Ok, that is a hideous blog post title. I've been brainstorming all day and finally slowed down now at midnight enough to write. It would probably be nice if I would take more notes along the way. Discipline, damn it, discipline! Let me lay the case study on you before I go all conceptual.
Imagine you want to represent something with statistics. But, these statistics are going to be read by people, not machines. Ok, so we are going to work with integers on a limited scale. Check. Also, this is for a game that wishes to evoke meaning. Limit the statistics and encourage the descriptive text. Check.
How many statistics?
I don't know. I've been asking myself this question for a bit now. Made myself feel good by reading reviews of games that suck. I can imagine a list of six to nine attributes that will be numbered. Numbered so they can interact with dice and therefore help in adjudication when there is conflict. These attributes take the form of verbs, because they are actions that can have varying success. Also there are adjectives to bring in all the color, all the imagination. But what about wealth, fame, and status? I'm wondering about languages known, as well, but I think they could be covered with adjectives in a record keeping sense, like "English-speaker." Probably would only influence die rolls if it was a social situation and the difference between having the adjective "Native English-speaker" and "(non-Native) English-speaker" make a difference.
With wealth and maybe even fame it is tempting to imagine a numerical ordinal system for ranked comparison and even power balance. But in this elegant system that I'm chasing like a Platonic ideal numerical designations are only for verbs. Oh, but maybe you might want to have some kind of business or economic contest. Yes, but that would be some kind of verb, like "Deals," which would designate an aptitude and could then be rolled or challenged, not a fairly static measure of wealth or fame. You see, if characters or institutions or whatever are going to have an adjective like "wealthy" will there then be different but comparable adjectives, like "modestly incomed?" And if you do, then how is it in the economy of character creation, where there is a certain number of adjectives initially, to designate the difference between "modestly incomed" and "wealthy?" It doesn't have a rating system, the difference in the game is handled by the players' and storyteller's interpretations. But if those interpretations are going to have any credence by the participants then it shouldn't be that everyone is effectively "wealthy" because there is no non-role playing reason not to be (a more positive way of saying this is, you would be punishing those who want to role play a low social level character), or everyone effectively of the same wealth level because there is no mechanic to illustrate a difference. The rules need to elicit meaning.
Here is my yet unplay-tested solution: Status, or Status and Wealth for those settings where you can be a rich unskilled laborer or poor emperor, is designated by a single long adjective (yay for hyphens!) which may "cost" more than one adjective during character creation to balance it. So if no Status adjective is designated by the player the storyteller will bestow some appropriate adjective for Status such as "Serf" or "Cobbler." This character would have X + 1 adjectives, where "X" is the number of adjectives allowed for initial characters, where all X were spent on non-Status designating things and the extra one is the Status, which is evocative of the character concept, but equivalent of a relatively poor person of no significant status in the games imaginary society. Then the next scale up in said society's socio-economic scale would cost one adjective, where the character would have X - 1 adjectives designated for non-Status things, the "X-th" adjective being Status. The next highest in the scale would cost two adjectives, so the character would have a total of X - 1 adjectives, X - 2 for non-Status things, the "X - 1th" the Status. If Wealth is a separate statistic then there is some additional considerations on how many adjectives are available for non-Status, non-Wealth designations, but the concept is the same.
Part of what the post title is referring to is the question of how many attributes do you stop with for the base expression before allowing the rest to be expressed in the context and interactions of the game. I imagine in a well designed narrative system what happens after releasing to the permutations of creativity can be expressed graphically as a fractal. On one hand is clutter, over-complexity, and tediousness, on the other is lack of meaning.