Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Coffee Trader by David Liss: Round 2!

David Liss writing impresses me. He's able to distil the dozens of books and events he uses for research and condense it down into a historical novel that rings authentic with characters that are not perfect and who do not escape their machinations unscathed.

I would heartily recommend anyone looking for a well written historical to pick up any of his books and if they were interested in how commerce of this era worked, to give The Coffee Trader a read.

I'll be discussing specific spoilers below and how they might influence a role playing game so if you'd read none of those, look no further.

Scenario Reversal: 

The main character of the novel, Miguel Lienzo, is motivated by many things. For example, he doesn't want to be poor. He wants to be a good Jew. He wants to avoid being entangled in the webs of others who may wish him ill. For the most part, these motivations and desires don't cross the border into wishing others ill save when they cross him.

This leads him, while pursuing his goals, to, unknowingly mind you, to crush a woman who might have been his friend, to have a former ally crippled, and to turn away the friendship of a man he'd wronged in the past. It also sets him in a villainous light as his deeds, while indeed making him a small fortune, destroy the fortunes of his brother, and indeed, were set up to damage a man who sought to be his friend.

The depths of his being manipulated are thought provoking for me. For example, while he speaks to Hendrick, a burly enforcer, about handling some violence for him, the price offsets him which works for the better. The man he would have had beaten instead winds up turning Miguel's fortunes around and they part as friends.

Until Hendrick needing money does the deed anyway and demands the payment. This crippling beating he puts on Migel's associate costs Migel the associate, who flees the city, as well as a high cost that was initially discussed.

His involvements in other fields are also turned around so that many of the 'good' things he thought to do, to be virtuous, to be the 'hero' are turned in a negative fashion. So much so that the ending is a downer of sorts even as it has its ups.

It's complex layers can be difficult to bring to a role playing game.

I guess my rambling would boil down to, if the heroes don't enjoy success in all of their endeavors, find the ones that matter most to them and allow them victory there, but not without cost in other venues that their character motivations have treasured in the past.


Much of the novel involves the lives of the Jews in Amsterdam.  As I mentioned last post, there is not a single unity in the Jewish community, but for the most part, one ruling body.

But it doesn't control everything. For example, when someone is excommunicated from the main body, there are still some small groups that will allow the services and prayers to be done as long as they are not in the spotlight. These schisms can be small but eventually become their own religion.


Most role playing games use Trade Tongue to make things simple. They use it because it allows all of the players to start the game on essentially equal footing and not have to use precious character resources to spend on something that is essential to all of the players in order to communicate.

The novel takes place in Amsterdam. Here there are several languages spoken but because of arrogance and thinking less of others, sometimes people would speak their mind without knowing that those around them can understand their schemes.

If your setting has multiple languages, which most do, occasionally have the NPCs speak in those different dialects when they wish to keep things secret from the characters. Those who don't speak the language may remember a word or phrase but miss out on the meaning while those who do may either show their hand that they do speak the language, or in future dealings have a translator around whom they trust, perhaps one who is not introduced as such to give them a hand in future dealings.


Taking place in Amsterdam, the novel makes mention several times of the different faiths and people that meet and do business in the city. This is possible because the people allow the Jews to do their thing, and allow the Catholics, whom they defeated, to remain and do their business as long as they do not go out of their way about it.

This makes the city a melting pot of many cultures and faiths, which stretch across cultures. Most fantasy settings tend to have several large city states that encapsulate the entirety of the setting in a microcosm. Don't be afraid to throw some different things into the setting when it makes sense to do so.

The Coffee Trader is available in Kindle format for $9.99 or in trade paperback for $12.34 and Amazon prime eligible.