Wednesday, February 24, 2010

REVIEW: Ice Tower of the Salka

James Boney has repeatedly distinguished himself as one of the most astute creators of dungeon modules in the old school renaissance. His low-level adventure, The Idol of the Orcs, for example, managed to inject some new life into the hoary old trope of humanoids raiding an isolated village -- no mean feat 31 years after The Keep on the Borderlands first appeared. Similar high praise could be said of his work for Expeditious Retreat Press, all of which displays the same ability to pay homage to the past without aping it. That's a rare talent in a segment of the hobby where slavish imitation is often lauded more than originality.

Ice Tower of the Salka is Boney's attempt at a high-level (8-12) module for Swords & Wizardry. Produced by Black Blade Publishing, it's a 22-page adventure available either as a saddle-stitched hardcopy for $11.00 or a PDF download for $5.00. I probably sound like a broken record on this score, but I'll say again that I think this pricing, while typical for old school products these days, is rather high. I understand well the costs involved in publishing old school materials, especially ones including original art and maps, as this one does. Still, I hold out hope that we might see more old school print products released with a better dollar per page ratio than we typically get nowadays.

As its title suggests, Ice Tower of the Salka concerns itself with a tower that was, until recently, completely buried beneath the ice. Formerly home to the mysterious sorceress known only as the Salka, it's now the subject of many unwholesome legends and the object of much greed by those who know of the wealth and magic reputed to lie within. The module helpfully includes a rumor table to represent some of the information, both true and false, the player characters might learn about the place before setting off to explore its four levels (three tower levels plus one dungeon level) and 54 rooms. Also included with the module are some new spells, magic items, and monsters (only one of which has never seen print before, the rest having appeared previously in the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book).

Each level of the Ice Tower has a "theme," which is to say, the majority of the inhabitants and challenges of any given level "belong" together. Thus, the third level, which is the first the characters will enter, since it's the topmost portion of the ice-encased tower, is the abode of demons. You can find lots of demons here, along with tricks and traps pertaining to other planes/dimensions. The second level, on the other hand, is home primarily to a wide variety of undead, themselves the victims of a peculiar device -- a magical chandelier -- whose baleful effects can be felt throughout the tower. The first level and dungeon are little less obviously thematic in presentation, but that may be because their explicit purposes, as an entrance area and a place of imprisonment respectively, are more naturally suggestive.

These "themes" provide some coherence to what might otherwise seem to be a random collection of rooms and encounters, because, if Ice Tower of the Salka has a weakness, it's that it's "just a dungeon." By that I mean that, without the context provided by the referee and the players, this module will probably feel somewhat "flat." There's a lot less implied background in this place than has been in previous efforts by Boney. That is, I didn't feel as if the Salka, whose tower this was and whose mysterious fate left the tower bereft of its mistress, had much of a presence here. Certainly there are rooms like the "Throne Room of the Salka" that include features or traps of genuine interest, but they don't do much to flesh out the whys and wherefores of what is going on here. There is, at the module's end, something of a pay-off in this regard, but I think it comes too late to lend much flavor to Ice Tower of the Salka, even if it does make excellent fodder for follow-up adventures.

This lack of background probably makes the module easier to drop into an existing campaign, either as a stand-alone adventure or as part of a dungeon or similar complex, which may actually increase its attractiveness to some referees. Others, though, may feel as I did that the adventure could have done with a bit more internal unity to make the whole as memorable as many of its individual parts. Simply as presented, Ice Tower of the Salka has a somewhat disjointed feel to it that may be off-putting to buyers looking for a wholly "ready-to-go" adventure module.

Ice Tower of the Salka is what I'd call a "fixer-upper" module -- great for referees looking for an outline for an adventure, along with already-keyed maps, from which they can craft their own adventure. Judged as such, it's very well done and shows many of the same elements I liked in Boney's previous work. Referees not of a do-it-yourself mindset will likely find the module less satisfying, particularly at this price point. It's unfortunate, because, as I said, Ice Tower of the Salka has a number of excellent elements, but not enough, I think, to appeal to gamers who crave highly polished modules nor enough at its cost (at least not in the print edition). I liked the module myself and appreciated its virtues, but then mine was a review copy rather than one I purchased with my own money and it's on this point that I think Ice Tower of the Salka stumbles in comparison to its competitors, both professional and amateur.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a dungeon filled with high-level challenges from which to craft your own adventures.
Don't Get This If: You're looking for a high-level dungeon you can buy and run without having to ad a fair bit of your own elbow grease.

20 comments:

  1. I probably missed the post on this, but do you have thoughts for what a good dollar-per-page ratio might be? I mean, I know my what my personal "magic prices" are for a variety of things, but those have no actual bearing on market forces beyond my own biases and wallet (the former still stuck on 1990's pricing being the model and the latter not being much better...)

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  2. Jer,

    It's more of a "gut feeling" than anything more rational, so there's not much discussion I can bring to bear on the topic. I can only say that $12.00 is too much IMO for a 22-page module, of which only 11 pages are descriptive text, the rest being maps, interior covers, etc.

    It's a controversial question, I know, given how many copies most old school products sell, but my feeling is that, with so much superb material literally being given away through blogs, websites, and forums, publishers either need to set their prices lower or provide something that can't be found elsewhere these days -- and that's very difficult.

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  3. I dunno, $12, what is that, three beers maybe? My feeling is that the price is probably fair, and that the fact that other people are giving their ideas away for free should not impact on the price of those who want to sell unless it actually impacts on their ability to make the sale.

    Anyway, with regard to the actual content, do you feel that the author has here purposefully opted for a more "do-it-yourself" sketch-like adventure to suit the style of Swords & Wizardry as contrasted with his adventures produced for, say, OSRIC?

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Going by the Inflation Calculator, something that cost $11 in 2008 would have been $3.76 in 1979 money. Considering that Ice Tower is a 22 page module, it is probably cheaper than a module from the Against the Giants series, which had a comparable cover price and a slightly smaller word count. For a micro-press item where you can't roll production costs into a 10,000+ print run, it is goddamn cheap.

    What could be cheaper than modern old school modules? That's right, gamers.

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  6. I seem to recall that there was a 3e scenario with the same general concept. "Tower in the Ice" or something along those lines.

    Ah yes, here it is, one of WotC's free adventures. Similar level too.

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  7. Actually, the concept is definitely older - it is also the premise of Secret of the Silver Blades, probably the best of the old SSI Gold Box AD&D games.

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  8. Better than the original Pool of Radiance? Say it isn't so! hehe

    I never played Secrets of the Silver Blades unfortunately, because by the time I was close to completing the original, Pools of Darkness came out and I jumped into that.

    I (last night in fact) completed Eye of the Beholder on the Nintendo DS - a gameboy advance remake with the most terrible menu system imaginable... but it handled combat just like those old SSI games. Was kind of fun to do.

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  9. As Matthew mentioned, the differences in presentation between this module and Boney's OSRIC efforts may have been intentional. OSRIC and S&W are very different systems, not only in mechanics but in philosophy. With an S&W module I would hope for a more mallable tone in line with free wheelin' nature of OD&D. With an OSRIC module I'm looking for a dialed-in product that is meant to be played 'as written', even though it is understood that DMs are going to change things around regardless. I'm interested to hear if he changed his style to accomodate S&S.

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  10. For me, the less background information in a module, the better. I almost always find the background information to be a waste of space. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I actually used the background information in a module.

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  11. Anyway, with regard to the actual content, do you feel that the author has here purposefully opted for a more "do-it-yourself" sketch-like adventure to suit the style of Swords & Wizardry as contrasted with his adventures produced for, say, OSRIC?

    Hard to say, but it's certainly possible. As I noted, Boney is a good adventure writer, so I'm left to wonder why this module feels so different than, say, Idol of the Orcs or The Red Mausoleum.

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  12. For me, the less background information in a module, the better.

    There's background and there's background. I don't much care for page upon page of unnecessary background either, but concise and evocative background are what separate a good adventure module from a merely serviceable one. After all, the whole point of buying a prepackaged module is that at least some of the heavy lifting has already been done for you, yes?

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  13. I am home from work and have had time to do some more checking. I have before me a 1978 mono printing of D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth that has a catalogue with prices on its back. Again using the Inflation Calculator, here is a list of how much various TSR products cost in 1978 and how much they would go for today:

    Dungeon Geomorphs I-III: $2.49/$8.13
    Outdoor Geomorphs: $3.49/$11.40
    Monster&Treasure Assortment I-III: $2.49/$8.13
    Character Record Sheets (28 sheets): $2.98/$9.73
    Modules G1-G2: $4.49/$14.66
    Modules G3-D2: $4.98/$16.26
    Module D3: $19.53

    Let's take a look at comparable Judges Guild products (i.e. those that are of similar length with 16 to 24 pages and don't have huge poster maps in the back) from the same year (data from the Booty List featured in Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde):
    Modron $3.50/$11.43
    Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor: $3.00/$9.80
    Citadel of Fire: $3.00/$9.80
    Hellpits of Nightfang: $3.00/$9.80

    And so on. Note that Judges Guild was the "generic brand" of its day, with extremely modest production values.

    All in all, the expectations people have towards product pricing - in a period when old school gaming is a niche activity where print runs are usually in the 100-200 range and very rarely reach more than 500 - are unrealistic.

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  14. To piggy back on Melan's post for a moment, if you look at price per page, today's modules are cheaper, overall, or at worst relatively comparable:

    Dungeon Geos = 6 sheets = $1.36 per page
    Outdoor Geos = 11 sheets + 1 11x17 wrap-around cover (so call that 13 sheets) = $.87 per page
    M&TA = 8 sheets = $1.04 per page
    Character Record Sheets = 28 sheets = $.35 per page
    G1-2 = 8 sheets + cover = 10 sheets = $1.47 per page
    G3, D1 = 16 sheets + triple cover = 19 sheets = $.86 per page
    D3 = 32 sheets + triple cover = 35 sheets = $.56 per page

    Allan.

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  15. The level of background detail sounds like a feature, not a bug, to me.

    I don't consider background story and plot hooks and such part of the 'heavy lifting' of adventure creation. I think the idea stuff is easy (and often flows effortlessly from an active campaign). I think the time-savings in a module comes from the grunt work: mapping, keying, cool encounter or trap 'specials,' et cetera.

    In a one shot, mini-series, or tournament-style adventure, I don't mind a lot of colorful background detail. But if I'm looking for help with my campaign game, I want a modular module that I can drop in and spindle/fold/mutilate to fit my game and approach. For that need, "ready to run" modules...aren't. (In my experience, anyway.)

    These days I'm all about doing my own thing, and about my campaign. I like stuff like geomorphs, tables and charts, magazines to mine for ideas, and such. There's still room for modules, but the more modular and easier to plug in and adapt to my campaign, the better.

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  16. To piggy back on Melan's post for a moment, if you look at price per page, today's modules are cheaper, overall, or at worst relatively comparable

    So it would appear. I guess I'm spoiled by things like Fight On! and Stonehell, both of which have similar prices to many old school adventure modules and vastly more content.

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  17. There's still room for modules, but the more modular and easier to plug in and adapt to my campaign, the better.

    I don't disagree. There's definitely a place for clearly modular adventures. I simply feel that Ice Tower sits uncomfortably between the two types of adventures -- not enough detail to be ready-to-run and a bit too eccentric (for lack of a better word) to make dropping into an existing campaign very easy.

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  18. It's more of a "gut feeling" than anything more rational, so there's not much discussion I can bring to bear on the topic.

    Gotcha - sounds the same as my "magic prices". $10 is a magic price for me - a 32 page module for $10 sounds fine to me but $11 sounds expensive. I recognize that that's a completely irrational stance given how much it costs to see a movie these days, but that's my gut speaking (and, of course, I can't afford to see many movies in a theater these days either, so there's that too...)

    I suspect it means I'm old and soon I'm going to be telling my kid the same kinds of stories that my dad always regaled me with when I was growing up and he was trying to impress upon me the value of a dollar ("Back in my day a candy bar only cost a nickel, and you could get a comic book for a dime, and ...". THOSE sorts of old-man stories. Now I've depressed myself...)

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  19. James wrote:
    So it would appear. I guess I'm spoiled by things like Fight On! and Stonehell, both of which have similar prices to many old school adventure modules and vastly more content.

    True, but POD self-publishers and both KS and FO! have the advantage of not paying for their content writing, editing, and development (I also imagine that most of the art and cartography is donated too): I imagine that neither FO! nor KS would be publishable at current prices if everyone working on them wasn't doing so for free. I can't speak for Michael's Stonehell, but I imagine if he had to pay himself low-to-standard freelance rates for his writing and maps, as well as for art and editing, that Stonehell would be a significantly more expensive product.

    And, just to be clear, I think it's great that old school gamers are so willing and able to donate their time and talent to make the multitude of products available today possible---because without donated time/talent, I don't think most would otherwise exist.

    Allan.

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  20. Fair review. Seems overpriced, too thin, underdeveloped and all in all a disappointment. For this price I'd like to see 32 or 48 pages.

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