Had another session of my 4e game last night. Things are starting to come together. Still some arguments, but everyone is at least trying to move things forward. Maggie's done me the favor of compiling a recap, complete with quotes, if you're into that sort of thing.
The best part of the session was testing the skill challenge system, interrogating a shady gnome archaeologist to find out what had happened to their mentor. As written, it's basically just another fight, but I had some information I wanted to get to the players, (mostly pre-hooks, for if they finish this adventure before summer ends) and I wanted to see how the skill challenge system actually worked. I can easily see how it would apply to traps and exploring and such, but as to social encounters, I was a bit skeptical.
For us, it's great. It's not that much different from what we normally do, except there's an initiative order, so people aren't shouting each other down) and everyone has to participate, even the quiet players and the ones who don't normally dig social encounters. A lot of my players are good at and enjoy social encounters, but I have one guy whose comfort zone runs more towards stats and tactics, and he seemed to enjoy himself alright during the challenge. The system provides a safety net -- just do what your character's good at -- if you can't think of what to do, and me and the other players gave him some help figuring out exactly what that meant in game terms.
The ones who were more comfortable with it had no problem with it, and pretty soon people were rolling shaking the gnome down and figuring out why he was here and what the mirror he had was. If they gave me more detail about what they were doing, in game, I'd respond with more detail, or an extra benefit within the challenge.
I had players asking me questions about history. This, I don't think, is entirely on account of the skill challenge format. Having a shiny poster map with little bits of detail to latch had something to do with it, and reminded me to use visual aids more often. But the skill challenge gave them permission and time to ask questions, by explicitly giving the spotlight to each player in turn. And it made it easy for me to give them little rewards for doing so, and to turn the information from "boring DM lecture" to "something I found out by asking the right questions and getting lucky."
Oh, and most of the answers I made up on the spot, which was fun. It was based on some ideas I'd been thinking about for what they might do next, if they get that far, but now I have some specific detail for further adventures -- a dragon named Malebraxis, whose now young adult children have infested the mountains to the north.
I'll be doing this again. Even if it turns into a special event thing rather than my usual way to handle such encounters, it makes a good change of pace, and it's nice to have the structure there to fall back on.