Welcome back to 5 Settings to improve your world building. Today i’m bringing you part two, electric boogaloo where we focus on the World Soul herself, Azeroth. For those of you who have never owned a computer, Azeroth is the setting for Blizzard Entertainment’s mega huge Warcraft video game series. A world full of Elves, Orcs and Dragons, Azeroth is the closest setting we’re going to experience to Middle Earth and The Forgotten Realms I’m going to cover so if those two settings are your jam, then read on and hopefully my insights will be useful to you, or at the very least, give you an idea of what not to do in your own world building.
Azeroth is big, like really big. It comprises four continents and two smaller ‘sub continents’. On surface area alone, it’s bigger than Middle Earth, Faerun and Westeros combined and similarly to how Westeros mirrors Great Britain and its surrounds, Azeroth mirrors Earth.
Azeroth is a true melting pot of ideas. More so than any other setting we’re going to discuss, Azeroth embodies a world builder’s propensity to chuck in everything they think is super cool but is only loosely thematically linked. That is not to say Azeroth is a mess, it has its own through lines that tie it together, but due to it being the setting of a massive online RPG and its need to provide varied experiences for its player base there are requirements on Azeroth to be everything to everyone and in doing so lacks the continuity of other settings.
As world builders, Azeroth is representative of utilizing tropes to define its character. Pandaria is a good example, a whole continent based on Ancient China, or Northrend based on Scandinavia. Thematically as well, when we meet pirates for example, we REALLY meet pirates. There is no subtlety to the pirate schtik. We might as well be on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean.
This emphasis on tropes is a double edged sword. On one hand it serves to quickly orient the players to what’s going on and It reduces the possibility of the themes not sticking. No one is going to mistake Pandaria for anything other than Ancient China. The music, landscape, Pandas and NPCs all serve to identify the trope that Blizzard Entertainment are trying to express. On the other hand, the use of tropes in this way can reduce the content and its themes down to a camp parody. It’s like watching Batman from the 60s. When the shark bites you whilst you’re hanging from a helicopter, obviously you go for the shark spray. You also have to take into account the fact that when Blizzard releases new content for World of Warcraft, they want people to play it. In that respect, it has to be accessible and easily understood. Consumers are fickle and if the barrier to entry becomes too high then people might leave. Because of these requirements and because World of Warcraft is a game played world wide, trying to hit as wide a segment of the audience as possible makes sense.
For us, these factors provide us with a framework to consider when producing our own content. How heavily do you want to lean into tropes? how do we incorporate our influences without being completely on the nose, and how important is subtlety to your world building? Because Azeroth is definitely NOT subtle.
Firstly let's look at the context in which Azeroth exists, and the subtext that informs the way we interact with Azeroth.
Azeroth is the setting for the MMORPG, World of Warcraft. It consists of the following continents:
The Eastern Kingdoms: This place is the original setting for the first two warcraft games from the 90s. It is reminiscent of Medieval Western Europe and is the basis for the other continents of Azeroth.
Kalimdor: The second of the four continents. Kalimdor was introduced in Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos. It introduces the Night Elves, Tauren and Scourge to the represented races of Azeroth.
Northrend: Northrend is the third continent. It was first mentioned in the original RTS’s but wasn’t fleshed out until Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos. At this point Warcraft finally starts exploring locations based on overt tropes from the real world. The Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor have these tropes, but they’re far more understated than Northrend.
Pandaria: Pandaria is the fourth continent and represents Blizzard really leaning into the tropes. I think they do a good job of recreating Ancient China in this one. The Great Wall, The Steppes and rain forests get great treatment in this expansion.
Each of these locations plays on tropes at different levels. At one end of the spectrum in The Eastern Kingdoms, where its tropes are explored more in how it looks at the different races such as gnomes, dwarves and humans. At the other end Pandaria leans into cultural tropes rather than fantasy tropes to orient the user. The use of tropes in this way is done in conjunction to how subtle they appear.
Azeroth deals with subtlety in a very specific way. It doesn’t. Azeroth is one of the least subtle worlds primed for experiencing. For reasons I've already stated, Azeroth is served by being unsubtle. It works to orient new players, reorient existing players and provide everyone with easily identifiable gaming tropes such as elves, dwarves, dragons and goblins. This is not a bad thing. Making Azeroth an easy world to understand does two things:
It helps retain new players, which for a company like Blizzard Entertainment, new player acquisition/retention is key to World of Warcrafts ongoing survival.
It allows Blizzard to inject subtlety into the deeper lore of Azeroth, of which there is plenty, and in the creation of the Azerothian Universe.
I feel equally intrigued and disinterested by both of these points. On one hand I really like the deeper lore that has been cultivated by Blizzard Entertainment. They’ve done an excellent job of hiding the lore in plain sight through quest logs, books, scrolls, notes, locations that haven’t been explored but have been mentioned. They’ve done a great job of placing NPCs that over the course of fifteen years have changed or been replaced and have left a lasting enough impression that they’re remembered even though they didn’t really have any impactful role in the WoW story. For me, the real genius of Azeroth is in it’s details. I am far less interested in the Azerothian Universe. I’m not particularly interested in Draenor or Argos. I think these two places, whilst necessary, only serve to highlight the diversity and intrigue of Azeroth. On the other hand, locations like The Broken Isle or The Dark Portal which are both located in the Eastern Kingdoms hold great significance. Both for their narrative significance to the story of Warcraft and also as locations that can be interacted with and that offer tangible experiences for the players.
For us as world builders, Azeroth is a great tool for seeing how to successfully use tropes to create culturally diverse identities within your own world. It provides us with a template on how to use inter-continental geography and it gives us a template on how to use international politics as a tool for storytelling. We have infinite scope to lean as heavily as we like into the tropes that speak to us, and also to subvert tropes as we see fit.
And with that, we come to the end! Hopefully you got something out of this and are able to find a way to explore some of these themes in your world building.