you why she’s doing what she’s doing.

The people who called this land their home in life, do so in death as well.

This cuts right to the root of the matter, doesn’t it? The citizens of Lordaeron are still there after the plague wiped them out, what, 8 years prior? They are still there. I’m going to set aside my arguments based on their inhuman behavior for a bit and just focus on Sylvanas’s defense of her actions.

  • The citizens of Lordaeron are still here, are still sentient, and still call it home.
  • They were robbed of their life and sentience by the hereditary nobility of Lordaeron, but through Sylvanas’s actions, regained their free will.
  • The Alliance seeks to deprive the rightful inhabitants of Lordaeron of their land and take it for their own.

Set aside Silvanas, Princess Calia Menethil, and the kingship of Lordaeron for a moment, and just consider the claim Sylvanas presents. The people of Lordaeron are still there. The sovereign nation of Lordaeron still exists, though the government has been radically altered. Not only has it been altered through what amounts to a populist uprising, but also… uh… everyone is dead. Still functioning! But dead.

So many questions come up from this simple statement! Can dead people own property, legally? Can they enter into contracts if they’re dead? Can they form sovereign bodies, capable of self-government, if the corpus is literally corpses?

Obviously, the Forsaken are doing all of these things. There’s no question that while it might not look much like a human kingdom anymore, Lordaeron is – once again – a functioning kingdom. But does the law recognize that they should be able to do so? That they have a legal right to do so? How do Azerothian laws deal with undeath?

This place is a scholar of jurisprudence’s dream.

You could argue that when they died of the Scourge Plague, the people of Lordaeron forfeited all rights as citizens of that nation. Their property reverted to their estates, which would then go to their next-of-kin or other beneficiaries, which in turn (since everyone was dying) eventually probably reverted back to the original property holder – the King. It doesn’t matter that those people came back from the dead. It doesn’t matter if they come back as resurrected human beings or raised undead monstrosities – their property rights already passed to someone else.

I wager that most people would at least say, okay, that makes sense for a legal system where life after death is an uncommon (but possible!) thing. It’s interesting to consider what it implies for resurrection versus transformation into a horrific undead creature – one suspects that people would be more sympathetic to someone who came back whole and relatively attractive to human sensibilities, as opposed to an animated cadaver.

But let’s face it – Lordaeron fell 7 years ago in the timeline of World of Warcraft. The legal systems haven’t had time to catch up to an entire kingdom (and parts of neighboring kingdoms) getting wiped out by a plague of undeath. And Sylvanas is appealing not to Justinianic codes of law, here – she’s appealing to common law concepts of inhabitation and dwelling. Sedrick Calston may have died, but he’s still working hard on his own land to make it better.

You work hard your whole life, and what do you get? Killed by a plague. Then you work even harder in undeath, and what do you get? Money, yes, and a small estate with a few pesky hangers-on, but happiness? Not so much.

Common sense tells us that Sylvanas is right. Most Forsaken retain their memories of their lives. They have similar, if somewhat traumatized, personalities.

This is a land populated by its deceased inhabitants. They are still a nation, and Sylvanas is right, in some ways – the Alliance refuses to accept their claims, while the Horde accepted them as a sovereign nation.

They are not the old kingdom of Lordaeron. Riding through Silverpine Forest, listening to Sylvanas, this is a kingdom whose monarchy apparently betrayed them in the most horrific way possible, and then whose former allies turned against them when they regained their free will. The old feudal system was swept away when the reigning monarch abandoned them to become the Lich King; Sylvanas stepped into the position with massive popular support. It was a coup of the people of Lordaeron against the absent reigning monarchy.

(As players, we might know that Arthas was fighting the Lich King, but that absolutely cannot be common knowledge.)

This is the rationale of the Forsaken, what they are fighting for. This is our land. It was our land before the Scourge took it from us. It is our home.

It’s a good reason to fight for it.

EXPANSIONISM, MISOGYNY, AND CAUSES FOR WAR

The simple reasons Sylvanas gives for her defense of the Forsaken are compelling if you’ve already taken the red pill. If you knelt before her at the High Command, you’ll have no problem accepting that yes, this is good and right. If you’re playing a former  citizen of Lordaeron, you better believe she’s right.

But that’s really only one side of the story. Overly simplified:

  • Alliance: Crap, Scourge in Lordaeron! Kill them all!
  • Forsaken: We’re free now! Don’t shoot!
  • Alliance: Scourge trick! Kill them all!
  • Forsaken: Well, if you’re going to be that way, we’re gong to fight back! And capture your people to torture them and experiment upon them to develop superweapons to wipe you out!
  • Alliance: So, we think might have made a mistake back there, but that whole “wipe you out” thing? We don’t want you as neighbors.
  • Horde: Hey. We’ll take you.
  • Forsaken: Deal. Our neighbors are crazy and want to wipe us out. You probably want to wipe us out too, but you can live for now.
  • Alliance: You joined the Horde? Are you fucking crazy???
  • Forsaken: We did what had to be done to survive.
  • Alliance: You’re totally batshit crazy and evil, and deserve to be put down like a rabid dog. And you just joined the Horde.
  • Forsaken: Bring it, breathers.

I’ve already talked about my take on the moral stance of the Forsaken, but let me set that aside for a moment and talk practical politics.

What would it take for the Alliance and the Forsaken to come to peaceful terms?

Assume that that’s actually a goal worth working towards, because lord knows it’s not what you do in Silverpine. How would you do it? The Alliance would have to get over the fact that the citizens of Lordaeron are dead but still moving around, that they committed a bunch of atrocities against Alliance civilians, and that they joined the Horde. The Forsaken would have to get over the Alliance attacks against them when they were newly freed, and the subsequent events (like the Battle of Undercity). The RAS would probably need to be disbanded, or their experiments repudiated. The Alliance would have to concede a lot of strategic land to the Forsaken, and would probably insist that they leave the Horde.

That’s an awful lot of forgiveness expected from two factions which aren’t known for it.

I thought about those peace conditions a lot while working through the quests which send you into the Ruins of Gilneas, where you join the front lines of the Forsaken advance. The execution here is great. It feels like a real battle, like a battle that matters. The war engines, the Worgen commandos sneaking up, the lines of Forsaken catapults and gunners – it’s a great feeling to quest through. If you’ve taken the red pill, it’s easy to get swept up in it – FOR SYLVANAS! I really enjoyed it.

But I’d log off and find myself wondering things like, why are the Forsaken attacking Gilneas? Strategically, what does it gain them? Land? They don’t really need land, do they? A port? It’s not like Lordaeron is landlocked, and their expansion to Southshore gives them more direct southerly access.

Gilneas is a neutral country. It’s important to remember that, no matter what, they don’t actually present a clear and present threat to the Forsaken. Stormwind is the threat. Ironforge is the threat. The Alliance is the threat. Gilneas left the Alliance and is hiding behind their walls, with no indication they’re coming out.

So why am I here, amidst the siege, killing worgen, invading another country?

From Dave Kosak’s Edge of Night:

Master Apothecary Lydon ran his bony fingers through his tangle of hair. The roar from orc, tauren, and Forsaken alike overwhelmed the thunder. How does he do it? Lydon wondered. My Forsaken brothers cheer for their own destruction!

Lydon desperately tried to form the words, some last plea for sanity against Garrosh’s plan. He tried to imagine what the Dark Lady would say, how she would tamp down his bloodlust. His jaw opened, but no words came out.

Garrosh spurred his war wolf to the side of the army, clearing the way for a charge. “Heroes of the Forsaken! You are the point of my spear. Lift your arms; lift your voices; and do not stop until you lift the Horde banner upon those walls.” Gorehowl dropped down. “Chaaaarge!”

Garrosh.

I found myself, a trusted soldier of the Dark Queen, kneeling in the cold mud of Gilneas for reasons I didn’t quite understand, but knowing that somehow, somewhere, Garrosh was responsible for it.

That was actually a pretty cool moment. It felt like a real war story at that point, going to war for reasons that didn’t make sense but damnit, I had orders and I was going to follow those orders.

Outside of the game, I know that the Forsaken invade Gilneas to provide an enemy in the Worgen’s starting zone. It would have been interesting to perhaps leave it as a Human vs. Worgen zone to ratchet up the internal Gilnean politics – but having the Forsaken invade adds a Horde element to the Gilnean problem, and forces the PCs to abandon the zone.

But inside the game, I’m trying to wrap my head around why Sylvanas is spending her troops, her people, this way. And of course it comes back to Edge of Night, Wolfheart, and Garrosh’s philosophy of expansionism at all costs. Ashenvale! Hillsbarad! Darkshore! Gilneas!

Sylvanas has a resource problem; no new Forsaken means that her nation will eventually wither away. With no reproduction, the Forsaken are doomed. And once vengeance is served against the Lich King, the Forsaken lose their need for revenge at all costs. So why go to war, when every soldier is irreplaceable and your main enemy is dead?

Obviously, some of this is due to the fallout from the Battle of Undercity. Garrosh didn’t fight in that battle, but the Horde did, and Sylvanas owes the Horde for it. This is an interesting political dynamic, and one that I don’t really claim to understand – how beholden are the individual member states of the Horde to the larger organization? Is this a personal debt that Sylvanas owes? (If so, wouldn’t that be to Thrall, not Garrosh?) Is this a personal grudge against the Greymane family, or did Gilneas do something to Lordaeron? (Doesn’t seem to be any interactions with Gilneas except for their withdrawing from the Alliance, and hey, the Forsaken did that too.) Strategic reasons, maybe? Nope.

Maybe Garrosh wants to punish Sylvanas and the Forsaken. Not for anything they’ve done, but because he’s afraid of them. Even before she gets the Val’kyr, Sylvanas is scary. He saw her in Northcrown (presumably) when she was hell-bent on killing Arthas. Her troops are loyal to her in a way which Garrosh can only hope to achieve.

And then there’s the scene, the scene, early on in Silverpine, when the Warchief Cometh:

Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: With the aid of the val’kyr, we are now able to take the corpses of the fallen and create new Forsaken.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Agatha, show the Warchief!
*The Val’kyr Agatha proceeds to resurrect fallen corpses as Undead*
High Warlord Cromush: ABBERATION!
Garrosh Hellscream: What you have done here, Sylvanas….it goes against the laws of nature. Disgusting is the only word I have to describe it.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Warchief, without these new Forsaken my people would die out…Out hold upon Gilneas and northern Lordaeron would crumble.
Garrosh Hellscream: Have you given any thought to what this means, Sylvanas?
Garrosh Hellscream: What difference is there between you and the Lich King now?
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Isn’t it obvious, Warchief? I serve the Horde.
Garrosh Hellscream: Watch your clever mouth, bitch.
Garrosh Hellscream: Cromush, you stay behind and make sure the Banshee Queen is well “guarded.” I will be expecting a full report when next we meet.
High Warlord Cromush: As you command, Warchief!
Garrosh Hellscream: Remember, Sylvanas, eventually we all have to stand before our maker and face judgment. Your day may come sooner than others…

It all comes together here.

We see Sylvanas solving the problem of her people’s survival through the only means possible. While it might not have been the val’kyr specifically, the Forsaken always needed to either find new ways to raise the dead or die out as a people.

We see Garrosh taken aback, as he should be. This is the kinda stuff that no one is really prepared to deal with. She just raised an entire field of soldiers – in game it was like 20 corpses? – and turned them into units ready for training. That is both militarily a huge advantage – you now have the power of the Lich King on your side – and very, very frightening that he doesn’t control it.

And then there’s the comment that hit me, like most people:

Watch your clever mouth, bitch.

… which is astonishing. I know the game is rated T for Teen and all that, but I really wasn’t expecting it. It really bothered me at the time, but looking back at it from the perspective of the broken Greymane Wall, it makes a little more sense why Blizzard kept it in the game.

My first reaction was that this had entirely the wrong tone, that the comment seemed wildly out of place. Bitch is not a term we hear often in Warcraft. It doesn’t fit. NPCs don’t use modern swears or insults, as befits the setting, so seeing something that’s so culturally grounded in the here and now was jarring. Genre shows like Battlestar Galactica or Firefly go to great lengths to establish a common tone with vocabulary and cursing; breaking the rules of the created world snaps you out of the story. I found Garrosh calling Sylvanas a bitch had a similar effect on me; it was so out of tone with the rest of the game I suddenly snapped out of the dialog and went, woah, what was Blizzard thinking!

If I start thinking about the company who created a game while playing that game, something has gone wrong.

But when I got back into the story, I realized that this is an example of misogyny that fits the character of Garrosh, for good or for ill. While I don’t think it fit the game, nor do I think it was appropriate to use for the gaming audience, I think it conveys Garrosh’s fear of Sylvanas, his realization that he is dealing with someone that he can neither control nor trust, and who is completely unlike him.

He lashes out at her feminine nature because he fears it, and seeks to undermine it and her. Don’t lose sight of the entire insult – watch your clever mouth, bitch – phrased with the threat of violence inherent in nearly all misogyny. He threatens her for her words, not her actions, because her actions frankly terrify him. He goes after her for her insubordinate tone and  mocking half answer, because it was something he could let his anger deal with.  He didn’t know how to deal with her admission that she essentially is the Lich King, only on his side.

It’s interesting how this exchange changes your perception of both characters. Garrosh looks like a brute, even if his general objection – WTF you’re the Lich King now? – is completely reasonable. Sylvanas inspires us, as players, to at least be sympathetic to her in relation to the rest of the Horde. Scenes like this help establish a Forsaken’s basic set of loyalties, which is Dark Queen > Forsaken > Self Horde > Everyone else. If you’ve bought into the Cult of the Banshee Queen, you’re going to want to leap to her defense after this insult.

But gender and physical violence mean nothing to Sylvanas. Not anymore. From Edge of Night again:

At that moment, nobody dared look Sylvanas Windrunner in the eye. Nobody but Garrosh Hellscream.

What he saw was a great black void, an infinite darkness. There was fear in those eyes, but also something else. Something that terrified even the great warchief. His wolf began to edge away instinctively.

“Garrosh Hellscream. I’ve walked the realms of the dead. I have seen the infinite dark. Nothing you say. Or do. Could possibly frighten me.”

The army of undead that surrounded and protected the Dark Lady was still hers, body and soul. But they were no longer arrows in her quiver, not anymore. They were a bulwark against the infinite. They were to be used wisely, and no fool orc would squander them while she still walked the world of the living.

Sylvanas invades Gilneas not because she is afraid of Garrosh, or because he called her a bitch. She invaded it because she was working to secure her people’s place within the Horde. She did it to give her people a task, a purpose now that the Lich King was dead. And she did it to expand her empire on this continent, bringing the Gilnean dead into her armies.

Did she do it because Garrosh ordered her to? It appears so, if you’ve done the Worgen starting area:

General Warhowl says: It appears you are losing control of Gilneas, Sylvanas. Garrosh fears he’s going to have carry out this invasion himself.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner says: You can assure Garrosh that this is a minor setback. Our victory in Gilneas will be absolute.

But from this side of the fence it looks like there’s more going on than simple Horde expansionism, the kind attributed to Garrosh’s invasion of Ashenvale (both in-game and in Wolfheart.)

Garrosh is afraid of Sylvanas. She is everything he is not as a leader. He may be a war hero, but he remains ragingly insecure about his right to be Warchief. The Dark Lady has fanatical support of her people – her people, it should be noted, who are not overly burdened with scruples or the moral codes of the living. She has powers at her disposal which are, frankly, terrifying to contemplate. Even without the Val’kyr, the Forsaken were able to soundly defeat a combined force of Horde, Alliance, and Scourge in Northrend using their superior biochemical technology.

Sylvanas is the most powerful faction leader in the Horde. She served as an interesting counterpoint to Thrall, who in retrospect managed her through diplomacy, tact, and even genuine support. Thrall could have abandoned her to the Alliance after the Battle of Undercity – but he did not.

Garrosh is no Thrall. The position of Warchief was given to him, not taken from him. Had Saurfang the Younger survived in Northrend, Garrosh would still be relegated to the frothing sidekick of the leader – but he did not. Cairne is gone. Gallywix and Lor’themar are not real threats.

But Sylvanas… Sylvanas is a threat. Not to his leadership of the Orcs, but definitely to his leadership of the Horde. And she scares the living daylights out of him. She’s a tactical genius, she broke free of the Lich King’s will, she possesses chemical superweapons, and now she has power over death itself. She claims equality with the Lich King.

And, because this entity, this powerful being of will and hate, happens to be in the body of a half-dressed sin’dorei female, Garrosh lashes out and calls her a bitch.

Smooth move, dumbass.

It’s easy enough to say, listen, the Forsaken had to invade Gilneas because the Worgen became a playable race in Cataclysm, and someone had to drive them into the arms of the Alliance. It’s more difficult to construct a plausible reason why the Forsaken would invade Gilneas for their own benefit, especially when Sylvanas was trying to solve ‘the problem of the Forsaken,’ the reproductive problem of undeath. Garrosh as a bat-shit crazy expansionist provides a convenient surface reason, but I think the more compelling reasons are deeper, darker, more sinister.

Garrosh is terrified of Sylvanas, so he orders her to undertake an expansionist war against a neutral country to weaken the Forsaken forces. He tries to take control of the several times with the intent of using the Forsaken as shock troops. It is his actions which, eventually, bring the Worgen into the Alliance, which in turn lead to his defeat in Ashenvale.

Sylvanas still desires the protection of the Horde, but with the addition of the Val’kyr to her forces she now has the ability to expand her forces past those created by the Lich King. Expansion serves her purpose by bringing more potential nations into her armies and following. Invasions which use up Horde resources allow her to raise more dead while weakening those who threaten her.

War serves the Dark Lady’s purposes now.

THE CHOICE OF FENRIS

Why was I fighting in the mud of Gilneas?

To expand Lordaeron. To expand the ranks of the Forsaken. To support my Queen. Because from the moment I entered Silverpine Forest, I had been under attack from the Worgen, so they must be the enemy.

From the moment that I knelt before the Dark Lady and jettisoned my old character concept, I went along with the Silverpine narrative wholeheartedly. I was a defender of Lordaeron, pushing back the invading werewolves. The story flows smoothly from assault to assault. There was no question that the Worgen are invading my land, and that what I was doing was right.

When the story takes you to Gilneas, and you ride through the walls for the first time, you’ve had an entire zone to get used to the Worgen as savage enemies. When the Alliance comes in to support their resistance movement, it’s clear that now the Worgen really are the enemies of Lordaeron.

This is a fantastic political bait and switch. I didn’t even realize it until after I’d done the zone, that my reasons for being in Gilneas were not the same as those when I started at the High Command in Silverpine, when I stormed Fenris Isle and forced the refugees of Hillsbrad to choose between lycanthropy and undeath. This was not a war fought for our land.

I was the invader, though I had no way of knowing that as a player character.

The clues start on the Isle of Fenris:

Lord Darius Crowley says:  Die in battle and be raised as a servant of the Forsaken or… Drink my blood and be reborn as worgen, immune to the depravity of the Forsaken. Help us destroy the Forsaken and retake Lordaeron for the Alliance!

Magistrate Henry Maleb says: We would rather die than be turned into worgen, but seeing as how even death provides no relief from the atrocities of this war… We choose vengeance!

I thought the Isle of Fenris was a great series of quests. You take on the first mission – kill refugees from Hillsbrad and turn them into Forsaken – which leads to the refugees meeting with the Worgen resistance, where they make a terrible choice of accepting the Worgen curse instead of falling under your curse. You and your Val’kyr companion present such a threat to these people that they choose to become werewolves instead of zombies under your control.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

You don’t have enough information yet to know what these refugees have fled – the Forsaken invasion of Hillsbrad. You don’t have enough knowledge to know why the Worgen are here, stirring up trouble – because of the Forsaken invasion of Gilneas. But what you do know is that you’re acting under the orders of the Banshee Queen, and that the Alliance is trying to stop her. They are trying to take Lordaeron!

This completely validates the reasons Sylvanas gives you, a few minutes later, when riding to The Sepulcher – the Alliance doesn’t respect the Forsaken claims to the kingdom and is trying to take it away from the rightful citizens of Lordaeron. The Worgen, as agents of the Alliance, are in the wrong there.

By the time you’re kneeling in the mud of Gilneas, that’s the message you remember. The Alliance are trying to take my kingdom. Gilneas is a threat that must be neutralized.

You might forget that not so long ago, humans who fled the Forsaken, who fought against the undead, were willing to succumb to a horrible curse they considered worse than death itself in order to avoid coming under the control of the Dark Queen. The mud is cold, even on your undead flesh, and the worgen are everywhere. There is all kind of shit flying around in that battle.

You might forget that you raised corpses of fervent opponents of the Forsaken – and that they immediately defected to your side. That you watched the Val’kyr raise dozens of corpses – and they fell in line, almost uniformly.

The Isle of Fenris is a place where, as a GM of a tabletop RPG, I would have drawn out that horror longer. Much like Gilneas, too much happens too quickly there for proper role playing, because man, this is meaty stuff. You, stalking the humans, sowing fear and terror as they fall before you and your protective angel of death. Their huddled conferences, their desperate situation, the appearance of the Worgen and choice between two awful fates.

To become Forsaken, in the Hillsbrad refugee’s eyes, is to lose your free will, is to become a slavish servant of the Dark Queen. You may retain your intellect, and your memories, but do you retain your will? Can you really rebel against Sylvanas when raised?

Consider what they’ve seen – their friends and family have been turned against them. People who fought the Forsaken in Southshore and Tarren Mill now march under the Banshee Queen’s watchful gaze. You’ve seen it, too – mass resurrection of troops with little will. Perhaps we’re supposed to dismiss them as mooks, but any serious consideration of the story has to get over that trope and consider them as real human beings.

Who rebels against the Dark Queen’s control? Marshal Redpath, Lilian Voss… maybe you and me. We don’t see a lot of examples of free will in the second generation of Forsaken. It appears that the Val’kyr process does something similar to decrypting, keeping the memories and skills of the raised intact, but their allegiance is shifted to that of the Forsaken. There’s no need to persuade those you turn on the Isle of Fenris – they arise saying things like:

  • “I am Forsaken.”
  • “At your command.”
  • “I am eternal… I am death.”
  • “I LIVE!”

Some react with horror. But most accept their fate and willingly embrace their enemies.

This should be utterly, utterly chilling. The choice of Fenris is a horrible one, but understandable.

To have death hold not only the promise of unlife, but an unlife of unwilling servitude? Worse, of knowing that you will obey without question, that your body and mind will follow the commands and will of your enemy, with a tiny spark of yourself howling in outrage and horror for the rest of your unending days?

I haven’t referred back to On The Forsaken in a while, but there’s a part I think is relevant when talking about the choice of Fenris:

It’s not just that the Forsaken keep living, sentient creatures caged to experiment upon, or enslave them – it’s that they were willing to go further than mere slavery. They are willing to completely destroy someone’s free will, to leave them aware of what has been done, screaming silently in horror through the end of her days, but unable to change any part of it.

The question of free will continues to hang heavy over Silverpine Forest. Do you, as the hero, serve Sylvanas out of free will? It looks like it, yet there is all kinds of evidence that she compells unthinking loyalty. Can you trust your own loyalty in that situation?

The Worgen of Gilneas are your enemy. They have been since Trisifal; defeating them is the ultimate purpose of this storyline. But when you look at the larger story, they are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting for their homeland. They are fighting to not be turned into slaves of the Forsaken.

Because the worgen curse prevents the bearer from being raised as a Forsaken, these two cultures will forever be polar opposites. It’s interesting to see how that plays out from both sides of the conflict.

MAKING CURSES TACTICAL

Since I’m already talking about it, let’s talk about something that really bothered me about the Isle of Fenris – the pacification of the Worgen Curse.

In the Worgen starting area, getting bitten by a worgen is terrifying. You become a feral worgen, out of control, hunting your fellow humans for weeks… months… who knows? But you lose all control until only the brilliant alchemist Krennan Aranas solves the problem, and then the Night Elves step in and perform a ritual for you to make the potion permanent.

The Isle of Fenris removes some, but not all, of the danger in becoming a werewolf. It’s presented quickly, but by drinking Crowley’s blood all the refugees become Worgen, yet retain some large measure of control (they are capable of speech, for example). We see this in other places, but this is where it stuck out – a mass conversion of people to a state which should reduce them to a state of horror, but is instead used tactically.

In many ways, this is the exact same problem that you face as a Forsaken player character. You have a horrific experience and you have to come to terms with your new existence. You appear to have free will, but there are things about your current state which indicate that might not be the case. You work through your metamorphosis over the course of a zone-long story. Yet there are others who go through the transformation in seconds, and come out the other side without any problem.

I remember this problem coming up a lot when I played Vampire: the Masquerade. Players would try to use their blood in a purely tactical manner, to create ghouls or weaker vampires with specific abilities. As a Storyteller, I’d have to balance narrative and flow of the game, so sometimes it would be as simple as a roll (“yes, you ghoul the tiger… and the monkey… and the snakes.”) and sometimes it would be an entirely separate roleplaying session, filled with dramatic tension and terrible consequences. One player ripped apart her mortal lover in a blood frenzy when trying to tactically use an elder’s blood to gain power; another found himself in the middle of a blood feud he was not prepared for.

It distresses me a bit when we see a horrifying event neutered because it’s happening so often it becomes commonplace. After you see a few hundred corpses get raised in Silverpine Forest, it’s not really a big deal. (LIGHT SHOW!) After you see a few hundred humans get turned into Worgen, okay, it’s time to man the guns, not weep for their fates.

There are often explanations for why this happens, but just because an atrocity is repeated over and over, doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the horror.

(And I’m including both werewolves and zombies here.)

SILVERPINE COMEDY TROUPE

Lest you get the wrong idea from the previous 5000 words, I really did enjoy Silverpine Forest. The quests are exciting, thought-provoking, and fucking hilarious. From Mortuus calling me Cynwisenub (that’s New Undercity Battalion to you!) to using the Sea Dogs as comic relief, I think the humor in this zone brought some much needed relief to the utter seriousness of the Forsaken predicament.

There are a lot of in-jokes for previous players in this zone. I have a note scrawled in my field notes about this – “are these only funny to gamers?” – but I don’t know how to answer this, since I’ve played long enough that my perspective is tainted. The Sea Dogs are a kind of lowbrow humor that probably would work well – the orc pup in Steel Thunder‘s lines are so good (“Dis giving me a hernia. Captain, what is hernia?”) I ran around the zone, herbing and mining with my sea pup in tow just to see what he’d say next. Putting beer on your back and rousing the troops is a nice variation on “click on friendly troops while fighting off their enemies.”

Playing the orcs for comic relief helps strengthen that sense of Forsaken self that permeates the zone. It defines a friendly Other, within the Horde, which allows you to feel superior as a Forsaken soldier. Ha ha, look at those drunk orcs! Us Forsaken aren’t buffoons like those Sea Dogs! It’s a common ploy in propaganda, and it honestly works well here.

It’s interesting that Blizzard presents the orcs this way here. By presenting Garrosh as a blustering, fearful leader, he’s hard to take seriously in this zone. I’m sorry, but the bitch comment sounds like it came from a scared, angry, low-class worker, not from the leader of one of the most powerful factions on Azeroth. The Sea Dogs are funny, but not really presented as, uh, vital allies. They aren’t playing a major role within Gilneas itself, and their scope of operations in Silverpine is limited.

It’s a problem when you play a group off for comic relief, and then you start thinking about if they were really contributing to the plot versus the story. I’d miss the orcs if they weren’t here, and think they made the zone more fun.

That’s probably all I really need to know – I laughed at them, and they raised my opinion of the Silverpine Forest questline.

Also: Inconspicuous Bears. What’s next, inconspicuous seals? Could you imagine it?

DEATH, REBIRTH AND FREEDOM

Daughter of Lordaeron, again:

“Lilian deserved a choice,” he declared, slamming his fist on the table. “That has always been our way.”

“Indeed. I am disappointed in your failure to ensure she made the right one.”

“I didn’t realize that was my responsibility.” He stood up, lifting the tent’s flap of heavy indigo canvas open. “Get out. I have more important things to attend to than debate with some grasping slip of a girl who dares to suggest I ought to share more in common with the Scourge.”

In the end, I loved questing in Silverpine Forest. Loved it. The story made me think. The story put me right in the center of actual lore events, without regard to level (which I think is absolutely appropriate.) It had absolutely epic moments. It told the story of my rise from a simple soldier in Her Dark Majesty’s Service to a trusted lieutenant and hero of the Undercity in my own right – a good mirror of the Undercity reputation bar, now that I think of it. This was more than “kill 10 rats” over and over again until you got killed of rats.

I didn’t know if Silverpine would change my overall opinion of the Forsaken. I tried to go through it with an open mind. I realized, very early on, that I needed to change my attitude and my concept of my character to make it work – so I jettisoned my previous idea and made Cynwise the Forsaken a somewhat surprised citizen of Lordaeron, instead of an ex-Alliance hero. In the end, that change let me enjoy the story much, much more – though it didn’t end up changing my opinion on the Forsaken.

The zone ends with a dramatic confrontation with the Gilnean nobles and death of Sylvanas. That you are there for it, that you fight to bring the Dark Lady back to life, is the high point of the zone. It happens so fast – in the moment of triumph, suddenly, betrayal. That’s how it should be. You prove your loyalty, as do the Val’kyr. And there are many, many questions about what happened there, that you will probably take to your grave. It doesn’t matter that this is a 10-20 zone – the events are bigger than the levels. Story trumps levels.

I think that point needs to be driven home more. Zones are enjoyable not when they tell “level appropriate” stories, but rather suitable stories for the zone. The story of Silverpine is the story of the renewed conflict between Lordaeron/Undercity and Gilneas, and is treated in a properly epic way. It’s okay to have zones which are not quite so epic – consider how Silverpine was before, where you were fighting Arugal’s feral worgen, the wizards of Dalaran, spiders and worgs and bears, oh my! That kind of scattered questing was fine, but once the Greymane Wall fell, the zone needed to change to reflect the epic conflict going on there. Epic doesn’t require max level.

If Trisifal is your introduction to the Forsaken, Silverpine is where you take your place among the heroes of the race. You come into it facing the choice of Lilian Voss, and leave it having committed to your liege lady. Silverpine is the zone which makes a Forsaken a Forsaken; before that, you’re simply a free-willed undead. I’m glad I went through it.

The events within Silverpine are profoundly disturbing. The entire zone abounds with questions of mortality and free will. Throughout I found myself wondering, am I doing this because I want to serve the Banshee Queen, or because she compels me to do it? Would I stop if I could? Or would I press on, for her glory? What does my life mean, now that I am dead?

As a player, I achieved a satisfactory separation between my own opinions of the Forsaken and my character. That speaks highly of the quality of the zone, that it could suspend my dislike of the Forsaken enough to not only let me play through it, but enjoy that play. I can respect those Forsaken caught within the grip of the cult of Sylvanas’s personality a bit more now, and understand the conflicting loyalties that reside in the former residents of Lordaeron.

But I still think the Forsaken, as a political faction and cult of Sylvanas, are evil. Not misguided, but outright evil. Silverpine Forest strengthened my conviction that Sylvanas is leading the people of Lordaeron down a very dark path, and that while there are heroes among the undead, Azeroth can’t turn a blind eye to them. The Horde condemns its own moral imperative by allying with them. Garrosh is right to fear her. The Alliance might be able to make peace with some elements of Lordaeron, but will never do so with Sylvanas – war serves her too well now.

She is, perhaps, the single biggest threat on Azeroth’s political stage now that Deathwing is gone. Both the Alliance and Horde would do well to fear her.

And yet, I now have a character who is proud to call herself a servant of the Dark Lady.

Well done, Silverpine. Well done.

Next stop: Welcome to the Machine.

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