Joss Whedon stated with Firefly that the ship was the tenth character of the show. So much so that they built the full ship as two sets, the upper and lower halves, allowing filming to be done in a fully constructed ship. Compare that to Star Trek:The Next Generation where a corridor set was made to be every corridor in the ship and they had to write a scene in the engine room for the pilot or they figure they never would have made the set.
Firefly is at its core a space western and Serenity is their ‘wagon train to the stars’. So, it does have its own personality, as many objects seem to. Car people will tell you their cars have personalities, we will say our computers are out to cause trouble when they don’t work right. All sorts of things like that. But what about the world in general?
Shakespeare’s work had weather reflecting the acts of men. Bad weather any time something evil was happening, echoing the actions and giving the world a bit of a personality. Something that would work well in a role-playing game.
However, some things you can do are more than just some rain falling or thunder and lightning being very very frightening. For example, just look at how you can make use of the environment in descriptions. The mountains looming high to the sides as the party walks through a pass, sinister shadows being cast by the setting sun while a chill breeze whips around in the air. Without specifically stating it, you’ve painted a grim area for the players to be exploring in. Add some shifting rocks and various noises from time to time to really put them on edge, especially if all it is is some animals… or is it? You can make areas seem inviting, describing the pristine field of flowers glittering in morning sun, the smell of them wafting in the gentle breeze rustling through the happy little trees, to quote the painter Bob Ross. You can also use it in describing areas and creatures. For example, if you’re talking about a creature, you could say mouth or maw, you could say it is imposing or large or tall. Perhaps the trees are crowding inward, their branches making an impenetrable ceiling, locking away the sky as they explore the ancient forest.
Getting a list of types of weather and a chart of weather descriptions to go with each type of weather you can throw at people can add to the general area, as well as a few fun descriptive words and a few dark words too. A really detailed article about the role of weather in games, from both gameplay and a wider ecological perspective, has some really great examples for things of this nature; giving a bunch of good examples of games where the environment made important effects, the old colony simulation M.U.L.E. had factors of location, minerals and various other tracked things, while Civilization and SimCity the environment determined your actions of where you settle and how you defend and explore. In roleplaying game format, weather also plays an important part because you need to look at survival options, such as going through a trek in the desert without water or a winter hike in the mountains will limit options on food. I mentioned a bunch of Roguelikes like UnReal World where you need to gather food to keep yourself alive. Your PCs will need to do it as well, if they don’t have some magical way to feed themselves and clothe themselves if they were suddenly caught in a winter storm or a heat wave or whatever else.
Let’s step away from weather now and look at the rest of the environment however. I’ve touched on plant and animal descriptions, but let’s take that further. Take a city person out to the country and go camping and it can be overwhelming at first. Smell of trees and plants and possibly fresh water, the sounds of birds in the trees and animals in the bushes, even little things like hearing the howl of animals in the distance adds to the experience. I’ve considered using a soundboard at my games from time to time, usually to add music running in the background as theme, but you can use it to add sounds for the combats, various background elements for walking around in areas and so forth. Sort of blurs the line from imaginary game to a living video game.
Lighting can definitely add to the whole environment as a character, if you start looking at what that gives you. Look at a horror movie or video game and you have limited lighting, you have lots of shadowy areas for things to hide in, you have a mix of expansive areas where you can have things coming at you from anywhere and enclosed areas where you can be trapped and squeezed in. Compare this to an action movie or an adventure game, and usually everything is well lit with limited shadows, the areas are generally designed to be functional.
There are various reality TV shows where people have to face their fears, sometimes it could be as simple as dealing with spiders or heights or eating weird things in a solo experience, other times like in the game 13: Fear Is Real, there are various challenges given to groups to solve. These sort of ideas could be some challenges given to players, and while, heights may not mean much to players since their characters are only just dealing with a roll of the dice, it is a way to add some terror in will they survive. Look at mountain climbing, an extended test in most systems, there is so many chances to fall off and possibly die or at least be injured. Even without adding a monster or some other sort of encounter to this trip, you’ve already added some extra danger. You can get all sorts of ideas for great challenge in a roleplaying game, whether it be dealing with puzzles like in the movie Cube or perhaps using challenges like from The Crystal Maze or Fort Boyard, there’s even games like XCrawl where ‘the players are superstar athletes taking their chances in a live-on-pay-per-view death sport’.
If you look at some of the shows as examples or game puzzles like some of the puzzles in Tomb Raider (both the movies and the games), there are various ideas, even some unused ones. Some people might not like this one, but in the first D&D movie, there was the puzzle rooms in the Thieves Guild Maze which, admittedly, is more traps than simple environment, but you can adapt some of the challenges to be more dealing with actual environmental issues. Return to White Plume Mountain D&D 3.5 remake had some challenges that could be done as environmental, such as a room described with a mud pit boiling beneath it and a number of platforms suspended by chains from the ceiling. Every so often, the pit would have geysers going off at different times, spraying people with hot mud and doing damage, even if they were on the platforms. Have the platforms be instead stalagmites and stalactites and this turns into a platforming puzzle like this level from Aladdin the video game or the final battle of Return of Jafar. Make it seem like something you might see in places like
In closing, one thing I think that a lot of people tend to forget when looking at what the players are encountering is about the differences of the areas of the quests they are taking and how they differ from each other. Sure, they’re usually dungeons in a fantasy game, but even then, dungeons are different. Look at The Architect DM talking about the ‘foundation’ of the area. Why was it built, what was it used for? What sort of reliefs or stone carvings are there, since each culture decorates differently. Look at some of the pictures from PC Game La-Mulana or SNES games like Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, which feature different styles of dungeons with different sets and window dressing. Sure, RPGs had varied dungeons by doing different coloured blocks or having one be a ruin and another be underground and another in a forest like Secret of Mana. But with the different cultures in our world having different styles of art, of building (just look at the different types of pyramids around the world), you can give different flavour in how you present these settings. Perhaps commenting on materials used, style of design, or even giving some pictures or videos on the sort of area they’re in (if you have a smartphone or computer in your gaming area).