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One of the most amazing things about World of Warcraft is how well its back story ties in with Blizzard’s WarCraft RTS games. The level of detail in its stories and characters, and they way they all interact, is astonishing. So a working knowledge of WarCraft III may not give absolute meaning to your endless monster killing, but at least makes you feel part of a glorious whole.
The Lich King was the main human character of WarCraft III - the paladin Prince Arthas Menethil. Arthas’ downfall began in the fifth mission of WarCraft III in the city of Stratholme, where the entire population had consumed grain poisoned by the Undead Scourge, dooming them to a pallid complexion for evermore. Stratholme is a WoW dungeon these days, somewhat revived since Arthas culled the entire town before consequently hightailing after the nasty Dreadlord responsible, Mal’Ganis, to Northrend.
Arriving on the frozen shores, Arthas shared pleasantries with some Dwarves, who let slip about a powerful runeblade called Frostmourne. Before they could search for it, though, a call came through from the human city of Lordaeron (currently sitting in ruins atop the Undead capital of Undercity) telling them to come home. The troops attempted to return, only to find a crazed Arthas had decided to set fire to their ships (blaming the mercenaries he had hired and murdering them) stranding his men. This was the first sign that he was going mental, and another sign that there’d be a ton more top-down RTS warfare before the day was out.
Arthas later found the blade in Drak’Tharon Keep and, ignoring the large sign saying “Warning, cursed blade, will destroy your soul,” took it, got a curse and lost his soul. It soon turned out that the Dreadlord Mal’Ganis had been sent by the Burning Legion (the Burning Crusade demons who want Azeroth destroyed) to corrupt Arthas into becoming an evil Lich King in just that fashion. So Arthas went on to stab him in protest.