Back in the 1980s I played AD&D, which was the main incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons at the time. Like all versions of the game, when you start out as a new character you roll to see how much starting gold you get. You use that gold to buy your equipment, such as your sword and chainmail or mace and holy symbol. While the starting gold did vary by character class, there were no differences in the economic classes of the characters. For example, all starting fighters rolled 5d4 and multiplied that roll by 10 to determine their gold. For role-playing purposes, a player could make up their character’s background, including their social and economic class—but it had no impact on their starting gold. D&D has largely stuck with this system and the Player’s Handbook has been devoid of economic classes when it comes to starting the game.
Like many other groups, my AD&D group experimented with adding economic class to the game: a player rolled on a simple chart based roughly on Medieval classes to determine their social and economic class. For example, a player character might be a peasant. The upper classes started with more gold and even some valuable items—some players even proposed rolling for magic items.
As you might suspect, rolling for economic class did not last long: a player who rolled really low on the chart was hard pressed to buy even basic gear; a player who rolled exceptionally well started off with an abundance of gold and gear. We did tinker a bit with the charts, but the ultimate result was a return to the standard rules: players just rolled for their gold using the Player’s Handbook’s chart. People could still roll badly or well, but it lacked the extremes of an economic class chart. The main reason, obviously enough, for abandoning the economic class chart was that it ended up being unfair: while everyone did get to roll, the chart could put people at a disadvantage or grant an advantage at the start of the campaign. And this was with a modest chart in terms of the disparities between the economic classes. Another DM I knew ran a campaign using other charts; one could start out with a keep and retainers in his campaign. One could also start out as a peasant with but a few coppers. As you would guess, the person who started with the keep was quite happy, the peasant far less so. Let us think a bit about using such charts.
Imagine you are playing in a D&D campaign that uses an economic class chart based on the United States, with fantasy names in place of the modern economic class names. The DM is an economic nerd, so they work out the value of a gold piece relative to a dollar, work out the average wealth for each age group in each economic class, work out the percentage of the population in each group and so on. From all this they create a chart that determines your character’s starting wealth. As in the real world, what economic class you are born into is random. As such, you might roll well and start off with thousands of gold pieces of wealth at the start. Or you might have a bad roll and start with a handful of copper pieces.
Imagine that you are a fighter and roll badly, starting with a few coins. You can buy a dagger, a shield and a sack and that is it. Another player, a magic user, rolls exceptionally well and starts with tens of thousands of gold pieces. She can buy all the gear she needs and, if the DM allows, buy much more. Suppose that the other players roll average—they start off with enough to buy basic gear. If the magic user is good or gets the importance of having a properly equipped party, they will no doubt share their wealth—they might buy you a longsword, plate armor, and other gear so you can keep the monsters from killing them. If you are all working together and share, then this is fine: an advantage for one party member is an advantage for all. But suppose your magic user is selfish and wants to keep all their starting wealth for themselves. While that could be a problem, if your party is still working together, this will not be too bad—if you get your share of the XP and loot, you will soon even things out.
But suppose that the DM is running a campaign in which you are competing with the other PCs—rather than working together as a party, you are competing to kill monsters and loot dungeons. You set out with your dagger and shield and stab a few goblins. The magic user hires several NPCs to assist her and they enable her to slaughter her way through a small dungeon, adding the treasure to her already considerable wealth. She hires more NPCs, gets better gear, and continues to tear her way through dungeon after dungeon. Meanwhile, you are still struggling. You eventually kill and loot enough goblins to buy a long sword and leather armor and move on to ambushing lone orcs. The magic user has moved on to slaughtering giants. Finally, you can take on a bugbear—as the magic user and her hired NPCs take down a blue dragon. The dragon hoard gives her even more wealth and power; she buys more magic items and hires more NPCS. When you are finally ready to face an ogre, she is smashing ancient red dragons and liches. She soon has a kingdom of her own and is about to start a war with another nation to gain even more wealth. The campaign comes to an end; she has won easily. The DM then announces a new campaign will start: your new character will be the child of your previous character, inheriting their wealth and starting the new campaign with that. Just imagine how that will go. The first campaign was extremely unfair, the second takes the unfairness to a new level.
In a purely cooperative game, where everyone is working together and sharing resources for the good of the party, the starting advantage of one is an advantage for all. In a competitive game, a significant disparity in starting wealth provides an unearned and unfair advantage. Players in such a campaign would rightfully complain and insist on having a fair start—otherwise the game is rigged in favor of the player who rolls the best at the start. The same holds true of significant inheritance in the real world which is largely a competitive game. A large inheritance is unearned and confers a considerable advantage.
It could be argued that a skilled player could overcome a bad starting roll and an incompetent player could stupidly throw away their advantage. While this is true, the odds would be heavily against the bad roller and heavily in favor of the good roller. Just because a truly exceptional person with a bad start could beat a truly incompetent person with a vast lead hardly shows that the situation is fair. Now, you might want to play the unfair game and might even get all the players to accept it. But it would be absurd to say it is fair or that it allows for true competition. The same applies to the United States: we can accept an unfair system of inherited wealth, but we cannot claim that the game is fair or allows for true competition. Sure, some do arise from humble origins and achieve fantasy story levels of success—going from peasant to a merchant prince. Some start with all the advantages and waste them, starting with silver spoons and ending up with plastic spoons. But most finish in accord with their start, the game playing out as one would expect.