"What's the background story of the Horde?" • "Why is Illidan so hated?" • "How did the Burning Legion start?"
Well, here is the guide how to learn the history and lore of Warcraft.
Where to start
The often hard question (if you are clueless to lore) is usually: Where to start? Well, somebody would say all the way back to Warcraft I (aka Warcraft: Orcs & Humans or the First War), or maybe Warcraft II (aka Tides of Darkness or the Second War up to and including Wrath of the Lich King, Warcraft III is the best place to start. Also, this game then elicits more interesting questions. For instance, how Illidan Stormrage became so hated or where the Scourge started.
The novels and short stories
- Main article: Story guide
The novels and short stories are also a great source for information. It is a good idea to read them in chronological order, so you understand much more of what they might mention in some novels. There are 16 novels, and a new one is about to come out (as of August 2011). Usually, the novels give the best information for lore, but other sources might also work (look below at other sections). Every novel is about some of the characters. So, my advice is, use these as your key source.
The RPG books
The RPG books are not considered canon by Blizzard, but still contain some information that is not included in any other novels, and much is even altered from games to fit into current lore. An example for that one is perhaps the First War, which has got too much retcon to fit into current lore, and is not depicted in any novel, unlike Warcraft II, which is novelized. Only a bit information about the war is mentioned in The Last Guardian. Still, they also tell much about the culture of the races you don't find anywhere else, for instance that the Wildhammer Dwarves revere the Earth Mother. Use the RPG books if you want some detailed information.
Comics and Manga
While the novels are the key sources, the comics and mangas still contain some important lore, such as the Sunwell Trilogy, which describes much of the blood elf lore and World of Warcraft: The Comic, which describes a very important part: Varian Wrynn's life as gladiator. So these are indeed good to have, also.
You can find lots of important lore in-game, too. Those aren't always major, but some of the most important events, such as the Invasion of Gilneas and Battle for Light's Hope Chapel are depicted in here. Some minor information can also be found, which is sometimes retconned, such as Maim Blackhand's death, told by Eitrigg. So it is a good idea to also (if you want to) read some of the quest text on the more important quests.
If you don't play World of Warcraft
You don't necessarily have to play World of Warcraft to know the lore. However, they have, as said before, the game has some great events that are very important to lore. In game you can experience lore, but if you don't you can still read about it.
Retcon is short for "retroactive continuity" or a change in lore to fix what appears to be a conflict or continuity problem because old lore doesn't account for some new element. The lore keeps changing, and it is a good idea to keep up the knowledge from the new media. It can often be hard to find out just WHAT is the real lore, but often, it's the newest written that is considered the basic lore.
Flavor lore is when there seems to be two different versions of lore behind something. One of the most famous examples is the War of the Ancients. The story is forever altered, but the media often stay to the original story, though Blizzard considers Richard A. Knaak's books to be the current one. So not all lore is conclusive.