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...)
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.
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.