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One of the long-standing settings our group keeps returning to is classic medieval fantasy. (Examples are MERP, Rolemaster, The Dark Eye -- But this question is aimed to be system agnostic and is valid for any system relying on a more or less medieval'ish background.)

I feel we often encounter a problem with player characters quickly getting too wealthy. And I don't mean too wealthy for the designed system: in Rolemaster, for example, magical items, potent herbs/potions/poisons and high-quality goods in general are very, very expensive. So the problem is not that PCs can afford overpowered gear.

My issue originates with the very large societal span of wealth which was common in the middle ages, and -- as these often are a base to classical fantasy -- is also inherent in many fantasy RPG settings. Although there are obviously rich nobles, powerful wizards, and wealthy merchants, these make for a tiny fraction of overall society. The absolute majority are peasants and craftsmen, generally with a very low and only just self-sustaining income.

Just take a standard long sword: in many systems, its value is as high as what a farmer or small craftsman will earn in half a year. In my experience, this quickly leads to PCs being wealthier than 98% of the people they come in contact with.

With what a PC is walking around in his purse, he could easily buy a peasant's farm, all his cattle, and the craftsman's workshop next door as well.

Now, I am not criticizing the way wealth was distributed in medieval times (that is another story) or the way wealth is distributed in many fantasy settings.

But how do you, as a GM, handle players that are so wealthy that they could buy basically anything a 'normal' person in that setting would want to? (not including powerful artifacts, war horses, or Mithril plate armor...)


Some Issues

I'll maybe elaborate some more on what my problem is, as this seems to have been unclear. Here are some examples I struggle with:

  • I feel encounters between PCs and NPCs are somewhat unbalanced by the enormous difference in wealth. If a PC would give a farmer some pieces of silver (say, for a bit of information) that should send the farmer singing and dancing over his fields as he just earned some months wages.
  • It is difficult to even find something that common folk could offer PCs in a trade or as a reward: anything that is even slightly of interest to the players will be of such enormous value that the commoner would probably rather employ 10 workers and open a business than giving it away.
  • The merchants dealing in items which are 'interesting' to PCs are sitting on stocks worth amazing sums. (A potion maker or a weapon smith could probably buy an entire town with what his goods are worth.) If they are able to acquire products from the PCs they also need to have very big sums of money ready at hand.

Solution?

Up to now our group only had one way to deal with this kind of issue: it mostly includes not letting PCs get too wealthy in the first place. This works out well for a certain time, and we also all enjoyed playing characters who can not just afford (almost) whatever they want.

But eventually the bandits will not be clad in rugs and armed with sticks, but one will wear chain mail and they'll be wielding swords. And Bam!, one looting later the player characters are filthy rich -- by standards of common people.

I am especially interested in solutions that work once the PCs already gathered a fair amount of wealth, be it in currency or valuable goods.

P.S.: Sorry for the re-edits, I realized that the question/issue was only coming together in my head after reading the first responses.

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Your characters are heroes - they are better than almost everyone they meet. Why shouldn't they be wealthier too? –  corsiKa Jun 18 at 15:10
    
Some games go for ignoring the "problem" entirely. Scion doesn't have a Resources background like most of the other White Wolf games. Why? Because, among other things, a character can pick up the "God's Honest" knack with very little investment (you need to have at least one Epic Manipulation and not get some other Manipulation knack). With God's Honest, you can do things like walk up to the armored car and say "All that money belongs to me. Scout's honor!" And then they give you all the money. –  Brian S Sep 11 at 14:08

8 Answers 8

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I used to play The Dark Eye (Das Schwarze Auge) myself and in my opinion it strongly resembles medieval Europe - apart from the obvious fantasy additions. It's rule books give information of the economy, trade and demography of nearly everything.

Therefore the dilemma is quite understandable; in medieval Europe a sword was worth a fortune and in the world of The Dark Eye it is the same. However, a hero needs a sword right?

Well, maybe not necessarily. In our group we don't have a rule to handle wealth but here are some thoughts on how we somehow deal with it usually (after writing it down I realised that our heroes are not that wealthy because of these guidelines so it may not suit your question that well):

Equipment has flaws. Nearly everything a (starting) character possesses is not a shiny new blade but rather a crude axe, and old dagger from the grandpa, a warm winter coat with some holes, the elven bow that was handed to the character in a ceremony and would not be considered for sale.

Producing goods has its cost. It is true that potions or magical items are worth a hell lot of money in The Dark Eye. But producing these is an investment and requires material and knowledge - both of which can be costly to find.

Valuable findings are rare. Again, nearly everything a character finds, loots or gets possession of has either flaws or is an unknown object that requires identification. However, here you'll find yourself in a situation where player and character knowledge interferes. An adventurer may not have ever seen a telescope and finds no use in keeping it but the player knows it is worth a ton of money. We also have some problems with stealing because the players have knowledge about the worth of goods - also stealing creates a difficult situation by either letting it pass or punishing the character that may hinder adventure progress (but that's a different story).

Carrying gold or whatever currency is not very common. Carry a chest full of gold and silver and it will attract thieves. Taxes may be imposed upon crossing borders and cities. And the greedy tavern keeper will charge more if he spots the characters entering in bling bling.

Value comfortable but rule-speaking unnecessary goods. Create an environment where player not only value the next best weapon or armor because it will raise their damage and defence in battle. Good shoes can be expensive but keep from getting exhausted and have a minor impact on game balance. The same with regular feel-good massages, company during the night, the feast at the end of an adventure. The more characters act with each other and the more a personality they have the more readily the spend money on that. All these are sorts of money sinks.

But in the end the characters are heroes and it may be frustrating to not get a bit wealthy at some point. The reward for risking their life is loot, treasure and occasionally - a very special event - the acquisition of a new and shiny sword.

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Thanks for your reply, there is some good stuff in here. However, it deals with this issue the same way we tend to deal with it: try not to let the PCs become wealthy in the first place. –  fgysin Mar 8 '13 at 15:11

Stop dealing with the 98% of the population. If they're so rich, they are now peers of the 2% of the population who rule in various ways. Peasants may have little to offer in reward (perhaps fealty?), but queens, nobles, generals, and the heads of merchant empires will want to either control or ally with such powerful figures – before their rivals do.

As a bonus, your cast of NPCs becomes easier to manage. The number of movers and shakers in any one location is small, and instead of "you see a noble and her entourage as you walk through the city", now it's "Lady Deyer greets you frostily; she must be upset by your growing favour with the King."

As a further advantage, their new allies will expect this "new money" to start acting like it, paying for ladies' maids, manservants, cooks, and guards; food, lodgings, wages, and fine gear and clothes for the servants; reception halls, fine silks, feasts, expensive wines, quality horses; and the list goes on. Being rich is expensive!

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+1 for 'Peasants may have little to offer in reward (perhaps fealty?)'. I find that getting followers can be a very good reward for some players, especially if they can be useful in more ways than 'I get them to attack the orcs!' –  Dakeyras Mar 8 '13 at 19:42
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+1 for "Being rich is expensive!". Wealthy characters will be expected to maintain staff, to follow fashion, to attend and run balls, to patronise the arts, and so on. –  Greenstone Walker Mar 10 '13 at 22:29
    
As always, 7-sided to the rescue. I always imagine epic-fantasy characters (e.g. D&D above 5th level) as traveling medieval knights with superpowers. The other solution is to run modest campaign: an ordinary man can be a hero without being able to fly and shoot lightning. Sacrifice, courage, winning over one's own daemons don't need a handsome millionaire that can lift a truck to manifest. –  Vorac Oct 23 '13 at 9:43
    
@Dakeyras this basically means becoming (self-proclaiming!) a nobleman. Other noblemen will notice and act accordingly. Either way, you'll have to deal with them. –  Lohoris Sep 11 at 14:47

I see no problem.

Let's assume the characters are not essentially rich, they just have very valuable equipment. They could have stolen it, found it, or rewarded with it. Apart from that, they don't need to be very rich.

If they want to trade their equipment for a cheaper one and buy a house or a farm (if they can), let them have it.

On the other hand, characters could be simply rich. What's the problem? Nearly all of the fellowship of the ring could be considered rich. Elric was definately rich, and so are many fantasy heroes. In a medieval setting, simply being well fed is near to be rich.

Common poor ordinary people didn't go adventuring. For them, feed themeselves and their family was all the adventure they could afford. So, who is going to rescue the duke's daughter?

Of course, poor people could be hired to do something. This would work better for people who had no posessions, as a peasant must stay in his land to take care of it. If you want your characters being of this class, simply limit the money they receive, and the equipment allowed. I have been in games where only wooden weapons and no armour were allowed at the start.

EDIT

Answering the new questions:

  • I see. The only problem here is that for the characters is very easy to have other people do what they want. You can try to fix it (making poor charactes are above), or you can simply accept it and make adventures that already assume that.
  • Yeah, life is hard. Peasants cannot hire mercenaries or any other services. That's why being a peasant sucks. They would depend on characters altruism most of the time. They could also offer other kind of things: "it is said that the witch that enchanted my child have very powerful magic items" or "there are lot of gold in those caves". And maybe if an entire village joined effort, they could offer some nice reward.
  • Maybe the merchants that provide such objects are not sitting and waiting in the market square. This objects would be luxury objects. The characters must meet these merchants in different ways. About selling these items, they must make a great effort, but there are many nobles or even kings rich enough to pay for them.
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I added some clarification, hope that explains better what I mean. –  fgysin Mar 8 '13 at 13:19
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Bilbo/Frodo's Mythril armor was, as said in the book, worth greatly more than the entirety of the shire and surrounding countryside. –  DampeS8N Apr 16 '13 at 19:49

There are several ways to approach this. The most common and easiest is: Handwaving.

In short, probably the traditional approach to this problem is to essentially ignore it. The peasant needs to offer a reward of 1000 Gold Pieces and it doesn't make any sense for his entire family to have anything close to that... well he does anyway. It's not realistic, but we accept that there's a dragon over the hill so we'll just accept that the peasant has 1000 Gold Pieces.

Another approach is Consistent Inflation Due to Magic and Abundant Gold. This doesn't work so well in a low magic systems, but in a high magic system it's fairly likely that the lot of the average peasant really is much better than it was in Medieval Europe. There are potions to cure diseases and treat wounds, magic users that can control the weather to help with crops (and even if the peasant can't afford to pay the magic user to cast the weather control spell, the lord of the region that gets a share of those crops can). Magic, along with fantastic beasts that don't exist in the real world, can also help in construction, meaning that less labor is needed for large manor houses. It's fairly likely that due to the magic the peasants are much better fed, cleaner, and overall wealthier than they were in reality.

Gold also tends to much more common in fantasy stories than it is in the real world. This tends never to be explained other than gold is awesome so it's more abundant.

Now, even taking that approach the average peasant should be much less wealthy than the average adventurer. But the difference might be a lot smaller than you describe, so therefore the adventurer can't afford to buy and sell the entire village.

And finally, as SevenSidedDie mentions, you can focus on their peers to make the issue less apparent.

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Thanks, @belacqua –  TimothyAWiseman May 21 '13 at 19:38
    
The "Handwaving" suggestion is simply horrible, while the "Inflation" highlights a common problem that plagues badly designed universes, like most D&D ones. –  Lohoris Sep 11 at 15:39
    
@Lohoris Could you expand on those comments? Handwaving is how most games handle it and unless you want realistic economics to be a major part of your game, it seems to work. The Inflation seems to me what would really happen if gold were more easily extracted and resources more easily acquired due to the existence of functional magic. I'd be interested if you could explain why you don't like handwaving or why inflation is not both realistic and able to resolve at least a large portion of the issue. –  TimothyAWiseman Sep 11 at 17:05
    
Thanks, I'll try to explain. Many settings are carelessly "designed", so that they lack any resemblance of internal consistency. Talking about that kind of inflation equals to talking about this general problem. But this is a general problem that affects the game as a whole, so if it would be acceptable to use it as an answer, any question on any problem in this setting might have the same answer. –  Lohoris Sep 11 at 21:44
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@Lohoris I largely agree. But given a system that was not designed to realistically simulate economics, I think using inflation due to the advantages of magic as a rationale for why peasants have a lot of gold makes sense. Still, I see where you are coming from. –  TimothyAWiseman Sep 12 at 16:06

Relationships as Rewards

Your awareness concerning the disparity-in-wealth issue might be more of a solution than a problem. While many GMs are looking for trouble for PCs to get into, you have already identified an excellent jumping-off point for all kinds of adventures.

Poor NPCs will naturally seek help from characters that appear to have more resources. Wealthy NPCs will often be threatened by characters that are rising into fields of influence that they used to control.

I think the key is to retreat from the idea of rewarding the players with loot. Let them loot all they want but refuse to let accumulation be the engine of your story. Look to relationships as a source of motivation. Wealth and power would certainly change relationships between the PCs and various NPCs but how would that alter the way the PCs are viewed by all their old friends and enemies?

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Okay, lets start point for point. I see your initial problem and encountered it myselve often before i started to develop open plots that use that wealth to their benefit (needs some time of experience as a GM i must admit). The given answers of now are very good. Still its nearly impossible getting PCs from grow wealthy. Most of the time i think, thats a good thing, because they will need it. Points to balance the isue in the early stages (low exp) in the game for me are:

  • Time issues: Most of the time, PCs wil have some kind of Quest and are in a hurry. Earning money however takes time. Creating an item, finding a buyer, making a potion and so on. Besides, not every day is a market day in most places. If on a quest, my PCs are watching their time well, at least, since they once simply came late to a quest (what a shame for heroes with a certain reputation)

  • Social issues: Yes, your players may be part of the 2%, but they are in many ways. For example magic is rare, Knights are and heroes are somwhat of the rarest thing. "normal" people might be offendet of that. Remembering the plundering knights of the last war or and having natural superstition against magic it often might be easy getting stuff but not the often way mor important intel. Imagine the heavily armed weirdos at your doorstep "Hello, we'd like to... uhm... talk"

  • Trust: Let your group be the wealthiest out there, NPCs still have to trust them. Wrong nationality? Bad! Magic? Bad! To highborn? Bad! Something better? Bad! You give me money for your question? Okay, i just tell some fairy tales. And the Weaponsmith for the special stuff might look way more for a certain reputation then for money (thus it migt still get expencive like hell).

  • Travelling: Most of my adventures don't play at the PCs doorstep. and hell, traveling can get verry expencive, especialy, when your in a hurry. The riverboat for 5 PCs with luggage, horses and all the stuff, eating, drinking, oat for the animals then sailing on the big ship etc. etc. beeing realistic on travel gets a lot of PCs to point, where they need to use the smalest time in a town for getting some work.

  • Wheight and currency: Ever tried to carry 1000 Gold coins? or paing 500$ Notes at a flea-market? okay, there still are gems, diamonds and so on... then ou better not get raided. Or market price for gems drops because of a new mine. There still is a bank. still thats expencive and where is an atm if you need one.

  • Loss: What to do with our horses in front of the dungeon-cave? or in the Mountains? In a sea battle PCs may fall over board. death sentence if they don't ged rid of an heavy armour. Many things can consistent keep players from growing to rich to early.


Deal with it!

Okay, we can keep PCs down for a while, but at some point it just doesn't make sence for the famous heroes that saved the kingdom many times to not be wealthy. Thats ok and i learned that with a little efford as GM this is the best thing that can happen! It starts wit the players not running for money but for reputation. And with time this will lead to much more. The archon might get notice of the hero, letting him officiate s. th., the mage gets a Tower or a chair, heroes get titles, feud and so on. This brings spesial quests with it, on witch other PCs could not even participate. State affairs, intrigue, overthrow, religous issues, quests from the King or similar himselve and endless more. Being famous alsow has dark sides. You will not only be loved but also hated. There might be infuencial enemys that want you assasinated. By the time the PCs have land and men, they will be called to arms in case of war and have to set an army (big expences). In our group that makes for a wonderfull metagame. Often we meet only to discuss matters of the village of on player or the chess moves on the political level.(great fun whilst havin a drink in a nice bar)

For our group this is just the most exitig thing. Decissions can change history for all characters and influence the whole world. For me as GM its wonderfull if a new group encounters a tavern owned by a player of a differend group. There is so much detail, depth and background in that places cause players often put a lot of efford in that. This for me makes a realistic and consistend world. And there often is the time, that all political intrigue, war, economic developments and administrative issues is getting so much headeggs that at some place you have a famous hero sitting in a tavern, a beer mug in hand, saying "Ahh, with all the truoble and politics might and wealth brought us, i miss the good old times. Sleeping in the woods fighting for your living living the easy life. When we were the good and the Orcs where the evil. Now there seems to be a knive behind the back of every smile".

After that experience most of my groups Players where changed. They had way more fun also playing less wealthy chars, did'nt go for loot that much, and enjoyed the small things again.

Whereas some of the "big" PCs got very happy by retiring from political life and work in their profession, like a Weaponsmith for example. And some are exiting to see in play cause they are so mighty and know how to play the now famous "Game of Thrones" that nearly everything is possible. whith such players you never run out of quest for smaller groups.

Meta play was the bigestt gain our rollplay ever encounterd. It makes the World we play in more familliar to the players, History aewsome when you hear a song of a long forgotten hero that actually was an onld PC and works great for getting out of the routine of saving the world on and on.

Nice topic, leaves me with a lot of lust to play DSA (The Dark Eye) again :) Couldn't agree more with a lot of the answerers. Sorry if my spelling and language is not perfect. I'm not a native speaker.

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How about some explicit disadvantages of being wealthy? It starts by having crowds of beggars waiting for the party whenever they go outside, neighbouring farmers starving after a bad harvest, and priests seeking donations to rebuild the cathedral.

You go on to taxation. The simple way is a high tax rate on 'unearned income' with the whole army turning up to collect, but you can be more creative; one popular tactic in mediaeval Europe was for the king to "ask" his rich subjects to lend money to finance his next project. Refusal would be treason, and since the project was almost certainly a war of some sort, you might have to get involved just to protect your investment.

Of course there are (other) thieves as well. Guards and walls will protect normal wealth, but the more you have, and the more highly portable it is, the more burglars will be attracted to it. How much do you pay a guard who could, if he wanted, fill his pockets with enough to retire on? Perhaps the party will need to build an underground complex to protect the money, and fill it with traps and monsters...

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Wealth, I agree with the idea that starting out the players may actually start out with low quality items, and that is a good idea but such probably will cost less. Maybe half or three FORTH's if there are no current game systems about it, with critical item damage failures, but even then.

The players are wealthy why? Even if the characters are low class the money may have been put up by their clan when the character was lucky enough to get a Letter of Marche and Reprisal from the local Lord, dusty foot court, or adventurers guild. The clan is of course expecting thier money back with interest when the local March court condemns the property taken.

 There are games that have standard of living rules, the ones I know of are based on the charactors household.  Persons may ask why would adventures have households, who watches their very expencive property while they sleep? Who cleans their armor, who cooks the food, who.. 

But why would characters who have to move around all the time have a household.. Think hunting camp, with the camp run by a guild guide. The party pays for the for his fee plus a lump sum for camp expenses. If a character requires his own servants he or she pays their head servant (valet/handmaid) and they work out the split with the Camp guide. If the group or party members require arms-men under their own command they must pay those officers like they pay the guide.

Yes.. your characters are that wealthy they need servants, followers and hirelings. But the staffs pay depends on their social class and class expectation, who expects to have to use weapons to protect the master and households. Camp followers, aren't paid by the characters they are family of hirelings so paid or independent contractors looking for work amount the servants.

P.S. duty to bear arms to protect the household does not equate to following into lairs and expeditions beyond the camp, though taking personal pay from a player character with the character as their officer, may require entering lairs with a hazard bonus or crew portion of Letter of Reprisal treasure.

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