Strap in, this might get messy.
Alright, off the front I'm going to have to admit the following: I used to play RPGs, A LOT of RPGs. They were my favourite genre, but I haven't touched one, or at least one that requires a huge investment of time, in years. I think that in this subject perhaps more than any I am going to be biased, and what I'm going to say might come off as heavy handed. That being said I'm going to talk about what I honestly believe when it comes to one of the staples of the genre: levels. Whether they go to 30, 99, 255, or any other number, they are ubiquitous in RPGs, and I also believe that they're one of the reasons I'm loathe to get back into them.
Levelling up and level systems in general are something that I believe was and to some extent still is based on a need, although I would argue that with the increasing gains of technology and how far people are willing to stray from the adopted models that there should be less of a reliance on them now; there isn't, but there should be.
Since an RPG normally isn't about testing things like reflexes and muscle memory there had to be a way to ensure that the difficulty didn't just stay at an even keel the entire time, because that would become incredibly boring after a while. Of course stronger enemies necessitates the the character(s) controlled by the player must also become more powerful; this is of course where the levelling system comes in. There have been a fair number of interpretations of said system, but they are remain based on the idea that when certain criteria are met, your characters get stronger. It makes sense, and like I mentioned in the beginning having a clearly defined path so that you know you're getting better was something that was necessary.
The thing is though, that when you come right down to it, a lot of these systems really have one and only one sticking point: the grind.
I can understand that (in my opinion rather unfortunately) you can only do so much in a battle in terms of strategy without it becoming a mess. However, it more often then not doesn't seem to be relying on a trick, or being cunning, rather, the point becomes "Can you beat it? If not grind five levels and ask again. Repeat until finished game." There often, at least in my experience, isn't much one can do to get past a certain battle besides just getting stronger. I know that comment must seem incredibly obvious, but I believe that in having no other option that far too often getting from point A to point B in an RPG can seem like work sometimes.
And if I'm working I want to get paid in actual cash, not in game gold, goodies, and experience.
The problem is that the system seems so intrinsic to the genre that I can't really imagine a good alternative. I can certainly try though. If given the choice over simply "gaining a level" or "becoming better at things you do constantly" I'd rather choose the latter, and staggeringly insane as it sounds, I'd rather not know my skill is at 58/100 or whatever. Rather, I think that any competence should be reflected in the actual situations wherein the skill becomes relevant. If I'm getting good with a lock-pick then show me that I'm getting better with it, don't just tell me; give me reductions in the time it takes, let me pick more complex locks with a greater degree of success, let my character get an eye for whether or not a certain door or chest is beyond his or her skill to get, and with subtle hints as to how much.
Of course this extends to combat as well; faster attack speed, better defence with the weapon, a growing repertoire of ways to use it in combat (yes, I dare say special moves). Give me ways to train these abilities outside of combat, and make it so that I don't "gain experience" if I severely outclass the foes I'm facing. Perhaps it's still a grind, but at least it's one that seems less like work and more like an actual investment because it can even help flesh out the character, or at least provide variety during the journey.
I'll admit, perhaps these are just rantings of someone who's too far gone to really enjoy a single player RPG anymore. I fully intend to get into some MMOs, but that's more because I'll be playing with people that I actually want to play with, rather than due to any intensive interest in getting back into the genre. I freely and fully admit that I may very well be wrong, that any bitterness on my part comes from the fallout and the burnout, but when I look around, I don't really see much having been changed from when I first started playing RPGs over a decade and a half ago, and that kind of just depresses me.