The Eternal Sands of Egypt
The following scenario is a full-length pulp-era scenario. It is designed for GURPS Cliffhanger, but will appeal to anyone that enjoys the pulps. It is based on the historical find of a several thousand-year old vase in Iraq that was recently discovered to be a crude battery. Akhenaten did exist, he was considered a heretic, and the whereabouts of his tomb has yet to be conclusively determined. He was the father of Tutankhamun and his tomb was highly sought after by archeologists of the time. The anachronistic items mentioned in the scenario were theoretically possible for the Egyptians to invent and dovetail nicely with the fantastic science possible in the pulp genre.
This scenario is set during the heyday of the pulps. It includes all the rough and tumble elements of the genre and the splash of exotic color that only Egypt can provide. The historical discovery by Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is a fixed event. The scenario can be any time after that. The nominal date of the scenario as written is the year 1930.
“I’ve asked you all here for…”
Classic for a Cliffhanger scenario is the call from an old friend asking for help. In this case, the old friend is Algernon O’Roarke, a doctor of archeology. He calls the PCs with exciting news and asks for them to join him for dinner. When the PCs arrive at his modest home in the country, the 50ish O’Roarke greets them warmly. The PCs note his home is decorated, as expected, in an eclectic collection of various ancient artifacts as he shows them to the dining room. He politely refuses any questions until after dinner when he pours them brandy and asks the PCs to join him in his extremely cluttered office. In the center of a cleared space on his desk is a small (3” tall) vase and a scroll. Any PC with archeology will recognize the markings on the scroll as Egyptian hieroglyphs. It will take a hieroglyphs roll to actually read the scroll. The vase is simple unpainted clay with a thin layer of copper foil lining the inside, with tiny scratches that show that foil used to line the outside as well and a small copper rod that fits in the opening at the top. O’Roarke allows the PCs to examine the two items. The vase is pictured in the scroll proving the two items are related. If no one can read the scroll, he takes on a conspiratorial air as he explains the item’s significance. First, he explains that he found them while on a dig in Iraq and second, with barely contained glee; he claims that the map reveals the location of Akhenaten’s tomb. (History –3 will have heard of the father of Tutankhamun, the famous King Tut of ancient Egypt). The worldwide Egyptian craze brought about by the first discovery of an unplundered Egyptian pharaoh, by Howard Carter in 1922 has only recently subsided. O’Roarke explains that nearly all record of Akhenaten was destroyed due to some still not fully understood heresy. He couldn’t be entombed in the burial chamber prepared for him in the Valley of the Kings as was proper for a pharaoh, because in addition to the endemic grave robbers of the time, Akhenaten’s enemies wanted to desecrate the heretic. The hieroglyphs state that his few remaining loyal servants took him to another chamber in the deep desert so that he could rest in peace. O’Roarke explains that this scroll is nothing less than a precise map that shows how to find that second chamber. O’Roarke finally gets to the point after answering any questions about the scroll. “I need your help to fund an expedition to find Akhenaten.” O’Roarke actually forgets to even mention the vase. If asked, he guesses that it was some humble mortar and pestle for the preparation of sacred oils used in mummification. A gadgeteer can make an IQ –2 roll or anyone with Electronics can make an IQ –3 to realize what the little vase actually does. The PC has to re-add foil to the outside and add a small piece of rubber to hold the copper rod stable in the mouth. Providing an electric charge to the copper rod for a couple minutes causes the little vase to hold a small electric charge. The little vase is actually a Leyden jar a primitive battery invented in 1745!
O’Roarke will find this interesting, but a battery is minor discovery compared with being able to finally “Upstage Carter with Akhenaten.” If any PC questions O’Roarke about this statement, he will explain that he was hot on Tut’s trail himself and is a little annoyed by Carter’s success. “Just a bit of sour grapes. Please forgive an old man his foibles. Will you help me raise the money?”
O’Roarke can’t explain how it’s possible for the Egyptians to have invented a battery thousands of years before the accepted date of stored electricity. He says the tomb is by far the more important goal and maybe the tomb will explain more. He will answer what he knows, but it’s obvious that he never even suspected the vase’s actual purpose and just doesn’t see why it’s important.
If pressed how an Egyptian scroll was found in Iraq or if a Detect Lies –2 can be made, O’Roarke admits that he hasn’t been completely honest with them. He sheepishly explains that he was on a dig in Iraq, but he didn’t get the items at the dig. He actually was approached by a down in his luck colleague that offered him the two items for $500. After verifying their authenticity, He gladly paid him and hurried back home to prepare an expedition. Almost as an afterthought O’Roarke mentions, “Sad thing is Merriweather just couldn’t catch a break. Before I could even book passage back to the States, he was killed in a drunken brawl. Poor fellow.”
If the PCs agree to help (and what self-respecting Cliffhanger character wouldn’t), they will have to use Savoir-Faire (or Fast Talk –2) to get the money from a wealthy Patron. If by any chance a PC is Very Wealthy, they can fund the expedition themselves. O’Roarke knows all the equipment, personnel, and contacts necessary to put together an expedition into the deep desert. All he needs is the $15,000 to pay for what they will need.
A quiet interlude
The trip to Egypt will take 18 days to reach Alexandria on the small liner O’Roarke books them on. It will be time to relax or cram for some appropriate skills: Orienteering, Navigation, Languages, Guns (Via skeet shooting off the side of the ship), or whatever the PCs feel may be useful in Egypt. The GM is free to add color or minor encounters to liven up this time if they choose, but this time is meant to be the last calm moments before the storm
Strangers in a strange land
On arrival, the sights and sounds of a culture that is as alien as anything they have ever seen assault the PCs. The wailing of the vendors and the beggars cause a din that forces them to have to yell to make even the simplest statements heard. O’Roarke doesn’t even waste his time trying to make himself heard. He guides them expertly through the maze that is Alexandria and once away from the port, he tells the PCs that he doesn’t want to waste any time and that they will depart in the morning. They check into a modest hotel and immediately turn in.
In the night PCs will have to make an opposed hearing roll versus Stealth 14 to hear someone in the hallway. PCs looking down the hallway see three cloaked figures breaking into O’Roarke’s room. If none of the PCs make the roll, O’Roarke will awaken at the last moment and cry out for help. The robbers have ST 12, DX 11, HT 11, Knife 14, and Brawling 12. The robbers fight only to escape. If any of the thugs are killed, they will have nothing of value or any identification, except for some unidentifiable tattoos. The hotel apologizes profusely and doesn’t charge them for their stay.
Next morning, O’Roarke sticks to his plan to begin the expedition. He brushes off any thought of investigating the attackers. “Egypt is not a place for the faint of heart. We have a job to do, let’s do it.”
The group boards a crowded train bound for Cairo. They are met at the station by several locals that O’Roarke greets in Arabic and taken to a waiting cab. It is a short ride to their destination that non-the-less passes by the splendor of the great pyramids of Giza. The expedition consists of a pair of battered Ford pickup trucks and thirty camels for the diggers all piled high with equipment. The PC’s gear is added to the pile and they are on their way. GMs can insert the PC’s amusing attempts to learn how to ride camels for a bit of comic relief. If none of the PCs can master the skill, they will have to find a cramped riding place in the back of the two pickups.
The caravan will take 12 days to reach the place indicated on the scroll as Akhenaten’s tomb. Enroute to group suffers sabotage in the night, slashed water skins, punctured tires, etc. However, O’Roarke’s expertise in planning keeps the expedition moving. The superstitious diggers are spooked by the “Spirits in the night” and begin to flee if not closely watched. Of the twenty-five diggers, only eighteen reach the spot on the scroll. Guards at the site or set along the way must win an opposed hearing versus Stealth 14 not to be surprised by two cloaked attackers that have the same skills as the hotel robbers. If any of the attackers are killed or captured, the tattoos terrify the diggers and unless something is done right away, the diggers leave immediately. A Leadership –3, or a Bargain roll offering a substantial increase in pay (minimum triple) will talk half of the diggers into staying.
The diggers that stay, explain that the tattoos mark these men as Hashishins the deadly assassins of antiquity. O’Roarke rejects this statement out of hand. “The assassin cult died out more than a thousand years ago, what rubbish! It’s time to start digging.” Driven, O’Roarke brooks no nonsense and the digging begins immediately. The entrance to the tomb is exceedingly well hidden and it will take a critical success with Archeology to find. GMs can adjust the length of the trip (minimum eight days) and the time is takes to find the entrance (minimum one night) to suit his gaming style or his player’s interest level. On whatever day the entrance is discovered, it is extremely important for the GM to mention that the wind that has blown hot and dry since they entered the desert has picked up.
A heretic’s deepest secret
Once the entrance is cleared, they find a ten-foot high, twenty-foot wide passage leading to two eight-foot tall bronze doors. The brilliantly painted walls are covered with frescoes and hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs proclaim that this is the tomb of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and woe to he who would disturb his rest. O’Roarke shouts with uncontained glee at the discovery. He carefully translates the hieroglyphs and checks cautiously all around the doors explaining that traps usually guard Egyptian tombs. O’Roarke is absolutely correct. There are three traps guarding the tomb:
The first is a set of heavy spears counter balanced by the opening of the doors. Four spears from each side thrust forward with each spearhead doing 1d6+2 damage. PCs will get a dodge roll with one spear hitting per point dodge is failed. The spears form an interlocking portcullis blocking access to the doors. The spears are heavy wood reinforced with bronze. The spears do not reset and will have to be sawn though taking 60+3d6 minutes per spear. PCs will have to cut though all of spears to clear space for the doors to open.
Reading the hieroglyphs and making a Cryptanalysis, an Intuition, or a Detect Lies –2 roll will detect that opening the doors conventionally (grabbing the vertical handles and pulling) will trigger a trap. The wording on the doors is as followed: “Sometimes the obvious is not the best course of action. One must sometimes twist the truth and push back the darkness to get the right answer.” The trick to open the doors safely is contained in the words twist, push, and right. Twisting the two door handles to the right and pushing the doors will open them safely.
The second is a deadfall block of heavy stone. The floor consists of one-foot square black and white tiles in a checkerboard pattern covering the twenty-foot wide and twenty-foot long passage leading to another set of eight-foot tall bronze doors. To safely cross the passage, PCs can only step on the prime numbered tiles (1,2,3,5,7,11, 13, 17, and 19). If the PCs step on the wrong tile or put weight on more than one tile at a time, a stone block with a heavy chain drops from the ceiling doing 3d6 crushing damage. The PC can dodge, but if he fails a DX roll, he doesn’t stay on a prime numbered tile and triggers another block. PC can continue to dodge, but at a cumulative –1 to DX per additional dodge to stay on prime tiles. As soon as weight is taken off the tile, counterweights pull the blocks back into the ceiling. After triggering a block, the PCs can make a roll in Mathematics, Cryptanalysis, or Intuition roll figure out the pattern.
The third and final trap is the second set of doors themselves. The hieroglyphs simply state: “Sometimes the obvious is the answer.” Grabbing the vertical handles and pulling opens the doors safely. Twisting the handles to the right and pushing causes the heavy doors to fall on the opener. The doors do 8d6 crushing damage. PC can dodge the falling doors, but are at –2 due to their size. Again, if the PC fails a DX roll, they fail to stay on the prime numbered tiles and trigger one of the blocks in the ceiling. It takes 30 seconds for the counter weights to reset the doors. During the reset time, an unscrupulous PC could easily run across the doors to enter the now open tomb.
Once past the third trap, the group has found what they have worked so hard to find. The tomb is simple in lay out. The room is offset to the left (making the right wall contiguous from front to back) and is twenty feet deep, thirty feet wide and ten feet high. The walls are covered with the typical frescoes depicting the pharaoh’s life. Unlike most rulers, Akhenaten cared not for treasure and the usual trappings of royalty. His sarcophagus is here with the proper golden mask, but the rest of the tomb is given over to thousands of scrolls. A check of these scrolls will show sections on religion, philosophy, medicine, and engineering. Around the sarcophagus are twelve large jars that look like canopic jars. An Archeology, History –2, or IQ –3 roll will realize there is something odd about these jars. There are too many and they are too large. A second IQ roll will realize these look more like larger versions of the small vase found with the scroll. A close inspection, followed by an Electronics roll will realize what these jars are and that they are connected in series. Once it’s apparent what these jars are, it’s easy to follow that copper wires run down the sides of the sarcophagus and are worked into the floor of the tomb. These are actually Leyden jars that in the dry desert have maintained their full static charge. If a PC just opens one of these jars or grabs the copper “plug” at the top, they will take 2d6 of electrical damage.
The rear wall hieroglyphs proclaim that Akhenaten’s crowning achievement lies beyond this wall. A careful look at the rear wall and an IQ roll will find the simple counter balanced stone that will reveal this great mystery. Pushing down on the stone will cause a twenty by twenty foot section of the real wall to open like a garage door. As the door opens, it activates switches that lead back to the copper wires that run from the Leyden jars. After a few seconds, large crystals embedded in the ceiling and connected to the copper wires, start to glow lighting up the inner chamber! The stunning revelation of electric lighting pales when compared to what the lights reveal. In the room is the unmistakable form of an airplane!
Moving into the twenty-foot by twenty-foot room, they find it is a wood and silk glider. It is painted like a bird and rests on skids. The wings are detached and laying along side fuselage. A quick look estimates that the wingspan when the glider is assembled is forty feet. The walls of this inner chamber show the Leyden Jars being charged via a kite in a lighting storm. The walls also show the glider being launched from a cliff side via a dead weight drop catapult. Stunned by these amazing discoveries, it takes the group a couple seconds to realize the loud noises from outside is the sound of gunfire!
Sins of the past
By the time the group moves through the trapped hallway, the sounds of gunfire and screams of pain have stopped. When they get to where they can see, they find that fifty heavily armed and mounted Hashishins ring the entrance and all the diggers are dead. The PCs can fight a short pointless battle or surrender. Once subdued or disarmed, a distinguished Egyptian steps through the crowd. O’Roarke stiffens and hisses “YOU!”
“Yes Doctor O’Roarke it is I.” O’Roarke lunges forward, but is beaten down by the Hashishins. “Infidel fool! Do you not realize Egypt has existed long before you Europeans (This word is spoken with complete contempt) could even read? Just as I led you astray so Carter could find Tutankhamun, I allowed you to find Akhenaten’s prototype Leyden jar. I needed your access to European money to make this moment possible. Please stand up good Doctor and introduce me to your friends.”
O’Roarke complies. “This is Inherkhau, that means ‘Foreman’ in Egyptian. He’s been my nemesis for thirty years. He claims to be a descendent of the pharaohs. He’s hated me ever since college when I laughed at him when he made that claim. I can’t say I’m surprised you are here, but why did you try to scare us off?”
“To drive you on my simple friend, you have never understood that I know you better than you know yourself. I knew you would stop at nothing once you knew I was trying to stop you. I am a man of means, but such a deep desert expedition was more money than I was willing to risk. I have found another European lackey to take credit for finding this tomb just like I did with Howard Carter. You know Carter actually thought about backing out of our deal until I arranged for Carnarvon’s death? After that I had no more trouble with Carter. He knew what I was giving him and never understood the importance of the little vase and scroll I asked for in return from Tutankhamun’s treasure. The scroll and vase I allowed you to ‘purchase’ in Baghdad.”
As Inherkhau speaks the wind, which has been blowing hard all day, suddenly increases in power. The Hashishins struggle to control their mounts in the face of the howling wind. Inherkhau ignores this to see his prize. As he enters the tomb, one of the Hashishins is tossed from his mount and as he hits the ground, his rifle discharges. Another of the Hashishins lunges forward and pushes Inherkhau out of the line of fire taking the bullet for him. Inherkhau pitches forward head long off of the prime tiles. Stunned by the fall, he is unable to dodge the falling stone. Mortally wounded with a crushed chest, he chokes out a dying command. The Hashishins level their weapons, but at that moment, the leading edge of the sand storm strikes scattering everyone.
The storm is staggering in its power and survival is the only thing anyone can worry with now. The only roll possible at this point is a Survival (Desert) –3 to find some form of shelter. As the sands close on them and everything is lost in the maelstrom, the PCs can make a vision roll to see a Hashishin run into the tomb and sealing himself inside.
If none of the PCs make their Survival skill, keep track of how much they failed the roll. O’Roarke will succeed if none of the PCs do. If any PC refuses O’Roarke’s help, he will take 1d6 damage from the storm per point he failed the Survival roll. The storm is so violent that, unless they are with O’Roarke, they will be completely cut off and will believe themselves the only survivor of the disaster. Everyone must wait out the storm that seems to last an eternity, but it actually closer to 1d6+4 hours. Each isolated PC must make a Fright Check. If any phobia results it will be Rupophobia the fear of dirt. Once the storm breaks, the survivors dig themselves out into a stunning Egyptian sunrise. In addition to each other, they find one damaged truck half buried in the sand. Everything else is gone, covered by tons and tons of sand. It will take a Mechanic roll, a Driving roll, and 2d3 hours to free the truck. It is a long, uneventful trip back to Cairo.
“But it’s the truth!”
Once back in civilization, of course no one believes their story. The discoveries of Akhenaten’s tomb, Leyden jars, ancient Egyptian gliders, are all just the result of heat stroke. Once again Egypt’s eternal sands have protected the secrets of the pharaohs from outsiders.
A merciful GM will allow the PCs to find a newly desiccated hand clutching a small leather bag while extricating the truck. The bag will hold enough rare coins for the survivors to go home with $500 each. Tougher GMs will simply let the PC savor in their lives. Sometimes survival has to be enough.
ST: 10 DX: 10 IQ: 14 HT: 12
Speed: 5.5; Move: 5 Dodge: 5; Standard safari gear, no encumbrance.
Advantages: Contact, Reputation (Gifted Archaeologist), Strong Will +2.
Disadvantages: Age (53), Bad Sight, Obsession (Surpass Howard Carter), Poverty (Struggling), Shyness –5, Unluckiness.
Skills: Accounting 11, Administration 12, Anthropology 14, Archaeology18, Area Knowledge (Egypt) 15, Astronomy 12, Brawling 10, Cartography 12, Climbing 8, Driving 10, Fast Talk 12, First Aid 13, Geology 13, Guns (Pistol) 12, History 14, Language (Arabic) 12, Language (Hieroglyphs) 14, Leadership 12, Mathematics 11, Orienteering 12, Research 14, Riding (Camel) 10, Savior-Faire 13, Stealth 10, Streetwise 12, Survival (Desert) 14.
Inherkhau and the Hashishins
ST: 12 DX: 11 IQ: 10 HT: 11
Speed: 5.5; Move: 5 Dodge: 5; Black cloaks, no encumbrance.
Disadvantages: Addiction (Hashish), Bloodlust, Duty (To clan), Fanaticism, Primitive, Sadism, Secret Identity (Hashishin), Sense of Duty
Skills: Acrobatics 10, Axe Throwing 11, Axe/Mace 12, Brawling 12, Broadsword 13, Camouflage 12, Climbing 10, Cloak 10, Fast Draw (Sword) 12, Guns (Rifle) 14, Knife 14, Knife Throwing 12, Orienteering 10, Riding (Camel) 11, Shadowing 11, Staff 10, Stealth 14, Streetwise 10, Survival (Desert) 10, Tactics 8, Tracking 10.
The Leyden jar is an actual device invented in 1745 by the Dutch physician and physicist Pieter Van Musschenbroek and named after the city where he worked. I first read about them in Deathworld and found how to make one online
Guide to the Valley of the Kings, Alberto Siliotti, Barnes & Noble 1996
The Deathworld Two, Harry Harrison, Berkley Book 1960