Most of the bigtime villains we’ve come across throughout the course of Warcraft tend to have their origins in either the Burning Legion or the Old Gods. Most of these villains have a tendency to grow past those origins, but that still leaves those two forces still at play, generating threats for the players, as heroes, to contend against. In contrast to the “hero factory” design paradigm of creating powerful but diverse characters for players to engage the game with, you could call this a “villain factory” that generates diverse enemies for players to combat.
However, a lot of those threats tend to follow certain patterns, like they’re coming out of a playbook.
The Burning Legion playbook has a couple patterns to it that bear mentioning.
- Corrupting the natives of unconquered worlds into being Legion groupies is a great way to cut down on losses during an invasion. (Examples include Azshara and Gul’dan, and in an extreme case, Medivh.)
- Failure is not always grounds for dismissing an asset. Torturing them into being more obedient and then empowering them is a way to ensure loyalty, at least to accomplish short-term goals. (Examples includes Xavius, Illidan, and Ner’zhul. Given those examples, this play is one of the chief reasons the Legion usually fails.)
- Power begets your station. If you come across a powerful individual or group, you can make them an asset and possibly improve your own standing in the hierarchy. If an asset proves ineffectual, it reflects poorly on your personal power. (Watch Mannoroth’s personal investment in re-corrupting the orcs in WC3. His blood corrupted them in the first place, and he wanted the Horde as his tools. Watch the Dreadlords working at creating and then attempting to reassert control over the Lich King and the Scourge.)
- Nothing is more important that countering the works of the Titans. Eliminate the Titans, and Sargeras gets to recreate a universe in his image, and the Legion gets to rule with him.
The Old Gods have their own playbook, though.
- Chaos for the sake of chaos is a fair play. Since the Titans are all about order, the Old Gods oppose them because there should be no order. In the absence of fighting the Titans, the Old Gods and their servants fought each other, whether using their faceless armies or enslaving the Elemental Lords for the same purpose. It’s not about imposing their own order: it’s about anarchy and an orgy of destruction in opposition to an ordered creation. (This inherent nihilism is part of the reason the Twilight’s Hammer was such a joke of a threat; when players infiltrate their training procedure in Hyjal, they revel so much in their self-destruction that it’s a surprise anyone survives long enough to actually further the Hammer’s agenda.)
- Corrupting an existing order, or allowing an order to flourish if its goals further the overarching, is also fair play. The mantid are a fiercely ordered society, but they still serve the OGs. (And to further the earlier point, they’re MUCH more effective than the Twilight’s Hammer as servants, since the only thing that stopped them was the Mogu being super-effective at their task.)
- Corrupting the tools of the Titans in particular is just a wellspring of opportunity. They turned Neltharion, who had been appointed their jailer. Reversing the Curse of Flesh that they themselves created in order to get the Neferset on their team in Uldum is another prime example.
- Corrupting the corrupt. Azshara sold out her people for Sargeras and god-like power, but when the Well blew up, it was the OGs who saved her and turned her and the Highborne into the Naga in exchange for their service. Xavius followed the same path as Azshara, but was then empowered by the OGs to infect the Emerald Dream with the Nightmare, which inherently gives them the ability to ruin the Titanic back-up process.
- Decentralization is the key to success, aside from sticking with the anarchic chic. If you killed Sargeras, you might break the back of the Legion. Kill C’thun and there are still other Old Gods; you may have just neutralized everyone on C’thun’s payroll, but Yogg-Saron and N’zoth are still in play with their own games. Hell, Y’shaarj has been dead for millennia and its corpse is still effective at sowing chaos. It’s not even certain that there are only five Old Gods. There could be hundreds.
This is core to the conflicts of the gods as a backdrop for Warcraft as a franchise: you have the creations of the Titans (not so much the Titans themselves) fighting to maintain order, while Sargeras and the Legion fight to unmake creation in order to impose a new order, while the Old Gods act as the catalysts for an inherently chaotic creation. The players, as mortals, are caught up in the middle of this eternal three-way war.
Even so, there’s a lack of agency from the Titans. We’ve never seen any of the Titans directly in the lore, except for Sargeras after the fall. We’ve seen their constructs, but almost universally, the more independent constructs like the Watchers of Ulduar and Ra-den tend to have been corrupted, and we’ve got to knock them back to their senses. All of the Titans’ creations just want to preserve what the Titans established. (The Thunder King and the mogu are standout examples of uncorrupted constructs that just got their directives mixed up.)
That’s a big part of the reason why it falls to the player characters to champion for the Titans, or at least champion against the enemies of the Titanic order: if the Legion wants domination and the Old Gods want destruction, it’s the mortal races that lose out either way. Even if the Titans don’t really have any personal investment in preserving the mortal races (recall that Algalon’s initial directive was to re-originate Azeroth when his threat assessment showed it as being unrecoverable) it’s better to work for the pantheon that’s not actively trying to destroy you and your way of life.
It’s weird to think of the evil forces of the universe being more transparent in their intentions than the forces for good, but from a creative standpoint, it makes sense: evil demonstrating its power is easiest to understand when that power is threatening to the player. The power of good forces is much harder to demonstrate or expand upon, because if good were capable of expressing power, would you really need heroes to step up and fight for the side of good?
At the end of the day, this is probably why most of the threats are ultimately going to be born out of the Legion OR the Old Gods: domination vs. destruction is simply so pure a mechanism for the villain factory that there really isn’t a way to break away from it, unless you want to build a villain out of a hero who is fighting against those threats.
Which, notably, is exactly what Blizzard did with Garrosh. And Arthas. And Illidan. Meditate on that.