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How we put down our swords to tell stories in World of Warcraft

A decade of roleplaying in WoW

WOW community marches after Orlando shooting Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Despite the amount of time and money I spent on it, I was never any good at World of Warcraft.

Most new players sprint to the endgame of Blizzard’s flagship MMO, collecting loot, raiding dungeons and raising their level until it hits the cap. Recently, the process has been streamlined, but for years it was a chore. I couldn’t get through the climb, and spent a long time stuck in a mid-level limbo.

So, I found something else with the vast open world at my fingertips. Along with hundreds of other players, I became a storyteller.

Warcraft is perfect primer for player-told stories. Azeroth, its vast open world, is simply too intricate to be contained by the main story. It’s peppered with background stories, thousands of fictional dead ends and unanswered questions. And it’s held together by patchwork of themes, tones and a fairly generic fantasy setting that provide just enough material with which to create your own divergent narrative.

It’s easier than it sounds.

When new players open a World of Warcraft account, they’ve been able to choose to join the familiar Player versus Environment (PvE) and Player versus Player (PvP) servers - at least, until Battle for Azeroth changes the way PvP works next year. There’s a third style of play, however, in the form of Roleplaying realms.

In roleplay, the player is unburdened of the campaign. The goal is to create your own stories, and take on your own character in the world. By simply bumping into others on the streets of cities, arranging one-off encounters or planning week-spanning events, roleplayers grow their characters to live out their own fantasies. Guilds form for like-minded players to create adventuring warbands and scheming villains - while others might go it alone, playing a wandering merchant simply experiencing the living world around them. The real joy is in seeing how the various, player-created factions of the world engage with each other over the months and years.

Like so many online communities, WoW's roleplaying population has creatively carved out its own spaces and tailored them to its will. Servers (colloquially named realms) have distinct identities, and as the largest standing Roleplay server, Argent Dawn is known for it’s large population and more scattershot quality. Low populations and server merging diluted individual identities for others, but my own old home of Defias Brotherhood was known for a tighter - if a bit elitist - community atmosphere. Now grouped under various merged realms, they persist - albeit with far quieter cities.

Which of the two sides the player chooses in Warcraft’s, well, war further distinguishes how they prefer to roleplay.

WOW gnome friends gather to mourn Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Roleplay venues give people things to do outside of the endless numbers game of progression, ways to creatively express themselves in a pre-existing world. Think of it as collaborative storytelling. Interaction on Alliance is more open, centered on city and town hubs where pick up conversation is encouraged. Over on Horde, roleplay is a more guild-driven affair, not that Alliance doesn’t have its share of directed narratives, but Orcs and their allies tend more toward structured stories and arranged events.

Guilds exist on each side, with a diverse range of themes and players — and for a younger me, these communities were invaluable.

You can’t engage in roleplay without talking to others. Every action takes place in the chat box, through basic local speech bubbles and descriptive emotes - actions written to describe what can’t be animated. So much of my time as a teen was simply letting my character stand around, making small talk with others. It’s hard to argue that it didn’t spill over into how I interacted with my guildmates, and eventually friends and family outside of the game.

Unfortunately, the structure of the game has shifted dramatically over time, and we roleplaying citizens of Azeroth have had to overcome a number of technical challenges through the years. To roleplay is to improvise, so perhaps we have always been best equipped to deal with the challenges the games throws our way.

Of note: the recent Legion launch introduced severe sharding, splitting players in busy areas into separate instances of the same server. The 2016 expansion brought back millions of players disappointed with 2014's underwhelming Warlords of Draenor expansion, and Blizzard employed these “server shards” to handle the influx. During the opening weeks of the expansion, players would phase in and out of regions almost at random. It’s pretty hard to hold a conversation when both parties phase in and out of existence. The issue was eventually resolved, but it reflects the long conflict between the players and the game — especially those trying to come up with their own storylines.

The longest-standing beef between roleplayers and Warcraft is language. It’s a blessing that World of Warcraft is a game with such a wide range of communication options (local chat, channels, tiers of party and raid chat and all manners of animated “emotes”). There’s just one obstacle that separates one half of the population from the other: the large number of fictional languages. Blizzard employ languages the players can choose to speak - one for each faction, and one per race (for example, should a Dwarf only wish to speak with another Dwarf). The linguistic barrier between Alliance and Horde has long been stretched; notable characters have spoken across factions in cinematics; but as far as players are concerned, the tongues of the opposing faction are completely indecipherable.

WOW Northrend campaign — meeting on shore Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

But Blizzard made the call to limit cross-faction chat back in the earliest Beta phases, as a way to stave off trash talk. This was a largely positive decision for PvP activities. Unfortunately, it also raised the challenge in organizing large-scale, cross-faction roleplay events, and while limited opportunities to engage across party lines opened up over the years, the company maintains its hard line against cross-faction chat.

Despite the language barriers, some of the most memorable moments of my time in Warcraft have been vast, cross-faction campaigns, lasting for weeks on end. The roleplaying community often comes together to create stories worthy of the game’s own established lore. The last one I took part in, back in 2016, saw a number of guilds team up to run a campaign through Northrend (Warcraft’s frozen arctic region).

With a common goal to acquire a special cursed artifact, the playerbase split into camps of Horde, Alliance and those who — while their characters were still technically part of the red versus blue dynamic — considered themselves “Neutral”. All sorts of characters and groups that otherwise kept themselves clean from the faction conflicts participated in the campaign. Space was made for PvP conflicts to erupt spontaneously, and for smaller groups to take charge of their own adventures, coming together in a forum thread that tracked progress across the weeks. Thanks to extended planning, a steady progression of events and external communication tools, the realm came together in Northrend for an entire pre-planned month of conflict, exploration, espionage and betrayal.

As someone who was never huge on raiding, it was fantastic to take part in these sweeping, populated events, experiencing the "massively multiplayer" part of the MMORPG that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

Crafting a personal story for my own character alongside countless others helped create an intimate relationship with my fellow players. Friends can be made through working alongside each other to take on tougher and tougher bosses, but the closest friendships I’ve made through gaming have been those who I’ve forged long story arcs with, our digital actors forging their own relationships as we players directed. Even fictional conflict serves as fodder for bonding. Some of the best times I've had with others were when our characters were at each other’s throats, the other player and I working out dramatic clashes and long-winded plots together.

Spending so much time interacting with guildmates and fellow players brought us close together. When I was younger, that was one hell of an escape.

What a pleasure it’s been to look back and trace my progress as a person through the expansions and storylines of that fantastical world: signing onto a guild back in the Burning Crusade expansion that would eventually give me the self-confidence to come out to myself as a trans woman; bidding them farewell during the following expansion after a few spats with the guild master. I returned to the game after a yearlong break in Mists of Pandaria to find myself on the other side of that old dynamic, lending support to a younger queer finding her feet.

WOW campfire cross-faction talk with a university pal Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

There’s been drama, sure, as happens when dozens of people with personal motivations come together. I've had friendships sour over in-character quarrels that spilled over into something more personal. But the stuff that sticks with me are the campfires in elven forests and frozen glaciers, and shooting the breeze with good companions. It’s been a decade since I started this journey, and I feel fortunate that I look to my side, and find some of the same friends have shared it with me every step of the way.

Sticking with roleplay has been a ride, and a rough one at times. Friends have left, moving away from video games entirely or simply tiring of the MMO. World of Warcraft also failed to avoid more hostile attitude changes post-GamerGate, the forum and in-game chatter becoming a less-accepting atmosphere. But roleplayers adapt. No matter what happens, as the game evolves, servers shift and the stakes of the story change, there’ll always be space in the campfires of Azeroth for one more story.

The next level of puzzles.

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