The environment and other setting concerns is something that I keep coming back to in my GMing. I want to do more with the environment and the objects around people. I want to have the area where a fight happens matter. I want the duel in the freezing rain, and during that duel I want the rain to matter. It's definitely something that can add to the thematics and cinematics of a game, but it can also be easy to bog everything down with it too. Today, I want to talk about using the environment.
Almost every system has a tool in place for reflecting what I am talking about. Fighting in the dark? Well that's a -10 to melee strikes and a -20 to range. If it only low light or reduced visibility? Well then half those penalties. Is the ground slippery? -10 to movement, or take an agility check vs a high difficulty to avoid falling on your butt.
The problem with these is putting them out there. You may not think about it at the moment, but it becomes very easy to see in action. These modifiers can very easily tip a challenging fight into a nigh impossible one. Or worse, they can make an exciting fight into a boring one where no one can get anything done. Not to say they don't have their place, but you can't just throw them all in roughshod, can you?
Aspects and Fate
The alternative take to this is exemplified by the Fate system. In FATE you can simply set a "scene aspect" that it is "Really Dark" or that there is "Frigid Rain" and the characters can choose to either be creative and do something with that or they can leave them alone. The GM can also do stuff with them, but invoking the aspects against the player grants them fate points. It helps, it works, but unless you're using FATE this doesnt help you. Also, it still suffers from the same problem of being purely mechanical.
Description, as always, is Key
My cousin John, the guy who got me into role playing in the first place, regularly amazes me with the strength of his GMing and just how good he is. Systems Ive written off as dead to me, unfun, and totally not the kind of game I want to play in he can make into some of the best experiences Ive ever had at the gaming table. The key? among other things, John has a knack for description. He isn't heavy with the spoken equivalent of purple prose, nor does he go out of his way in describing everything, but when it matters - especially in fight sequences - he just has a way of capturing the feel of a fight scene and delivering it to you rather well.
Description is the difference between a -5 for slippery terrain and "Your strike lands true, but is robbed of some power when your foot slips on the ice slicked ground." It can be the difference between receiving a -10 for being blinded and "Your eyes burn as the kobold throws a handful of sand into your vision, robbing your eyes of sight."
The key here is two fold. One, you need to be willing to describe what is going on with both your players (with their input) and with the NPCs. Two, you need to get good at not over doing it. Especially in combat less can be more. Don't narrate for five minutes what only takes seconds to happen. Often, the best way to do things, is to wait until the end of the round and then narrate what happens in a kind of recap before doing the next round.
Other Environmental Concerns
These work well and good for the simple mechanical things, but it doesn't fully address the concern. The big thing here is that if you want the environment to be a factor in your game, in a session, or in a scene then you need to put it there to be so. If you forget to say it is a sunny day then it is just a day. For a clear day this is fine, it is even assumed, but if you want it to rain you need to specify that it is raining. If you want the players to play up in the rafters you need to give them rafters to play up in. The big thing, beyond the mechanics, and the descriptions, is that you need to put the pieces on the board. Then, if your players still aren't playing with them, show them that they can be played with with your NPCs.
Do it a few times and watch what happens. Your players will get the hint.