WoW has a leadership problem. I’m not talking about the executive team at Blizzard Entertainment, but rather how Blizzard writes the leaders of their MMO. The history of the Warcraft universe has never been one of much peace because peace is boring and hello, it’s not called Peacecraft. However, as players who focus on one of the two primary factions to the exclusion of all else, we can see how each faction is treated by Blizzard, how their leaders are written, and we tend to get riled up when we see our faction losing out to the other. Myself, I’m primarily Alliance-leaning, although I play Horde almost as much. I can see both sides of the argument as a proper moderate should. The rest of this article will contain massive spoilers for the upcoming expansion Legion, including the Broken Shores instances currently live in-game.
Now let’s take a brief look at both factions’ leaders during the history of World of Warcraft.
Alliance Horde Classic: Bolvar Fordragon Thrall BC: Bolvar Fordragon Thrall WotLK: Varian Wrynn Thrall Cata: Varian Wrynn Garrosh Hellscream MoP: Varian Wrynn Garrosh Hellscream WoD: Varian Wrynn Vol'jin Legion: Anduin Wrynn Sylvanas Windrunner
The Alliance has had the more stable leadership situation over the years. They’re not without their mishaps, the whole fake-Varian thing during BC that came out of the comics but was incorporated into the game leading up to Wrath. However, some of their secondary leaders have been the same people for a number of years and we as players have known their names and factional roles sometimes since the previous iterations of the universe via the original RTS series. We can’t say the same for the Horde’s leaders.
The Broken Shores instances highlight some of the problems with how both factions are handled, and how their leaders are handled. Horde players are understandably upset that their Warchief gets killed by some random mid-level demon, while the Alliance’s king gets killed personally by Gul’dan. Vol’jin has been something of a cipher to the bigger picture. Hardly anyone ever heard of him until Cataclysm, when trolls suddenly get a new starting experience and an actual leader! This is a bit of an irony, considering the trolls are actually the eldest fully non-divine race in the universe – even the elves are merely evolutionary children of the ancient trolls.
The Alliance’s various races have had multiple leader figures, multiple locations for cities to grow up. We have Theramore and Jaina Proudmoore, a holdover from the RTS days. We have the newer Gilneas and Genn Greymane shoehorned in as long-time allies although they were estranged due to the worgen curse for years. We’ve got night elves coming out of our ears now. The dwarves have cities and big-time leaders at Ironforge, Blackrock Depths, and Aerie Peak, enough so that when Magni Bronzebeard got turned into diamond during the lead-up to Cataclysm, the dwarves squabbled until they settled on the uneasy Council of Three Hammers to rule Ironforge. Ironically, the most helpful and open-minded of the three leaders is Moira Bronzebeard, Magni’s formerly-estranged daughter who went off and married Dark Iron Emperor Thaurissan (and thus brought a bit of worry back with her because the Dark Irons are considered evil). Throughout the entire history of the Alliance in both RTS and MMO, the overall leader has been a human king from Lordaeron or Stormwind or a regent ruling in his name. This bias is why they overlook the fact that every other Alliance leader is years (if not ten thousand years) older than Anduin Wrynn and would be a more logical choice until he matures further.
The Horde is different, very very different. Aside from philosophy, the Horde has been led by an Orc since its inception until the end of MoP, then got a troll for WoD, and now has an elf leading it. With the Horde, Blizzard is willing to overthrow years of lore and canon to have the Warchief not be based out of Orgrimmar. Whatever else Sylvanas is, she was originally a high elf (and part of the Alliance), but now leads a nation of undead humans (since we can’t be any other race as Forsaken) out of Lordaeron’s decaying basement. Sylvanas leading the Horde is interesting and it makes sense, considering she’s been actively in the lore since the RTS days and people know who she is. She’s still a known quantity if rather edgy, whether or not you drank her Kool-Aid. While there are some who invariably accuse Blizzard of pandering to the feminists and the current trend of female-led movies and TV shows (especially now that they’re making her wear more clothes, a frequent request of my fellow feminists who are tired of seeing women dressed in their skivvies instead of proper armor in public), she has the street cred of having been around for much longer than the actual MMO.
Vol’jin, on the other hand, got shafted. So did the trolls. All the other Horde races have had leaders whose names were known, who were as much a part of lore for the past twenty years as any Alliance race. In fact, although Thrall is abdicating any leadership role in Legion (hence why players selecting Enhancement Shaman will wield the Doomhammer as their Artifact weapon), there are still several good long-known orcs who can take up leadership of their race. While elderly, Eitrigg is still around. High Overlord Saurfang will be an awesome leader for his people if he actually takes on that role. So who do the trolls have to lead now that Vol’jin is dead?
Blizzard never cultivated other troll leaders, whether related to Vol’jin or not. Having Vol’jin be Warchief and basically do fuck all for an expansion and then get replaced by Sylvanas the edgy reminds me of SWTOR‘s planet Quesh, a one-level pitstop BioWare hastily created and shoved in there because they realized there was a leveling gap between two more famous planets. This is unfortunately indicative of how Blizzard has consistently written the trolls. While they’re the most ancient non-divine race on Azeroth, they were always written as a race everyone else fought against. Notice how if any segment of a race’s people are hostile, they’re always a rogue element or sub-faction? Player-trolls ARE their race’s sub-faction, the minority. It’s nice to see some differentiation between the races and how they’re regarded in the overall world. Not everyone can be the leaders and visible all the time, but it still shunted trolls and their players into the role of being not as cool as the other races.
Still, that doesn’t excuse what Blizzard did with Vol’jin. He was used as a pitstop, a temporary leader to fill the gap between two more flamboyant leaders, and the only place to really learn more about him is to go and read Michael Stackpole’s novel Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde. However, I would argue that a substantial number of WoW players don’t actually read out-of-game references or even necessarily care about the lore. In a culture where people ask their friends to answer questions rather than googling the answer themselves, it’s no surprise to know that there are a lot of WoW players who have no idea who Vol’jin is other than ‘some troll’ and were happy to see him out of there because they know who Sylvanas is. While marketing types will want to keep some information held back so that they can entice people to buy the novels and comics, or click on the video clips or motion comics on the website, it’s bad design to keep the vast majority of information about one of your leader characters out of the game itself.
I hesitate whether to point out how it mirrors the RL social injustice of blacks being erased from leadership roles in favor of whites, but I’ll admit to having those thoughts. Troll culture in the Warcraft universe draws heavily on African and Caribbean tropes, right down to the Jamaican accents and phrasing as Western media tends to portray. Like it or not, Sylvanas is a Warcraft analogy to a white woman… the high elves’ default skin-tone is Caucasian. The fact that she’s now blue-skinned because she’s kinda undead is irrelevant. However, I believe that the choice to switch from Vol’jin to Sylvanas has less to do with RL-influenced social injustice and more to do with picking someone with more seniority with a dark past.
At the end of the day, Blizzard needs to start working on fleshing out other troll leader characters to make them more interesting and visible on-camera in-game. When they redo the continental loading screens, there should still be a troll represented for Kalimdor, and it should be someone we know or can learn about in-game who will be taking over as leader of the Darkspear tribe. Thing is, it’s in the lore that troll spirits can inhabit other bodies, so it’s possible for the spirit of Vol’jin to survive in some fashion and continue leading his people. It might even be fascinating to see a factional leader actually be disembodied, but will Blizzard do it? I don’t know. However, it makes more sense than suddenly having yet another unknown troll step out of the shadows, say his or her name, and then do nothing else.
The trolls deserve better.