Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Pharaoh (1979? 1983?)

This week, we take a look at one of the most obscure and weirdly D&D-related adventure games I have ever encountered.  I've already taken a speed run through the entire Pharaoh trilogy in a recent video podcast, but the blog medium allows for a lot more detail.  If you've seen the podcast, you can skip down to the SPOILERS section for the new material.

Pharaoh was written in BASIC for the TRS-80 Model I by one Brian Nash, who is credited as the creator and debugger on a scroll found within the game.  No copyright or other dates are cited; the only source I've been able to find dates a game called The Pharaoh as a 1979 release from Simutek, a small early home computer software publisher that's actually still in business as an Apple dealer.  But I don't think this is that game.

What's very odd about Pharaoh is that it's the first part of a trilogy that also includes White Palm and Martec's Lost Tomb.  The titles bear a striking resemblance to a series of Egyptian-themed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules created by Tracy and Laura Hickman, entitled Pharaoh, Oasis of the White Palm, and The Lost Tomb of Martek.  These were created in 1977, published in 1979 in very small quantities by a company called Daystar West, and republished as official AD&D modules with significant revisions by TSR in 1982.  In 1987, they were combined into one larger set under the title Desert of Desolation.  The opening text for the Pharaoh adventure trilogy mentions the "Desolation Desert" -- and features a number of grammatical oddities and misspellings:

The specific references to White Palm and Martec/Martek do not seem to be part of canonical Egyptian lore, and the Pharaoh Amon-Ra is referred to by Nash as Aumen-Re, and by the Hickmans as Amun-Re.  So assuming this is all not just incredible coincidence, and blatant plagiarism is behind the similarities, we are left with a timing conundrum.  Either Nash knew the Hickmans and played the paper-and-pencil RPG games in or prior to 1979, or wrote these three adventures later than is believed, i.e., 1982 or later, based on the TSR editions.  OR the Hickmans somehow encountered these computer games and wrote their modules based on them.

I am inclined to speculate that the Hickmans' work came first, if only because Tracy Hickman has a long and distinguished career in RPG design and writing, and Brian Nash seems to have disappeared after putting these three games together.  And Pharaoh on the TRS-80 has an incomplete, slapdash feel about it, with lots of red herrings that may have been based on the AD&D game but play no useful role in the adventure.

So my conclusion is that the Pharaoh game published by Simutek is actually a different game than this one by Brian Nash, and that Nash's Pharaoh trilogy may never have been officially published.  It feels like a hobbyist project that happens to have survived, and is still floating around in interactive fiction collections on disk images available today.  One-word titles are notorious for creating confusion, and another source lists this trilogy as a 19XX release, exact year unknown.  The whole story remains an interesting archaeological mystery, which seems appropriate given the subject matter of both trilogies.  I'd like to know if the Hickmans even know these games exist.  But it seems most logical to conclude that this Pharaoh game and its sequels were patterned after the D&D modules, and not the other way around.

At any rate, it's time to move on to the adventure at hand, as we break into the Pharaoh's tomb to liberate his treasures.  I will discuss the game's content in a general vein, and conclude with a full walkthrough -- I haven't seen one published anywhere, although the game is simple enough that few should have any problems completing it.


The game gets off on an amateurish foot with a number of misspellings on the introductory screen -- OSIRUS, SPEACH, ARIVE.  And the menu requires that an uppercase keyboard character be pressed to select a game, which tripped me up for a moment on my lowercase-enabled TRS-80 emulator.  Grammatical sloppiness abounds -- one room description begins with I AM IN AT THE END OF A HALLWAY TORCHES LINE THE WALLS.

There are no startup credits displayed, but the wizard's room contains a scroll that can be freely taken, unlike the magic book guarded by the evil wizard.  We can READ SCROLL to learn:  THIS ADVENTURE CREATED AND DEBUGGED BY BRIAN NASH.   WATCH FOR MORE ADVENTURES!

Pharaoh's parser is very simple, with a limited dictionary. TAKE does not work, only GET does; there's no EXAMINE verb, but LOOK works.

The game's handling of dark areas is a bit buggy -- we can navigate safely in the dark, without fear of neck-breaking stumbles, but one of the rooms we can see once we have a light source in hand has TORCHES ON THE WALL, yet remains dark if we don't have the glowing helmet in hand.

There are also some discovery bugs at large.  We can LOOK DISPLAY to find a cross in the museum, and GET CROSS to put it in inventory (where it appears as a treasure, * A HOLY CROSS.)  But if we LOOK DISPLAY again, it disappears from inventory and we must re-GET it.  The same happens with the metal vial found on the King's bed.

The museum also contains a semi-hidden trap door, which can be found easily with a quick LOOK, and leads to a traditional treasure storage room upstairs.  I knew there had to be such a room, as I tried SCORE with a few treasures in hand before finding it and was told YOU CAN'T DO THAT HERE!  The approach is a bit non-standard -- we're not supposed to bring the treasures to this room, drop them, and SAY SCORE; we're supposed to have all seven treasures in inventory.  SCORE actually returns YOU CAN'T DO THAT HERE! even when we're in the treasure room.  And if we SAY SCORE prematurely, the game tallies up our successes and immediately ends.  There aren't any other fatal scenarios that I was able to find, so this caught me by surprise, especially as there's no save-game support.

Mr. Nash appears to have implemented a WEAR verb, but the only thing that I could wear was a suit of armor which serves no actual purpose in the game.  We find a helmet at the very beginning of the game, but WEAR HELMET produces YOU CAN'T WEAR THAT!

The SAY verb is used for three key words, but the game will gladly SAY anything we ask it to, echoing all manner of nastiness if we so desire.

One gets the impression Brian Nash was fairly young when this game was created.  In the wizard's room, we can READ BOOK to learn that  IT SAYS 'WHATS ONE THING ALL KIDS HATE.  We can then SAY SCHOOL, and THE WIZARD IS SUPRISED [sic] AT THE CORRECT ANSWER FROM THE BOOK AND GIVES IT TO YOU!  Aside from his description as an evil wizard, the wizard fails to ooze even a drop of malevolence here.  In case we haven't guessed the riddle, some runes in the Throne Room read SCHOOL.

The GET verb is a little lazy -- GET [anything] when inventory is full yields I CAN'T CARRY MORE!  If the player has room in inventory, using random words always yields I CAN'T PICK THAT UP!  And SOME NORMAL WATER found in the King's lavatory can be picked up and dropped like any solid object -- no special container or handling required.

The DROP implementation, however, is even lazier -- game-breakingly so.  I didn't discover this until I was playing one of the later games in the trilogy, but Pharaoh's game logic doesn't actually check to see if the player possesses any item he or she is attempting to DROP.  So if the player knows, or even suspects, that a particular item exists somewhere in the game, doing a simple DROP [item] will cause it to materialize!  The spell book can't be obtained this way -- we can DROP it, but not GET it, so we still have to visit the wizard and solve the related puzzle.  But everything else can be easily obtained in two steps at most.

The game's only real puzzle involves finding a light source.  As it turns out, we can RUB HELMET and IT GLOWS BRIGHT!   Everything else we encounter that isn't a treasure is a red herring -- the straight arrow and bow are not used, the shield, sword and full suit of armor can be left in place, the interestingly-named "normal pencil" and "normal water" play no part in the story's development.

More parser oddness -- when we reach the tomb of the Pharaoh, the room description tells us there's writing on the door.  But we can't READ WRITING or READ DOOR; when we try to OPEN DOOR, the game again informs us that THERE'S WRITING IN [sic] IT!   We have to SAY OSIRUS [sic] and the door opens.  We can do this repeatedly, with the door opening again and again, without ever being described as already open.

Inside the tomb is a rope, a pit (which we cannot examine or enter), and a coffin.  When we OPEN COFFIN, we get a plug for the next game -- IT OPENS AND A DJINNI FLIES OUT TO DESTROY WORLD! CLUE:WHITE PALM'S NEXT!  But the world-destroying doesn't come into play during this game (nor, really, in the later ones, except as window dressing.)

There are seven treasures to find, but we actually only really have to find five; * A LANCE AND HORSE and * A LARGE BRASS BRAIZER [sic] are already sitting in the treasure room when we get there.

Some treasures and items are hidden -- we have to RUB the tarnished tray found in the jail cell to reveal it as a valuable * SILVER TRAY.  And if we try to GET SKELETONTHE BONES FALL APART AND YOU FIND A KEY, which goes straight to inventory as a SKELETON KEY.  But there's nothing in the game that requires unlocking, so the gag kind of falls flat.

Once we have all seven treasures in inventory, victory is ours with the author's congradulations [sic]:

But there's one final mystery to resolve.  The game ends with this cryptic phrase:


It's been a while since I've used TRS-80 BASIC, but I was able to find these lines in the source code:



A little quick surgery on line 1620, and we're up in lights for anyone else who plays our copy:

I found Pharaoh entertaining, if for the wrong reasons, but it's way too brief to be a serious challenge. The abundant red herrings imply there were more puzzles planned than could be fit into the game, or that the Hickman source material was a lot richer than Nash's game could incorporate.  There's a lot of stuff that can be safely ignored, and the entire game can be finished in a scant 37 moves... and that's WITHOUT any exploitation of the game's DROP bug.  To wit...




  1. I looked at the 1979 Simutek game. It's pretty much a Hammurabi clone and not related to these adventures at all. Your rough time frame and guess at the game's inspiration sounds spot on. I'd say these games were created on a school computer. Especially with the expectation that you can edit and save the program and have it seen by others.

    Given his likely age Brian does deserve credit for a decent bit of programming. It is odd that the BASIC programs were saved in ASCII format instead of the usual tokenized form. Also odd are the splash screens are stored as raw graphics in the program. This is a fairly advanced technique as the graphics cannot simply be ended with the keyboard on the TRS-80.

    Looks like it would be pretty easy to fix the DROP bug. But I'm more intrigued with the broken title screen. You can see that the top and bottom rows of "MARTEC'S" are more-or-less intact. Highly suggestive of some kind of systematic damage during a file transfer. In other words, it may be reversible.

  2. George,

    Thanks for the insight and the Simutek research! I think you're likely correct that these originated on a school computer somewhere -- they were clearly circulated to a degree, but probably among an audience of peers rather than through commercial channels. The DROP bug would be easy to fix -- just needs a check to see if items are actually in inventory before proceeding. It's an interesting mix of techniques -- the title screens were probably drawn with some sort of code-generating screen editor, and there are proper data structures for the rooms, navigation and items. But most of the verb implementations are very if-then based, without good casing for the fall-through conditions, which produces some of the odd behavior I've seen. As far as I know, Brian Nash never produced any other games, so it's historically interesting that these efforts have survived.

  3. My gaming group has just finished playtesting a 5th edition port of D1: Pharaoh, and it's available for download on www.sordnd.com for anyone who's interested. We begin D2: Oasis of the White Palm this week, which will be posted for download once the playtesting is completed. Later in 2016, D3: Lost Tomb of Martek will be coming as well.