PrinceofNothingReviews: Nile Empire – War in Heliopolis (d20 3pp); A History of Ancient Egypt meets Thor #332

[Campaign Setting]
Nile Empire – War in Heliopolis (2002)

Fred Jandt & John. R. Phythyon. Jr. (Avalanche Press LTD)
Summary: Egyptian History Text + Marvel’s Thor

As God of the Sun, Amun-Re sails his mighty barge across the heavens of Nut, arising in the East and disappearing in the West each day. At night, he travels through the Underworld to begin his day anew in the Eastern sky. Pharaohs are considered the Sons of Re and acquire him as their patron when they become king in addition to any other deities who patronize them. The great god of Thebes, he appears in many forms: as a human with a lion’s tail, a human with the head of a hawk, frog, crocodile, goose or ram, or with the head of a man and the body of a giant beetle. He has also appeared as a human-sized penis. The son of Thoth, Amun-Re is also a war god.
–  Nile Empire: War for Heliopolis, Page 39-40

It is that time of the month again. Prince Reviews Avalanche supplements time. A time of fear and wonder, when anything can happen. Sometimes it is good, oftentimes it is bad. This time the world has come round once more my faithful friends. The Year of the Black Sun is over. The Grand Conjunction has passed. The Hordes of Archaon have been repelled at Middleheim. Avalanche made a supplement. It has a strong historical basis. It sucks. Welcome to our regular programming.

Nile empire: War in Heliopolis is a schizophrenic campaign setting supplement detailing Ancient Egypt in the historically accurate New Kingdom period. It uses this historical accuracy to posit an alternate history where Set convinces half the gods to join him to form the Desert Ennead and try to wrest all of creation from his more talented brother Osiris. The PCs are expected to work for the Pharaoh of all of Egypt to stop them. Hoo boy.

In time honored fashion the book starts with a 19-page primer on ancient Egypt. A very vague, generic primer that holds all the wrong details. We begin with an overview of Egyptian history, starting with the Pre-Dynastic Period of 3182-3032 BC and going through each major period with about 1-4 paragraphs of text. Expect lists of rulers that came and went, with the odd description of their rule and some advances in Pyramid construction in the meantime. That’s it. Endless descriptions of Dynasties and pyramid construction advances and state reformations and so on and so forth. While this would be nice (if insufficient) information for the dedicated historical emulationist or someone writing a highschool history paper, I remind the jury that all this is meant to support a game where you must stop Geb from ripping apart Thebes by taking the Book of the Dead from a Tomb and fighting a mummy. Anyway, the setting is just after Egypt has managed to once again wrest control of its people from the Nubian invader. In 1547 B.C, War was beginning.

Yet more content approaches! This time it is useful albeit it unnecessarily long and detailed for what it is meant to do. The book covers the myth of Set and Osiris (look it up yourself), starting with Osiris’s twice murder at the hands of Set and ending with a twist on the old mythos. Finally fed up with all of Set’s bullshit, Osiris sternly fingerwags and banishes Set to live in the desert, threatening a severe talking too and a firmly worded letter should he return. Ever a terrible loser, Set throws a shit-fit, declares Osiris to be a nazi racist and in league with Vladimir Putin and convinces half the pantheon to do a walk-out, starting his own Desert Ennead with blackjack and hookers. To tie the supernatural conflict in with the mundane conflict, the Egyptians naturally side with the wholesome Ennead while the smelly Libyans and evil Nubians side with the Desert Ennead. It goes without saying that the real turd in the punchbowl is the secret Alliance between Set and Apophis, whose goal is the destruction of the Universe. Set’s buddies do not know of this secret alliance, which would be a severe PR-blunder. Apophisgate. The Ennead’s goal is Maat which means order and light while the Desert Ennead strives for it’s alternative news equivalent Isfet (chaos, destruction and evil).

Anywany, after the set-up, we get to the real meat-and-potatoes. 4 pages on the history of Hieroglyphics. Boy am I pumped. Did you know Hieroglyphics as a language has had no significant Linguistic evolution for 3.500 years? Will that help you run your god-murdering mummygame better? All of this detail on the making of papyrus is nice but you only have 64 pages to convey a fucking idea.
We get a section that is almost useful after that: Egyptian government. Basically, Egyptians were very big on Government. Very Big. Egyptian Society is ruled by a vast socialist government that rules everything directed by a God-King whose very word is law. After half a page about the Pharaoh’s hat, we get some details about the administration of the Nile Empire, said to be at the heart of the world; Its justice system is harsh and uncompromising. Its labor laws are draconian and uncompromising (i.e there are no vacations, if you are sick you must work harder to make up for it) and career choice is hereditary. Complaining about not being paid your monthly allotment of grain during a famine is punishable by death or beating. Its military is organized so and so and sucks at logistics but thank god we got Chariots from the Nubians and we figured how to build effective supply depots. Everything is taxed and everyone is dedicated to building pyramids and agriculture. A cubit is 52.5 cm. Historical Egypt kind of sucks.

We are momentarily stirred from our somnolence by brief mention of Religion and the shape of the Cosmos on page 21, namely, a giant disk (a deity) with Egypt in the Centre floating upon a primordial ocean , with the dome of heaven (which is a deity) held up by 4 celestial pillars. The Nile bisects this disk. Also, underneath it is the Underworld which also has a Nile. Since the Egyptians are really joyful people they have almost no religious festivals but devote an insane amount of resources and time to funerary rites and the construction of tombs. Fun fact: In the Egyptian Afterlife you still have to work. Your family, if wealthy enough, can remove one day of work per year by constructing a Shabti, which will do the work in the Underworld instead. Oh Egypt.

After this we FINALLY get to character creation. By now this should be an old hat. Humans only, no Paladins, monks, druids or monks. Barbarians only if you want to play a smelly foreigner. A nice callback to ye olden days: Lawful Clerics can only use their spells to heal, Chaotic to harm. You can make Rangers that are at home in the Desert but since the game provides a Desert nomad class you won’t need them.

Okay, 3 new classes: The Nomad is a fighter without armor that can use a sort of Whirling dance Balance skill check to gain a bonus. So you get a chance of a bonus to armor and attack that approaches certainty as time progresses. Meh. In addition, you get a bonus to a bunch of skills when operating in the Desert every couple of levels, a bizarre sort of natural/nonmagical invisibility while in the desert at lvl 10 that makes no sense and of course some lame spellcasting powers at 15th lvl. Different Ranger is different.

The other classes are the Scribe, supposedly very useful, but only if the GM does a lot of work. No spellcasting powers, no armor and d4 hit dice in exchange for contacts among the scribes, the Use Magical Device skill, the ability to copy scrolls and some bonus feats so you have a stripped down monk? Nice idea, but its lack of cool murderpowerz means that someone will have to be duped into taking one in a campaign where wizards are freely available and the suggested pasttime is tussling with mummies or giant crocodiles.

We end with the Trader class, an even more worthless class that should be replaced by the Rogue if at all possible. The Odd 10 skill point injection and Weapon Focus feat does not compensate for only 4+int skillpoints per level vs 8+int for the Rogue, nor does the ability to use medium armor compensate for the Merchant’s anemic repertoire of class features. Same BAB progression. Sigh 😦

Far better are the prestige classes since they tie into the setting. The Pharaoh himself (difficult to qualify for with the right of birth or support of one of the Grand Viziers being a requirement and all), blessed with many spell-like powers and direct Avatar of Horus himself. At 10th level they cannot be slain by mortals.
The Avatars are mortals that form a direct link with their gods (gods do not, or at least are not meant to, manifest directly in the mortal world I think). Avatars are very powerful and gain some nice spell-like abilities (as well as immortality at 10th level, meaning you always heal naturally and you do not die at -10), but the fun begins with the addition of the 3rd prestige class. The Godslayer. Each God can also imbue champions with the ability to kill immortal avatars. Even more alarmingly, an Avatar that is slain by a Godslayer means the death of the God that made it! Et Voila. Let the game of Divine Cat and Mouse Begin! Godslayers can only be focused on 1, and only 1, specific deity. This is a cool idea and should inform gameplay. A lot. Avatars and Godslayers make neat villains in a sort of Highlander esque supernatural free-for-all set in a world of bronze-age sand-commies. In addition, all of these prestige classes can polymorph into the Sacred Animals of their chosen Deity, which is no more then to be expected. Highlander meets Beast-Wars.

Back to dreariness. The equipment section is boring and frustrating. The Egyptians don’t actually use coinage but use a certain weight of copper (the Deben) to represent a sack of barley or grain or some shit. Basically everyone is really fucking poor except for your adventuring buddies and a list of sample goods is given so your PCs can buy something with the stuff they find. The equipment list has been toned down heavily and to add insult to injury weapon damage has been reduced for many weapons to represent the fact that everyone is fighting with copper weapons now. I am sure this concession to historical accuracy will be met with cheer and merriment from all sides. On the other hand, armor has also been made less effective and far more expensive so you have no right to complain in this low fantasy setting without readily available healing potions. Better get that lawful cleric.

Ah but wait, there is more. A NEW SKILL SECTION. Charioteering has been added, but this time the writer actually bothered to put some sort of guidelines for skill checks, no matter how vague, in there, possibly leading to an actual Charioteering check being made at some point by someone without the game freezing up and the DM Guide starting to leak blood. Learning to read Hieroglyphics is a fucking exclusive skill that can only be picked up by a chosen few classes. A neat idea that should inform hypothetical dungeon design so your poor, suffering players have to sink points into it. The last skill is simply called Worship and is meant as a sort of guideline for knowing how to appease a deity but since no sample DCs are given for types of question it essentially boils down to GM Fiat (“but I have knowledge religion should that not be enough?”) and a means to qualify for the Avatar/Godslayer prestige class. I accidentally typed Godslater, which is not a prestige class but presumably the form Mario Lopez takes after Mark Paul-Gosselaar kills Dustin Diamond with his Death Psycho Bomb technique.

Part 4 of the Book describes the Great Ennead, going so far as to give stats for most of the deities (the overpowers that form heaven and earth are only described in terms of nature, pantheon, sacred animals etc. etc.), along with domains and associated rubbish. While these stats should be mostly useless given the fact that both pantheons cannot manifest in the mortal world and need Avatars which is the entire point, I must still give props to the designers for taking the logical step and limiting the gods in power (avoiding the Insane Stat-wank of the Deities and Demigods 3rd edition rulebook). Each god has one unique power, domain spells at will and lots of hp and good stats, making them formidable but not so formidable that stats are essentially superfluous. Of course stats are useless because gods don’t manifest but we get a paragraph of description so that will have to do.

This section goes on for far too long with its brobdignagian statt blocks but at least there is something interesting here. The Desert Ennead is not entirely evil. Set’s Wife is a good person that loves Set but is not blind to his flaws. Khonsu is the bipolar moon god that is easily duped in certain moods. Ptah is a formerly very powerful god that has joined with Set because he thinks Egypt has grown too militant and shit needs to change. Basically, Set and a few bad apples convinced a couple of weak minded guys to join them and so we have some moral ambiguity on Team Evil, which is nice for a change. Team Good is entirely wholesome and virtuous of course.

Part 5 concerns actually running Adventures ah la War for Heliopolis. It gives some good guidelines on how to run your adventures properly (e.g Don’t fling gods at people, proper Avatar/Godslayer use, each adventure should have some sort of mystical magical element, playing up the mystery of the pyramids since even the Egyptians didn’t fucking know much about them, adding some sort of element of bizarre magical transformation to many if not all adventures etc.). The sample adventure outlines are, for the most part, creative and fun, if a bit combat heavy and mechanistic the way they are described.

We first get ourselves four new monsters: The Bennu is a proto-Phoenix with a mesmerizing song (which can be countered by stuffing your ears with wax, naturally). The Hydrus is a three headed snake. The Mafedet is half-serpent, half lion and the Set Beast is a sort of Humanoid Hyena. They have that nice classic sort of feel I associate with monsters drawn directly from mythology and are not overloaded with endless special abilities as would become the norm in official D20 monsterbooks and thus I give them a C+. They are only vaguely connected with the setting but I guess the PCs will have to fight something. The game also recommends liberal use of undead creatures and foreigners as adversaries.

The game saves some face with the outlines themselves. There is something unconventional about them that I kind of Dig, although each one feels like an issue of Egyptian Thor (which I guess would be Horus but whatevs). The PCs are assumed to work directly for the Pharaoh. Notable examples (paraphrased):

A prince has been kidnapped and Set demands half the grain in the kingdom or he will be transformed into a Giant Schorpion and unleashed upon the Kingdom. Set does it anyway even if he gets the grain. There is a way to reverse the transformation without killing the prince. 

Evil Nubians have blocked off the Nile and have fought off the Pharaoh’s armies and now the PCs have to go all Metal Gear Solid on the Dam (Sexy Dam Destruction mechanics and timer to get away included).

The River Delta has fallen under the control of the mysterious Delta King, who has slain the Vizier and his elite troops sent to check out what the fuck is up. All they get back is the Vizier’s head and a note warning everyone to butt the fuck out. The Delta King is actually a Giant Intelligent Crocodile and favored servant of Sobek and the PCs can expect to fight a lot of fucking crocodiles. 

Khonsu the Moon god is making the Nile overflow. The heroes must do research in the royal archives so they know what the hell is up and can find the location of his avatar, who is, of course, insane and living in a desert. After they manage to reason with him a little and convince him that Egypt should not be flooded, Khonsu will turn him into a werewolf to test their worthiness…TO THE DEATH.

All of these hooks would make a great issue of Sand-Thor/Nick Fury: Khopesh of Vegeance, but contrast immensely with the dry historical primer of the earlier material.

Pros: Fuck me it’s an Avalanche product. The general concept is kind of badass and if you ignore the fact that 66% of the book is useless you have about 20 pages worth of game left. Neat Hooks. Some nice ideas.

Cons: Boring and largely superfluous historical primer. Shitty core classes. Shitty equipment rules. Useless God stats. Signal to noise ratio.

Bottom Line: While not as terrible as Aztecs, this one still sucks as hard by being even less useful. A high signal to noise ratio kills what could have been a good idea. In OSR terms, this campaign can be done in a single blog post. Done. Instead we get fucking 64 pages at extortionate rates. 3 out of 10.

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