One of the things I think that didn’t work very well with 4e skill challenges was how they were presented to be run. The advice in the DMG suggested that you make sure to explain to players what skills they could use, which would be difficult and which would be easy, etc.
What happened is that the whole Skill Challenge encounter broke immersion in the game (in a way that “roll for initiative!” never seems to), and turned that portion of the roleplaying into a little mini-game that, in and of itself, wasn’t very fun. The way anyone ever really made skill challenges work, I think, was to put some of the wonky math of them aside, and just play out a scenario as naturally as possible. Allow players still to make skill checks, but let the situation truly evolve as part of that check. Also, the number of successes before number of failures model failed a little bit when players didn’t, or perceived that they didn’t have skills that would help win the challenge – which meant that their participation would only end up hurting the challenge. Contrast this with combat, where even if for a particular combat one of the players isn’t very effective, they aren’t actively moving the party towards a loss condition by taking actions (as they would in a skill challenge).
So, if a good skill challenge through out some of the bad math, allowed some of the players to fail or marginally succeed without moving the party towards a loss condition, and didn’t break the immersion of the game into a relatively boring mini-game – then what about combat itself?
Lot’s of players really enjoy combat. I think the main reason is that it is often one of the few game states where the players are really risking something (their character’s life). Also, the mini-game of combat is significantly more advanced and interesting than the mini-game of skill challenges, and the math is generally more tightly balanced. As characters are often generated with an eye towards how they’re going to fare in combat, it’s rare that a player has no way of contributing.
Still, it makes me wonder what the game would be like of all the scaffolding of combat was hidden as well. Hit points replaced by something akin to “# of success milestones.” Skill challenges were simplified into using failures for their successes, but they could operate similar to combat where they simple have their own skill rolls against the players DC, and try to reach # of successes before the players can (essentially, hit points represent successes in a skill challenge). Each player can have their contribution type. A cleric, for example, removes opponent successes by healing the party. If you hide all of that scaffolding, and turn combat into a narration similar to well-run skill challenges, I wonder what that would feel like as a game.
What does hiding the scaffolding in combat look like? I think that it looks like a narrated version of combat without a battle grid. It also removes some of the very specific combat mini-game actions, and replaces them with general skills/attributes that can be rolled against using either a fiction-first OR a fiction-follows method. So, for example, the fighter could roll their fight skill, and based on margin of success, the GM (or the player) could narrate the action and result. The DCs are kept under wraps, with the players having to trust in the math of the system to provide fair results, and with the monsters using the same system, fairness wouldn’t be too difficult to balance. Hit points would largely disappear, replaced by sort-of cut-scene descriptions as the enemies have successes accumulated against them.
Such a system would take the game a step out of the tactical war-game genre and a step towards a cinematic story-telling game genre. That’s almost assuredly not the right step for everyone and for every game, but for a skirmish miniatures game like D&D 4e that already incorporates cinematic skill challenges (albeit, poorly in their execution I think), it might be an interesting way to play it.