April 20, 2024

Roleplaying in the Spanish Civil War with La Desbandá, 1937 by Pablo López

RockyMountainNavy, 26 February 2024

“Safety warning: This story describes harsh and painful events. The content is not suitable for minors and addresses sensitive topics such as war and violent deaths” (La Desbandá, 1937, p. 5)

“The road was still filled with refugees, and the further we went, the worse their situation became. Some had rubber shoes, but most had their feet wrapped in rags, many were barefoot, and nearly all were bleeding. They formed a 150-kilometer line of desperate, hungry, exhausted people, like a river that showed no signs of diminishing…. We decided to load the children onto the truck, and instantly, we became the center of attention for a frenzied crowd that cried out, begged, and pleaded at the sight of such a miraculous appearance. The scene was heart-wrenching: women shouted as they held up their naked babies, beseeching, screaming, and sobbing with gratitude or disappointment.” – Thomas C. Worsley (La Desbandá, 1937, p. 5)

What does it take to be a hero? Can one be “heroic” without the ability to cast a fireball or sling a blaster? Can you be a “hero” in the midst of a historical tragedy? Those are just some of the questions posed in the new historical roleplaying game La Desbandá, 1937.

La Desbandá, 1937 is a 35-page self-published roleplaying game written by Pablo López with some assistance from The Dietz Foundation for the English-language edition. The game is set around the events of the Málaga–Almería road massacre in February 1937. As La Desbandá relates:

“However, on February 7, 1937, with Málaga about to fall to fascist troops, civilians began a mass exodus along this road, hoping to escape certain death by fleeing to Almería (a city still under Republican control). Estimates of the number of refugees ranged from 100,000 to 300,000.”

“During the harrowing journey, civilians were subjected to continuous attacks by sea and air from the Francoist side, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 of them.”

“This massacre was the worst episode of the Civil War in Málaga and one of the bloodiest in the entire conflict. This book aims primarily to shed light on this grim part of our history and honor its victims.” (La Desbandá, p. 5)

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Not humanity’s greatest day (click image to enlarge)


La Desbandá is a very rules-lite, narratively-focused roleplaying game centered around the character of Norman Bethune, a real-world Canadian doctor who provided medical services in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In February 1937, Dr. Bethune was headed towards Málaga with his mobile blood transfusion unit to assist wounded in the city. Encountering the massacre along the way he spent three days and nights transporting wounded civilians who were fleeing Málaga to the hospital in Almería.


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The hero of our story…maybe


Mechanically, La Desbandá uses a rule-lite variant of the Cthulhu Dark game engine. The game engine focuses not on step-by-step combat actions but on the narrative Breakdown of the mental state of the players as they witness and must act in the midst of gross inhumanity. The choice of the lite game mechanisms from Cthulhu Dark go a long way towards focusing La Desbandá on what is important; not combat during the massacre, but the mental agony players face as they must deal with the incomprehensible and out-of-control situation around them.


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Breakdown in narrative RPG play


In terms of adventure—and without any major spoilers—La Desbandá places players in an incredible moral quandary. The quandary may be too much for some players to handle making it easy for me to imagine that some might simply get up from the game table and walk away in the middle of play. While it is always very important that the GM be familiar with any adventure and how the rules operate within, it is perhaps more important in La Desbandá that the GM and players be thoroughly comfortable with and understanding of each other before play. Though a short adventure, I do not recommend La Desbandá for convention play with a group of unknown people.

La Desbandá accomplishes what it sets out to do; shed light on the massacre and honor its victims. This short roleplaying game can be played by a very trusting game group in an evening. This “game” is certainly designed for education and personal reflection over “play.” This is a historical roleplaying game where your definition of a hero will be challenged. Events like the Málaga–Almería road massacre in February 1937 must be remembered lest we as a society forget and find ourselves once again plumbing the depths of or collective inhumanity. The message of La Desbandá must be remembered and Pablo López has given us another form of media to do so; one that is both a historical lesson and a deeply personal experience.

La Desbandá, 1937 is currently available as a free download here. A physical copy (at cost) can be ordered from Lulu.  I hope that Pablo moves to charging at least a nominal fee for this product because the work put into it certainly deserves to be rewarded, not just with accolades but some with some financial support too. Pablo can also be found on BoardGameGeek/RPGGeek at user yopablo.

My thanks to Pablo López for reaching out and pointing me to his game. History is rich with stories—good and bad—and finding roleplaying games that help explore them in a respectful manner enriches not only my life but potentially yours too.


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