Group Shot['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 week's column looks at the stories behind five of the game's character races.]

Fantasy settings are darned intimidating, aren't they? As much as I love Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, the originator of the genre is also largely responsible for a lot of its baggage.

While sci-fi's played-out tropes have been rehashed and thinned down somewhat in recent years, we haven't had a truly great genre shake-up for fantasy fans. The result is that even World of Warcraft, as successful and entertaining as it is, bogs down with an endless amount of backstory and genre cliches.

Despite that, the lore of Warcraft is interesting stuff. There are a lot of compelling elements, individual tales that you can follow along through the thousands of years of sketched out storyline.

If you ignore the clap-trap about who specifically did what when or the endless back-and-forth between all-powerful entities, there are interesting characters and situations to focus on. Consider this the first in an ongoing series of articles looking at the backstory of Warcraft, with an eye towards making the material as approachable as possible.

To start with, we'll explore the background behind the heroic races of the Human Alliance.

The Night Elves

nelf.jpgIf you were to write a one sentence synopsis of Warcraft's history, it could go something like: "The Night Elves do stuff." From their earliest days living in huts on the shores of the Well of Eternity through to modern times, the elves have been the central characters on the world's stage.

After the turmoil of gods and demons ends in the early history of the setting, most of the rest of the story sits on the shoulders of the elves. In fact, the elves are the hidden faces behind many of the enemies in Warcraft. The reptilian Naga and the demonic satyrs are both legacies of a long history of the elven fascination with magic. Just after the time of primal forces came to an end, this fascination was arcane forces was all consuming. That addiction would eventually result in a catastrophic confrontation with the demons, and a schism in elvish thinking.

That cataclysm changed the course of the Night Elf culture, re-centering them on nature and druidic magic. That the Night Elves are the only race in the Alliance who can create druid characters is a direct result of this. The events of the Warcraft RTS games further disrupt their place in the world.

A momentous clash between elves, humans, orcs, and demons robs the race of their cherished immortality and the source of their racial magics. A newly-created Night Elf character enters a deep woods gripped in the slow death of autumn. Corruption and rot is eating away at the natural world they've always protected as a result of their failures, and they're well aware of it. Many low-level night elf quests involve healing the corruption, or at least slowing it down.

The Humans

Whereas the Elves have always had a place center stage, the humans weren't even allowed near the stage until very recently. In that short time, the human race has proven itself quite capable of meddling just as well as the elves. They've persistently been on the front lines of wars between the demons and their occasional puppets, the Orcs. Of course, they human race bears some responsibility for the Orcs even being in Azeroth; a human mage named Medivh allied with the demons to bring them through the Dark Portal from the world known as Draenor.

The Orcs, driven by their demon masters, struck several times at the human race in concerted attacks. Though several times the Horde appeared close to victory, the Humans and their allies stemmed the tide again and again. Their most recent conflict was not against the Orcs, but their grim replacements: the Undead. That plagued army was risen by the Demons after they grew tired of their often-failing Orcish pawns. An entire nation fell to the plague in that conflict, and the human race found itself in a desperate fight against unholy forces. Their ultimate success in the conflict was the direct result of their ability to push aside differences with the Orcish Horde; a brief collaboration that explains the state of cold war between the two factions in modern World of Warcraft.

draenei.jpgAs a human character, early quests see them dealing with a civilization beset on all sides. From without the likes of the kobolds and gnolls seek to decimate their lands, while from within gangs of thieves and demon-worshipers hope to benefit from the fractured situation. Human characters start in a lively green forest, but it has very deep shadows.

The Draenei

The blue-skinned Draenei race was just added in last year's Burning Crusade expansion. The Draenei people were the other race of Draenor, the world on which the orcs originated. Hunted almost to extinction by the demon-tainted orcs, and then further assaulted by Blood Elves and the serpentine Naga, the spiritual Draenei were in a bad way. They hadn't even originated on Draenor; they'd been led their by the benignly powerful entities called the Naaru. Even though they'd been taught by the energy beings to worship and use the holy energy known as the Light, the Draenei were no match for Orcish rage.

The Draenei of Azeroth, of World of Warcraft, are almost all that remain of the proud race. They made use of a mystical craft called the Exodar, a legacy of the Naaru, to escape from the ruined world of Dreanor (now called Outlands). Their unfamiliarity with those magics led to a rough landing, a crash that nearly devastated the small island chain on which they found themselves.

Though early draenei quests are interesting, it's not until high level play that characters are exposed to the roots of their true culture. The disrupted Outlands holds the remains of their once-proud legacy, and there are numerous opportunities to put right what the Orcs, demons, and Blood Elves have set wrong.

The Dwarves

dwarfy.jpgWhile most races look to the future, the Dwarves in World of Warcraft are constantly looking to the past. Archeological digging in recent years has revealed the race's ancient connections to powerful beings known as Titans. The Dwarves, in fact, may have been one of the first races on the planet, around the same time as the Night Elves and Trolls. Though their clannish society has come under attack numerous times by various forces, the Dwarves have weathered the storm quite well. In fact, the biggest tragedy in Dwarven history actually came from within. Three siblings, sons of an important clan leader, forever sundered the Dwarvish race into splinter groups after their father's death.

The Dark Iron Dwarves are an evil group, one that adventurers from around the globe will face in dark corners of the world. The Wildhammer clan is known for its love of nature and their special connection to the gryphons of the Hinterlands; they tame the mighty flying beasts that the Alliance uses for transportation. The Ironforge clan of Dwarves is the group that player characters represent; they guard the ancient homeland of their race and spearhead research into ancient mysteries.

The Gnomes

gnomer.jpgEasily the race touched the least by lore in the game, the Gnomes appear out of nowhere around the time the Orcs were causing trouble for humanity. Emerging from the mountains around Dun Morogh, they made fast friends with the Dwarves, who they provide with technical support and design expertise. In return, the Dwarves aided them in building the technology-focused city of Gnomeregan.

By the time the Human/Orcish alliance was facing down the threat of the demons and undead, the Gnomes were nowhere to be found in the Alliance military. An over-ambitious advisor to the Gnomish council of Tinkers had essentially allowed an invasion of the Gnomish city. The advisor hoped to destroy the invading Troggs, a monsterous subhuman race, and gain a position of authority among his race. Instead, the troggs and the radioactive 'solution' the advisor implemented killed something like half of all the gnomes. The advisor survives in the ruined city, the self-styled king of a ruin Gnomeregan.

There are precious few gnome-specific quests, but nearly all of them involve exploring the reasons behind their home city's invasion. Some even send you into the depths of the radioactive halls, seeking an end to the mad king's reign.

Homework

I hope I've made my point that while it can be intimidating, lore isn't automatically beyond understanding. If you've been intrigued by these synopses, the World of Warcraft website and the amazing community at WoWWiki have a lot more on offer for the lore buff. For audio explorations of some of the biggest threads in WoW lore, the (now cancelled) podcast Taverncast had a regular 'Lore of Warcraft' feature.