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.