"They Shall Not Pass!"

The Spanish Civil War For GURPS Cliffhangers

by Michele Armellini


The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is rather obscure to many, today. Spaniards often seem to think of it as a sort of natural disaster with long-lasting consequences. Others just see it as a prologue to World War Two.

But at the time, it was considered as an epic struggle, defining the chances of democracies to fight off rampant totalitarian regimes. To Spaniards, it was their own business and, depending on the side they chose, either the last crusade against godless nihilists, or the people's fight for freedom and justice. To European nations, it was either an opportunity to expand their own political influence or a revolutionary hotbed that had to be contained. And to volunteers from all over the world, it was a chance to stand and fight for what they believed in. So passions are still running high, 65 years later.

This war is, therefore, an especially intriguing and passionate background for the kind of black-and-white heroic roleplaying that's the true mark of GURPS Cliffhangers adventures. The time frame is right, too.

Make no mistake: Like in any other war setting, a truly realistic treatment of playing characters as average privates would be boring: they'd live for months in muddy trenches and bug-infested shelters, worrying about the awful food, the weather, and the enemy snipers; and they'd probably die on their first action. But a Cliffhangers adventure by definition will portray special situations, ranging from the unusual to the cinematic.

And, anyway, the Spanish Civil War offers several unexpected, quaint, or outright spectacular elements that make it stand out from WWI-style gritty carnage and even from WWII-style standardized warfare. It had infantry assaults but also the first mass armored attacks; it had cavalry charges but these could be supported by biplane fighters on strafing missions; it had extremely colorful uniforms, armored trains, home-made armored trucks, street fighting, guerrillas, mass bombardments, and the first carpet-bombing of cities. It had half-hearted draftees and all-volunteer units; from abroad, it attracted mercenaries, spirited volunteers, and expeditionary forces; it had paramilitary bodies, citizen militias, dinamiteros and militiawomen. All over Europe, it spawned spies, arms dealers, envoys, refugees and assassins. At sea, it had blockades, merchant ships loaded with materiel and "unidentified" submarines trying to sink them. It provided more than a fair share of infighting, on both sides. It was probably the last war in which infantry units went to battle with their flags unfurled.

In short, it has a great roleplaying potential.

Historical Summary

This is just a cursory glance, but you can find some good primers in the bibliography, below.

In 1931 the old monarchy was replaced by a shaky republic. The electorate was unused to the ways of democracy, and extremist ideas were widespread. On the one hand, there were the rich, great landowners, which -- strongly backed by the Catholic Church -- supported the old ways, both because it was in their interest and because they sincerely believed in traditional values such as God, Family, and Country. The army was unsurprisingly conservative. On the other hand there was the mass of poor landless peasants, as well as miners and workers. Their living conditions were terrible, and they were growing estranged from their fathers' religion and increasingly attracted by new ideals of social justice. The middle ground was thin, made up by small landowners, a tiny urban middle class, and the intermediate ranks in the army, the clergy, and the state bureaucracy. In the end, these middle classes were scared off to the right.

The last few years before 1936 saw a repressive rightist government, a military coup attempt, abortive Anarchist insurrections and popular upheavals, and general unrest. With the 1936 general elections, a center-left government came to power. Very moderate reforms were attempted, but while they were too little for the left, the right would take none of those. Timid governmental decrees simply went unheeded in the countryside where the local powers were conservative, which drove peasants to exasperation. All political parties had already begun stocking weapons and organizing militias. Political murders became commonplace. The government was accused of being unable to maintain peace and order.

When the top-ranking generals saw that not only the new government was encroaching on their privileges, but also granting great autonomy to the independentists such as the Catalans and Basques, they decided to step in. The uprising was a military coup, which was immediately successful in the colonies. On the mainland, it was successful where the conservatives had some popular support (such as in Navarre), but failed in the great industrial cities. Time was on the government's side, but Nazis and Fascists immediately helped out the rebels: the first airlift in history carried Moroccan units on the mainland.

The first stage of the war was the time of the "¡No pasarán!" ("They shall not pass!") war cry. The disorganized, poorly equipped, and untrained popular militias tried to stop the victorious professional army units. The Nationalists aimed for Madrid, and reached the capital's outskirts by November, 1936, somewhat running out of steam by then.

The battles for Madrid then raged until about March, 1937. They featured vicious street fighting in the suburbs, full-fledged mechanized-warfare attempts at cutting the city supply lines, and bombardments. But Madrid was never taken until the end of the war. At this time, foreign aid was flowing in: full Italian Fascist Militia divisions, German Condor Legion specialists with their 88s, PzKfw Is and Stukas, as well as Soviet T-26 and BT-5 tanks and advisers for the other side. The International Brigades saw their first engagements in the defense of the capital.

Throughout 1937 and 1938, both sides tried to gain the initiative, attacking away from Madrid. A constant of these actions was that the Nationalists, under Franco's cautious leadership, focused all their strength on the objective at hand, carrying out limited offensives; their early campaigns after Madrid were against the Basque and Asturian enclave, with their factories and mines, attacking and capturing in turn the cities of Bilbao, Santander, Gijón. On the other hand the Republican offensives (at Brunete and towards Saragossa in 1937, in a bitter winter fighting around Teruel, and in a last-ditch combat crossing of the Ebro river in the second half of 1938) were beaten back. Franco made a point of recapturing lost ground. He never was in a hurry to end the war; instead, he exploited the war's duration to carry out a radical cleansing in the areas he subsequently occupied. His policy as to the "enemy hearts" wasn't to win them over, but to rip them off. Also, as he deviously reinforced his own power base within the Nationalists, the Republic was weakened by its internal self-destructive strife, such as the fight against the POUM party in Catalonia.

By June, 1938, Catalonia had been cut off from the rest of the Republican-held territory; after the battle of the Ebro, the Nationalists launched a Christmas offensive and by January, 1939, all of Catalonia had fallen. Another internal struggle on the Republican side followed, but Franco would accept only unconditional surrender. The war ended on April 1st, 1939; a long, bloody dictatorship began.

Character Involvement

So how do Cliffhangers characters get involved in the SCW? There are several possibilities. The most appealing solution is probably "But there's a war over there!"

  1. "This land is our land." The characters are created on purpose for the SCW, maybe a one-shot adventure or a specific campaign; or they end up in the Peninsula and the GM has long-term plans to keep them there. This option gives the maximum freedom as to character types, and it's ideal for Spanish characters. On the other hand, existing Cliffhangers characters may be foreigners and have no reason for a long-term involvement, and players might be interested in a short war adventure, but not in a military campaign.
  2. "Your fight is our fight." The characters already exist and are foreigners, but they either decide they'll volunteer for the war, or they otherwise become deeply involved. Several character types are possible. Additionally, the characters have to be seriously motivated, or under orders by their superiors in an expeditionary force.
  3. "But there's a war over there!" This is probably the best choice for a limited but interesting SCW experience. The party has its own reasons to visit a city or region in Spain, which has nothing to do with the war . . . but they'll be involved nevertheless. The characters may be Spaniards or foreigners, and most character types are suitable for this option, barring privates and militiamen.
  4. "A guy from Spain." You may meet agitators, spies, arms dealers in Paris, New York, or the PCs' home city. The GM may test his players' wishes. If, as their PCs hear the desperate pleads for help by the NPC propagandist, the players have nothing for their GM but blank stares, this encounter will develop just into an old-fashioned local pulp with a bit of Spanish flavor, and no trip to Spain will take place.
  5. "I was young and foolish." If a US campaign takes place several years later, any character having a liberal leaning may have attended pro-Republican rallies, and he might have been a donor. This might have earned him an FBI file and possibly a crypto-communist label, and God help him when the witch hunts begin. American and British veterans of the International Brigades also had a bad Reputation in certain circles (or an embarrassing Secret) for some time. This might be a starting point.

Adventure Seeds And Character Types

An incredible variety of character types might get involved in the SCW. Depending on what they are and why they are there, different adventure seeds are immediately obvious.

And Your Uniform Looks Like This: . . .

The great boon of the SCW is the incredible variety of troop types. Of course you may have your ordinary drafted peasant boy. But you can have much more intriguing characters, too, including several types of foreigners:

Sample Characters

Jordi Martínez, Local Anarchist Leader

ST 10    DX 11    IQ 12    HT 10

Advantages: Charisma +2, Patron (FAI, reasonably powerful organization providing equipment, on 9 or less), Reputation +2 (Fearless people's champion, Anarchists and leftists) Sensitive, Strong Will +1

Disadvantages: Enemy (Police, on 6 or less), Fanaticism (Anarchy), Impulsiveness, Intolerance (exploiters), Reputation -3 (Anarchist scum, occasionally recognized, class enemies), Struggling

Skills: Area Knowledge (Barcelona)-12, Bard-16, Brawling-12, Guns (pistol)-13, Leadership-15, Philosophy (anarchy)-13, Politics-11, Professional Skill (Printer)-14, Streetwise-12, Tactics (urban guerrilla)-11, Writing-12

Quirks: Expansive; Francophile; Prolix Speaker.

Like many Anarchist leaders, Jordi is charismatic and relies on consensus. He's also a clever propagandist and speaker. He has access to his employer's printing works, which he exploits to print Anarchist propaganda. He has taken part in past riots and upheavals, gaining experience and nurturing his fanaticism; he'll easily adapt now, since he already sees the relationships between classes as a war.

Luis Castells, Nationalist Cavalry Officer

ST 10    DX 12    IQ 10    HT 11

Advantages: Acute Vision +2, Military Rank 4, Patron (UME, small group, on 6 or less), Status 2, Wealthy

Disadvantages: Bloodlust, Edgy, Fanaticism (Patriotism), Sense of Duty (to the Army and military traditions), Stubbornness

Quirks: Staid; Often frowns.

Skills: Dancing-12, English-9, Fencing-12, Guns (pistol)-14, Guns (rifle)-13, Leadership-11, Literature (Spanish)-10, Riding-15, Savoir-Faire-11, Tactics-9

Luis is a representative of the upper officer class; from a high-status family, he's a staunch patriot but his concept of Spain is outdated. He's narrow-minded and fiercely opposes changes. He's presentable in high society and flashy on horseback, but he's a poor tactician and modern warfare will come as a surprise to him. Being a member of the Union Militar Española, i.e. the rightist organization of officers, he's in on the coup, too.

A SCW Subplot/Introductory Adventure

Take a main plot that can be summarized as "Find the Item." It is a classic theme not only for GURPS Cliffhangers, but also for GURPS Cabal, Horror, Espionage etc.; such an adventure is easily procured or written. Then set the adventure in Spain, in July, 1936, and add the following subplot. It will make for a good introductory adventure for the SCW.

The Item is small (book-sized?). Clues point out that it is kept at a Benedictine monastery on the Tibidabo hill overlooking Barcelona. As the party arrives there, they discover evidence that the Opposition (defined in your main plot) is on their heels; they are after the Item, too.

Thanks to their Contacts (or the GM) the adventurers have a local contact: Carlos Castells, a rich, old Catalan businessman. He's courteously old-fashioned as the nobleman he is not, and he insists the PCs be his guests at his downtown mansion. He arranges a meeting with the Abbot for the following morning. At dinner, a formal affair, the guests meet his son and daughter: Luis, a stiff-necked cavalry officer, and Cristina, a dark, haughty beauty (romantic distraction if needed). Over dinner, they'll talk politics; the old man is aware of the hardships of the lower classes and seems a humane employer, but he just can't stand Anarchist destructive ideas. The son is less tolerant, and says, "Traitors should be hanged!" Sensitive characters will understand the waiter dislikes Luis.

The following morning, the meeting with the Abbot is unsuccessful; no matter what wiles the PCs may employ, he's backed by other monks and won't budge. If the PCs are polite, have suitable academic credentials, and insist that they just want to examine the Item, the most they can get with a Good reaction is that the Abbot promises he'll consider their request. As they leave the monastery, the PCs will see a mob of some ten baton-wielding thugs in blue shirts knocking the daylights out of a couple of youths, while others are running away, and the bystanders have mixed (but cautious) reactions. This is a turning point. If the party slips away, they'll have a more difficult time with Anarchists later. If they try to call in the police, this will take a lot of time, and the thugs will get away leaving two badly wounded and unconscious bodies behind. If the PCs intervene, they are involved in the fight. If they use guns, one or two of the thugs also have revolvers. Unless the PCs really blow it, chances are this unexpected attack will make the muggers flee, without too much bloodshed. One of the youths carefully looks at the faces of his saviors as he thanks them and helps the other to stumble away; he'll refuse any further help by the party. Behind, they leave a few badly printed leaflets, containing Anarchist ramblings against private property and exploitation. If the players seem not to grasp the social implications, or if no character speaks Spanish, have a friendly English-speaking bystander comment upon the event.

In the afternoon, the PCs may get involved in anything having to do with the main plot (including possibly an attack or diversion sponsored by the Opposition), or in further research about the Item; but in the end they meet Guardia Civil men wearing the outdated bicorn hat who take them to their barracks "for a few questions" (make sure the players don't attempt something foolish). The PCs wait for a while in a smelly room together with a beaten man (some more background if you wish), then they are individually questioned by an officer. He says they have been identified, but doesn't seem 100% sure. He wants to know how they became involved with a "peaceful demonstration" by Falange party members and whether they know anything about the "Anarchist subversives who caused the disturbance"; however, he's clearly curious about the reasons of the party presence here. He's got Interrogation-14, and anything a PC blurts out about the Item will eventually be reported to the Opposition.

If the party did not actually fight against the Falange goons, they'll be released. If they did, but the fight did not cause severe injuries, it will take a Good reaction roll. Otherwise, they are "temporarily detained." The same will happen if they try to bribe the officer, who takes offense and throws them all in a holding cell together with several tough guys (time for a sideshow brawl). Even if the party is released, any guns are confiscated. Early in the morning the PCs are awakened by rifle and MG fire. If they slept in their beds, Don Carlos will plead for them to remain in the mansion while he sends someone to gather information; but it will turn out only the oldest servants are present, and Luis isn't there, either. If they are in the barracks, a young Cabo (corporal), together with two other Civiles, will nervously bring out a few prisoners. Shots are then heard. After a worrisome wait, the same three guards return. But the nearest prisoner goes berserk and attacks the Civiles, promptly imitated by others. The PCs should be able to take the opportunity; the guards are armed with unwieldy bolt-action rifles while the cell and corridor are cramped. The barracks is manned by about 20 men, but as the prisoners storm out, it is assaulted from the outside, too. The surviving Civiles are lined up against the courtyard wall, near the bodies of the executed prisoners, to shoot them; the PCs may get involved in this, or not. They might also retrieve guns (either their own from a storing room, or rifles).

One way or another, the party should be free to roam through a city in the throes of the attempted coup. Their intention should be to reach the monastery and try to get the Item. But this won't be so easy. The main streets are blocked by barricades, roadblocks, and on-going firefights between army units and improvised militias. If the party takes to the back alleys, make it tough for them with Orienteering rolls (failure results in a dead end) and snipers. They see a church on fire (which should encourage them to reach the monastery!). There will be chaotic urban warfare scenes, with eerily empty streets suddenly bursting with badly-aimed fire, unseen snipers taking down scurrying civilians, howitzer fire randomly falling on popular neighborhoods and platoons of soldiers running around aimlessly, while ominous explosions can be heard in the distance. Nobody the PCs question seems to know a thing, but wild rumors abound.

In the end, they stumble into an Anarchist ambush. At the last moment, the militiamen hold their fire, but they capture the party. The unit's commander is Jordi, who will thoroughly question these foreigners. If the PCs helped the young Anarchists, Jordi sends for someone, and after a while one of the two youths shows up and identifies the PCs, which thaws Jordi's attitude; if they did not help, Jordi will be suspicious.

If Jordi becomes friendly, he releases the party, but without guns; they'll be given a scribbled, generic safe-conduct that Jordi ceremoniously stamps in red ink with block letters: FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica; he will be annoyed if the PCs laugh when they see the stamp is a carved potato, and he launches into a political harangue). If Jordi has no reason to be friendly, the PCs will be detained for a longer time, and in the end they are released without guns, safe-conducts, nor personal belongings. While they are detained, they'll see a firing squad executing two officers and a priest. Make another reaction roll; on a Poor or worse result, Jordi will have a militiawoman shadowing the party, just to keep tabs on them (Shadowing-10, Area Knowledge (Barcelona)-12).

What happened during this encounter will determine whether the PCs arrive at the monastery before it is attacked, or not. If they do, unfortunately the frightened monks won't let them in; but they will be present as an angry crowd starts gathering, and as a group of Anarchists arrives with a beam, which they use to ram down the gate. So they should have more time to devise a strategy (see below). If the PCs arrive late, the mob is already roaming through the monastery, mistreating the monks and throwing furniture and books in the cloister for a big bonfire. This should be a scene of madness and chaos, with excited vandals throwing out things that closely resemble the precious Item.

The PCs are now unarmed and have to figure out a non-combat way to save the Item. It might be already in the pile, or still where it is normally stored, or the Abbot may have had time to hide it, together with other valuables, in a secret chamber (which has to be discovered). The party might try the following methods (in parentheses, Skills and Advantages they should be using to improve their chances -- most of the options will require knowledge of Spanish too!).

Even if they fail, the Item can survive the bonfire if the Abbot managed to hide it. But it will be in the monastery. The problem is, the Opposition is now aware of its location, and if it isn't safely in the PCs' hands by midnight, they will send someone in to retrieve it!

At this point, you can ad-lib. Whoever has the Item now, they might want to leave Barcelona and possibly Spain, too. Or if your players are having a good time in the SCW, just go on! If an Opposition team has the Item, let the party hunt them through war-torn Spain or through boiling Barcelona. If the party has the Item, they'll be hunted in turn. Don Carlos is going to face a firing squad in a few days, while Cristina is being detained in a filthy prison; both could make use of some help. Luis has fled the city and, unbeknown to the PCs, has contacted and informed the Opposition; he might become their tool if he can reach the Nationalist forces in Saragossa. Jordi may avail himself of any military expertise the PCs might be willing to provide, but he won't like it if he discovers they have abused the safe-conduct he gave them!

Historical Sources

These are just general introductory works in English. When it comes to the SCW, there is no such thing as an "unbiased" book. Hereinafter, L stands for left-leaning, R for right-leaning.

Need more? Start from: http://www.cfcsc.dnd.ca/links/milhist/spciv.html

Fictional Sources

Remember they are just that -- fiction.

Inspiring Imagery


Barcelona Map


Article publication date: October 12, 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 webmaster@sjgames.com.