Originating back in Warcraft II, the death knight has since made several transitions: from the bastardised remains of Stormwind soldiers and Shadow Council warlocks, possessed of free will and wicked intellect, through the runeblade-wielding, heavy plate warriors of Arthas’ Scourge, dominated by his will but incredibly strong, to the splinter sect of the Ebon Blade, liberated from servitude but not from torment.
Although a good deal of that story occurred within the earlier Warcraft games and the Death Knight manga rather than World of Warcraft itself, the Ebon Blade’s arc is not only well showcased in-game, a death knight character is invited to play through all their major plot points.
It’s this wealth of backstory and playable story that makes playing a death knight such an absorbing experience. I also feel it’s a trick the monk class failed to take advantage of.
The monk’s class heritage
I’ve written a bit about the monk as a tradition before, as a rambling aside to my Touch of Death post.
In short, the pandaren were subjugated by the mogu and had to develop a new way to fight if they were to successfully rebel: a fighting style that was sufficiently precise and streamlined to be possible with meagre energy stores, and that relied on bare hands as they had no weaponry.
In a way this means there’s a strong link between past and present monks through the very fighting forms they use. Through his stories, Loremaster Cho provides insight into the history of the class as well.
But how effectively does that history metamorphose into an on-going storyline in which modern monks, especially those of the Horde and the Alliance, have an active role? I’m not entirely convinced it does at all.
Creating and sustaining immersion
When you create a death knight, you’re thrown into a story. It’s elegantly concise. The nature of the Scourge and your part within it are laid out in the purging of the Scarlet Enclave: total war is waged with the massacre of civilians and the raising of miners as minions, all of it done with the voice of the Lich King there in your head, urging you on.
With this stage set, the potential for change creeps into the wings. Thassarian shows that he can think beyond the merciless template laid out for him when he insists Koltira be rescued; the player is reminded of their own history when confronted with a face from the past, someone that defines them as more than a killing machine.
And then the battle for Light’s Hope is lost. You are there to forge the Knights of the Ebon Blade alongside Darion Mograine. You are the one who has to walk through your old faction capital and bear the brunt of the people’s hatred for your kind. Just like that, you know what history blights your character and what motive drives your organisation.
Later, when you’ve cleaved through the less class-relevant quests in Outland, the death knight story is picked up again with quests from Thassarian and Koltira, and later from Mograine.
These quests might be available to everyone, but they have extra weight if you’re a death knight who’s met them before. Further members of the Ebon Blade are introduced throughout Icecrown, and the death knight story - your character’s story - carries all the way through to the final raid instance of the expansion, Icecrown Citadel.
It’s even addressed in Cataclysm. While it’s clear the Ebon Blade is no-longer at the forefront of the game’s plotline, I think it’s equally obvious that there are things going on in the background, ready to be unleashed later on.
Dropped threads and loose ends
The monk isn’t a hero class. We’re not all tied together by a cursed state, and we aren’t all part of a faction that often supersedes Horde and Alliance loyalties. Each monk begins in their race’s starting area, immediately establishing more of a compound and possibly conflicted identity.
The fact that we have the opportunity to be monks says as much about the pandaren emissaries who come out to train us as it does about our own characters. Here are pandaren who are really pitching in to help their new faction, and I don’t think there’s any better example of this than the trainer in Tirisfal, Ting.
‘The Forsaken have strange taste when it comes to brew.
I get the feeling they’re not exactly preparing it for friends, though.’
In her opening letter she explains that she’s gone against common thought in coming out here to help you because she feels that the Forsaken are strong and deserve the chance to be trained as monks. That’s a lot of exposition in one little letter: it sets out the prejudice against the Forsaken; the journey Ting herself has made to come to Tirisfal; and the content of her character, determined and open-minded.
But it isn’t used. Ting says she’ll meet you later on in the Undercity, but she never shows: in fact, she’s been replaced by an imposter pandaren who’s even gone so far as to steal her speech. While NPCs were used to great effect in the death knight introduction, their monk equivalents are abandoned before they’ve really started.
Surely there’d be a greater sense of the different attitudes that come together in the monk order if those trainers who took on each race became reoccurring figures throughout the levelling experience?
The recent Celestial Tournament and the familiar faces in its crowd make it clear that Blizzard knows the value of recognition, so it’s hard to understand why they would dump the different race representatives in favour of more generic NPCs up atop the Peak of Serenity.
The empty Peak
Speaking of which, the Peak of Serenity could have been an interesting, highly accessible quest hub, rather than the Daily Buff Place.
Levelling monks already get a new quest there at ten-level intervals. That quest could have been a short chain, with objectives that slowly sent you further from that central room to explore the rest of the area, learning about the class and witnessing the likely jarring integration of the new Horde and Alliance monks into the wider order.
For example, Master Woo, a dwarf, and Master Hsu, a tauren, are already proficient enough to be teaching pandaren students by the time you meet them. How did they learn so quickly? Were they part of the initial Horde and Alliance war parties and, if so, how did they end up as monks at the Peak?
All these questions poke at stories the player never gets to see, even though they’re surely relevant to your character’s integration into the monk class.
What would be nice...
I’m all for open-ended storylines that leave plenty of room for roleplayers to swoop in and get creative, but when you have no example characters to work off, there’s no real sense of community or conflict to run with. You can’t say for sure if your character’s a conformist or a maverick if there’s no clear indication of what level of strife is the norm.
I’d love to see more prominent monk characters, built to the same standard as Shademaster Kiryn and the like. I think they’d add modern flavour to a class presently standing solely on pandaren history.
It’d be great to see what the non-pandaren monks are working toward: while the Shado-Pan have clear purpose and there are plenty of monks milling about at sha-damaged temples across Pandaria, there’s little evidence of any newer monks doing anything plot-shifting. Beyond the players themselves, we’re practically non-existent.
In short, we lack a story. If the monk had even a fraction of the representation and purpose the death knight possessed back in their expansion, it’d have a far stronger modern identity as a class. It’s a shame that’s not the case.