I just finally got around to reading Calibrating Your Expectations, a very influential article about D&D power levels by Justin Alexander. To summarize, the argument is that D&D (specifically the third edition) can accurately model both characters compatible with real life (from first through approximately fourth or fifth level) and fantastic characters up to demigods. Einstein is rated a fifth level physicist. Aragorn is analyzed and measured also as a fifth level 3.5 edition character. The interesting thing, from my point of view, is how this measurement is done. It is mostly not done by looking at class features, spells, or hit points (though they do factor in), but rather by skills and the difficulty classes needed to accomplish certain tasks.
E6 works off a similar premise that the diversity of power levels that a D&D game progresses through when taken from first to twentieth level (to continue to stick with d20 D&D for explanatory purposes) is not actually what most players are interested in. They don’t want to play either a weak first level nobody or a demigod. They want to play Conan or Elric, and by the “Calibrating” argument, those characters occupy a limited sweet spot in the D&D level progression. E6 thus caps level advancement at sixth and then only allows limited feat acquisition after that.
I’ve also been reading this excellent recent series of skill posts. And it got me thinking that a good part of the power bloat of version 3 comes from the way tasks are modeled with skills. I think this is a good argument to minimize (though maybe not totally remove) skill mechanics from the game. With the exception of magic items and spell selection (the Monty Haul campaign), I just don’t see this problem occurring in a classic D&D variant. And those two areas (magic items & spells) are under the control of the referee. Personally, I also like restricting the spell selection as done in 1974 D&D (the highest level magic-user spells are sixth), to manage power level. That seems to follow a logic similar to E6.
(Note: I’m travelling and this post was entirely written on my iPad, so apologies in advance for the limited editing. I’ll clean it up later.)