I still vividly remember zoning out during Blackwing Lair, my eyes glazing over as the screaming bout over Ventrilo intensified. We were stuck on the infamous Vaelastrasz fight in Blackwing Lair, and our guild leader and priest class leader disagreed on how to handle part of the fight.
There was just one complication: Those two players were married, and 38 other players had to sit and listen to everything else they disagreed on, which included distribution of domestic duties, appropriate time to recover after surgery, and other deeply personal issues.
World of Warcraft’s return through Blizzard’s Classic re-release means that memorable stories of strife and conflict from the original game are bubbling back to the surface. The retail version of World of Warcraft has been honed, trimmed, and streamlined into something entirely different from what was available 15 years ago. When Classic returns, it remains to be seen whether that will include the dirtiest and pettiest parts that defined the original game: rage quits, betrayal, and volatile relationship drama.
The world was a very different place when World of Warcraft was in its infancy. There wasn’t wide-scale adoption of streaming services, like Twitch. Gamers used programs like Ventrilo instead of Discord, which was comparatively limited in the features it offered. It was harder for players to coordinate, but they still pulled it off, especially on PvP servers where open-world combat was available.
The towns of Southshore and Tarren Mill, held by the Alliance and Horde respectively, were constantly choked with back and forth raids. One Horde would gank an Alliance (or vice versa), the victim would call in their friends, and eventually dozens of players would be fighting over a stretch of plains and forest.
In 2006, a Horde player died, and her guild decided to hold a memorial in her memory ... in the open PvP zone of Winterspring, which had been her favorite. An Alliance guild, Serenity Now, attacked the memorial, cutting down Horde players wearing plain dress clothes instead of powerful armor.
Incidents like the Serenity Now raid live on in infamy, along with the Corrupted Blood Plague, the rush to ring the gong at Ahn’Qiraj for an exclusive mount and title, and the chaos of Barrens chat. But there are countless other stories of smaller-scale drama that took place in Blackrock Mountain and Warsong Gulch that have fallen out of focus.
Raids and rebellion
Raids took 40 players, and going through part of Molten Core or Blackwing Lair took an evening. People went through this hassle for the loot: The purple items that dropped off a dead boss often sparked conflicts and required external systems, like the bidding infrastructure known as “DKP.”
DKP, or Dragon Kill Points, awarded players points for showing up to raids, and the raid leader could distribute points as a bonus for things like showing up on time, or an efficient run. Then, players would bid on items with their personal points. Some guilds found themselves conflicted over DKP — should a tank be able to take a two-handed weapon away from a DPS main who technically needed it more? DKP helped with organization, but also often led to controversy.
“Half of our guild ended up in a major, weeklong fight over the Azuresong Mageblade drop in Molten Core,” another vanilla World of Warcraft player, Stefjan, told me over Discord. What caused all this grief? The one-hand sword was taken by a Holy Paladin, and three mages (who claimed better need of a one hand weapon) rage quit the guild in response. Why? Holy Paladins had a monopoly on plate gear with the intellect stat. It was seen as wildly unfair for a Holy Paladin to have such a clear field on gear upgrades and spend their points on mage upgrades.
“It was ugly. There were total tantrums and sobbing fits on [Ventrilo]. After day one it wasn’t even about the sword anymore, it was about everything they had ever been mad about. One person faked their own death and had their ‘brother’ post about it on the forums, which was really weird.”
These arguments were arcane, and centered around seemingly trivial things. But when players spent hours together with dozens of other people, packed into an environment that demanded performance, the game quickly became a pressure cooker.
In vanilla World of Warcraft, players had to moderate each other. Each server was its own island, and even a name change wouldn’t be enough for a hated player to be forgotten. If a player was deemed malicious, irresponsible, or blacklisted out of spite, they would often find themselves stuck without a way to engage in most of the game; no one would risk taking them along.
And so, you had a hierarchy of social groups. Everyone shared a server, and learned to recognize familiar names from Ironforge or trade chat. From there, players would join a guild. Guilds often had chat subchannels, and cliques would gather in certain Ventrilo channels in their off hours. Classes would create their own chat channels to discuss strategy, and players would whisper each other for one on one conversations.
This meant that players were dealing with half a dozen channels of communication, most of which were private.
“No one used the druid class channel for anything but talking shit,” said Darren, a player who raided on a druid throughout vanilla and The Burning Crusade. Darren and I spoke about his experiences in World of Warcraft through Twitter. “Some of us were pissed that we couldn’t play Feral [a physical-damage specialization] or Boomkin [a spell-damage specialization]. Some of us were tired of the healers and mages fighting over innervates. I think some of us were just mad because we were in Molten Core for another Friday night. So we just talked insane amounts of shit.”
I sympathized with Darren. One night, in Molten Core, the paladins in my raiding guild made a pact to cycle Blessing of Protection on one particular rogue who would not stop spamming meters and bragging about his place in the rankings. With Blessing of Protection, he was unable to deal any physical damage, and we relished in his seething anger over Ventrilo.
“We had a hunter who was dating our main tank,” said a player who identified himself as Ender. “She constantly bitched about him in the hunter class channel, and people agreed with her. He sounded like a dick from what she said. Later, we found out that he was doing the same, and all the tanks hated her. They split up, and she demanded the guild choose him or her. We chose the tank, which may have been shitty, I don’t know.”
When guilds entered conflict, the individual groups that made up each raid tended to calcify, keeping increasingly among themselves ... while still being forced to work together with different groups to progress through raiding content.
The priest class leader and guild leader who had argued in Blackwing Lair would eventually divorce. The guild didn’t last long after that; there was a fundamental split based on who followed the husband, and who followed the wife.
Countless players have met their significant others in World of Warcraft, or strengthened the bond they share with a partner by playing together, but players shared stories with me of their relationships ending over World of Warcraft. One gamer, Evan, sheepishly shared the story of getting his girlfriend to roll a Dwarven Priest. Thanks to the race-specific Fear Ward, combined with the unpopularity of Dwarves, Evan’s girlfriend quickly became one of the most popular characters in his raiding guild.
“We were teenagers, and I was so excited to have a pocket healer [a player dedicated entirely to supporting another]... and she spent more and more time playing the game without me. I got benched in Ahn’Qiraj 40 and she got put on the main lineup. It caused some arguments,” Evan told me over a Discord call. “We broke up, and she ended up dating a tank from the guild, which really hurt at the time. I tried to get her kicked, which in retrospect is an asshole move, but the guild kicked me instead. Looking back, I deserved all of that.”
Both Evan and Ender observed a very real consequence of the way World of Warcraft raids would shake out. While there were 40 people in a raid, the majority of those were damage. There would be a few tanks in a guild — and the main tank was considered the most valuable of all — and some healers to back them up. Those characters, especially ones who had advantages like a set of nature-resist gear or a racial bonus that helped on tough fights, ended up being prioritized over other players.
Anyone who played long enough would be aware of this hierarchy; it was just a matter of whether an individual guild would weigh that over inappropriate or unfair behavior.
The Rank 14 grind
Raiding was a big part of vanilla World of Warcraft, and one of the most fondly remembered by many players. However, there was another big source of drama in the game: the PvP system. Players could queue up for three battlegrounds: Alterac Valley, Warsong Gulch, and Arathi Basin. Players could earn honor, which lent themselves to rank. At the top of the list was High Warlord for the Horde and Grand Marshal for the Alliance. It came with an exclusive set of armor, a weapon, and a title ... and only one person on the server could have it at a time.
The grind for Rank 14 depended on the server someone played on; some people could get it with relatively little stress, although it still required a significant investment. On my server, one player was infamous for taking two weeks off from work.
Once players hit Rank 12, it was common for them to talk to each other and establish a list to ensure that everyone could eventually get it. Even with this system, it could take hours of battlegrounds to ensure players kept their spot — a decay system ensured that there was no time to rest. Some players would race home from school to get their battlegrounds in, others would share their accounts with siblings or friends to keep the grind going.
“Something I still feel bad about is the time me and my friends just queue sniped this Alliance guy going for Rank 14 for days,” says Brandan, a vanilla player whom I spoke to over the phone. “We just sat in the [Warsong Gulch] graveyard, top tiered players just slaughtering him over and over again. It was targeted and it was mean. It’s funny when you’re 15, but now that I have a full-time job and two kids I’m like... ‘shit, did I ruin that guy’s day?’ If he was already grinding 12 hours a day, did I ruin the game for him?”
A whole new world
One person I spoke to told me about his guild master’s rise to power back in 2006, when he led a guild tirelessly through Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, and Ahn’Qiraj ... before a rogue in the guild revealed that the GM had been slipping her gear on the down-low in exchange for sexy pictures and messages.
Over a decade later, we live in an entirely different world. Today, a game requiring a multi-hour a day grind for weeks in order to claim a special suit of armor would be blasted for not respecting the player’s time. There’s no better evidence of the changed climate than current World of Warcraft, which offers casual raiding alternatives, “wings” of dungeons and raids to allow for a clean break, catch-up mechanics for new players, and countless other quality-of-life improvements. There are also far more competitors going up against vanilla now, and a small army of streamers who can share their day-to-day experiences with the game.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same. In the case of the player with the GM who pursued an affair, he plans to play on Classic as soon as it goes live on Aug. 27.
“Can you keep me anonymous?” he asked. “The guy is still on my server, and I don’t want to worry about him finding me and knowing I spilled his shit.”
There was a pause, and then he laughed. “Fuck, I hope he doesn’t roll on my server in Classic too.”