On Runeblades

As I've mulled over possible subjects to kick off the lore part of this blog, I've come back again and again to thinking that many of them require me to lay out some of my most basic interpretations of what Death Knights are. The biggest problem with lore in World of Warcraft is the conflict between creator intent, or what the game designers originally had in mind, and game mechanics, or what the game designers had to do to make those ideas fit into a game that requires things like class balance. As a writer, I am a big fan of creator intent. I recommend anyone who can get ahold of them to browse through some of the tabletop RPG books published a few years ago (and now sadly out of print) by White Wolf to see an alternate World of Warcraft unhindered by such things as Forsaken who can be healed by the Light because having warlocks as raid tank healers is untenable, or Forsaken who can't speak Common so they can't grief Alliance players, or...well, suffice it to say that Forsaken without game mechanics make way more sense and are much more interesting.

To start discussing the creator intent of the Death Knight class, it's also important to lay out the creator influences, and there is none more obvious than the runeblade Stormbringer from British sci-fi/fantasy writer Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné stories. Even the Wikipedia page on Stormbringer mentions the nod in Warcraft:

"In the Warcraft mythos, Arthas (a prince who betrays his country and becomes undead, ending up looking rather like Elric) wields a soul-stealing runeblade named Frostmourne (the name is similar to [Stormbringer's sister sword] Mournblade). Also, the minor character, Highlord Mograine, carries the Ashbringer, an anti-undead blade whose name seems a clear reference to the Stormbringer. (The 'corrupted' version of this blade, which behaves more like the Stormbringer right down to the blade speaking to its wielder, was one of the strongest blades available to player characters of World of Warcraft for a significant length of time.)"

So whether you're familiar with Moorcock's books or not, it's pretty clear that the people at Blizzard are up on their classic fantasy, and I'd strongly recommend the Elric books to anyone looking to get a handle on the whole soul-stealing runeblade concept. Stormbringer and its effect on its wielder give one an excellent basis for WoW's Death Knights and their own runeblades. Death Knights are literally soulbound to their swords, often giving them names like Koltira Deathweaver's Byfrost, and they form the core of their power with the souls they consume. But they are also a dark, corrupting influence, and they ask a terrible price of their wielders. Elric's Stormbringer was as addictive as a drug, and it often took the lives and souls of his friends. Frostmourne took the soul of its own wielder, turning Arthas into into an undead slave of the Lich King.

Unfortunately most of the adoption of this into the game had to stop with NPCs because of game mechanics. There was talk early on of having Death Knight runeblades as upgradable weapons, possibly with a way to transfer stats from looted weapons, so that we would wield the same sword throughout the entire game. That was sadly dropped even before the Alpha testing, partly due to a belief that the player preference for a striking visual representation of new loot was more important. (Apparently I was misremembering, because after getting home to where my work firewall is not I researched and found that was just fan speculation. It's not unreasonable to think they considered it, especially as similar as it would be to the Heirloom system, but there's no confirmation it was proposed. Sorry!) We still have the Runeforging system, which gives us excellent enchants for little more than the price of our character's immortal soul, but it's not really the same as a persistent upgradable weapon to drive home how important the runeblade is to the concept of the class. In one of the first Death Knight starter zone quests, "The Endless Hunger", immediately after runing your blade Instructor Razuvious tells you, "The endless hunger will soon take hold of you, Death Knight. When it does, you will feel pain immeasurable. There is only one remedy for the suffering: the hunger must be sated." You're then instructed to kill one of those declared unworthy to be a Death Knight. "Kill and the pain will cease. Fail and suffer for eternity." It's a beautiful setup, but after that there's not a great deal of follow-through.

Personally, as a fan of Moorcock's books and an avid RPer, I have a pair of [Frostguard]s playing the role of Dariahn's twin runeblades, Reckoner and Revenant, and declare any actual useful weapons to be OOC. This sort of "RP armor" thing is pretty common on RP servers as you're lucky if you can get a PvE set that even matches, much less actually looks good, so I don't have any trouble getting people to go along with it. Naturally, the [Greatsword of the Ebon Blade] also makes an excellent RP runeblade, and you'll already have one by the time you get out of the starting area. I encourage anyone playing as a Death Knight to find a nice weapon to play the part, give it a name, and succumb to the hungry singing of your own black blade!


  1. Awesome post, thank you!

  2. Do all the death knights have runeblades that are swords? Or are there rune-polarms and rune-axes too? Because I love me some polarms.

  3. Swords are the tradition for runeblades in most works of fantasy, but there's a Greataxe of the Ebon Blade you can choose when you finish the starting area too. There's also Shadowmourne, the new legendary runeaxe. Since I brought up the tabletop RPG books, I'll pull out the Dark Factions rules for Death Knights, which says DKs have "a magic weapon, usually a sword," but says it can also be another runed weapon of the player's choosing. The weapon according to the RPG also levels up with the character, gaining its own powers. As the books are out of print, I'll likely be posting the whole DK entry at some point in the near future.

    Short answer: You could totally have a rune-polearm. :)

  4. I think I'll just put this in the list of "I totally wish this would happen, but it never will" list. Right next to taming your own ghouls. But if we did get a rune weapon, I want mine to be Hellreaver, from Hellfire Ramparts.

  5. Hellreaver would rule as a runblade, i always loved that weapon.I think i'd go for the obsidian edged blade from onxyia though