Shlominus replied with a rather long, point-by-point rebuttal. It highlights certain areas where I need to be more clear. So that's what this post is about. Let's start near the top:
this statement of yours baffles me. what you are saying is considering any non-physical ablilites you always play within your "real" personal limits.
Well, not exactly. Let's go back to the ideas that got this whole ball rolling. Mr. Dancey wants an RPG that is not targeted so heavily at the Rules Masters and Number Crunchers. He points to Dogs in the Vineyard as a way to move forward. The problem with this is that, in truth, if you look at what actually happens at the table, he's just replacing one set of rules with another. When I played Dogs in the Vineyard at GenCon, it was once again the ace rules guy who dominated the game. In short, if you want to make an RPG that appeals to people who aren't all about the rules, you'll need to offer them something other than more rules.
Here is my argument in a nutshell: what the players do at the table is what your game is about. Does this mean he should never have rules for social interaction? Of course not. What it means is you should not have mechanics for social interaction if the goal of the game is to have the players interact socially. In the same way that the combat rules in D&D mean that the players don't have to actually swing swords in the air, mechanics to handle social situations mean the players don't actually have to engage in any sort of social interaction.
If social interaction is just something that's going to happen, but is not a primary focus of your game, feel free to throw in all the social interaction mechanics you want. If, for instance, your game is all about being space merchants, and your focus is on buying, transporting, and selling commodities, you might not want spend too much time on bribing port officials. So, you make a real quick mechanic, maybe based on the characters’ reputation versus the honesty or the greed of the port official in question. That way, you can quickly adjudicate what the cost of corruption is to the PCs, and get right back into the heart of your game.
This is why the social mechanics of early D&D mentioned by DHBoggs are so simple. One quick dice roll defines how the people you meet feel about you. Because the game is more interested in exploration than combat, only a third of such encounters will result automatically in a fight. Probably less, if you allow a PC’s Charisma to influence the role. The situation can be swiftly adjudicated, allowing everyone return to the primary activity.
The rules, in short, allow us to quickly get through things we do not wish to linger on. It's not the only job they do, however. Let's take a look at another of shlominus' comments:
but in an rpg all the players do is make their characters do something.
Ah, but this is not true at all. Most RPGs, especially more recently produced ones, are chock full of mechanics that have nothing to do with the actions of the characters. Saving throws are a good example. A saving throw is pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card, a last chance for some mitigating force, usually luck, to save a character’s bacon. Usually, it's entirely up to the DM to decide exactly why a successful save is effective. Most don't even bother; we just assume when successfully saving that through a quirk of luck, positioning, and some sort of native resistance to magic, your character only suffers half the damage they would have otherwise.
Another example is Fate Points and the like. Lots of games these days have a mechanic by which you earn points, usually via some nonmechanical means like "good role-playing”. These points can later be spent in all sorts of ways. Among these are rerolls, automatic successes, or the transformation of a fatal wound to a lesser injury.
This is an example of a resource that the player can spend that is completely invisible to the character. Aragorn and Legolas can't have a discussion about how many Fate Points they have left. They can discuss how battered they are, how low they are in provisions, or how many arrows they have left in their quivers, but Fate Points are a resource that only the players can discuss. In some instances, their use can be described as an extra effort on the part of the character, but in most cases this isn't so. (These sorts of mechanics really annoy people who love immersion in RPGs because it forces them to think about issues in ways their characters absolutely can't. But that's a discussion for another day.)
Again, this highlights the distance between the actions of the players and the actions of the characters. Characters might be leading massive armies, wading up to their knees through sewers, falling in love, engaging in character assassination, or struggling with existential fears, but through all of this the players may only be rolling dice and managing abstract resource points.
Which brings us back to my central point: what your game is about is what the players are actually doing. If Mr. Dancey wants to make a game that appeals to people who are not attracted to the current iteration of D&D, he’s going to have to make game that isn't simply a reskinning of D&D.
This is why mechanics are important. They can either support your fun, or get in the way. As shlominus pointed out:
you may have chosen the wrong system for this game, but i bet you had fun, so... what's wrong?! :)
And the honest answer is, nothing that can't be fixed with a few minor tweaks. But these things still bear fixing. If there is something in your game that inhibits the fun, rather than supports it, you absolutely ought to remove it. Of course, you need to know what removing that aspect will do to the rest of the game, which is why it is important to understand exactly how the whole thing hangs together. This is one of the benefits of working with a simpler system.
In this case, while Oddyssey was still having a blast, the fact that her character was not increasing in level was a minor annoyance. It was, quite simply, making the game much less fun that could be. It's not so much an on/off Boolean thing as a matter of efficiency. Rules should support the fun.
The intriguing thing about RPGs, however, is that while rules can support the fun they cannot bring the fun. Again, to quote shlominus:
an endless series of empty rooms filled with monsters and a bit of treasure works perfectly within the rules. sure, it would be a terrible game and it won't be fun but it wouldn't "break" anything.
unlike your game with oddysey, which "broke" the game, but most likely was fun for you both.
Hm, indeed. Or, to quote Mr. Gygax:
"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."