Keith Baker – Skill Challenges talks about designing and running a skill challenge under 4e. He’s got some pretty good advice. If you’re GMing 4th edition, it’s definitely worth a look.
In particular, he’s right on when he writes, “It’s more than just twelve die rolls; it’s an encounter, and it should offer just as much opportunity for creativity and clever tactics as a battle.” I’ve seen some other comments along the lines that eight or eleven dice rolls is anything but exciting, but many of these commenters seem to miss the point that a skill challenge is woven into an encounter — the mechanics aren’t the whole of the encounter. Roleplaying is requisite.
Combat can be run like this:
“I swing. I hit. 8 damage.”
“The orc attacks you. Take 4 damage.”
“The orc hits you again for 3 damage.”
But that gets boring fast. That’s where roleplaying and narration come in.
“Atros hefts his axe in both hands, aiming a vicious stroke straight at the orc’s neck. He’s trying to behead the monster with a single blow.”
“The orc ducks in time to save its neck, but not in time to avoid the blow — the axe rings off its heavy steel helmet, leaving a nasty-looking dent in the already-scarred metal. Ears ringing, blood dripping down the side of its face, it still manages to lunge toward you, howling in rage and fear. Its own weapon slams into your side. Your armor deflects it, but you can already feel your skin bruising.”
Likewise, a skill challenge shouldn’t be “Diplomacy DC 15… made it. Bluff DC 20… failed.” The player should be describing what it is he’s doing, and the NPC should be reacting to each success or failure.
Anyway, good article to read over.