Posted by: Sean | August 29, 2008

Theme Week Genre: World of Warcraft as a Fantasy M&M

This second post brought to you by a great big car crash on the way home from work, thus delaying my bus. To those in the crash, we hope you’re OK. Really.

OK, OK. So last time I maybe was a bit sneaky by running with the game’s genre rather than the world’s genre. But it was, I swear, a perfectly valid interpretation of the question, and I didn’t cheat at all. After all, Blogatelle’s administrator set the question, not me, and we’re absolutely not the same person. (C’mon, would I lie to you?)

So let’s say it straight: Yes, it’s true, World of Warcraft is a fantasy genre universe. There we go, it’s said and done. But I want to put it to you that really, it’s a fantasy M&M, and one of those mixed bag ones, for that matter. It may have the crispy fantasy shell, but underneath there are horror flavors, sci-fi flavors, and a whole lot of pulpy chocolately goodness.

Don’t believe me? Let’s run through this: The Draenei arrived on Azeroth by a crashed spaceship. When you start one you’re wearing a sci-fi jumpsuit. And, more importantly, your early quests are about tracking the changes you’ve already begun making to the world around you, about purifying a lake nearby, about testing the animals for mutation. That’s not a fantasy setup. It’s not a hard sci-fi setup either. But it would be damned well at home in a Star Trek episode, wouldn’t it?

Not sold yet? What about the entire undead starting area, and Shadowfang Keep in particular? The whole thing is a gothic horror playground from start to finish, complete with scripted events early on to set the tone. The quests in there are monstrous, horrific, without a trace of classic fantasy heroism to them at all. Most monstrous, to my mind, is a quest that has you slaughtering refugees to kill a single one of them in vengeance. And Hillsbrad, famously, asks you to poison a dog. Tell me that’s not designed to make you feel horrible. And yes, it is horrible: marked by or arousing horror.

No pulp in the game? For goodness sakes, Nesingwary is a pulp staple brought to life.

Now sure, some of you are thinking – correctly, no less – that all of this is ground trod by fantasy long before Warcraft. Absolutely true. And much of it a lot more extensively. Hell, it’s not even the first computer RPG to do so; Arcanum definitely was digging into the steampunk a lot more heavily than Warcraft does. It may be the first MMORPG to do this, but even that’s beside the point.

The point is: All these genres underpin the way Warcraft works. If you try to role-play Silverpine Forest like you role-play The Barrens, you’re going to do it wrong. If you try to role-play a draenei without acknowledging the sci-fi tones, then you’re likewise going to be doing them a disservice.

Bluntly, if you haven’t read horror, you aren’t going to play one of the Forsaken as well as someone whose read Stoker or Shelley. They’re drawn less from fantasy than they are from those works of classical gothic horror. Playing a draenei cannot help but be improved by a knowledge of Verne, or any other science fiction writers who drew on the idea of strangers in a strange world. And while they’re the most powerful examples, numerous other ones litter the page – If you’ve never learned of Norse mythology, the similarity in names between Teldrassil and Yggdrasil are nonsensical. If you have, you know how to play up the idea of a World Tree.

Warcraft draws its genre inspiration widely, with little regard for trying to remain pure to any one genre. Your role-play should follow suit.


  1. Anyone familiar with the Nosferatu from Vampire: The Masquerade would have a fair handle on what it would mean to be undead (and in most cases, disfigured) as well. Stoker and Shelley are excellent horror writers, but James Lowder’s book, Knight of the Black Rose (and the sequel, Spectre of the Black Rose), holds within [its] pages one of the most famous undead warriors of all time – Lord Soth, the creation of Tracy Hickman. Makes for a hell of a death knight to model after.

    On the subject of something other than race: being an engineer draws from Verne, also, as well as drawing from Leonardo DaVinci and many other inventors. I always have this vision in my head of an amped-up little gnomish engineer who stutters over her words, constantly mixing up quotes by famous inventors, or using Edison’s “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” straight out of the box.

  2. I’ve actually written some material (not much, maybe 100-200 words or so,) for Vampire: The Masquerade.

    And absolutely on Engineering. I have in the works somewhere a reading list entry for Engineers that is basically, “The entire works of Jules Verne.” As I’ve said elsewhere, as an engineer, “If you’re not thinking of building a mechanical elekk to carry your house around for you so you can go off and have adventures, you’re not thinking big enough.”

  3. Make it a giant mechanostrider instead, and then you can spin tales of an Azerothian Baba Yaga. 😉

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