Here’s the thing about the Zandalari, now that we’re close to done with them for MoP: I think they’ve gotten something of a bad rap. Mostly because when they were first introduced, they were a heroic troll tribe that needed the help of Horde/Alliance heroes to contain a troll problem. To an extent, there’s been a troll event in every expansion so far, but no one has really made an attempt to string those narratives together in a meaningful way, to help explain how the Zandalari could go from heroic scholar trolls to crazy-rez-the-Thunder-King-cuz-why-not trolls we’re tussling with in MoP.
Let’s remix how the Zandalari have played their story in the game and see how it goes.
World of Warcraft
In terms of non-Darkspear troll narratives, the one we get before running into the Zandalari is Jin’do. Without covering all the gory details, Jin’do* tricks adventurers into helping him free the essence of Hakkar from his imprisonment, specifically because Jin’do wants to bring the Blood God back into the world to nom all the blood. By the time we run into the Zandalari Emissary in Booty Bay, Jin’do has successfully done that: Hakkar is alive and well in Zul’Gurub, and the Zandalari have, unbeknownst to us, already attempted to shut him down by sending in five High Priests of the Loa to defeat Jin’do and banish Hakkar once more. This fails, and the High Priests are brought under Hakkar’s control.
(*: in the classic game, a troll named Yeh’kinya is the one who tricks the adventurers, but then disappears. I always assumed it was Jin’do in disguise, but there’s no evidence to support that.)
When the Zandalari ask us for help, it’s an exceptional circumstance. The Zandalari are historians and scholars, the keepers of troll culture. They wouldn’t normally interfere in the affairs of another tribe or worry about one witch doctor going loco, but Hakkar is a threat to the world. The Loa want him gone, the God-King wants him contained if not destroyed. The reason? If Hakkar eats everyone in the world, there’ll be no one to sacrifice to the Loa, and the Loa don’t like that.
So we go in, we smash up the High Priests to free them from Hakkar’s control, eliminate Jin’do and his buddy Mandokir, and banish Hakkar. Job’s done, the Zandalari are satisfied, they poof out.
Here’s where we have to deviate a bunch from the written narrative, but roll with me here.
Zul’jin had been content to marshal his forces within the old Amani capital, waiting for the right opportunity to sally forth and wreak vengeance on elves and men. He’s bitter about trusting the Horde in the Second War, since ultimately it cost him an arm, and his loathing for both the quel’dorei and the descendants of Arathor never really faded. When Malacrass learns (probably from torturing some unfortunate rookie Blood Knight) that the sin’dorei have figured out how to siphon energy from a god-like being in order to empower their warriors, it strikes Zul’jin as a great idea. So Malacrass works out how to siphon energy from the Loa in order to create warriors more powerful than even the High Priests of the Bear, Dragonhawk, Eagle, and Lynx Loa.
The Loa aren’t happy about this. Their power is granted, not taken. The Zandalari send an Observer, whose job it is to watch what happens to the Amani. The Zandalari aren’t going to help Zul’jin, because what he’s doing offends the Loa. But they’re not going to help the Horde/Alliance defeat Zul’jin, because hey, trolls. And ultimately, this is all within the standard non-Hakkar-related operating procedure for the Zandalari: if the Amani reassert themselves and become a power again, then maybe that’s good for trolls in general and the Zandalari are there to document it. If the Amani fail, well, that’s too bad.
Adventurers roll into Zul’Aman, stomp the Loa Champions, kill Zul’jin, and the Zandalari, satisfied, take note of everything that happened and peace out.
Wrath of the Lich King
What happens in Zul’Drak is a logical escalation of what happened in Zul’Aman, only it’s an apocalyptic scenario. Zul’jin was going on the offensive, fighting the same war the Amani had always fought. Frost King Malakk was facing the inexorable Scourge and was running out of ideas on how to defend himself and the Drakkari. Where they get the idea no one knows, but they decide that consuming the essence of their Loa in order to empower themselves enough to counter the Scourge seems like a reasonable last resort.
The Loa are understandably pissed. (Which is great, because some, like Har’koa and Quetz’lun, employ us directly against the Drakkari eventually.) The Zandalari go to document the fall of the Drakkari empire, and while some of them are upset at what’s happening to the Loa, it’s really the Loa themselves who direct us to correct that. Then, in Gundrak, the Zandalari chronicler on-site directs us to shut down the few remaining Loa Eaters in order to stop the madness, while also requesting information on what led to this conclusion.
While we never run into Malakk in Zul’Drak, we shut down the Loa-eating operation. The Zandalari are satisfied and poof out.
Remember what I was saying about apocalyptic scenarios?
Zuldazar is sinking as a result of the Shattering. The Zandalari have no place to run. They’ve chronicled what Jin’do, Malacrass, and the ice trolls did, but they’ve also mainly stood by and let these other troll strongholds get crushed by the Horde and Alliance. Now that THEY are the ones on the chopping block, it’s time to take some action.
“What’s that, Jin’do? Not really dead? Here, if you want to bring Hakkar back, you feel free. But why don’t you consume Hakkar’s essence like the ice trolls did to their Loa? That way we don’t have a blood god who wants to feast on all the blood, but we’ve got a super-powered witch doctor we can use as a weapon. Fortify Zul’Gurub while you’re at it, okay?”
“What up, Amani tribe! Look, Zul’jin’s play didn’t work, but hey, he’d pissed off Bwonsamdi one too many times. The Loa want you to succeed. Build Zul’Aman back up to full strength. Sacrifice whoever you like. The world’s going to hell and we need to stick together, yeah?”
In a perfect world with infinite resources, we’d have seen a Zul’Drak remix along with the ZA/ZG remixes in 4.1, to show us what the post-Scourge, post-Drakuru Zul’Drak looked like. “Hey Malakk, the Loa aren’t happy with you for what happened to Akali and the others, but we’ll look past that if you make ready a place for the God-King Rastakhan. But no more Loa-nomming!”
The principal point here is that while the Zandalari themselves aren’t going super-hostile against the Horde/Alliance, they’re now propping up the places that they just watched us shut down. And at the end of the day, when Vol’jin and the Darkspear are the ones who swing in to shut down their ambitions by directing the forces of the Horde and Alliance, the Zandalari know they backed the wrong horses.
Mists of Pandaria
The apocalypse of the Zandalari continues. Their attempts at finding both weaponry and resources to save Zuldazar have failed because of the Horde and Alliance. The Loa aren’t ignoring their pleas necessarily, but as gets referenced in Voljin: Shadows of the Horde, the Loa don’t seem to really like the imperialist attitude that the Zandalari have taken on in their quest to save themselves. The Loa (or maybe just Bwonsamdi) seem to favor Vol’jin, though, because he eventually recognizes what it means to be a troll, and what exactly the Loa expect all trolls to do: revere the Loa, feed them sacrifices as appropriate, and don’t ask for too much.
The Zandalari ask for too much when they go after Pandaria. Their alignment with the Thunder King helps to drive home the narrative point that the Loa aren’t really offering them much guidance or power to save Zuldazar. But we don’t see Loa Champions come into play on the Throne of Thunder; Mar’li, Malakk, Kazra’jin, and Sul are there, but really only bring their own powers into play instead of really bringing any big Loa mojo to bear. Many of the Zandalari NPCs we worked with back in the day are either empowered by Lei Shen himself (like Jin’rohk the Breaker) or wandering about the Isle of Thunder aiding the Thunder King’s efforts. You see some Loa-infused dinos, but that’s really it. The Zandalari have the knowledge to do more than this, to bring more power than this, and yet they don’t.
The pride of the Zandalari prevents them from employing the tactics of the other tribes on their own Loa. They hold themselves to a higher standard because history and the universal respect owed to the God-King by the other tribes entitles them to do so. But once again, the efforts of the Horde and the Alliance, especially Vol’jin, with the endorsement of Bwonsamdi, defeats the ambition and desperation of the Zandalari.
So what happens next for the Zandalari? It’s hard to say. Maybe the debacle of the alliance with the Thunder King demonstrates that the Zandalari just aren’t desperate enough yet to compromise their values. Maybe they need a reminder of what it means to be a troll, as Vol’jin received. Maybe the reason the God-King has refused to act and let Prophet Zul do all the talking is because the Loa have a plan for the trolls and just aren’t talking yet. Or maybe next time the Zandalari crop up, it’s with a pack of new devastating Loa God-Monsters like Jaguar, Direhorn, Hydra, and Gorilla. (You want the King Kong boss. You know it, Blizzard.)
What’s clear by now is this: the Zandalari were the keepers of troll culture so long as it suited the Loa to allow them to be. If the Loa have the interests of the troll race in mind, if they want to save their servants so that the trolls can continue revering them, then the long game of the Loa needs to start delivering some results. If, on the other hand, the Loa are fickle and content to watch the Zandalari die off because the trolls have made a habit of abusing them too much, then that’s a strong possibility as well. Might be the Loa turn to Vol’jin and the Darkspear, who seem to know what they’re doing.
Might be the Loa don’t give a damn, and Rastakhan sinks with his island and all of the culture trolls have accumulated over the millennia. And the regeneration of troll society dies its final death.