Friday, 27 January 2012

Bookhounds: the Grand Opening

I recently decided to start an online game with some friends of mine. I thought it would be useful to describe the creative process, and also to post the initial campaign description.

The best way to begin, I find, is to get the players involved straight away. In Bookhounds, this means that in addition to their own characters they're going to be helping to create the shop, and to a certain extent some elements of the game world. We got together for a quick Skype and threshed out the specifics; including character generation, the whole process took about two hours, though it may have helped that we all knew each other well and had a fair grasp of the rules at the outset.

Before we began, I sent out a brief outline describing what had gone before. I made some assumptions, among them:
  • that this was a new business, opened after the first one closed down.
  • that the shop would have some descriptors given it by me, and some given by the players;
  • that the stock would include some items decided by me, and the rest by the players.
  • that the regular customers would include some NPCs designed by me and the rest by the players.
Anything given by me was over and above anything the players might want for themselves. My job wasn't to spend their points allocation, but to encourage them to start thinking about the kind of things they might like. Things unique to their story - such as where in London the shop was located, or whether their previous business had been a success or a failure - were entirely up to them. Letting them design some of the NPCs and stock gives me a better idea of the kind of adventures they'd like to go on, which is all to the good when planning out future shenanigans!

I went for a Grand Opening because it allowed the game to start fresh. It's a completely new business, and they're just settling in. That's a perfect set-up for the beginning of a campaign.

From there we batted around ideas, and the final concept looks like this:

Grand Opening

Players: Adrian (James Fidler, former forger gone straight for the good of his health), Pete (Elliot Parker, unscrupulous book scout with a talent for lockpicking), Wayne (Percival Bryers, intrepid bookseller who thinks giving in to horror is mere cowardice).

Premise: In three days time the Hounds will open their new antiquarian book store. This replaces their previous venture, which met an unfortunate mishap. They are now the proprietors of Whyte’s Books (formerly owned by Ebeneezer Whyte, current whereabouts unknown), which they bought at a knockdown rate from the bank as part of repossession proceedings. They salvaged as much stock as they could from the rubble of their previous enterprise and moved in, but what with the fire and other related issues they weren’t able to take much away with them. Much of their present stock was already in Whyte’s, and they’re sorting through it.

Location: Spitalfields, in the East End, not far from the meat market. In the very early morning, troops of pale-fleshed butchers walk to work, the tools of their trade jangling at their belts. Later in the evening they return home again, splattered with scarlet. A nearby pub, the Bull’s Heart, offers crack-of-dawn pints to this passing trade, and often the butchers fry up their breakfasts in the pub’s fireplace.

Credit Rating: 2, using the average of all Character Credit Rating scores.

Bookshop Stock:  6, using a projected base of 3 players.

Base Stock: This includes Bibliography 1 (The Art of Books, a compendium of famous printers and book binders going back to the early 1830s) The Knowledge 1 (London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851 3-volume edition, that excludes the fourth book on prostitutes, thieves and beggars).  Occult 2 (The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer, both the 2-volume 1890 edition and the more recent 12 volume edition, and Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie also known as Transcendental Magic, by Eliphas Levi, 1855 edition with supplementary notes in an unknown hand), Archaeology 1, (a collection of books and papers written by Sir Flinders Petrie), Oral History 1 (Legends of London by Robert Friend, reporter for the Daily Telegraph, 1928 edition) with 2 in reserve.


  • Mice! For whatever reason, the place is alive with the little beggars. In any one scene, mice may appear when least expected or wanted – eg. when an important client is in conference with the players.
  • Freezing cold office. The back office is remarkably cold, even in summer, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, making it difficult to stay in there for longer than an hour at a time.
  • The floorboards are plain, unsanded wood. They must have been slightly green when they were put in, and now they’ve suffered through a winter or two they’ve begun to hump and heave. The building is quite old for it to have a new floor; perhaps the dry rot got it. There’s certainly a faint smell of dry rot in the stacks of books.
  • The door between the main shop and its back rooms is far grander than anything else in the building. It must have been salvaged from somewhere else and installed there, possibly at the same time the floor was replaced. It’s a magnificent six panel door with carved head and architrave, in the style of a winding leafy vine. At the head is a face of a woodland spirit, possibly a faun or dryad. Tentatively dated as Georgian, but may be older.
  • Whyte’s is a garret shop, with a pawnbroker beneath. Sometimes the two shops do business, and in the very lean days perhaps Whyte’s will pawn a few items. So far it hasn’t come to that.
  • The windows are very high level, with iron frames. In winter the cold air fair whistles through the cracks in the casement.
  • Whyte’s front entrance, at street level, opens onto a hall and a creaking main staircase. This stair is original to the building and buckled with age.
  • There are three open coal fireplaces, which Whyte’s does not use. They have become simply another place to store books. The original gas fittings are still in place, mostly, but aren’t connected to anything. Instead a row of leaky modern radiators provides heat, and Whyte’s is fitted with electric light.
  • Percival Bryers has brought along his cat, Isolda, a black Siamese. The adventuresome creature can often be heard pattering around in the stacks, hunting mice.

Regular customers: This includes:

  • Book Scout: Mr Charles Pettimore, balding fortyish thick-set man, with a thin wispy beard. He always dresses well, or as well as he can afford, but is often in debt and hocks his suits to cover his expenses. The result often is a mishmash of off-set suits, as a coat or pair of pants is being held by the pawnbrokers.  He has a client list which he keeps to himself, but includes some fairly disreputable characters, some of whom occasionally come looking for him to ‘settle his debts.’
  • Professor: Miss Georgina Fife, Senior Fellow of Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Her speciality is Elizabethan dramatists. She’s tall for a woman (slightly under six feet) and this makes her self-conscious, causing her to stoop. As part of her academia she’s become a self-taught expert on stage combat, and is a middling to fair fencer. She always seems to have money, and yet rarely dresses or eats well; she may prefer books to creature comforts.

·         Dramatist: Mr Quincey Riddle, tall cadaverous man with blue chin and glasses balanced perilously on his great beak of a nose. He writes frothy comedies for the stage, and is also ASM for the Little Stanmore Repertory Company. So far none of his comedies have really taken off, though he has had two of them performed. He’s constantly on the look-out for interesting material he can use in his plays, and for anything to do with the history of the theatre.

·         Artist: Miss Alice Klein, a youngish woman, probably in her early thirties, with dark hair and thin features. She has a studio near the shop and is always on the lookout for romantic art books or plates to use as inspiration for her work. Rumour has it she’s connected to money; at any rate she never seems to need credit, unlike some of the other customers.

·         Old Gent: Kurt Sctumpfer, a pleasant and garrulous old fellow who used to come to Whyte’s when Ebeneezer ran the place. He’s almost a fixture. Nobody can say how old he is, but he claims to have seen Wellington’s funeral procession, and has a memory like a steel trap for anything that happened before Victoria died. He isn’t really a purchaser but he does like his cup of tea and a good natter, and there are days when he spends hours yarning on with whoever cares to listen.

·         Policeman: Eric Binns, the Sergeant of the local nick. He’s tall, broad-shouldered and has a military bearing. When the characters ran their old shop, he used to poke his nose in every so often to make sure Elliot and James were behaving themselves. Now he’s become a regular, who enjoys a good cheap sensational bodice ripper when he can get it. There have been weeks when his have been the only cash sales, which is usually just enough to keep the tea urn filled.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Joy of Cooking

I've recently become an iPad convert. One of the apps I installed almost as soon as I got the Pad was The Recipe Box, which allows users to store all their recipes. I've been transferring pretty much everything (I love cooking; good job I'm a fast typist) over to the Box.

Like most of us, when I'm doing something dull and repetitive, I crave distraction. I had the Escapist's most recent podcast on, and as it happens they're almost as obsessed with food as I am. Which is to say, about half as obsessed as the folks over at YSDC; the Bradford Players' audio games are liberally mixed with food references (about 2 tablespoons food to 1 cup game, I find), and they're particularly fond of hampers. Thus as I typed my mind turned to thoughts of food and gaming, particularly RPGs.

Food rarely appears in game, except for the occasional quick reference. I find this odd. In RPGs particularly, the Keeper often needs to create a mental image, or a sense of foreign climes, and the senses, including taste, are inextricably linked to memory. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami, all evoke certain memories or reactions, and there are kinds of cuisine that automatically signal particular associations in our minds. Moreover history shows us that the search for food has changed our world. When Columbus went looking for the Indies, one of the things he was after was spices; Spain wasn't happy paying the high Venetian tariff for access to saffron and cardamom. When he accidentally came up with tomatoes, potatoes and corn he changed European cooking forever. It's almost impossible to imagine what Italian cuisine, for example, was like without the tomato, or what the English roast would be like without potatoes. Ireland's history would be very different were it not for the Famine, and there are hundreds of other examples of food gone wrong that had terrifying consequences. There ought to be all kinds of stories to be told about food, but we don't seem to tell them that often.

In game, I tend to set up a shortlist of locations and NPCs that I know the protagonists will encounter at some point. For instance, no matter what the setting, it's a pretty good bet that the characters will meet law enforcement officials at some point, or criminals, or innkeepers. That's just the nature of the beast; characters commit (or avenge) crimes, occasionally work for crime lords or the authorities, and always need a place to lay their weary heads. That's true almost regardless of setting, and in some cases the setting only reinforces the truism. Ars Magica had its mighty wizards deviously plotting their advancement, possibly even assassinating their rivals, but everyone wanted to stay on the good side of the Guernicus, and the sensible Storyteller always had a couple of them on hand for those moments when power-mad players started getting above themselves. Cyberpunk 2020 wasn't big on law enforcement, but crime ran rampant and more often than not it was the players who were up to their neck in the mud. Bond wouldn't be Bond without his encyclopedic knowledge of Chateau Lafitte. So on and on, and to that list of 'NPCs I know I'll use' can be added the Restaurant/Bar.

As Keeper, you know full well the characters are going to want to eat at some point. You also know that there are plot points that can be reinforced by eating. In Cthulhu gaming, the most popular plot point is cannibalism, and there are groups within the setting whose entire culture is defined by their dietary needs. Even without this direct plot link, there are going to be times when you as Keeper want to reinforce the nature of the setting by referring to the characters' surroundings. Or to put it another way, the characters have a different expectation of standards aboard the Orient Express than they do of the Stumbling Tiger Bar, Shanghai. Food is an excellent way to reinforce the nature of the setting. There's no reason why you shouldn't dwell on the excellence of the cuisine (or even borrow some inspiration from alternative sources). Alternatively the Keeper could focus on the liquid side of life, though I suppose it's not impossible that the Stumbling Tiger laces its brew with formaldehyde.

In each case I'd recommend simplicity. With any commonly encountered NPC type or situation, you shouldn't need more than one index card's worth of data. As this is information that isn't linked to a particular scenario, this is a mini database you can build whenever you have a free moment. Half a dozen restaurants, each with a shortlist of House Specials, or the same number of bars, each with its own peculiar cocktails or brews. That's enough for everyday use, and then they can be dropped into the game whenever you see fit. If you know you're going to be running a particular campaign, then plan tailored restaurants and bars to suit the setting. You don't have to know exactly what a fillet of beef pickled with juniper and coriander, served in a red wine sauce, tastes like, but you do have to be ready to use that menu information on the players so that they know they're on the Orient Express, not some trunk service to Brighton.

Point being, in an RPG the players need to feel as though they're playing roles, getting into character. For that to happen they need to have a clear sense of identity, and the senses are part of that identity. Food and drink helps reinforce identity, by giving a clear, unambigious message straight to the brain. 'This tastes good.' 'This reminds me of home.' 'Ugh! Funny stuff these foreigners eat.' 'Mmm . . . spicy!' Anything you, as Keeper, can do to reinforce the players' sense of identity ought to be done, since this can only help the game progress.

Of course, if their first reaction is 'dammit, now you've made me hungry. Let's order a pizza!' you'll know you've done your job properly!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Art of Books

One of the reasons I'm attracted to games like Bookhounds of London is that I'm a book fiend. I love books; I've been reading for as long as I can remember, and bookshops are my favourite places. Like many another bibliophile, there are certain stores I always go to whenever I get a chance. The Strand or the Argosy in New York, Quinto, Foyles, Henry Pourdes all near Charing Cross in London, or the shop on the Heath in Blackheath (very close to where I used to live); I could find my way to them blindfolded.

It took me a long time to get used to the idea of electronic books. I didn't like the feel or design of the Kindle, and I told myself it was purely an aethetic issue. Truth be told, it was probably more of a grudge than a genuine problem. I could sense which way the wind was blowing, and it didn't favour my old friends the book stores. Even so, I could see some use for them. I enjoy newspapers and magazines that are often difficult to get, for which an electronic subscription would be fantastic. I live in Bermuda now, but still enjoy reading the Guardian, and I also like catching up with the New York Times, which we do get, but usually a day late and only one retailer on the island stocks it. Plus, there are professional magazines that are usually difficult to get even if you happen to be living in the same country they're published in; magazines like Building or Architects' Journal. I'm not nearly as enamoured of the American equivalents. They seem too lightweight, more concerned with design issues than condition or refurbishment, and aren't very good at explaining the details of a project. Often I end an article knowing less than I did when I started, which is something of an achievement I suppose but doesn't really do me any good.

So now I have an iPad, and of course the first thing I loaded on it was a host of .PDF files. All my Trail books are on it, and let me tell you, as one who remembers hauling around all the AD&D manuals, the DMG, Monster Manuals, Dieties and Demigods, Player's Manual, Fiend Folio, Unearthed Arcana, the relevant Class Manuals, Dragon magazines, scenarios and other must-haves for the gaming session in a book bag when I was a teenager, the sheer convenience of having everything at my fingertips in an item that weighs less than a pound and a half is a godsend. For lo, the Heavenly Choir doth sound, and so forth. This is just the hobby stuff, of course. From a professional point of view, I can certainly see the appeal of having, say, all the Approved Documents to hand, as well as the full Building Regs for such arcane topics as energy efficiency. They haven't quite cracked CAD for the iPad, but once they do I can't see a reason for any built environment professional not to have a touch pad on them at all times. If anything, I'm mildly shocked that some clever clogs hasn't already started marketing custom touch pads to the professions.

Yet when I read articles like this one from the Guardian, I wonder whether I'm living in the same world as they. I'm going to focus on a few key statements:

Not since the palmy days of late-Victorian publishing has so much care and attention been lavished on the hardback. Go into any bookshop now and you will find piles of brand-new hardbacks sporting coloured endpapers, scarlet silk bookmarks, heavy, deckle-edged paper and elaborate laminated boards.

The immediate future of the book is clear. E (electronic) is for easy; P (print) is for posterity.

The pleasures of E means downloading the new book we fancy, from reviews, word-of-mouth or plain curiosity. The satisfactions of P come from acquiring lovely print editions for our bookshelves.

Dear Lord, if only it were true.

Yes, I'm slightly prejudiced. I live in Bermuda. I have yet to see this wave of late-Victorian tat yer fella seems to find so appealing. Possibly had I these leatherbound lovelies to hand I might feel differently. However I buy books to read them, not to salivate over, and here is where I part company with the wee man. I don't mind going the full monty on something that I really want to keep forever and ever Amen, but the kind of book described is the sort of delicate creature that can't bear to be touched. It reminds me of nothing so much as those overpriced mint-in-box Star Wars figurines. The whole and the sum of the value of those things is in the mind, not intrinsic. You might wander off to a convention to get the packaging signed by Anthony Daniels, or whomsoever, but you don't crack the thing open to play with it. Shame, really, since that's what the little plastic kitsch was made for. So too with the books. I don't buy one to look at, but to read, and I'm not sure the hypothetical leather fetisher and I are on the same page.

Going further: E is for Easy? Bollocks.

Again, I may be prejudiced, but Easy isn't how I've found things so far. Overcomplicated, yes. I've had the Pad about three weeks, and already I have three different e-readers for the bloody thing. The iBooks app is perfectly fine, that's my go-to. I also have a Kindle app, grudgingly. I hadn't realized I'd need a seperate app for that, but apparently ease of use isn't yet on anyone's agenda. I also have an Adobe e-reader, and here's where things get fun: I have that because I want to buy books, and very few vendors seem inclined to sell them.

Say I want to buy from Blackwells. Hell, never mind saying it: I really really want to buy from them, because they have lots of books I'd find useful, interesting, and often both at once. Importing those would be an incredible hassle. They're already a touch on the expensive side to begin with, and then there's shipping, plus the local vendor's margin; the final price can easily triple RRP. The electronic version would be so much easier to use, cheaper to get hold of, and I'd have it more or less instantly as opposed to waiting a month and a bit. So off I trot to Blackwells, cash in hand, and I get . . . . 'we don't send this to your country.'

Same applies in other areas. Dost thou wish to purchase from Barnes and Noble? Sorry, cholly, no can do. Oh, we do sell some, but not all. Waterstones, perchance, for the latest Brookmyre? Same deal. Oddly the English seem convinced I'm in America while the Americans are equally convinced I'm English. If either one would finally make up their tiny minds I could at least purchase from the other. I can't even download the latest Guardian app, intended to allow people access to the Weekender magazine. Et tu, Grauniad? At least with the book vendors there might possibly be a question of jurisdiction. Presumably they don't want to upset their rivals across the water by being seen to be poaching. I don't see how the same can apply to newspapers. Surely there can't be significant competition issues on that front? Will the New York Times send out the Ninjas if some poor sod in Manhattan dares to look at some dastardly foreign newspaper online?

So I have the Adobe e-reader, because the only bookstore I've found so far willing to sell to whomsoever wheresoever has been, and they seem to prefer it. They're also Australian, which may be why they don't seem as hung up on boundaries as their English or American counterparts. No doubt someone in the eBooks hierarchy got as frustrated as I have been with book delays and delivery problems, and decided that their bookstore wouldn't be hampered by artificial restrictions.

If I could download the book I fancied, that would be great. That is, after all, the main reason I wanted an iPad in the first place. However finding someone willing to sell me the book I fancied has been an uphill struggle. Moreover I can't help but think that many vendors are still romantically attached to print, for reasons I can't entirely fathom.

Take the webcomics lot, for a start, people like Rich Burlew of OOTS fame. I've enjoyed his work for years, and have all the trade paperbacks so far (up to Don't Split the Party), but I'm beginning to notice some flaws. The ink never seems quite right, and was all too easy to smudge when first bought. Now the pages are starting to stick together, and can't be unstuck without doing damage. Probably some of that is down to humidity, it being an island paradise here and all, but I'm not convinced that's all it is. I think the Chinese manufacturers have something to answer for. Plus of course from someone like Rich's point of view producing even one of those books must be a logistical nightmare. Presumably Ookoodook takes some of the weight off his shoulders, but I dread to think what it can have been like before he signed them on, what with dealing directly with the manufacturers, the vendors, overseas shipment dates, keeping track of subscriptions and all the rest of it. That sort of thing is a full-time job in itself. Just contemplating the mountain of detail involved makes it easier to appreciate the Robert Koos of this world.    

Which makes me wonder: why isn't this (and other things like it) in ebook form?

Manufacturing problems, delivery problems, subs issues, all of that backbreaking workload either gone in a puff of logic, or at the very least halved. Moreover it would be much easier for one person to manage, which is perfect for the average webcomic. Much the same trail of logic applies to small magazines like the Unspeakable Oath. I love the Oath, but I can't help noticing that although their stated goal is to publish four times a year, they only managed two issues in 2011, and there's no news (as far as I know) about a 2012 publishing schedule. While I doubt all their problems are tied to publishing in physical format, I'm willing to bet a lot of them are. There's bound to be a piracy concern with electronic media, but even with that threat I really can't see the cost benefit to a small publisher remaining in physical format. The workload alone means you spend three or four times as much effort producing the wretched things as you do creating them, and for a writer/artist like Burlew or amateur publishers like Pagan, I really don't see piracy being enough of an issue to make electronic unfeasable.

I can understand a sentimental attachment to print, believe me. I still favour bookstores over electronic media, and not just because I'm fond of them. Mainly it's because I find them easier to search (my eyes have never needed an internet connection, and I can scan a bookshelf in seconds where flicking through webpages takes forever) and because they still have more of the things I want all in one place. That doesn't mean I'm so blinkered in my outlook as to not have an e-reader, or that I can't appreciate the value of getting product out the door and onto the vendor's electronic shelf. There are going to be times when electronic beats paper. As the century eats away at us all, electronic will be beating paper more and more often.

That means the first vendor who establishes a genuine electronic presence is going to enjoy a bonanza, and by that I don't mean the Amazons of this world. I mean the publishers, the Penguins, the Fabers, the Blackwells, as well as the smaller publishers like Rich Burlew and the guys behind the Oath. So far everyone seems to be dipping their toes in, but I've yet to see anyone take the plunge.

Whenever you do get around to swimming in the deep water, guys, just remember: I'd like to buy from you. Don't lock me out.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Season's Greetings!

I used to play AD&D (that reference alone should tell you how long ago) with a DM who loved seasonal adventuring. Come the days of boughs and holly, there'd be a shiny new adventure under the tree, complete with homicidal snowmen, evil frost elves, and the occasional man-eating triffid (don't ask). He was fonder of combat-heavy situations than I am, and the day usually degenerated into a quasi-wargame, with our minis slogging away against whichever zerg happened to be decked with mistletoe this year.

Perhaps that experience put me off seasonal adventures. I've never deliberately written one, and I tend to avoid playing them. However the folks at Penny-Arcade clearly don't share my point of view. Sounds like they had a lot of fun with the central idea, and it probably helped that the situation as described wasn't all combat all the time. Chaosium also produce a seasonal adventure once a year, but their holiday pick isn't quite as jolly. I suppose that's to be expected really, but M.R. James managed a Christmas ghost story or two, and he was carrying on a fine old tradition which the BBC occasionally resurrects. Winter festivals often have the theme of light versus dark; the seasons are turning, the nights are getting colder, but there is the promise of spring to come. The land is changing from an infertile, dead panorama to warmth and life, and the winter festivals honor the last gasp of the old with a celebration of the new, marking the passage of the winter solstice.

Ghost stories are particularly apt, given that they too are about the cold hand of the past interfering with the bustling present day, possibly even smothering hopes of the future. There is always the threat of death in the coldest months, even today, and when Dickens wrote his Christmas Carol the threat was much more acute that it is now. Of course, Dickens ends his tale on a cheerful note; not so The Little Match Girl, Anderson's tale written at the same period. Anderson's story has a mix of hard-nosed realism and sentimentality that would have appealed to his readers, but I'm not certain an author could get away with Anderson's version these days. Hogfather's retelling of the same story is probably closer to the modern point of view.

Personally I feel that a seasonal RPG story, if it's to work well, needs to rely less on the season and more on the story. Ravenous and deadly plum puddings make for a funny scene, but you oughtn't dump half a ton of slapstick and Christmas in-jokes and expect everyone to have a good time. There needs to be a solid backbone to your plot, preferably one that doesn't rely exclusively on seasonal references. Moreover if it's to be a ghost story, then let it be a ghost story. M.R. James once gave advice on this point:

Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

In other words you can't just leap in with the grue and paint the surroundings all over red in the very first scene. The background is important, and it needs to start in as mundane a setting as possible. Dicken's Signal-Man is a case in point: to Dickens' readers, nothing could have been more familiar than a railway junction, and deaths on the line were sufficiently common to be on everyone's mind. James does much the same thing, by setting his tales in ordinary places: boarding houses, churches, buses, farmer's fields, seaside resorts, all places that his readers would have known about, probably from first-hand experience. These settings were the everyday of their lives. Some of them seem antique now; we don't go to church as often as James' readers would have done, the boarding houses he knew have all but vanished, and bus conductors don't talk like that any more, if indeed they ever did. Yet at the time they would have fit right in, and therein lies the key. Make the setting as familiar as possible, and the players will fill in the blanks with their own experience.

The second key ingredient is the build-up, unobtrusive at first, then building to a crescendo. Something in the background needs to be twisted, to take on a significance that will later become critical. Again going back to James, consider what effects he achieved with a bed sheet, a church stall, or a doll's house, to name three. All things that the reader and the characters would have found perfectly unremarkable, made remarkable by force of circumstance. Fact needs to pile upon fact until nobody can pretend that it's all coincidence, that it can be explained away.

With all that in mind, consider the following ghost story nugget, written with Trail of Cthulhu rules:

Police Box, Soho
This is a solid concrete structure, painted blue, with a teak door. A light on the top of the structure, when lit, warns constables that they ought to contact the station immediately. Inside there is a stool, a table, cleaning equipment, a fire extinguisher, and a small electric heater, in addition to the police telephone. As the structure is made entirely of concrete, it is cold and damp at the best of times, and bitterly cold in winter. The electric heater seldom works properly. The desk and stool are sturdy but cheap, and not particularly comfortable. 

Station gossip has it that a young constable actually froze to death inside the Box several years ago, though the rumour is third or fourth hand at best. Nobody can actually claim to have worked with the constable or found the body. That said, the rumour is persistent, and the Box is so unpopular that staying in the Box for an hour, at night, is something of a challenge, a rite of passage that the older men make the younger ones go through. The honour won is all the greater if the challenged copper undertakes the vigil during the winter. The ‘frozen constable’ story gained unexpected credence only last November, when a probationer caught frostbite after twenty minutes inside. He risked losing some of his fingers, but in the end was fully restored to health and rapidly transferred to a different station, far away. That incident does have a few witnesses, including the Sergeant who pulled the lad out of the box before he froze altogether, but none of them are willing to talk about it to outsiders and the Sergeant won’t talk about it at all to anyone. A man’s hard-earned promotion is not lightly risked, and he doesn’t want his superiors thinking he might be batty or a drunkard.

Possible clues:              
                             The Knowledge. That corner of Soho has always had a nasty reputation. There used to be a Salvation Army hostel right across from the Box, which had four penny coffins: the sort of place that let the indigent sleep in a box with a tarpaulin over it for four pennies. They had to close the hostel down in 1902, after eight of their guests froze to death, all in the same night. In 1814, the year of the last Thames Frost Fair, eighteen people died, most of them over a four day freeze. Among the eighteen was a soldier who, when last seen, was leaving a public house and intended to walk down the street to visit a friend, perhaps a five minute stroll at most. He froze before he got half-way to his destination.

                                Anthropology. During winter, and especially if it’s a hard winter, the people living and working roundabout always wear orange, or have an orange keepsake prominently displayed, like a headscarf or a handkerchief knotted about their left wrist. Most of them couldn’t tell you why they do it, except that it’s supposed to be lucky. However according to legend orange is Jack Frost’s favourite colour; he paints the leaves with it, to make them beautiful. Anyone wearing orange will get Jack Frost’s favour, and perhaps then he will leave them alone.

                                Cop Talk. It’s difficult enough to find a copper in Soho at the best of times. It’s damn near impossible to find one in winter, and unless it’s done on a bet there isn’t a policeman born will spend even a minute in the Box. That, and if one happens to spot you hanging round near the Box, you’d better step lively, or you’ll get a thump round the ear’ole if you’re lucky, and a night in the cells if you’re not. Drunk and disorderly will be the charge, whether you’d had a couple or was as sober as a judge. The older coppers wear orange too, most of them, same as the others on the street. They’re just more discreet about it, is all.
Potential antagonist:    
                                   Cold One. Abilities: Athletics 11, Health 9, Scuffling 10. Magic: 8. Hit Threshold: 4. Stealth: +3 (snow). Weapon: Frost attack (-2), to Health, Fleeing and Athletics, on successful Scuffling. Armour: immune to physical damage, fire does +1 but any flame smaller than a bonfire extinguishes on contact. Stability: +1. Special: awful howling noise. Could, at a distance, be mistaken for a police officer; the shape of the ‘head’ and upper body is very like an 1850s peeler, including the top hat and collar.  

Fewer things are more mundane than a city street, with people bustling to and fro and a copper on the corner trying to keep warm. The Police Box is slightly less familiar to a modern audience, but anyone who's ever watched Doctor Who knows what they look like, and pictures are easily had. From there it's the slow, remorseless build-up, and I find the Trail clue structure helps with this, as players pile clue upon clue until revelation is inescapable. Jack Frost nipping at their nose - or snuffing out their lives . . .