Vanilla WoW may not have seemed full of story to most, but it was jam-packed with plot elements, although they were hidden from all but those who paid the closest attention to what was going on around them. Most lore in the game was simply introduced with quest text -- there were no cut scenes, there was no phasing, there were none of the innovations we currently have today in regards to the implementation of lore in gameplay.
If you missed them, I recommend going back and reading through the summaries of early days of vanilla lore. There are two versions of Act I, one for Alliance and one for Horde. Act II applies to both sides of the faction fence as the story began to merge for both sides. Please note that these are summaries of the lore that existed in game -- later novels, comics, and other material adjusted what actually happened in the scope of the game universe, and some of those novels and comics are now the official canon version of these events. I've pointed out where these changes occurred.
The end of vanilla was marked with the return of foes long thought dead and gone, and the ominous stirrings of a portal to another world.
Back story you should know
In Warcraft III, there were two different wars going on. Kalimdor saw the arrival of Archimonde and the subsequent unification of orc, human, and night elf factions to destroy him. But on the Eastern Kingdoms, there was an entirely different saga playing out. Plagued grain had mysteriously appeared, and those who consumed it were stricken with a disease that promptly killed them, and then resurrecting them into shambling, horrific, undead soldiers -- the Scourge. The kingdom of Lordaeron was falling apart, and Prince Arthas Menethil fell apart right along with it, becoming an agent of an entity known as the Lich King.
Before Arthas' descent into darkness, he encountered a necromancer named Kel'Thuzad. Once a powerful sorcerer from Dalaran, Kel'Thuzad actually sat on the Council of Six, the high council of the Kirin Tor. However, Kel'Thuzad's interested were far too keen when it came to the forbidden art of necromancy, something that set the other members of the Kirin Tor on edge. When the Lich King had gathered enough power, he sent out a mental call across Azeroth, and Kel'Thuzad was one of those that responded to the call.
The Lich King fascinated the sorcerer, who then vowed to learn all of the secrets and power the Lich King had to offer. But his attentions to necromancy had not escaped the Kirin Tor's notice, and he was summarily exiled from both Dalaran and the kingdom of Lordaeron. This did not stop Kel'Thuzad, who promptly made a trek to Northrend in order to find the Lich King himself. The Lich King promised Kel'Thuzad immense power for his obedience and servitude, to which Kel'Thuzad eagerly agreed.
It was Kel'Thuzad who was responsible for the plagued grain. He formed a cult of necromancers called the Cult of the Damned, converting all who were interested into willing servants of the Lich King. When confronted in Andorhal by Arthas and Jaina Proudmoore, Kel'Thuzad was quickly slain by the prince -- but his death meant nothing, in the long run. As Arthas descended into darkness, succumbing to the call of the Lich King, Kel'Thuzad's spirit appeared.
Although the Lich King appeared to be working with the Burning Legion, according to Kel'Thuzad, this was merely a cover for what was really going on. The dreadlords of the Burning Legion were the jailors of the Lich King, not his allies. Kel'Thuzad promised to reveal all of the Lich King's secrets to Arthas, but for a price -- he wanted to walk the earth again. And in order to perform this feat, Arthas had to use the Sunwell, protected by the elves of Quel'Thalas. This was accomplished, and Kel'Thuzad rose again, in the form of a monstrous lich.
This is also the story of how the blood elves came to be, how the Forsaken came to be, and how Sylvanas Windrunner went from Ranger General, to Banshee Queen. When Arthas and the Scourge army razed the forests of Quel'Thalas, they left no survivors. Anyone caught in the army's path was killed, including King Anasterian Sunstrider. Nearly 80% of the high elf population was summarily wiped out in the attack, leaving the nation in ruins and the race on the brink of extinction. Anasterian's son, Kael'thas, sought to rekindle old alliances by assisting Lordaeron forces, but he was met with derision and outright racist sentiment.
But Kael'thas' people, now re-named "blood elves" in recognition of those who had fallen to the Scourge, were suffering from an addiction they did not realize they had until the Sunwell was gone -- an addiction to magic. And the one creature who seemed to understand this, and offer a solution, was the naga Lady Vashj. She told him that her master, one Illidan Stormrage, could likely cure the affliction of the blood elves. Kael'thas agreed to meet with Illidan, and traveled to a sparse and lonely world known as Outland. In the interim, he appointed Lor'themar Theron as leader of the blood elves on Azeroth, and bade him wait for the prince's return.
As for Kel'Thuzad, he continued to help Arthas as the former prince struggled to find his powers and place at the Lich King's side. And when Arthas made the long trek to Icecrown to take his place on the Frozen Throne, Kel'Thuzad returned to the Eastern Plaguelands, intent on ruling them from the dread citadel where he made his home ... Naxxramas.
The Shadow of the Necropolis
Adventurers in Azeroth encountered the plaguelands at a late stage in the leveling game, and there was good reason for it -- despite only being remnants, the Scourge still posed a threat that only the strongest could contend with. And in Tirisfal Glades, those former Scourge that had broken free of Arthas' thrall now thrived in the Undercity as Forsaken, led by the Banshee Queen, Sylvanas Windrunner. Sylvanas also had a keen interest in wiping out the Scourge, as they were a direct reminder of what she and her people used to be ... not to mention they stood in the way of any plans she had for reclaiming land.
However, the primary combatants of the Scourge were the Argent Dawn. This organization was actually a branch-off of the Scarlet Crusade in the days of the Third War. The Scarlet Crusade was intent on wiping the Scourge out, but they had progressed from noble heroes to maniacal zealots who were convinced that any human not affiliated with the Scarlet Crusade was an agent of the Scourge that needed to be killed. Those that did not hold to this rather one-sided opinion, those that questioned the sanity of the Scarlet Crusade withdrew and formed their own organization. This is how the Argent Dawn came to be.
Though Argent Dawn and Scarlet Crusade worked for the same cause, they often clashed with each other. But when events in the Eastern Plaguelands made it clear that the Scourge was on the rise, the two decided to come together in an unlikely alliance. After all, it was clear where the greater evil lay, and both sides were needed to combat it. All of this went by and large under the noses of most of Azeroth's population, who were embroiled in a war with qiraji and Old God down in southern Kalimdor.
Until one fateful day when Scourge structures, necropolises, began appearing all across Azeroth. One might wonder why we'd be concerned with slime-covered pyramids hanging in the sky, but to the assorted races of Azeroth, it meant the possible return of the Scourge. Only this time, they weren't limited to the Plaguelands -- they were launching a mass campaign all over the world. It was the Third War all over again, on a global scale, and it was clear that whatever Kel'Thuzad had been doing in Naxxramas, his power was far greater than any had assumed.
Once again, Alliance and Horde found themselves ignoring the call to fight with each other in favor of fighting a foe that threatened both. The Argent Dawn was a neutral organization, and thus embraced both factions equally. Both factions joined the cause, made the journey into Naxxramas, and worked to put an end to Kel'thuzad, bringing the lich's phylactery to one Father Inigo Montoy as proof of their deeds.
The Dark Portal
This was not the time to breathe, nor the time to celebrate victory. Almost immediately after the Argent Dawn finished matters with Naxxramas, another alarming development reared its ugly head. The Dark Portal, which was long thought closed and inactive, reopened. From its depths, hordes of demons poured forth. While it was not known what exactly caused the portal's reopening, the demon lord Kazzak, long a resident of the Blasted Lands, was rumored to have fled through the portal to another planet, one ripped apart by the chaotic energies of the Twisting Nether and a series of spells gone horribly wrong.
And once more, both Alliance and Horde were needed to defend the portal and keep the demonic forces from traveling any further than the Blasted Lands. But this was not the only major change to happen to Azeroth -- the face of the planet was about to be changed in a significant fashion. Somewhere high above the planet, a crystalline ship plummeted towards the surface. It finally landed on an island off the coast of Teldrassil, tearing the land into pieces and nearly killing the inhabitants aboard. Those that were able-bodied searched the wreckage for survivors, worked on cleaning up the land they'd nearly destroyed with their abrupt arrival, and waited and wondered what, and who, the rest of the world would reveal to them in time.
In the Eastern Kingdoms, the blood elves patiently awaited the return of Kael'thas Sunstrider. Though the prince had not returned, he'd sent a gift to his faltering people -- a mysterious creature composed of Light energy called a "naaru." As a result of his gift, several of his people had begun re-learning the ways of the paladin, forming an organization called the Blood Knights. But this was little consolation. Many of the blood elves had fallen so far because of their magical addiction that they transformed into creatures called the Wretched. The Amani trolls in the south forest began to fight back, sensing the weakness of the sin'dorei. And the Scourge remnants from the fateful attacks that destroyed the Sunwell were also a looming threat to those that had survived.
Kael'thas had taken all able-bodied sin'dorei with him to Outland -- and those left behind were barely holding on. Asking the Alliance for help was not an option, given the fallout from the Third War ... but an old ally, the former Ranger General of Silvermoon, offered the helping hand of her new people. Sylvanas Windrunner may have perished, but she was now the Banshee Queen of the Forsaken, and she offered the sin'dorei both assistance, and the possibility of a new alliance with the Horde.
Although the story in game was fairly straightfoward, the lore presented outside differed significantly. The four-part comic miniseries Ashbringer highlighted the events in Naxxramas and the fall of Highlord Alexandros Mograine, who was originally one of the Four Horsemen present in the 40m version of the raid. Mograine was the bearer of the legendary sword Ashbringer. His son, Renault, was a member of the Scarlet Crusade -- an organization corrupted by the dreadlord Balnazzar who disguised himself as Saidan Dathrohan, the leader. Renault found himself corrupted by Balnazzar as well, although far more subtly.
It was an easy task to accomplish, really. Renault was jealous of his younger brother Darion, who was his father's favorite son. Renault's corruption was completed when he led his father to Stratholme to defeat a monstrous number of Scourge. As Alexandros stood, triumphant but tired, he dropped Ashbringer. Renault recovered it and promptly ran his father through, corrupting the sword and leaving both it and his father to rot. But Mograine's corpse was recovered by Kel'thuzad, reanimated as a death knight in Naxxramas.
It was Darion who traveled to Naxxramas to find his father -- it was Darion who recovered the sword and brought it to the Scarlet Monastery, where the spirit of Alexandros Mograine had his last moment of vengance against Renault. It was Darion who ultimately took the corrupted blade and killed himself, sacrificing his soul to release the soul of his father from damnation. And the Lich King happily made the exchange, drawing Darion Mograine into the fold of the damned and creating a death knight who would one day have a large part in the Lich King's undoing, though he had no idea at the time.
The lore surrounding Naxxramas appears to be a mesh of both the events in Ashbringer, and the events in game. Players that looted the Corrupted Ashbringer from Mograine's corpse could take the sword to Scarlet Monastery and see the events of Alexandros' revenge play out for themselves. Later, the appearance of Darion as a death knight and the removal of Alexandros Mograine in Wrath would both point to the comics as being the correct source for lore.
And although there were distinct differences between the two, the miniseries Ashbringer is a beautifully told tale, and is something I highly recommend reading if you have the chance. The saga of the Mograines, the tales of both Scarlet Crusade and Argent Dawn, the forging of the Ashbringer -- these are all legendary moments in Warcraft lore, and they were beautifully brought to life in the miniseries.
Next time, we'll move on to a world forever changed by sorcery, two races torn by conflict, and the mysterious re-opening of a tower long thought deserted, tucked away in the dark hills of Deadwind Pass.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.