Shadow of the Crystal Palace: The Investigators
Written by Chris Lockey on August 20, 2019
Salutations! And welcome to the first of three articles exploring the lore and legerdemain behind Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Crystal Palace, our supernatural horror one-shot made in partnership with the folks at Chaosium. Shadow of the Crystal Palace was astonishingly brought to life by our own Taliesin Jaffe — who served as the memorable session’s Keeper of Arcane Lore — along with an incredible cast of players, including Ashly Burch, Erika Ishii, Phil LaMarr, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, and Travis Willingham. This intrepid group of investigators would be tasked with the heist of the century (the late 19th Century, that is), only to find themselves face-to-backwards-face with a cosmic horror of unfathomable proportions.
If you haven’t seen the one-shot yet, be sure to check it out. You’ll be glad you did. Shadow of the Crystal Palace was designed to serve as a prequel of sorts to the “Edge of Darkness” scenario (as found in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set), and as such takes place some 30 years or so prior to those events. The unnamed evil that catches up with Rupert Merriweather in Chaosium’s “Edge of Darkness” is given penumbral form by Jaffe, who takes our antiheroes on the ride of their hapless and hopeless lives. Needless to say, spoilers abound in the text below — so consider yourselves warned. Without further ado, we’ll let Taliesin take it from here with his own personal notes about the characters themselves…
The basic group was a standard heist build: thief, tech, muscle, inside man, mastermind, and grifter. On top of that I tried to give everyone a bit of skill overlap so that one death wouldn’t screw the mission (but three deaths might). Other than a couple of obvious exceptions, the character names were mash-ups of Charles Dickens characters.
Hanako “Hana” Hayashi (Played by Erika Ishii): I’ll take any opportunity to delve into the “old research” files. I had some research on the Japanese community in London during the 1890s left over from a project I completed in 2004, and I tempted Erika into exploring a community that I felt had gotten next to no pop culture exploration in general (let alone the game space). So I presented Baroness Hayashi, wife of Tadasu Hayashi, Japanese Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The accomplishments of this power couple are too numerous to list, but it is worth noting she had a great deal of success promoting jiu-jitsu to the gentry of London (women especially). And while I managed to find a bit of information on her son and granddaughter, there was a daughter that my research failed to paint any picture of. So I pitched Erika an Arsène Lupin cat burglar archetype: an Oxford-educated (uncredentialed, but not completely uncommon) young woman of means who was a thrill thief by night. Add the motivation of reacquiring a cultural relic, and it was too good not to play with — which gave us a thief that had an excuse to be involved the cat show.
Ida Codswell (Played by Ashly Burch): The Tesla parallels for our “tech” specialist are obvious, but Nikola is only the most well-known name on a long list of bright minds crushed by Edison and his industrial-era brethren. While Ida worked at the Holborn Viaduct power station (Edison’s quite real first attempt to sell London on residential electrical power), I doubt she ever met the man — so I invented a middle management asshole for her to fume over. This also posed a fine opportunity to make some shareable backstory for a character whose predicament made her uniquely anonymous to the other players. A very public beat-down of her personal patent thief would have made her a minor celebrity in the papers.
Capt. Bentley Badger (Played by Travis Willingham): Every crime needs a mastermind to keep everyone on task, especially with so many new Call of Cthulhu players with so many individual objectives. I needed someone whose mission was to keep everyone mostly focused and on track. I also needed someone who knew most of the groups secrets for leverage in case any arguments popped up. I gave Travis (mostly) complete dossiers on each character, including the option to ask me for any information on any character that he may conceivably have access to during the game. The build for the character was a classical John Watson jack-of-all-trades Afghan War vet (because I always like to quietly point out how insane it is that I can make an Afghan War vet in nearly any time since the fucking industrial revolution). I also made him a member of the Guides Calvary (because who doesn’t want to ride a bloody horses into battle?). Travis requested the sword cane, and so I gave it to him with a mild war injury [for game balance].
Alexandra Elise O’Neill (Played by Marisha Ray): Marisha’s character was always supposed to represent the team’s muscle, with a good amount of lore drop. While the Indiana Jones comparisons are reasonable, Marisha’s character was actually modeled after Alexandra David-Néel: a real life world explorer who was one of the first westerners to gain entrance to the Forbidden City, and who participated in much esoteric dabbling (including Tulpa) and continued to travel the world until her death at age 101. She easily dropped into the game by changing a few facts, and by creating a backstory mission featuring a Monastery in Ladakh that could have conceivably held these artifacts (the Likir Monastery is still around, btw).
Dr. Mason Pocket (Played by Phil LaMarr): Every job needs an inside man, and Dr. Pocket was our access to the main artifact — as well as the excuse to set up the rest of my occult mouse traps. I gave Phil just enough solid information to guide the group through this new mythology while making sure he would be tempted to fiddle with at least one of the triggers I had spread around. Phil eventually ran with the tiny bit of information I gave him and managed to put forward several impressive theories on the shadows that were SCARY close to my secret canon.
Septimus Goodfellow aka Archie Orlick (Played by Liam O’Brien): The last ingredient in our classical heist team would be the grifter, so I thought it would be fun to have a con man in the group. A solid solve for social interactions (they could have come up) and a surprise grab bag of options. A fun classical take on the “ectoplasm and floating table” bullshit artists of the late 19th century, including the very dubious seal of approval from Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I also made a sloppy attempt at giving Liam the ability to have Keeper-approved bullshit when discussing his supernatural abilities. I also seeded a bit of funny business with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (the leading super-serious “funny hat and robe” secret society of the time) in case the story were to ever get bigger.
Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Crystal Palace originally aired Monday, July 29th on the Critical Role Twitch channel, and is available on-demand now for Twitch subscribers and via the Critical Role YouTube channel. Don’t forget to leave the light on…