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While playing World of Warcraft, I regularly see messages in the chat that read "Goldshire is under attack" or "Stormwind is under attack."

Who is attacking and why?

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These are Local Defense alerts. They're informing you that players from the opposing faction (in this case, the Horde) are attacking NPC's (and in some cases players) in the named zones. Raiding the major cities and low level zones of the opposing faction is a time honored pastime of bored max level players - there are even achievements awarded for managing to kill the leaders of the various cities (i.e. King Varian, High Priestess Tyrande, etc.).

For the most part, you can ignore these messages. At max level, they represent an alert that there's an opportunity to engage in PVP. As a new player starting out, they'll mostly just be meaningless noise. On rare occasion, a particularly large scale or significant attack may kill quest NPC's, Merchants, and Trainers with whom you're looking to interact. In those cases, your best bet is to head off somewhere else for a while until the Horde moves on or gets slaughtered; it generally doesn't take long.

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I don't play WoW, but reading this answer my followup question would be this: how long does it take those NPCs to respawn if they go down (ie, when should I bother coming back)? – Shinrai Feb 20 '14 at 1:39
@Shinrai A few minutes at worst for the really important ones. Most have alternative NPC's that are 'protected' from such griefing. Faction leaders are the only exception, being on a 2 hour respawn, but you almost never interact with them, so it's largely a non-issue. – LessPop_MoreFizz Feb 20 '14 at 1:40

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