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Friday, 14 May 2021

Worriment on the Wirral

The once prosperous town of Thorston has fallen on bad times. Located on the Dee Estuary on the south side of the Wirral in the north-west of England, industrialisation and trade has passed the former fishing port by as the estuary silted up and merchant shipping favoured the city of Liverpool opposite the north side of the Wirral. Roads degraded, leaving only muddy tracks leading into the town, the railway station was torn down, and so the town was left isolated, at first declining, then mouldering and dilapidated, more and more of its sodden buildings abandoned. Apart from the few remaining inhabitants, Thorston has in more recent times become a haven for vagrants, drifters, criminals, and other ne’er do wells looking for refuge away from the authorities in the nearby cities of Chester and Liverpool. Whether locals or incomers, all of the inhabitants have learned to lock their doors at night or barricade themselves in, for it is not safe to be on the streets of the port after nightfall. As rumours grow of missing students and missing hikers on the nearby Heswall Dales and a missing church minister, the inhabitants of elsewhere on the Wirral shun Thorston more and more, claiming that there is a sign across the road into the town which reads, “Condemned. Stay clear for safety.” And so Thorston’s decline continues…

This is the state of Thorston, a town with history which goes all the way back to the Vikings, as detailed in Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee, which brings the Mythos to the northwest of England. Published by Stygian Fox Publishing for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh EditionThorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee is a combination of setting and scenario intended for use with the Hudson & Brand, Inquiry Agents of the Obscure campaign framework, but which would also work as part of a general Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign. It presents a location and  reason to enter what is known as ‘Fox Country’, essentially Stygian Fox Publishing’s equivalent to Lovecraft Country, but with a longer sense of history. To that end, Thorston is the equivalent of dread Innsmouth, yet despite it being a fishing port, it is not home to a mixture of Deep Ones and their hybrids, but rather a variation upon another Mythos race which has long co-existed with mankind, whilst the nearby Roman city of Chester as its answer to Arkham (although there is no obvious equivalent to Miskatonic University).

Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee can be broadly divided into four sections. The first explores Thorston, its history, its inhabitants, and its secrets. The second presents the nearby city of Chester, essentially a jumping off point for anyone investigating the Wirral and Thorston, whilst the third is the supplement’s scenario, ‘Supping with the Devil’. The fourth explains the mythology key to ‘Supping with the Devil’ and the town. With less than a hundred inhabitants, the supplement focuses on just a handful of locations and NPCs. These are primarily The Ship & Bowl, the town’s only inn and its proprietor, Maud, and Harris & Sons, and its proprietor, Daniel Harris, and what remains of the town’s only church, St. Hilda’s. Notably both possess and are connected by ‘Rows’, an architectural feature also found in nearby Chester, which consists of a covered pedestrian, but otherwise open walkway on the first floor, giving access to shops and other premises on the first floor, with other shops and other premises on the ground floor below. 

The description of Chester is relatively short, enough for Investigators passing through, but not staying for any length of time, and enough for the Keeper to flavour her portrayal of local NPCs. The NPCs in Thorston itself are actually all decently done, whilst the Mythos forces involved in the town and scenario nicely draw upon British and Celtic myth. Several hooks are provided to get any Investigators to Thorston, mostly revolving around missing persons. The scenario in the book though, ‘Supping with the Devil’, has them employed by Joshua Armitage, a wealthy Liverpudlian merchant who wants to develop Thorston into a seaside resort, complete with pier and promenade. He sends them into the blighted town to ascertain its condition and to get a feel for the place, having them stay a single night. The investigators will find the few inhabitants cold of manner and ill-disposed to talk, their rooms at The Ship & Bowl dank and unpleasant, and their sleep interrupted by door handles rattling and scratches at the window. During the day there are few people on the street, and strangely for a seaside town, an absence of seagulls. ‘Supping with the Devil’ is, in the main, an exploration scenario, the Investigators examining the few remaining buildings in the town, hopefully driven to examine more and more until some of its secrets are revealed—or at least hinted at, and the town’s dark side can react… Up until that point, the scenario is player-driven, but then the NPCs may come to drive the Investigators, perhaps necessary if the players and their Investigators simply decide that the best course of action is to flee. The Keeper may want to create a few more NPCs, in particular some of the vagrants, drifters, criminals, and other ne’er do wells who have taken refuge in Thorston. These can at least populate some of the seemingly abandoned buildings—which will also benefit from some window dressing too—and add colour, as well as their perhaps hinting at some of the mysteries and secrets in the town, falling prey to the evil present, perhaps foreshadowing events which might befall the Investigators…

Physically, Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee is engagingly presented. Done in full colour throughout, the cartography and illustrations are in general, well done throughout. Some of the maps are a little small, whilst others do not work as double-page spreads, and there are differences between the two maps of the town. However, Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee is let down by the writing—or rather by the editing. Parts of the text are overwritten and repetitive, and whilst there is an editor listed in the credits, there are no signs that Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee has actually been edited.

Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee is essentially Innsmouth and the scenario, ‘Supping with the Devil’, its equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. As inspiration goes, that is no bad thing, but neither are they direct copies, for the differences in tone and scale—the town of Thorston and its inhabitants being smaller in scale give them a flavour and feel of their own. As does setting in the Purple Decade of Cthulhu by Gaslight. Plus, there is a sense of English squalor to Thorston and environs. Despite the disappointing lack of editing, there is a lot to like about Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but in entwining them with local myth to create an atmosphere that is both monstrous and English, Thorston, the Shunned Town on the Dee serves as an enjoyably rotten introduction to Fox Country.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Matthew!---I'm only semi-aware of the Stygian Fox releases, will check this out sometime if I run some more Cthulhu by Gaslight.