Netherbane or Illidari?
A Foundation for demon hunter roleplay
by Richard “Tharion Greyseer" Powell
With the coming of World of Warcraft: Legion and the demon hunter hero class, there will be an influx of new demon hunter players, and some of these players will be interested in roleplaying their new characters. This article covers my own approach to demon hunter roleplay and the thought processes I have gone through in order to align it with existing Blizzard canon. I also try to address some of the potential concerns that new demon hunter roleplayers may have as they don their blindfolds and pick up their warglaives in-character for the first time.
A Brief Foundation
To delve into how I view demon hunter roleplay, I must first discuss my views on roleplaying in general. I have personally always felt that a roleplayer should strive to work within the confines of any given setting. If you are roleplaying in World of Warcraft, you should familiarize yourself with the existing lore and do your best to work within that. This does require a certain amount of legwork to build your knowledge, but that pursuit can be fun in its own right. After all, you are playing within someone else's sandbox. It is important to respect their toys.
Sometimes, however, you run across holes in established canon. You may even find sources that contradict one another, and this happens for many reasons. Retcons, multiple writers working within the same setting, and the ever-growing nature of any popular world all contribute to these conflicts, and they create problems for the roleplayer. Should you fill these gaps with lore of your own creation? You can, but then you put your own lore at risk for when the creators do finally expand their stories into those gaps. Should you instead just leave them be and move on without exploring what happened? You could do that, too, but then you limit your storytelling options.
I have always favored a “locally expansive" approach. Create your own lore, but construct it in such a way as to define what is there for you specifically, instead of directly defining it for everyone else.
Let me explain. Let us say there is an aspect to a race or class that has been left vague in the lore, but it is an aspect that you wish to use. Instead of defining that aspect globally and saying “this is how it is done", you can choose to define that aspect locally and say “this is how it is done by my specific character / group." This is what I have done with demon hunter lore over the years, and I will use it as my primary example below.
The Missing Lore
Since before World of Warcraft launched, I have wanted to play a demon hunter. In fact, I started playing WoW after I learned that “demon hunter" would be an advanced spec for the hunter class. This was stated as a possibility in an old preview article from around 2003 or early 2004, but it never came to be, unfortunately. For those curious, this is why Tharion Greyseer (“Tharion" on Earthen Ring (US)) was originally created as a hunter.
I read everything available about demon hunters around that time, including the Warcraft III manual, the World of Warcraft manual, the tabletop RPG sourcebooks, and even the War of the Ancients novels. And, yes, I had already played through Warcraft III and Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.
Now, anyone who remembers my LoreCrafted blog will also remember my feelings on much of Richard Knaak's writing. While I respected the man's ability to write as much as he did, and while I was envious of his position writing for Blizzard, I did not enjoy most of his work in the Warcraft setting. The reason for this was simple: the War of the Ancients trilogy.
In this trilogy he quite literally rewrote the history of Warcraft. We read about how three characters from his previous book go back in time and become more important to the war effort than the original three characters around which the story centered. It was a trilogy of books that should have focused on the War of the Ancients and the heroics of Tyrande, Malfurion, and, depending on your point of view, Illidan. Instead we saw Krasus, Rhonin, and Broxigar go back in time and supercede the actions of the characters of that era. I wanted to learn how Illidan became a demon hunter, but instead I learned how Illidan was taught to become a better sorcerer by Rhonin.
I bring this up because it directly reflects on the problem I faced when attempting to develop a plausible backstory for my own demon hunter character: how did demon hunters come to be when we never saw Illidan become one? He never gained the Warglaives of Azzinoth. In fact, he never quite hunted much of anything. We see him during the War of the Ancients as a sorcerer, then we see him pour the waters of the Well of Eternity into the pool atop Hyjal. Then we see him captured by Maiev.
We are told in the Warcraft III manual that demon hunters “blind themselves", but Illidan does not do this. He is the first demon hunter, and he gets blinded by Sargeras. So at what point does it become apparent that the other demon hunters are mutilating their own bodies in such a way that "blinding themselves" becomes the accepted norm for them? In that trilogy, it never does.
I further asked myself these questions:
- When did Illidan get his warglaives, and why is the warglaive iconic to demon hunters? He did not seem to have them when he faced Maiev atop Hyjal, but he did have them in Warcraft III. Even in WoW's Well of Eternity 5-man dungeon, Illidan isn't wielding his iconic Warglaives of Azzinoth. He just has a pair of generic ones (which still look rather cool, mind you).
- How did Illidan become a master of said glaives? Did Maiev allow him to be imprisoned with a pair of demonic weapons? Did he get to train with them? Would she not have stripped him of his weapons as a safety precaution and punishment instead? We finally got a glimpse in the Illidan novel that they were mounted just outside his prison, and we see something similar for the Illidari during Legion's opening. But both of those scenes indicated that a captive was disallowed such things while held.
- How did Illidan teach other demons hunters? He was stuck in a prison for 10,000 years. Would the Watchers have allowed visitors to come into the prison and learn from a captive as powerful as Illidan? The Illidan novel suggests that the Illidari were created between the events of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne and World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, but it does not cover demon hunters that should have existed prior to those events.
I realized that the War of the Ancients trilogy created many lore problems, and many of the issues still have yet to be fully resolved. I had to come up with some solution so that I could actually have a demon hunter character that made logical lore sense.
I knew that I could not directly answer those questions myself, as anything I created could easily have been overwritten by Blizzard once they decided to tackle demon hunters properly. So I decided to sidestep the issue by creating another demon hunter mentor, one who went through his own experiences during the War of the Ancients and found his own way to the demon hunting path in parallel with Illidan. Thus was born Eraelan Netherbane, the founder of the Netherbane methods.
Eraelan became a demon hunter after the War of the Ancients, in a time where much of the lore is still open and vague. This allowed me to keep his origins flexible. He walked the remains of the world and sought out the remaining places of darkness, but his exact ascension to demon hunter-hood is not explicitly defined. It is not a stretch to believe that other characters could have followed a similar path as Illidan without being directly taught by him. Illidan may have been the first, but he certainly does not have to be the only.
The creation of Eraelan Netherbane lead me to the fear that his methods could be deemed “wrong" whenever Blizzard eventually decided to cement demon hunter training and techniques. This also lead me to the fear that whatever stories I chose to write about Eraelan and his students could be undone in one fell swoop if Blizzard's techniques were not the same as mine.
So, I imagined demon hunting to be much like martial arts in our real world: there are multiple techniques developed in parallel, they follow some core tenets, their goal is similar, but the specifics can be different. Each path has its own strengths and weaknesses, and some paths are more well known than others. At their core, however, they are all about defensive and offensive techniques using both one's mind and one's body. The various demon hunting schools, similarly, are all about defensive and offensive techniques using the fel energies of the demons against them.
I felt this was a solid solution to the issue at hand. Blizzard could define demon hunters however they wished, and I could simply say "well, Eraelan teaches it differently". When I refer to demon hunter schools, mind you, I'm not referring to a building or a campus. This isn't Hogwarts. When I refer to schools, I'm referring to schools of thought and technique; different ways of walking the same path.
This solution has worked well, especially since World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade established the existence of the Illidari. I have been able to develop the details surrounding the Netherbane's methods of blinding, binding, and training, and these techniques are safely under the Netherbane umbrella. As Blizzard further defines the Illidari through World of Warcraft: Legion content, those aspects will remain under the Illidari school of thought.
This also inherently leaves room open for other players to develop their own styles without stepping on the toes of other roleplayers. One group may wait to blind their students until after a certain amount of training, as the Netherbane does. Others may require a blinding and binding up front, believing that a student must "sink or swim." There is plenty of flexibility in this way of thinking.
Evolving with the World
As the setting advances, it is important to understand that there will be times when Blizzard “retcons" something vitally important to your roleplay lore. This is their right, as the sandbox is theirs. Do not become distraught or upset. Adjust instead. You may need to do some retcons for yourself, but if you have set up your pocket lore correctly, most of it should survive unscathed.
A retcon is not a grand sin. While I prefer not to do it for myself, sometimes it is necessary. Sometimes a concept just does not work out, and sometimes your preferences change as a player. These are all natural occurrences that every roleplayer will face.
The only time that I feel retcons get out of hand are when they force a change on someone other that the person doing the retcon. I can, for example, change my lore and say that Tharion Greyseer was an only child, because I have not done much with the character of his brother. However, I cannot easily change Tharion's leading of the Netherbane, because that would affect a far greater number of people. Retcons like this should be done with great consideration and respect to the stories that have come before. Honor the storytelling of others, for without their contributions, the world would be far more shallow.
Netherbane or Illidari
With the introduction of the demon hunter hero class, most of the original demon hunters of the Netherbane are having a field day. Some of us have been waiting for more than ten years for this, and it is a great joy to finally feel “at home." We have rolled the demon hunter versions of our classic characters, chosen our specs, and started collecting our gear for transmogrification.
There has been one issue caused by the opening quests and the class halls defining all player demon hunters as Illidari, though. Tharion, traditionally, has hated the Illidari, so marking him as one of them would be significantly out of character. There is also the fact that the Illidari, up until the beginning of Legion, have all been imprisoned in the Vault of the Wardens. How could there have been demon hunters roaming about outside when they all were imprisoned?
Worry not about that. Firstly, not all demon hunters were in Outland, so not all demon hunters were imprisoned. Loramus Thalipedes and Sindweller come to mind. Though some people will question how a non-Illidari demon hunter can exist, most roleplayers you encounter should be able to accept the idea of separate paths. We saw something similar during Wrath of the Lich King, when all player death knights were defined as coming from Acherus. This left out all the players who wanted their origin stories to have started during Warcraft III, or even during Warcraft II.
Remember: your backstory is your own. If you wish to keep the quests as self-canon, you are free to do so. Sometimes, though, breaking free of that can allow for a much richer experience. In a year or so, the details of the demon hunter starting quests will have faded into the background for most of us anyway.
The only caveat of which you should be aware is this: Blizzard designs their quests so that the player, regardless of who he / she is, acts as the hero. This means that your player becomes the leader of the class halls, your player is the great hero who pushes back the bad guys, and your player is the center of attention for most of their storyline. This becomes an issue if you choose to self-canonize every quest, because you will immediately run into a conflict with other roleplayers who are doing the same.
Simply be selective about which quests you choose to acknowledge in your personal storyline, and you should be fine. For example, the Netherbane will likely move their base of operations temporarily from their traditional Site of Lessons to the Fel Hammer, but I will not acknowledge him being the new leader of the Illidari in Illidan's absence. He can simply be in a general position of leadership, and that should be enough to keep everything aligned.
At its foundation, demon hunter roleplay is little different from any other class: always keep your mind on existing lore and story elements, be aware of potential pitfalls when developing your character's story, and be considerate of other roleplayers who may cross paths with you. If you keep things open and flexible, you will have a much more enjoyable time with it.