One of World of Warcraft: Legion's signature features was the introduction of artifact weapons: powerful, lore-steeped items that would grow with players over the course of the expansion, gaining in power and abilities rather than simply being replaced with new drops over the course of the years-long campaign against the Burning Legion. With a weapon system introducing that level of permanence, the need for extensive customization follows, so each artifact weapon comes with a variety of unlockable skins in varying hues. Some feature straightforward unlock requirements: the completion of a quest or the fulfilling an achievement. But others are less straightforward, with even their very existence going undisclosed except to those with the data mining skills to find them.
These skins unlock through a variety of methods. Some are, admittedly, not terribly interesting: a few are simply mob drops, while one especially disappointing appearance is unlocked by purchasing a vendor item. However, in the examples that are interesting, we see a potential template for future content that I would wholeheartedly embrace if added to the game.
The Ashbringer Conspiracy
Of all the hidden artifact skins available in World of Warcraft, the Retribution Paladin's is the most difficult to unlock. It's a lengthy process. Half untracked questline and half community ARG, it takes a high level of dedication to see it through to completion. It's not a perfect process and definitely has room for improvement, but nonetheless I believe it sets an interesting standard for the way similar unlocks could be obtained in the future.
In a fun nod to the game's history, much of the process to unlock the new corrupted Ashbringer skin is based on old community conspiracies concerning a version of the Ashbringer that was rumored to be obtainable back in the vanilla and Burning Crusade era over ten years ago. The rumors all started with the book Nat Pagle's Guide to Extreme Anglin', a drop looted from player corpses in the Alterac Valley battleground. The text of the book reads as follows:
"... and so that's where you'll find the legendary sword of the Scarlet Highlord, Ashbringer.
Ain't it amazin' what you run into in an ordinary day of fishin'?"
But that's only the start of the intrigue. Another copy of the book has long existed as a separate in-game item found on the ground in the Dire Maul dungeon - a dungeon that features the Shen'dralar, a group of NPCs known as collectors of books*.* Speaking with the Shen'dralar NPCs would result in the following dialogue:
"Has the Prince recanted the tale of the Ashbringer? It is our most favorite of his stories. His favorite is the follow up to the Ashbringer. Of course, nobody has ever been able to get that story out of him.
The Master holds great interest in the Lair of Nefarian. If only someone would defeat the dragon and his minions and retell the tale to the Prince. I bet that would loosen the Prince's lips. The Ashbringer could be found!"
At the time, inquisitive players theorized that bringing Prince Tortheldrin the Head of Nefarian would set them on the trail to finding the legendary artifact, but it didn't and for ten years the trail ran cold here. Enter the launch of Legion.
Unlocking The Ashbringer's Hidden Artifact Skin
After unlocking Artifact Knowledge level 6, Retribution Paladins are able to speak to Sister Elda in their class order hall to combine the two Nat Pagle books into a completed copy (if you're planning on going through the process yourself, please note that both of these books are tradeable, though they certainly aren't difficult to obtain on one's own, either). From here, players can pick up where the old conspiracies left off in an untracked quest with no exclamation points or arrows leading the way.
Traveling to Prince Tortheldrin in Dire Maul with the completed book and the Head of Nefarian will unlock new dialogue, setting paladins on the course to unlocking the Ashbringer's hidden artifact skin. When asked about the book, the Prince will respond with the tale of a human mage who once gave him a copy, talking about wanting to "fight fire with fire" (ostensibly the reason the paladin is corrupting the Ashbringer, as opposed to the actual reason, which is that it looks sweet with their edgelord transmog). The Prince continues on to reveal that the paladin wasn't the first to visit him asking about the book. In fact, a tauren had come some time before but had left empty-handed as he had no proof of Nefarian's demise.
Once again the trail leads us back to the old community theories, which featured a tauren hunter named Bardu Sharpeye, who, in seemingly abandoned quest dialogue, used to speak of a mage who was betrayed by the Scarlet Crusade after creating a powerful weapon for them.
Note that this portion is faction specific; Alliance paladins will visit Bardu's companion, a dwarf hunter named Alexia Ironknife instead.
Bardu sends the paladin to search the Crusade's former holdings in the area for a clue as to what happened to the wizard, an open ended directive that eventually lead the community to Grand Inquisitor Isillien's Journal in the former Crusade stronghold of Hearthglen.
"...The loathsome wizard is more resilient than I had first expected.
Still, showing him the Light's wrath has been one of my great joys these past few weeks. The heathen deserves worse - who would dare try to create something so foul from the very shadows we seek to destroy?
I knew his kind were not to be trusted.
I cannot afford to dispose of the wretch here; the attention it would draw if he were found would only further complicate my glorious work.
No... I have a better idea. I will bring him to death's very door and leave him in the Plaguelands.
There is a particularly vile slime on the river's edge that will ensure not a trace remains of the traitorous louse... if i can find the damned creature."
Back to the old theories once more. Prior to patch 1.6, slimes in the area could drop Timolain's Phylactery, a vestigial item with absolutely no in-game purpose presumed to be a part of the Ashbringer quest that never was. Players engaged in the original conspiracy theory pieced together that Timolain was likely the wizard described by Bardu, and as it turns out, they were exactly right as the phylactery has returned to loot table from a very specific slime that spawns by the river's edge.
This is where the true test of dedication comes. The vile slime in question spawns on a 30 minute to 30+ hour timer, and, at least for now, is meticulously camped by paladins seeking the Ashbringer's hidden artifact skin (mercifully, it does share credit for anyone who tags it and scales up in HP with the number of attackers to prevent it from being killed too quickly).
I personally spent 12 straight hours on this stage of the process. Twelve hours fishing, hanging out, fighting off would-be gankers, and commiserating with my fellow warriors of the light. Well, that and Netflix on another monitor. When the slime finally spawned, I was ecstatic.
Once the paladin has obtained their phylactery, a lich version of Timolain appears, revealing that item you need, the Shard of Darkness, was hidden in the river you've been waiting by all this time, and that you're going to have to fish it up. The Shard is an excruciatingly rare drop, taking anywhere from 10 to 10,000 casts of the fishing line, depending on how lucky you are. The riverside paladin party continues.
With the shard in hand, the paladin can now speak with Lord Maxwell Tyrosus in their order hall to begin the quest Walking in Shadows, sending them to the Acherus. This is the menacing flying fortress that serves as the death knight order hall, where players will finally corrupt the Ashbringer and unlock their hidden artifact skin.
A Retrospective on the Journey and its Potential Impact
Unlocking the Ashbringer's hidden artifact skin was a grueling, trying process. One part ARG, one part story, and one part excruciating RNG. It took time and dedication to make it through the process. That said, I wouldn't trade it for a single one of the other hidden artifact skins' acquisition experiences.
Corrupting the Ashbringer was everything a quest should be. A narrative spanning the game world and steeped in its lore, a dependence on non-combat professions to complete, and enough work involved for the end result to actually feel like an accomplishment, with the added benefit of it grouping players together during the lengthy stretches so the community side of an MMO can do its thing. Despite it not even being a trackable quest for the great majority of the process, this was hands down the most memorable "quest" I've done in the World of Warcraft, and it's one I'll surely remember for years to come.
There are improvements to be made, of course. A top end respawn on the spawn closer to 15 hours than 30 would mean players who planned out their camp wouldn't have to worry about going to sleep before they got their spawn. Some form of bad luck protection on the Shard of Darkness' drop rate to prevent worst case scenarios from happening might help, as some people truly had it rough. There's an argument to be made that the process should have been more easily able to be followed in game and less of an ARG based on arcane fan theories from ten years ago, though I personally enjoyed that part of the experience a great deal.
Perhaps the worst part though, is the disparity between unlocking the Ashbringer's hidden artifact appearance and the processes followed by other classes and specializations. Some of them are pretty cool - the havoc demon hunter's aerial boss encounter comes to mind immediately - but none of them have that same epicness of scale, that same level of involvement, that same requirement of sheer effort that makes the Ashbringer's hidden artifact skin stand out and lends prestige to those who wield it.
I would love to see more content like this in Warcraft. My only hope is that next time, every class will be able to take part in the experience.