Who doesn’t like storyline speculation? Rather long post and naturally some spoilers.
For this I’m going to time travel a bit. Mists of Pandaria started as a faction war that spilled over into new lands. What we saw was relatively new content in relation to the previous lore setting, though it was framed within the Alliane/Horde war. It wasn’t until the tail end of the expansion that the story went full circle and had Garrosh become the big bad guy (which is on-par with wrestling heel turns).
WoW typically follows a 3 act storyline per expansion. The first arc introduces the new world and the players are meant to address an existing problem in that world. This act elevates the players to champions of the land, which starts the 2nd act. This typically focuses on an external problem that the players have brought to the world, and by the end the world questions if the players are the good guys or bad guys. The final act is then the expression of that question where the internal and external factors meet, and then set up the next expansion as a boil-over to that conflict. I say typically because there are often small nuances to this arc, and WoD simply skipped the middle part.
Blizz has been upfront about their storyline development process. They are always 2 expansions ahead, so they are already building the expansion after Shadowlands, and have a general idea of what comes after that.
Further, Blizz has long struggled with character developed storylines rather than plot-driven storylines. This is why we see characters do things that are out of character based on their previous actions (again, Garrosh, but Sylvanas was the real blowup). When Blizz adds new characters, that provides them the flexibility to push the plot as those new characters have very little lore conflicts. These new characters have to be tied into existing storylines, and that itself is a hard thing to sort out. This is how you get everyone figuring out the Old Gods were the bad guys on day 1 of BfA launch.
Tangent in this space for a bit. Wheel of Time applied this model of arcs, and avoided character conflicts by adding new characters. Yet those characters all shared the stage, and became a miracle and a mess to keep straight. Game of Thrones does the exact same thing, but kills off characters to avoid this problem.
SL has a neat approach here. Every single WoW character, alive or dead, is available to pick from – every covenant focuses on one. Every being that has died, on any world, is available too (see Aliothe). Rather than only having good and bad people, there are instead 5 factions to manage. Those factions themselves each have a duality to them, and they have all existed since before Azeroth existed.
In that sense, everything in WoW so far, scope-wise, can be considered Chapter 1 of a larger world building. Or, if you want, the universe within a universe model. This is cool a it gives tons of flexibility into way forward. If the door from Azeroth to Shadowlands is now open, it bears that the door from Shadowlands to elsewhere is also open. The challenge then is that the established lore can become meaningless as there are no stakes. Ysera, Draka, Vajsh, Kael’thas, Kel’thuzad… you name it, they are most likely in SL now. Every dungeon and raid boss is likely ‘alive’.
This turns all sorts of sideways when you start looking at the covenants. So the Arbiter picks where you go, according to some set of criteria. For Maldraxxus, Revendreth, and Bastion you just ‘plop’, show up and then get initiated by the local faction, and then maybe get ‘corrupted’ by the 2nd faction that is aligned with the Jailer. Anima is used less to live, and more so to give characters magical powers. Ardenweald, not so much. You show up as a spirit and need anima to be reborn. From that point, it seems that anima is only used by the Queen. I’ve completed the Night Fae campaign… the Drust are the bad guys and they have no link at all to the Jailer. It’s the only covenant like this. Side note – Night Fae explain that to cure Tyrande, they need to ‘share’ the night warrior spirit across multiple people.
Venthr have you build a rebellion core, but there’s no true final act as there are missing at least 2 key components (you can see this in the faction hub). Necrolord has you wrest control from Kel’thuzad, put some gear on a statue (no lie) and then that’s it. Maybe it can be seen as building forces to eventually attack the Jailer. Kyrian is a ‘repair the thing’ quest that ends up with Uther moving out of the Forsworm but not back into the Kyrian. They are not in a position to attack the Jailer, they are simply back to where they were when the expansion started.
So Venthyr and Necrolord are amassing forces. Kyrian are rebuilding, and Uther is effectively a 3rd faction (cause Kyrian are borderline bad guys), and the Night Fae are just plain surviving.
The Ben Howell Problem
Kyrian Chapter 3 identifies a very odd space. You re-live Ben Howell’s life and death. For some reason you send his soul to Oribos, where there’s no Arbiter, and he gets sent to the Maw. When you ask why this is, the leader of the faction effectively says ‘we know, do it anyways’. To be clear, they KNOW that the Jailer is building an army and they are actively building that army for him.
The Maw Problem
How does the Maw normally work? How do people go from any of the 4 covenants into the Maw in the first place? Is the portal out of the Maw something only the Primals can use, and if so, how do the players end up with that power? As the Night Fae story goes, how did the Loa end up in the Maw? If this is the spot for the ultra damned, would that not be a landing spot for the old gods too?
And since the Lich King’s helm is a Jailer artefact, that means Arthas was supposed to lead this a while ago (Nerzul before him). So where are all these guys?
And when someone has a true death in Shadowlands, what happens? They are out of the larger thread of life?
If Act 2 is the meeting of external factors to internal success, then it bears to reason that Anduin and Tyrande will be either a raid boss, or the key goal of the raid. The Jailer wants to ‘use’ Anduin, so that’s a heck of an indicator. Tyrande can only be healed with multiple people. It’s pretty clear at some point, either act 2 or 3, that we’re going to attack the Maw. And we know that there will have to be a battle between Tyrande and Sylvanas.
But let’s take a step back on other parts too. The Arbiter is offline (who looks suspiciously like the Jailer what with a hole in her chest) and there’s no real indication of how. Why is clear, the Maw needs the souls to build an army (which is its own tin foil hat story). The other big mystery is the Primus in Maldraxxus. He’s just gone, and beyond all the other faction leaders, is the only one who ever refers to Shadowlands as a whole instead of their own covenant.
Then there’s the actual Jailer. There’s no clear goal here. If he wins, then everything becomes the Maw. That’s not really a goal. He’s in control of his domain, he can make it whatever he wants. And there’s no criteria as to what actually goes to the Maw if things were working normally.
Maybe, just maybe, the Jailer is looking to open the door of Shadowlands outwards. The Maw is more numerous than the Burning Legion, and we still haven’t found the void. Could be we have a corrupted Primus who is being used as a power source for a portal out. And then we get a true battle against the Void.