It is sad to me that it seems the only players who have access to truly epic quest lines these days are the ones on the receiving ends of legendaries -- Shadowmourne and now Dragonwrath. If we turn back the clock to vanilla, we'd come across perhaps the most epic quest line of them all. Monstrous in its time commitment, material needs, and far more random and diverse than the chain for Thunderfury, it was the mother of all quests. Not only did it require the participation of an entire realm in order to be able to complete it, but it took the effort of at least one raid team of 40 (if not more) to coordinate and organize the energy needed to get a very small handful of people very rare and very special rewards that have yet to be duplicated by Blizzard.
This quest chain is the Scepter of the Shifting Sands.
Even when long past relevant, it is still considered to this day to have been the quest most tricky to complete by quest fiends and was the crown jewel of arcane knowledge seekers, rep grinders, completionists and achievement hunters alike. It took me over two years to do it nearly solo, from the end of vanilla to Wrath, even after Blizzard has eased some of the drop rates and requirements.
On Nov. 30, in the 4.0.3a hotfix, Blizzard awarded the Veteran of the Shifting Sands Feat of Strength all those who had participated in the quest chain and finished up to Treasure of the Timeless One prior to its removal in 4.0.3.
Let's re-open the scrolls of antiquity, dust off some sand and travel back in time to explore one of the most legendary quests of our game.
What Tomorrow Brings
The quest chain as well as the gong event and subsequent raid instances were released with the 1.9 content patch. This not only made good on the newly transformed Silithus (from patch 1.8) but gave rise to Temple of Ahn'Qiraj and Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj as raid instances. However, while Blizzard did make mention of the war effort needed to open the gates, a lot of the quest chain and what it ultimately meant (regarding the rewards from the chain or the mount) was left shrouded in mystery. The war effort was to make it all possible so the scepter-bearer could ring the gong and open the gates.
The real story of what was going on behind Ahn'Qiraj, what eventually sprang forth from behind the walls, as well as why this all occurred in the first place unfolded as you did the chain. This made starting the Scepter quest not only attractive to the raid groups interested in completing the event (and the subsequent glory) but anyone afterwards who wanted to know the story behind the the Dragonflights, the War of the Shifting Sands and the Scarab Gates intimately.
In order to properly get this party started, most people stumbled upon Baristolth in Cenarion Hold, offering the quest What Tomorrow Brings. In the earliest parts of the quest chain, your reputation with the Bronze Dragonflight (at least this first niche, Brood of Nozdormu; not to be confused with the Keepers of Time or Scale of the Sands) was fairly crucial. You approached Anachronos, and suddenly you became Hated by the Brood of Nozdormu. The dragons were aware of your presence -- and with that, you could proceed.
Only one may rise (raid leaders beware)
Despite the fact that What Tomorrow Brings was the first quest on the chain, you could technically start by getting a drop from Broodlord Lashlayer. This, plus the fact that only one person could loot Broodlord's head, made this an auspicious and somewhat befuddling start to picking the very small group of champions who would eventually get to do the quest. Combined with the fact that so much of Scepter chain was not talked about, you ended up with quite a lot of drama in every raid. Who was going to get the head and why? Who deserved it? What did that mean? Should guilds give it to someone who was a veteran or someone who might benefit the most? Who could make the quest chain easier for the raid to obtain?
Obvious choices were people who would get the best use out of the weapons that were offered as one of the final rewards, raid leaders (due to their already unflagging devotion to a raid), or even people who played Humans for the Diplomacy racial, since it was uncertain what kind of reputations might come into play while doing the chain. While multiple people on the server ended up with the heads, the choice usually fell to whomever would be best to center a raid's (or even multiple raids') efforts around.
Sometimes the choice was made by sheer dumb luck. There are quite a number of stories from people I've spoken with in which the head ended up going to the master looter for the raid team, as they were unaware that the head was for one person only and BOP. (This was well before ticketing a GM for loot was commonplace or tradeable loot was in the game.)
As of the start of The Burning Crusade, Blizzard made the head lootable by anyone in the raid who was on the quest.
As I mentioned before, it became pretty evident as guilds started getting embedded into the war effort and the Scepter chain that this was no feat for one person or even one guild to obtain. In order to secure at least a gong-ringer, a concerted effort needed to be made server-wide. This meant an outstanding level of cooperation and coordination between raid teams, guilds and individual players with the ultimate goal of getting the gates open in a timely fashion.
On many servers, an entire faction's worth of raids or guilds might decide to help at least one raid team achieve a scepter, especially if there was an innate competition with the other side. Sometimes both sides got in on the act and coordinated their communication via message boards. Prizes and incentives were given from hardcore raids to groups of people helping keeping the War Effort going -- runs through Molten Core, gold, and help so that everything went smoothly.
Why was this necessary? Mostly because at every step of the way, there were tasks that had to be completed that was monumentally difficult, expensive, or lengthy. The most time-consuming of these tasks came right from the beginning.
When you talked to Anachronos, you started at Hated (0/36,000), the lowest possible reputation you can have with a faction in game. While the previous quests gave you a smidgen of Brood rep, the bulk of the grind (to the tune of 16,000 or so Silithid Carapaces for non-Humans) came from Path of the Righteous. This quest (as well as the repeatable Hand of the Righteous that followed) asked you to grind out 200 Silithid Carapaces to turn in for 500 Brood of Nozdormu reputation and a special item called Proxy of Nozdormu. This was a BOP item with one charge that sat in your bags and allowed you to deputize a targeted player into being able to pick up carapaces off Silithid mobs. They received a badge called Agent of Nozdormu, and they had to have it in their bags at all times in order to see or loot any quest items. Once they had it, though, they could grind mobs until the cows came home. Better still, the Silithid Carapaces were not BOP. They could be traded or even sold!
While this not only allowed deputies to turn in their carapaces to a raid's chosen Scepter-bearer, this meant that a raid could also purchase Silithid Carapaces from other raids. This wasn't done as much while the content was still relevant, but many servers had raids that would grind for days on end to help another raid obtain the needed silithid items with haste once people had been deputized. This was days upon days of 8- to 15-hour grinding sessions at the initial frenzy of the quest between many people in the various hives.
Hamlet from Mal'ganis, once a Scarab Lord on Lightning's Blade (US), remembers the sheer amount of organization put in to the first parts of the quest:
Even when The Burning Crusade and eventually Wrath came out and more and more people attempted the chain for Loremaster or their own curiosity, this was one of the biggest bottlenecks. However, you could put together raids and do AQ-20 and -40 for gobs of Brood rep from boss drops and trash mobs, and this eased the pain of hiding in hives for days on end.
We had bands of people from guilds all over the Alliance farming carapaces at the beginning. I was online constantly for a few days trying to run things, invite new people and try to make them feel good for helping, [and deputized] anyone who wanted it.
Once the player attained neutral reputation with Brood of Nozdormu, they could continue onto the next quest.
Long Forgotten Memories
You did it. You ground out 16,000 Scarab Carapaces, and now the dragons had no feelings whatsoever on your frail mortal existence. Baristolth (when you pick up Anachronos) handed you a book outlining some of the lore of the War of the Shifting Sands, the real secret meaning behind all the work you just did. You read the book and ran off to talk to his master again.
Anachronos then gave you the quest Long Forgotten Memories, charging you to head to the south of Silithus near the gong and the unopened gates to find a single crystalline tear. Once you'd found it, you'd see a long and poignant cutscene (at a time when such things were mostly machinima in-game and very rare) in which several powerful dragons and Fandral Staghelm used their powers to seal the Scarab Gate. (Here is a video of the entire thing.)
It is evident, however, that despite Fandral's helping the dragons that he doesn't desire to carry the scepter, should the gong need to be rung again. He is deep in mourning over his son, who was lost in the war shortly before. He throws the gong, and it shatters into fragments that Anachronos picks up. This foreshadows events you have to repair later on in the chain. Going back and looking on this now makes me realize still how good Blizzard's storytelling was and that the events that occurred so long ago in the War of the Shifting Sands are even playing themselves out now in the Firelands.
Anachronos then gave you his final task: to speak to three of the draconic guardians of the world. The names he gave were familiar to most players, giving an indication that retrieving the shards of the scepter would be a much greater task than previously assumed.
The trail here splits, and so begins the Shard quest lines.