Narrative Lead Steve Danuser talked about and specified the time gap between Shadowlands and Dragonflight, as well as the time gaps for other expansions. We find out how Shadowlands started in year 35 after the opening of the Dark Portal, and how Dragonflight begins in year 40, as well as the reasons for the larger gap than usual, that a digital short story is coming set within that gap and will feature an event mentioned in the Alpha (presumably the marriage of two high-profile characters), how larger story events will be featured in game with quests generally, and many more details on the in-lore timing of the next expansion.
5 Year Gap (Source)
I wanted to take a moment to address the topic of time passage between Shadowlands and Dragonflight.
There has always been some amount of time passing between expansions, though rarely has it been called out in game. We maintain an internal timeline of what year each expansion begins, and the gap between them has either been one year (as with earlier expansions) or two years (as with most of the later ones). But NPCs in the world don’t talk about how the Burning Crusade took place in the year 26 after the Dark Portal opened, or how we rediscovered Pandaria in the year 30.
When you look back at the Warcraft timeline, one of the things you’ll notice is that a lot of massive, world-changing events were tightly clustered together. This is especially true for WoW, which since launch has seen a multitude of invasions and catastrophes back-to-back in the chronology.
With Shadowlands representing the closing of one book in the Warcraft saga (as we mentioned in interviews around the release of our Eternity’s End update), it felt like an opportunity to give Azeroth and its inhabitants a bit of breathing room before Dragonflight ushers in the start of our next major storyline.
Shadowlands began in the year 35 after the opening of the Dark Portal, and Dragonflight will begin in the year 40.
Given that the events of Shadowlands took place over the course of two years, that leaves a few additional years that we are fast-forwarding through. Our purpose here is not to have a litany of events take place outside the game that you need to read about in a novel or other media to understand the state of the world. The goal of the fast-forward is to provide the people of Azeroth with a slice of “normal” life without a major threat looming over their heads.
When our heroes return from the Realms of Death, you can imagine them easing back into their lives and duties without an immediate crisis to address or enemy to fight. With the Alliance and Horde honoring the truce signed after the Fourth War, the average Azerothian citizen will be able to enjoy a time of stability and reflection.
That said, we plan to offer a digital short story on our website that details one particularly joyous occasion which has been referenced in the alpha build. It’s going to be a fun and charming read, but it won’t be necessary in order to understand the events of Dragonflight.
Besides stretching out the WoW timeline a bit, another benefit of this fast-forward is that it will let our younger characters get a little older, allowing some of them to take a larger role in future storylines. Yet not so much time will be passing that you’d expect characters who are already adults to look significantly different.
As for changes to the world that have been discussed or foreshadowed, such as the resettlement of Gilneas, those will not be happening during the fast-forward. As cool as it is to show locations and populations evolving because of story progression, we want events of this importance to be in-game questing that our players experience for themselves (as with the reclaiming of the Ruins of Lordaeron in the 9.2.5 update) rather than having it happen off-camera.
For your player characters, it has always been left to your own interpretation how much time had passed when they log in after the arrival of a major update or new expansion. Dragonflight is no exception. You are free to imagine what your characters have been doing in that time of respite as you look forward to the arrival of the Dragonflight pre-patch.
Hopefully this post helps clear up confusion about the timeline and explains our goals for having a few more years pass than we normally would.
–Steve Danuser, Narrative Lead