Draenai Warrior ['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about the culture and experience of the globe's biggest online game phenomenon, the ten million subscriber-strong World of Warcraft. This second column looks at how character classes are actually differentiated in the game.]

There are so many people playing World of Warcraft today, it’s almost a joke. At game conferences it’s almost become a sort of mini-game: “Who’s the most obscure person in your life playing WoW?”

One guy I spoke to at GDC this year pretty much won the game forever by claiming that his mom and her hairstylist had a gripping conversation about questing in the zone of Westfall while a perm set. WoW’s widespread playerbase is a direct result of the game’s accessible gameplay, a topic we discussed in last week’s column.

Despite that highly-regarded accessibility, there are still a number of things you should keep in mind when jumping into World of Warcraft for the first time. While Blizzard’s monolith is much better than other MMOs when it comes to making irreversible decisions, there are still many important choices you have to make at character creation.

Today we’ll run down the most important things you need to keep in mind before you ever set foot into Azeroth. We’ll discuss class roles, racial benefits, servers and transfers, and (an ever-important element to RPGs) the question of motivation. Read on, and then get rolling.

Let’s Start At the Very Beginning

Even before you load up World of Warcraft for the first time, there are a few things you need to consider. Most importantly, why are you playing? My hope is that it is because you’ve heard it is fun. You might already have some friends playing it, or perhaps you’re just curious about virtual worlds. Regardless of your motivations, keep them in mind before you make your first character. Are you going to be playing alone most of the time? Are you rolling up a character on a server where your friends are already playing? If so, do you know what kinds of characters they play?

If you are planning on playing with friends, knowing which of the many, many servers are out there is vitally important. Once you’ve made a character on a server, it costs money ($25) to move them to a new server and there are certain restrictions that might prevent you moving it to your friends’ server at all. Blizzard has an extensive FAQ on the service at their official site.

Double-check the name of the server your friends are on; they’re all based on World of Warcraft lore, and as such many are highly non-standard words, with strange spellings. A final note on servers: find out what type of server your friends are on. If it’s a ‘Normal’ (Player vs. Environment) or ‘RP’ (Roleplaying) server you won’t have any problems, but if it’s a ‘PvP” (Player vs. Player) server there are several additional considerations you’re going to want to make. Make sure to read the FAQ on selecting a server to make an informed decision.

To complete your pre-character screen pondering, think back to other games you’ve played, regardless of whether they were MMOs or not. What kind of games do you play? Are you a stealth game fan, or do you prefer FPS titles? Are you a gung-ho sort, or do you tend to mull things before moving forward, even in a game world? Don’t worry about past gaming too much, but try to keep your gaming likes and dislikes in mind as you consider what kind of character to play.

Why Am I So Short, and Why Are You So Tall?

Choosing your race and class are important to your experience in World of Warcraft. Depending on which race you pick, you’ll be limited to a certain selection of classes. If you’re playing with friends, you should also need to know that there are two different factions of PC races, the Alliance and the Horde. Choosing a race that fights for one side bars you from grouping and playing with members of the other. If you’re planning to level up characters together from level 1, you might want to even choose all the same race; most races start in areas far distant from the others.

Whichever faction you choose, you’ll have at least four races to pick from. On the side of the Alliance, there are Humans, Dwarves, Night Elves, and Gnomes. The Horde is made up of the Orcs, Undead, Tauren, and Trolls. The Burning Crusade expansion added two new races, one for each side, with the Horde now counting the Blood Elves as part of the ranks.

The Alliance added the race known as the Draenei. In order to play either of these last two races (or visit the high end area known as Outlands) you’ll need to purchase the expansion. No need to worry about being isolated from fellow players, though – Blood Elf and Draenei characters can play just fine with folks that don’t own the expansion.

To fully explore this part of character creation, we’ll run down each of the races and some of the things to keep in mind when considering them for a character.

  • Humans: A comfortable, familiar option for players of all types, Human characters are going to play into many fantasy tropes. They adventure in idyllic meadows, ruined farmlands, and creepy forests, and the classes available to them are many of the standards you’d expect from an epic tale. If you’re not sure about fitting in, humans are a fantastic choice because they’re a very common sight in Alliance cities.
  • Night Elves: The most ‘beautiful’ character race in the game by many accounts, Night Elves are also an extremely common sight on the Alliance side. Their adventuring experiences deal a great deal with the corruption of nature, shadowed and ancient forests, and the waning of a civilization. Their class choices see them shunning magic for more ‘outdoorsy’ pursuits, and are the only race on the Alliance side than can play the highly popular Druid class. Blood Elf
  • Blood Elves: The most beautiful character race on the Horde side, and the most popular in that faction by a wide margin, Blood Elves are a tragic race. They adventure through autumnal forests beset on all sides by a scourge of evil undead creatures, and have one of the strongest new player stories in the game. Their classes focus on magic-use, as befits the magic-starved nature of their backstory. They are also the only race on the Horde side able to act as a Paladin, a heavy-armor wearing class considered ideal for soloing.
  • Undead: Another race with a tragic background, these ‘goodly’ undead were the most popular Horde race until the beautiful Elves were added. Their story is one of out-and-out tragedy, and they adventure through once-vibrant areas now succumbed to rot, pestilence, and death. Their character classes are essentially identical to the options the Humans have – with the exception of the Paladin class, once denied to the Horde faction.
  • Draenei: Dreanei are a fascinating race, and have a backstory completely unlike any others in World of Warcraft. Crashed on the planet in their ‘magical spaceship’, Draenei will be instantly appealing to anyone with an enjoyment of science fiction. Their early adventures pit the race against nature run amok, startled by their entrance on the scene. They are considered by some to have the best starting experience (quests, stories, area design) in the game. Their classes are a mix of several different highly enjoyable roles, and as a result the race is very popular in the Alliance faction. They are also the only race on the Alliance side able to act as a Shaman, a unique leather armor wearing class with a great degree of flexibility.
  • Tauren: The cow-like Tauren are one of the most visually distinctive races in the game, and have a devout following as a result. Their early careers will see them adventuring in areas reminiscent of the great plains of North America. Their culture and quests have much in common, too, with the Native Americans of those plains. Their classes focus on nature, the wild, and combat. Likewise, they are the only race in the Horde faction able to act as the Druid class.
  • Orcs: The savagery of the Orc is legendary, but the early experience playing as one of these characters proves that they are merely a practical race. Adventures as this race will focus around taming the hardscrabble wilderness, forging a niche for the Orcish people. Classes available to this race focus on combat, conquest, and domination.
  • Dwarves: The noble Dwarven race lives in a land of snow and ice; their story tells a tale of a proud race beset on all sides by invaders and interlopers. The Dwarves and the two other races below are some of the least popular in the game world, and as a result you can expect to stand out in a crowd slightly more by playing one of these races. Dwarves have fairly limited class choices, with a focus on martial prowess.
  • Gnomes: These diminutive tinkers have been thrown from their ancestral home by invaders, and as a result start in the same area as the Dwarves do. They have no tale of their own, but the gnomish quests completed during the early dwarf-area levels seek a return to the abandoned Gnomish capital city. Gnomes have some of the most restricted class options in the game, but each class is emblematic for this tiny race – the Gnomish Warlock in particular being a cultural icon.
  • Trolls: The least popular race in the game, Trolls also bear the shame of sharing a starting area. They begin in the Orcish starting zone, but at least have a quest hub entirely peopled by Troll to look forward to soon after beginning. Troll tales center around maintaining their tribal way of life in their harsh environments. Unlike the Gnomes, though, Trolls are one of the most class-flexible races in the game.

There are just a few other facets to keep in mind when choosing a race. Each has a ‘special power’ associated with it. In some cases these are purely utilitarian, like the Undead’s ability to hold their breath for quite a long time. Others are more active, like the Blood Elven mana tap/silencing power. Reading up on the racial powers couldn’t hurt: some are very useful, while others borderline on the irrelevant. Your character race also determines what kind of mount you’ll be riding once you reach level 40. Racial mounts say a lot about the ‘character’ of that race, and some are more prized than others. They all operate the same way, though; it’s simply up as a matter of taste and style what kind of mount you prefer.

On Square Pegs and Round Holes

With your race chosen, you now have a very specific number of classes to choose from. Some, like Gnomes, have only four choices, while races like Humans and Trolls have six. Each and every class is a viable way to play the game; there are no ‘broken’ classes in World of Warcraft. That said, each class caters to a very specific style of play. Choosing your class is vitally important, as it will determine a lot of what your experience in WoW is like. We’ll run down the game’s nine classes, going from the most-to-least solo friendly options in Azeroth.

  • Hunter: A high-damage ranged-combat expert with the added benefit of an animal companion, the Hunter is seen as the ‘most fun’ class in the game. The Hunter pet is, for all intents and purposes, an always-available group member; a loyal companion throughout your leveling experience. There are probably more Hunters in the game than any other class, and it’s a fantastic ‘first class’ for a new player if you don’t expect to always have group access. In a group, the Hunter’s role is to pour on high damage, while occasionally providing a ‘tanking’ role through their pet.
  • Paladin: This armored warrior can not only dish out damage with weapons large and small, but she has the ability to heal and ‘buff’ herself and group members as well. The Paladin class was built by Blizzard from the ground up to promote survivability; as a result she’s another ideal class for the solo player. In group play, Paladins are one of the three flexible ‘hybrid’ classes available. They can be a front-line damage dealer, a combat-managing tank, or a very well-armored healer. Tauren
  • Druid: For pure fun-factor, it’s hard not to enjoy the shapeshifting nature of the Druid. These nature fans adopt their different hybrid roles by literally changing forms: to act as a ‘tank’ they adopt the form of a bear. To do high damage, they become a predatory big cat. They can also act as healers, eventually gaining the ability to transform in to an ambulatory tree! Druids can solo well because of their healing abilities, and are another one of the most popular classes in the game.
  • Shaman: The Shaman class has a unique ability to aid in combat with ‘totems’, stationary objects that provide aid to the caster and his allies. The Shaman is the third hybrid class, with different opportunities for healing, damage dealing , and pure ally enhancement. Their leather armor makes them more well-defended in a fight, and their healing abilities ensure their survivability.
  • Warlock: The demon-trucking Warlock class shares the ‘pet’ nature of the Hunter, but is less survivable soloing because of their cloth armor. Warlocks focus on destructive damage-over-time spells, ‘debuffs’, and using their pet to take pressure off of an adventuring party. A support class, essentially, but one with the potential for high damage and big impact in certain situations. For these reasons the Warlock is also a very popular class for Player vs. Player combat.
  • Rogue: The last four classes here are, ironically, what many think of as the ‘holy four’ class roles. These classes are the bedrock of any adventuring party, with very specific purposes. The Rogue, for example, is all about high melee damage. She has the ability to ‘stealth’, and sneak up on targets unawares. For this reason the Rogue is a popular class in PvP, and tends to support a ‘twitchy’ style of combat that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Rogues are paper cannons, though; low hp, leather armor, and no healing means they aren’t as viable for soloing as some other classes.
  • Mage: Where the rogue focuses on melee-range damage, the Mage does high damage from afar. Mages have the ability to focus on the elements of fire and ice, or specialize in arcane itself – each specialization offers its own rewards. Fire Mages in particular can do some of the highest damage output of any character in World of Warcraft. With cloth armor and no healing, though, a Mage that doesn’t take its foe down quickly is probably going to regret it. They can be very tough to solo.
  • Warrior: It would seem like the heavily armored Warrior would be an ideal soloing class, but without the healing of a Paladin that just isn’t so. Warriors can stand up to a lot of damage, but even specializing in damage output Warriors just don’t stack up to classes like the Mage or Rogue. Instead, Warriors are intended to provide a ‘meat shield’ for other classes in groups, getting and holding the attention of unfriendly monsters. This group-oriented gameplay style is very rewarding, but does mean that leveling up a Warrior can be more challenging than other classes.
  • Priest: At the very bottom of the soloability stack is the benighted Priest. A cloth-wearing magic user with a focus on healing is the ultimate party animal. They’re invaluable for group play, and high end raids just wouldn’t happen without them. The downside to that, of course, is that it’s very challenging to play one solo. With healing and certain protective spells their survivability is actually not in question – Priests just don’t die that often. Instead, they just kill monsters more slowly than other classes, meaning leveling on the whole takes longer. Priests can specialize in doing ‘Shadow’ damage to speed up this process, but their damage output is still nowhere near a Rogue or Mage.

Whichever class you play, make sure to give it a few level s to see if it is right for you. One of the best things about World of Warcraft is the speed at which the first few levels go. It’s not hard at all to reach level 10 in just a few short hours of play time, as which point most classes gain some sort of defining benefit (Druid shapechanging, the Hunter pet).

If the class still isn’t fun for you after that point, it’s not hard to just create another character and try again. Once you’re in your 20s and 30s you’ll find it much less appealing to turn back. Making sure your class fits your playstyle is one of the most important elements of creating a World of Warcraft character, and it’s definitely worth it to take your time.

Character Created

DwarfThough there’s a lot of information to take in here, there are a few simple things to keep in mind. First and foremost, choose the race and class that fits you best. You’re going to be looking at this avatar for many many hours, and you don’t want to make a choice you’ll end up regretting. Do you need to have a very attractive character, like one of the Elven races? Or do you like personality and character, which the Gnomish and Trollish races have in spades? Are you going to be playing with a group a lot, and can focus on the group-oriented gameplay of a Priest or Warrior? Or are you going to be by yourself a lot and might prefer something like the Hunter or Druid?

Really, it’s all about what motivates you to play. World of Warcraft’s accessibility largely comes from the lack of barriers it puts in your path. Soloing is a perfectly viable way to play the game, and even the most die-hard group player will explore Azeroth by themselves at least somewhat. All of the classes are equipped for that single-player experience to some degree, ensuring that how you want to play will always be more important than the characters you have at hand. Choose well, choose wisely, and you’ll grow to have a genuine affection for your little representation in the World of Warcraft.