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La Desbandá 1937 offers a uniquely human look at war through the lens of a real-life atrocity turned RPG

Translated into English ahead of the Málaga-Almería road massacre’s 87th anniversary.

Image credit: Pablo López

In early February 1937, thousands of civilians fleeing the Republican-held Spanish city of Málaga were massacred by Franco’s Nationalist troops. Newly-translated tabletop RPG La Desbandá 1937 - named after the atrocity - aims to honour those killed by offering a personal perspective on the real-life events told through a storytelling game.

Designer Pablo López’s game offers a distinctly different depiction of warfare in comparison to many typical RPGs and tabletop titles, focusing on the experiences of the everyday people caught up in one of the bloodiest episodes of the Spanish Civil War rather than those fighting on its frontline.

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La Desbandá 1937 takes place as Málaga falls to the fascist army after seven months of resistance, resulting in hundreds of thousands of citizens fleeing along a coastal road to the Republican city of Almería on February 7th. As they flee, Franco’s forces bombard them from the air and sea - a barrage that is estimated to have killed up to 5,000 people in reality.

The rules-light game repurposes Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark system for its historical setting and stories of wartime survival in contrast to eldritch mysteries. Players roll a six-sided die to resolve tests, adding additional dice if their character has a relevant career or background as determined during character creation. Those characters might include those on either political side of the conflict, as well as those who remain neutral, align with Russian Communists supporting the Republic, support the Francoists for their own bourgeois gain or advocate for an independent Málagan government.

As they experience trauma, characters will roll a six-sided die, aiming to roll under their Break value - which begins at one. If they fail, their Break increases, symbolising their waning physical and mental condition in place of conventional RPG hit points. Reaching a Break value of six results in a character succumbing to a ‘breakdown’ - whatever form that may take - and the player deciding whether to play a new character.

Image credit: Pablo López

López’s book includes an example scenario centred on their search for historical figure Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who aided those making their way along the besieged Málaga-Almería road and recorded the atrocities firsthand. The short campaign spans six days of the week-long conflict and includes other NPCs based on real people, including Bethune’s fellow aid workers, journalists and Anselmo Vilar, a lighthouse keeper who thwarted the Francoists by extinguishing its light.

Originally released in its native Spanish, La Desbandá 1937 was recently translated to English ahead of the event’s 87th anniversary in 2024. In keeping with its creation as an effort to educate players about the real-life massacre and pay respect to those killed, the game was released as a non-profit project, with its PDF free to download on and a physical copy costing little more than a cup of coffee.

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