First thing, I REALLY like the idea of a contest of wits. Unfortunately, players are always either too smart for your tricks - or too dumb to see the clues right in fron tof their faces. As such, any "scripted" conversation or noncombat event rarely survives intact. This is a major pain when you have spent several hours getting everything just right. Queue the skill challenge.
A Sphinx's Riddle - Challenge to possibly ascertain clues to the answer.
A Hostage Exchange - Negotiate safe release of hostage
A Criminal Trial - convict criminal or defend innocent
A Sensitive Negotiation - Two warring dukes making peace, A contested trade agreement.
Just a couple of flavors, each with a hundred variations.
So the game is rolling along. You have just finished combat, and the BBEG of the moment sees his minions fallen about the room. He pulls a hostage out of an off-stage area. Putting a knife to her throat, he demands his freedom in exchange for the hostage.
At this point we will roleplay until the proverbial "brick wall" is hit. Eventually it will reach a point where nothing is happening. "We want this, I want that. You first, no You!" At this point, Either the players or the DM will call a skill challenge!
Players: Who's in/out? They declare participants, order, and relevant skills.
DM: Secretly determines D4 (or one per participating player) random skills that are auto-fails. This reflects the uniqueness of each individual challenge quite nicely.
After this phase, The DM allows the players to roleplay their skills. They make their rolls and if deserving, are awarded style points (a +1 to +3 to their roll.) The roleplaying always precedes the actual roll.
BAM! You have a satisfing encounter. In this particular situation, the warlord was particularly good with his diplomacy. The Ranger informed him that it was 5 days on foot to the nearest village, The rogue ninja'ed himself to cut off a quick "cut and run" (auto-fail: Athletics), and the fighter flexed and growled menacingly. Unfortunately, the fighters intimidation sets off the BBEG (auto-fail: Intimidate) 2 failures before 4 successes!
How does one recover from THAT particular pickle? It was...interesting. I now allow named NPC's to make skill challenges too, and guess what? IT works very well too! what a crazy night!
So there you go. IMHO a much more dynamic system for skill challenges. Now they are as important as combat! Anyone else altered 4E's mechanical underpinnings? Specifically, anyone figure out a slightly less abstract healing surge? There is gold in these here hills! 4E aint perfect yet, but with a little hard work, we can make it so!
Am I insane? Brilliant? Pathetically average with a decent idea? Let me know what you think of this. I've used it for 8 challenges so far, with two of those against the party. So far so good.