Frogmen of Helton
An Atomic Horror Adventure
by Jon Mollison
"Frogmen of Helton" is a short adventure written in the spirit of GURPS Atomic Horror. It is set in the rural bayous and swamps of southern Louisiana, but could be adapted to fit into any horror campaign by simply changing the place names and technology level. It requires a bit more work than most adventures as no statistics have been included. This is done to make it easier for GMs to tailor the challenge to their players.
The mid-1950s were the last of the golden years for the good old boys club. Federal intervention in state affairs allowed the petty officials of small rural towns great latitude in law enforcement and it would be another decade before the hippies and minorities challenged societies norms. The threat of invasion from "The Commies" kept the military-industrial complex running at top speed with little environmental oversight. This lack of concern for the earth's ecosystems combined with the zest for pursuing recent discoveries in medicine would combine to form a horror unimaginable to the residents of one sleepy town far out in the swamps of southern Louisiana.
New discoveries in the functioning of the human brain had led the chemical engineers of Chemfix industries down a long blind alley before they abandoned a project aimed at curing certain types of mental retardation. In experiments on lab animals their formulas behaved in erratic and unpredictable ways, so the company decided to dump the project . . . literally. Late one spring night two men stopped an unmarked truck along a back country road deep within the swamps south of New Orleans. There they unloaded their noxious cargo -- a dozen metal drums filled with X-Gen-405. After throwing some branches and muck onto the barrels, the two men drove away, never to think of that evening again.
Over the next few weeks the barrels began to leak into the waters of the Helton swamps. Most of the creatures that came into contact with the viscous green goo became violently sick and died shortly thereafter. But one particular frog didn't die immediately. It began to grow. And grow. More frightening was the fact that as it did so it developed a crude cunning. More terrifying still was the fact that this particular frog was preparing to lay a new clutch of eggs when it began its terrible mutation.
Had anyone seen the tadpoles that hatched from these eggs a few weeks later they would not have recognized the long black eels that emerged. These tadpoles grew to adulthood in the normal time, which meant that in the space of one summer the swamps outside Helton developed a small colony of frogmen.
These frogmen and their mother kept a close watch on the humans that traveled through the swamp. Their cunning primitive minds were horrified at the treatment their underdeveloped frog cousins received at the hands of adolescent boys out shining for frogs. Like many kids with easy access to a swamp, the young boys from Helton would carry flashlights out into the swamps and use them to surprise frogs. For some reason frogs -- so difficult to grab in daylight -- freeze when a bright light is shined at them, not moving even when picked up. By then it's too late, and the young boys would do what young boys do to captured frogs. While growing, the frogmen developed a pathological hated for all humans.
In the mid-1950s Helton was a small fishing town on one of the many bayous which led ships out to the deep, fertile waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Just about everyone in town was connected with the fishing industry in one way or another. Like most small towns, its chief entertainment were bowling, sittin' shirtless on the porch, drinking Budweiser beer, and the high school football team. Its crime rate is low, justifying only a sheriff and two deputies. And for the last four decades it has remained relatively untouched by events in the outside world.
The frogmen are vaguely humanoid. The frogmen have thick glistening skin that is mottled dark green, black, and brown -- the perfect camouflage for the swamps around Helton. They are the same height and weight as a typical man, but they stand much lower, due to their terribly stooped shoulders. Lacking a neck, their heads protrude from their upper chest, and are dominated by a large toothless mouth that splits it almost in half and two great yellow bulging eyes with thin vertical slits for pupils. Their arms are long and thin and hang down to the ground, almost ape-like, ending in four-fingered hands with long sharp fingers. A yellowish pot belly gives way to massive bent legs that shamble forward in an awkward walk until the frogman springs. These thick legs and wide, flat feet can propel frogmen forward several yards to land with a heavy thump.
Though cunning, the frogmen are still animals. They wear no clothing and use no tools, though they do have one particular island deep in the bayou that serves as lair where they drag their victims for dinner.
The frogmen attack in three different ways. Their deceptively thin arms end in sharp cutting claws. They have retained a long (6') thick tongue which packs a light slap and can grab light objects (under 5 lbs). The slap does no damage, but the slime it leaves acts on humans as a mild contact-based hallucinogen. Humans slapped by this tongue will begin to behave as though drunk, becoming woozy and disoriented.
The frogmen can be killed just like any other animal, though they rarely stray from their favored habitat; this makes it difficult to surprise them. They do have one weakness -- light. Like all frogs, a bright light shined into their face on a dark night will freeze them where they stand. The frogman will stop and drop its long arms to the ground and do nothing until it is attacked or the light is turned off.
The original frogman, frogmom, is built like her prodigy, only much larger. Even stoop shouldered, she stands half again as tall as a man. She also has a bright neon green slash of skin running down the length of her back. She can leap 10' across and 8' straight up in the air, and her tongue packs a legitimate punch, though it contains no venom. She is also the only frog in the swamp who will not freeze when shined by a bright light.
It's late at night on a mid-August Friday. At this time of year the southern air is still hot and humid, even this late at night. Three young boys -- freckled ten-year-old Timmy Rutherford, his blonde best friend Jeremy Andrews, and his little brother Steve -- are out shining frogs when the frogs strike back. The boys are overcome by silent dark shadows, and are killed before they can even think to cry out for help. The frogmen drag the small bodies back to their island retreat. After a lifetime of surviving on tiny bugs, snakes, and the occasional alligator, the frogmen find the young boys irresistibly delicious. After the short meal the frogmen separate out to find more delicious humans.
Shirley Devereaux is not supposed to be out late walking alone with Jereboim Taylor. Though Jereboim is a bright, hard working man he made one "mistake" in his life -- he was born with black skin. Shirley's father, Duke, would skin them both alive if he ever found out, figuratively in her case and literally in Jereboim's case. But Shirley is madly in love with Jereboim's gentle nature and strong arms, and her father doesn't know, so what's to worry about on such a beautiful summer night?
The two love birds are lost deep in each other's eyes as they wander the back roads of Lafourche County, which causes them to wander right into the path of the hunting frogmen. After the initial shock of surprise, Jereboim manages to fight off the assailants, but not before he is badly cut and briused, and Shirley is carried, screaming, off into the dark depths of the swamp.
The characters are enjoying a relaxing evening at Thaibeaux (Tiebows), a small road side bar and restaurant. Thaibeaux, a great bald black man, serves the best blackened catfish and Cajun shrimp this side of Lake Pontchartrain, and the enthusiasm of the small blues band in one corner more than makes up for their lack of talent. The overhead fans stir the thick smoke-filled air but provides no relief from the oppressive heat. It's a little after midnight and the place is packed with folks from all around Lafourche County, rocking to the high energy sounds of the band, when the screen door bangs open and somebody screams a little too loudly.
The band stops and the only sound that can be heard is the creaking of the overhead fans. Then the bloody figure standing in the door frame stumbles into the light. He is a young black man, dripping wet and bloody. He lurches forward a few steps and gasps, "Shirley . . . too many . . . please . . . I tried, but there . . . we were out walking . . ." At his point a large man wearing a shoestring tie, snakeskin boots, and sheriff's hat steps forward and demands to know, "What in the name of all things holy is a-goin' on here?" The young black man takes a deep ragged breath and spills his story.
"Shirley and I were out walking when we were attacked by . . . something. A few of 'em, actually. Suddenly they were everywhere, punchin', grabbin', and bitin'. I fought 'em as best I could, but there were too many, so I ran. I think Shirley is still alive out there. Please, we have to go out after her."
The Sheriff pauses and somebody asks, "Well, Duke?"
The Sheriff asks the young man, "Do you mean to tell me that you were out with my daughter tonight and now something bad has happened to her?" The young man nods sheepishly. So the Sheriff pries him for information. (The players, of course, can interject questions here to gain some of this, though the pace should be kept brisk and confusing.)
- When did it happen? "I don't . . . don't know. About 10-15 minutes ago, maybe more." (It's been 30 minutes.)
- Where was it? "Old Fen lane, out past the old tire piles."
- What did they look like? Jereboim gives a short rambling rant about tall, slimy, green skinned monkeys with googly eyes and claws.
"All right, here's what we're gonna do," growls the Sheriff. "Cooter, arrest this . . . suspect. He's obviously been smoking something a bit harsher than tobacco. Everyone who hasn't had more'n two beers follow me; we're goin' out after her. Everybody else stay here and enjoy yourselves; tomorrow is soon enough to know more."
If the investigators look closely they see that Jereboim is not soaking wet, he only has patches of wet clothing and his skin is only wet around his bruises and cuts. His cuts are long rows of three shallow scratches. Jereboim's eyes are bloodshot and his pupils dilated. He seems to be disoriented, but this could be due to shock.
Heroes who join the posse will have to hurry to get to the site of the attack before the posse obscures the tracks of Shirley, Jereboim, and . . . others. It appears as though four, maybe five, man-sized creatures with great three-toed feet jumped from the waters next to the road and disappeared where they came from. Tracking through the swamp is impossible. After an hour of stumbling around, two bloodhounds and a couple of flat bottomed rafts arrive. But even the bloodhounds can't track Shirley's scent for more than a few hundred yards. (After the swamp became chest high the frogmen found it easier to submerge and this masks any scent that would have remained.)
The Next Day
If the PCs immediately head back to town to try and protect Jereboim from the vagaries of southern small town justice, they will be stymied by a hulk of a deputy (Cooter), who knows better than to allow strangers access to a suspected murderer. The only way to see Jereboim before his trial will be to wait for the morning. Then they must convince his lawyer, Claude LaFollete, a dapper southern gentleman in his late sixties, that they can be of some assistance. Claude LaFollette, knowing the kind of hatred directed towards his client, will be hesitant at first. Should the characters provide him with any evidence to support his case or agree to testify at Jereboim's trial, LaFollette will acquiesce.
The characters will follow LaFollette across the street to the small white jail where they must wait in the front office with the on duty deputy. The deputy, Lyle, is a fat and sweaty man with hair that is black, greasy, and combed over an obvious bald spot. When he smiles he reveals a random assortment of teeth, and breath that could choke a cow. For some reason this slug in pants fancies himself quite the ladies man and will make the wait exceedingly difficult for any female characters.
After a short private interview with his client, LaFollette calls the characters into the cell room. Jereboim is sitting on a low cot in the large cell opposite the entry door. The characters notice after Lyle locks the cell door behind them is that Jereboim looks far worse than he did the night before. They can see fresh bruises on his arms and one eye is swollen shut. LaFollette directs the characters to sit quietly out of the way and say nothing. He softly tells Jereboim to tell the characters what really happened last night. Jereboim, trusting his councilor completely, tells a much more coherent version of the attack and his getaway, though his swollen jaw makes his speech slurred and indistinct.
The characters are then free to ask Jereboim any questions they can think of, and Jereboim will answer as honestly as he can. He suspects that the frogmen are some kind of swamp spirits, but his beliefs as a Baptist compell him to think that isn't the case. If asked how he got the new bruises he looks at the questioning character as if that character was an idiot and says sarcastically, "Ah musht've fell down the shtairs."
After Lyle lets LaFollette and the characters out of the cell, the lawyer returns to his office to begin building his case. Before he leaves the characters, he looks at them appraisingly and -- if the characters were intelligent and kind during the questioning -- mentions that they might wish to speak with Doc Branson, the physician who tended to Jereboim last night.
Doc Branson, the town physician, has an office downtown next to the ice cream parlor, and the characters feel a welcome blast of cool conditioned air as they enter the waiting room. A prim redheaded receptionist eyes them warily. When they ask to see Branson she disappears for a moment. "You'll have to wait until lunch time," she informs them. The Characters may decide to talk to some townies at this point, But most people in town are suspicious of outsiders; it will take some smooth-talking on the part of the characters to get any information from them. Those locals who do talk will have nothing but spiteful things to say about Jereboim and how he shouldn'ta been messin' around with good ol' Duke's daughter and he'll get what comin' t' him . . . etc. If the characters approach any of the few African-Americans brave enough to venture into town on a day like today, then they will no information at all. They know that everyone on the street is eyeing them especially close. The one person who will offer some helpful advice is a small white boy who rides his scooter right up to the characters and says, "You should go talk to Jereboim's mama. She lives out Bayberry road and is powerful nice," before his own mother grabs his ear, scowls at the characters, and drags him off muttering about talking to strangers.
When the characters manage to track Branson down at the Easy Street cafe they find a surprisingly young man eating his black beans and rice and reading the Saturday Evening Post. Branson is a dyed-in-the-wool Brooklynite who escaped down here where it's always warm just last year. After introductions, he apologizes for taking so long to examine Jereboim last night, but he wasn't informed until three a.m. He then explains that he found numerous bruises and scratches on Jereboim's back, arms, legs, and chest. He remarks casually that there are actually two types of bruises, a darker and firmer set on top of a much lighter set of bruises. In an offhand voice he wonders allowed how two sets of bruises would have gotten there, while fixing a hard look at the characters. Oh, yes, he mentions that one set of bruises -- the first set -- each had a thick wet fluid around them, too thick to be water. It was almost like saliva, but there was far too much for it to be that. Also, the scratches occurred in sets of three, almost like those of a large dog. "But who would set a dog on a poor nice black boy like Jereboim?" Then, having finished his apple cobbler, he abruptly excuses himself, explaining that he has appointments to keep, leaves a nice fat tip and leaves. But not before giving the characters a long quizzical look that seems to say, "The ball's in your court now, what are you going to do?"
The characters can find Jereboim's family out at the Taylor homestead, a three-mile hike north of town. The homestead is a small run down house with an even more rundown chicken coop. The chickens and a pig scatter as the characters approach the house. Just before reaching the porch three young children bang out the front door and come to a screeching halt. "Momma! They's visitors!" they scream as they dash past the characters. Eustice Taylor is a large woman whose eyes radiate joy, even through the redness and dried tears belie her true feelings. She offers the characters dinner, although she hasn't much to share. Like everyone else, Eustice is reticent at first and must be convinced of the character's good intentions before speaking freely. She brags about what a fine, bright boy Jereboim is, and how she warned him not to have any truck with that girl, but he was always headstrong. She has nothing terribly useful to say, and frequently has to turn away to hide her tears. It is obvious that she fears for her son's life and, if the characters win her over, she begs them to do everything they can to help. She is prayin' to the Lord to deliver them all, but knows a little help from down here is needed.
On the way out they see a wizened old black man in a wrinkled black suit with a can and straw hat leaning against the front gate. He winks as they approach, and moves to the side to let them out. "I know what those things were," he states in a thick Cajun accent. "Ah've seen them a few time, out there," he nods to the swamp across the road. "They are the spirits of long dead brothers. See, Helton used to have quite the reputation among the Klansmen as being a right nice place to live. And now the Lord has sent them to us for vengeance. That's why that girl got taken and Jereboim was spared." He smiles a toothless grin and hobbles back up to the house.
Back in Town
The sun is setting as the characters return to town, and the first thing they see is a large crowd gathered outside the front steps of the jail. There must be fifty men, burly fishermen, fat businessmen, and even a few women shouting at two figures in the doorway of the jailhouse. As the characters approach, they hear the shouts for justice, protection of the women and children, and cries of "Murderer!" If they continue to approach they see that many in the crowd have bats, shovels, and the odd shotgun. They also see that the two figures are LaFollette, Jereboim's lawyer, and the slovenly deputy from early in the day, Lyle. Lyle nervously fingers a shotgun and constantly looks around for help as the gentle lawyer pleads with the crowd. It seems that the mothers of three local schoolboys haven't seen them since the day before and now the crowd wants to know what Jereboim did with those poor children. The characters can try to reason or intimidate the crowd into dispersing.
Whatever action the characters take a few moments later a bright red Ford Mustang screeches to a halt at the edge of the crowd, and a teenage boy with a flat top leans out asking if anyone has seen the Sheriff. The Sheriff had been sitting quietly in the Easy Street cafe, watching and enjoying the show outside the jailhouse; he immediately comes out. The crowd hushes and the characters hear the teen explain that he saw Jimmy Duggan's caddy parked way out on Deepwater road. This is unusual, because Jimmy would never leave his car in that condition.
At this the lynch mob erupts with hushed whispers: "Jimmy Duggan," "I knew that boy was no good," "I'll bet it was that punk," "Didn't Jimmy have a thing for Shirley?" and "Maybe that kid in jail didn't . . ." It would seem that Jimmy Dudgeon and Shirley were once an item, but that Shirley's father put a stop to it -- although everyone suspecting Shirley had been sneaking around with Jimmy, anyway. The theory errupts among the townsfolk that Jimmy attacked Jereboim and Shirley last night, and maybe Jereboim did such damage to that thug that he couldn't make it back to his car and died in the swamp.
If the characters race to the scene, they will find the story to be partially true. By now it is almost dark and the character's car lights illuminate the scene. A bright new Cadillac convertible with red racing stripes sits quietly by the side of the road, its hazards flashing away. The Cadillac sits at a skewed angle as there is a jack propping up the front passenger side fender. Two tires lay next to the car among scattered lugnuts and a still shining flashlight. The ground is covered by long wide tracks, a few of which are quite deep, but most are as thick as the prints left by some kind of boots. Careful investigation will reveal a crushed pack of cigarettes a few yards from the road and a tire iron dripping with a thick fluid that appears black in the night and green under the light of the head lamps. Obviously the car has only been here a short while (the flashlight is lit and there is a still burning cigarette in the ashtray). At this point the Sheriff screeches up in his patrol car, and he and Cooter jump out. Sheriff Duke immediately starts hollering at the characters for interfering with an investigation, and begins to stomp towards the nearest character when a large black shape knocks him to the ground. The characters have just enough time to see a short, hunched figure with green skin, long dangling arms, and bulging yellow eyes land next to the Sheriff before the swamp around them erupts with the things.
At this point a number of frogmen attack the heroes and the deputy. Though Cooter manages to get four rounds off from his pistol, he and the Sheriff are knocked unconscious by the powerful kicks of the frogmen. The characters should manage to defeat this initial assault. The frogmen don't want a fair fight and retreat into the swamp as soon as three of their number are killed.
At this point the investigators have two basic choices: they can immediately pursue the fleeing frogmen or they can return to town to round up a posse. If they return to town then they won't be believed, and since the sheriff specifically warned the lynch mob not to go out to the abandoned car, no one will follow and the characters will have to go back and try to follow the now cold trail.
If the characters immediately pursue the frogmen, they find the going easier here than last night. They can splash thought the shallow muck for a mile or so into the swamp before they lose the sound of the frogmen at a large, deep pool. If they try to go around the pool they will find it difficult, but not impossible. Their journey through the swamp will be punctuated by frogmen ambushes. The frogmen will leap out of quiet waters or drop from high in the trees. Now that they are in their element the frogmen will attempt to grapple the characters and drag them into the water to drown, if possible. The GM should make an effort to crank up the tension, describing every tiny sound and splash that might make the characters (and players) jump. Also, don't forget that smart players will at least have picked up Jimmy's flashlight to stun the frogmen as they attack. After each ambush a few more frogmen should be dispatched until only a few remain.
Suddenly, the characters spot a dim glow ahead and to the right. If they investigate they find a dozen or so 55-gallon drums half buried in the muck. The barrels are unmarked, save for one near the bottom which has the address of Chemfix attached to a label on its bottom. (No one at the plant realized this.) The glow comes from a hot green fluid that dribbles into the swamp and floats away from the barrels leaving a pale greenish trail to follow.
The trail leads to the small island that the frogmen call home. Here the frogmen make their final stand. The running fight with the frogmen turns into a stand up battle to the death.
This fight takes place on and around a small barren island that has a pile of the remains of Shirley, three young boys, a drifter, and the half-eaten corpse of a leather jacket clad youth with greased hair and a heart tattoo on his left bicep.
After the last of the frogmen are dispatched the adventure should be left to the discretion of individual GMs. If the characters have barely broken a sweat knocking off the frogmen (by clever use of the flashlights, for example), then frogmom should definitely show up to avenge the death of her clutch. Frogmom isn't just bigger than her children, she is smarter. She will engage in hand-to-hand at the closest opportunity to counteract the threat of guns, and will pick the weakest members of the group to attack first. She will repeatedly retreat into the deep waters of the swamp to prepare a new ambush. Finally, she is immune to being shined, but will freeze the first time characters try this tactic to lure them into a false sense of security.
Alternatively, frogmom could be the basis of another adventure in the swamps, especially if that nice man back at the Taylor farm learns how to control her . . .
Running Frogmen of Helton
This adventure is mostly true to the spirit of the Atomic Horror movies of the fifties -- with one major difference. It deals with the very volatile subject of race relations. Few movies at that time, of any genre, were willing to tackle such a touchy subject. The adventure as written does what most movies of the day would have done -- it handles the issue of race fairly delicately. GMs running this adventure should be well aware of the prejudices that players might bring to the table, and handle the politics of race accordingly. A good rule of thumb is that if you think something might be too controversial, then it is. Err on the side of caution and everyone should have a great time.
And for crying out loud, don't let your players see the title of the adventure or you'll ruin the suspense!
Article publication date: October 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.