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Saturday 25 February 2023

1983: The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure
 set in Ancient Egypt has the distinction of being the first roleplaying game to explore the idea of roleplaying in Ancient Egypt, the first historical roleplaying game published by Palladium Games, the only boxed roleplaying game from Palladium Games, and the only roleplaying game from Palladium Games to not use its Megaverse rules. Published in 1983, the result is a game with a surprisingly simple and straightforward rules system, plenty of solidly researched background and historical material, and some superb illustrations and maps. However, even by the standards of the day, it suffers from cheap production values and a lack of development. Unlike other titles from Palladium Games, such as the Mechanoid Invasion Trilogy, it has not been reprinted. Consequently, The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt has remained a historical curio, little remembered by anyone.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt is a boxed set. Inside is a fifty-page, black and white rulebook, a full colour map of Ancient Egypt, and several sheets which depict the Nile Valley, routes across the deserts and ‘Nomes’ (a regional division of the country), city fortifications, house floorplans, the True Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and more. In the roleplaying game, players take on the roles of members of Egyptian society who go and well, not adventure exactly. Society in the setting is described as stable and as is made clear in the ‘G.M. Notes’, “…[T]he government will not allow a band of marauders to plunder the countryside (at least not within Egypt proper).” Instead, it is suggested that the adventurers undertake business trips or pilgrimages, perhaps be representatives of noble or merchant patrons. Alternatively, there are ruins to explore or military ventures to engage in beyond the borders of the country, even though none of Egypt’s enemies are detailed, but suggestions as to what the Player Characters might do in a scenario or campaign are really only covered in the barest of details. In some ways this parallels the feel of an earlier roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne, which has always had the repetition of being dense and impenetrable and not easy to run from the material contained in the rules. That said, an experienced Game Master will be able to develop an adventure from the material in the book.

A Player Character in is, of course, Human and Egyptian. He is defined by his Caste, Attributes, Hit Points, Occupation, and Skills. There are four Castes—Nobility, Clergy, Bureaucracy, and Commons—and each Caste suggests possible Occupations and gives an Attribute bonus. For example, the Occupations for the Clergy Caste are Priest and Scholar and its grants a bonus to the Power Attribute. The five attributes are Strength, Speed, Intellect, Power, and Persona, and these range between three and eighteen. Hit Points are equal to double the Player Character’s Strength. There are five Occupations—Soldier, Priest, Scholar, Merchant, and Thief. Skills are given as percentile values, and come from a Player Character’s Caste and Occupation. To create a Player Character, a player rolls for his Caste, Attributes, selects an occupation, rolls for the number of Caste skills and selects them, and then picks four skills from those available from the Occupation. Oddly, the rulebook does not include a list of names. The process is quick, but not necessarily clearly explained. For example, Priests and Scholars can learn spells, but it is not how many they know at game’s start.

Caste: Bureaucracy
Occupation: Scholar

Strength 06 Speed 09 Intellect 18 Power 16 Persona 14

Hit Points: 12

Agriculture 20%, Gaming 26%, Law 18%, Magick 32%, Philosophy 18%, Reading 18%, Swimming 09%, Writing 18%

Clairvoyance, Detect Truth, Illumination

Mechanically, The Valley Of The Pharaohs employs the percentile system. A player rolls under percentile dice against a particular skill to succeed. Beginning Player Characters are thus far from being very skilled and one of the stated aims of play, at least mechanically, is to improve skills. Skill improvement is done at the end of each session and is done with a roll over the skill as in other percentile systems. A Player Character can also gain training in a skill. Combat is different and uses a twenty-sided die. To attack an opponent, a player rolls the die and adds bonuses based on the character’s Speed Attribute and Combat Skill. The Valley Of The Pharaohs differentiates between the Combat, Military Combat, Shield, Archery, and Throw Skills, and the higher the skill, the more bonuses provided. If the player rolls higher than the Resistance Factor of the target’s armour, which can range from six for simple clothing and eight for padded to eleven for leather and fourteen for scale, then the character is successful in penetrating the armour. Damage is then rolled for and applied directly to the target’s Hit Points. However, if the roll is equal to the Resistance Factor and up to five less than the Resistance Factor of the armour, the attack hits and damage is applied to the armour’s damage capacity before the target. A defending character, though, does have the option of parrying or dodging, which requires a player to roll higher than the attack roll. Either way, a roll of a natural twenty is a critical hit and inflicts double damage.

In comparison to the combat rules, the base mechanic and the rulebook’s explanation of it are woefully underwritten. The combat rules are given much more detail and have a bit of cut and thrust to them with combatants able to parry and dodge as well as attack. Soldiers do feel more skilled though, because there is direct correlation between a Warrior’s skill and what he can do in mechanical terms. As he gains in skill, he has more attacks, bonuses to attack and parry, and more. So even the average warrior is going to have two attacks per round and a bonus to parry if he has the Military Combat skill, although it is not clear what the difference between the Combat and Miliary Combat skills are. 

Magic uses the Magick skill to determine both how well a Player Character casts spells and what spells he might possibly know. His Magick skill is rolled against whenever he wants to cast a spell as per the roleplaying game’s skill mechanic. Its value is also used as the level of a Player Character’s magical knowledge in that a Player Character might know or be able to learn and cast all of the spells of a level under the value of his Magick. Thus, a Priest or Scholar with a Magick skill of 25 might only know the Illumination, Detect Truth, Clairvoyance, and Move Water spells, which are levels ten, fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five, respectively. Spells have a Magic Point cost to cast, a duration, and a casting time, ranging from two to twelve combat rounds, such as with the spells Portal and Speak with Gods, depending on spell level. A caster can also extend a spell and attempt to ward or counter a spell if he knows the spell being cast at him. Characters of all types have access to passive magick through amulets, wax figures, Ushabti, magic pictures, and more. Amulets provide minor bonuses, such as the Serpent’s Head, a red stone amulet that protects the wearer from snakes and to a certain extent from magical snakes, whilst Ushabti resemble objects in the real world which come to life and magically perform tasks that their real-world equivalents would. For example, a bull Ushabti could come to life and plough a field or a soldier Ushabti protect its owner. In the case of amulets, the more someone wears, the less effective they are. Of the two, the passive magic of the amulets and similar objects is much more interesting and much more immersive than that of the active magic. This is not to say that active magic is not powerful, but it is not as flashy as in other fantasy roleplaying games, there are a limited number of spells, and there are few if direct combat spells. Another issue is that the spells feel generic, rather than being specifically tied to the setting of Ancient Egypt, its priesthoods, and its gods, and that is not the case with the passive magic. 

In terms of setting, The Valley Of The Pharaohs provides information on the history of Ancient Egypt, its society, government, law, slavery, army, and more. It pays particular attention to the clergy, which includes temples, medicine, beliefs, and of course, burial customs, plus the gods themselves. A bestiary gives stats for ordinary creatures such as crocodiles and baboons, and for monsters like great serpents and several unnamed man-eating beasts believed to inhabit the deserts. The range of monsters feels threadbare.

Rounding out The Valley Of The Pharaohs is a set of tables for random encounters and treasures, the latter slightly at odds with non-marauding style of play the author informs the Game Master is ill-suited to the setting. Even the limited number of spells with their even more limited number of direct combat spells enforce this style of play. Yet the advice for the Game Master is limited in terms of explaining what sort of games and campaigns can be run using The Valley Of The Pharaohs. In particular, military campaigns are severely curtailed because although the roleplaying game is set at a time when Egypt is conducting military campaigns beyond its borders, only neighbouring Nubia is mentioned, and then only in passing. So, no idea is given of who these possible rivals are and what their armies look like. Similarly, whilst priests are discussed in general, the only difference between them is that they worship different gods. So, it is not easy to develop scenarios involving inter-temple rivalries and factionalism because there is not enough information here. This is not to dismiss the amount of information in what is a forty-year-old roleplaying game just fifty pages in length, but rather it can at best be described as a decent introduction to the period—at least for 1983. An experienced Game Master would be able to overcome these issues with research, and there is a bibliography included in the back of the rulebook. Of course, there have been developments in Egyptology since, so even what is here may have become outdated by contemporary standards. Plus, research today is going to be much easier to conduct than it was in 1983. Ultimately in terms of a setting, The Valley Of The Pharaohs is almost too settled and too stable, so that there are no real tensions or rivalries or differences which might drive adventure, conflict, or obvious story.

Physically, The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt manages to both please and disappoint at the same time. The production values are disappointingly poor, the quality of the paper a significant factor in that—especially for the various separate maps and illustrations, which consequently feel flimsy. The rulebook’s text is also small and cramped and not easy to read. Yet the artwork, the maps, and so on are really particularly good, strong, bold, and really capture the feel of the setting.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt appears to have been reviewed just the once. This was by designer Jonathan Tweet, in the ‘Game Reviews’ department of Different Worlds Issue 45 (March/April 1987). He wrote, “The biggest obstacle to running a Valley of the Pharaohs campaign is the lack of motives for adventuring. The rules sanely remind gamemasters that armed adventurers freelancing as monster exterminators do not belong in 'the civilized, orderly land of Egypt but do not offer alternatives to the kinds of adventures players usually enjoy. If the game was designed so that the scholar, merchant, and soldier characters could have exciting adventures in civilized country like Egypt using all the noncombat skills described, Valley of the Pharaohs would have been given a better rating, but the game left me with no excitement as to the possibilities for scenarios.” before concluding that, “The Valley of the Pharaohs, then, would be a worthwhile game for those with deep interest in ancient Egypt and for those gamemasters with enough energy and imagination to synthesize historical background and basic game mechanics into an original and exciting campaign. Good luck to those of you who try.” He awarded The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt just one-and-a-half stars.

The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt has all of the right substance—solid, if basic rules, a decent amount of background and history, and plenty of excellent illustrations and maps, but where it comes up short is application. What exactly do you do with it and what sort of scenarios and campaigns do you play? The basic advice that The Valley Of The Pharaohs is a stable and settled society does not leave the Game Master with a great deal to work with in terms of setting up a campaign or even a scenario. There is no denying that there is the basics of a solid enough roleplaying game in The Valley Of The Pharaohs: Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt, but in terms what adventures can be run, it is underdeveloped and leaves a lot of work for the Game Master to do. One might say that it is all ‘Valley of the Pharaohs’ and not enough ‘adventure’.


  1. Quite enjoyed this review. I've got some nostalgia for this game, having had a copy on the shelf for years. I've only run it once, so my copy is pristine.

    You (and Johnathan Tweet) pretty much get it right - passable (at best) system, pretty art, interesting historical info, unclear campaign goals.

    Probably the best use of it would be as background for a land the players visit, rather than live in. Though GURPS Egypt would be better.

    One odd bit - It had a character sheet in the box that was US legal-sized, which I'm not sure I've seen in any other RPG character sheet. There weren't really enough stats and information to fill up that space.

    I took a shot at designing a better one:

  2. Awesome review, well researched and cross referenced - I really enjoyed reading it and now want to get a copy of the game, despite your mentioned shortcomings. It seems like a great resource for GURPS or Lex Arcana…
    If you know anyone interested to sell their copy…hit me up!