So, this is very general, but I’m making an attempt to summarize some of my D&D4 play.
The important thing to distinguish here is that what people that didn’t play much D&D4 commonly think of as D&D4 play—that is, a railroad sequence of planned encounters—is not at all what we’re talking about here.
There was genuine conflict, as often happens in mainstream publications, between the rules themselves and the railroaded nature of the published adventures, especially the ones built for organized play. However, please consider:
D&D4’s publishing model was never reliant on published adventures, not like D&D5 is now. The vast majority of first-party published content was player options. We liked to fiddle with new things.
The backlash to D&D4 from established D&D3 players caused the effect that whoever embraced the new edition was committed to exploring its rules playfully. The result is that a vast part of the 4E online community actually produced material which was play-oriented. The Obsidian Skill Challenge system I linked in the opening post is an example of that.
There was plenty of non-railroad materials in settings. Read the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, it’s one of the most excellent books Wizards of the Coast has published yet, in my opinion. It provides instruction to do situation building in Neverwinter with various factions with different conflicting goals.
Regarding me, this is how I used to run the game. I have been blessed/cursed by ADHD, and the result of that is that I cannot for the life of me read a published railroad—I get too bored. I have adapted bits an pieces of some adventures, but mostly I’ve used the beginning hooks as starters. First of all, I embraced digital tools. I’ve never, ever, prepared an encounter beforehand. I had the monster database open, selected stuff on the fly, and put it there to fit the situation. I had a couple of maps with interesting features that I also reskinned based on the situation. This open reskinning of monster blocks was very common in 4E, just as the open reskinning of powers was. All of the functional 4E players I’ve seen did this.
Reskinning in this context means applying the mechanics but changing the fictional description, similarly to how it’s done in early Champions, Sorcerer, or Champions Now. I see a direct through line to 4th Edition coming from early Champions.
I’m not going to claim that this play was particularly enlightened or successful—certainly I wasn’t as good of a player as I am now. What I am going to claim, though, is that when I moved my campaigns to Dungeon World, inspired by the lower prep necessary, I ended up having much less fun on average, and I actually attribute much of my success with Dungeon World to 4E, including the onion method as a conflict-resolution mechanic which I developed instinctively in my first campaign, inspired by my positive experiences with D&D4 and skill challenges.
Regarding skill challenges: some of the most fun encounters I had were when a skill challenge was mixed with combat. You can see in the Obsidian 1.2 rules quite a lot of thought went into integrating these. Oftentimes, a tough tactical choice needed to happen between positioning oneself to advance the skill challenge and make skill rolls and effectively fighting the monsters. That was fun, for me.
Also, I never noticed the reinterpretation of skill challenge failure to success with a cost. For me, it was always failure, but I never had a need to lead players to a planned encounter, because there wasn’t any. That change surprised me when reading @Hans’s review.