Most Role playing games, whether pen and paper, or video games, are based on the great grandfather of them all, Dungeons and Dragons.
The tone, genre and setting of the original D&D materials was a "quasi medieval" setting. So you have kings and kingdoms, knights, villages, cities, maps, trade, languages and ships.
As for the trappings of the fantastic you have dragons, monsters, and other creatures hiding in secluded places.
For magic you have magic weapons, inspired by things like Excalibur, and wizards, inspired by legends of Merlin and others.
It's a wide open setting, based only slightly on a historical template from our own earth.
It's original rules and mechanics were based on rules created for tabletop war-gaming, where large masses of men fight against each other. This means you had a lot of men and didn't feel too much loss when any of them died.
Dungeons and Dragons the role playing game is based on the idea if each player controlling only one man. And following their exploits as they grew in power to become a "Super Hero".
Now you have a handful of men versus a large number of enemies and a "general".
IF you were to set both groups on a war-game table and let them attack each other then you would have a very short lived game. The enemies would quickly overwhelm them, killing them in a short period of time.
What the "heroes" needed was a way to encounter the same number of enemies but in small groups, starting with the weakest ones first and increasing their fighting abilities before fighting the next group.
This is what led to the 3 main ideas which drove the D&D game and indeed all role playing games afterward.
The first idea was the dungeon.
Think of the dungeon like a battlefield.
You start at one end and work your way through the enemies cannon fodder, the weakest and easiest to start with. The closer you get to the other "end" the more powerful the enemies become, through the shock troops and the generals body guards till you get to the general himself.
The twisting corridors and small rooms of the dungeon are conducive tot he Heroes Guerrilla style warfare tactics of hitting small targets and getting away quickly.
Indeed the first "dungeon" was the basement tunnels of a fortress.
During a war game scenario a small group of skirmishers were trying to overthrow the by sneaking in through a back door.and through the basements, but the players enjoyed that part of the scenario so much it was decided to expand on it.
The next big thing was to figure out was how was a group of mediocre soldiers ever supposed to defeat an enemy so powerful that they threaten the world? Well if the enemy was somehow able to amass so much poer there must be a way for the heroes to do so as well. And so an "experience point" system was born, so that they could incrementally improve until they too were "superheroes" capable of defeating the enemy general.
But there was still one more problem. The heroes were still too weak. If you consider the pacing of an adventure game it becomes clear that heroes have to kill alot of enemies to succeed in their quest.
IF they walk into a dungeon, kill a couple of guys each and then run off to heal, waiting a couple of weeks for natural healing to do it's work then the enemy would clearly move more guards to that room again before they returned.
The heroes had to find a way to press further into the dungeon in a single outing.
And so magical healing was born, healing potions, healing spells and even Resurrection spells were created. No one wanted to spend years creating a character just to see them killed by some lackey with a lucky strike. For Heroes to act like heroes they needed to be able to run in heal quickly while still in the dungeon if things got really bad and move on a little farther.
The idea that:
a: massive underground labyrinths exist everywhere in the world
b: that by simply entering them and killing enough enemies and gaining enough treasure will make you more powerful
c: that if you make a mistake you will be magically healed and able to continue on
are the hallmarks of all fantasy role playing games today.
So what happens if you try to directly import these 3 things into a sword and sorcery setting?
There are many types of dungeons but lets look at the generic three.
2 of them have a "leader at the end" the other does not.
Dungoen 1: Stronghold
Whether it be a cavern complex full of orcs, an ancient dungeon overrun with kobolds, or an underground fortrees of men, these are all large areas full of beings who occasionally come out to lay waste to the countryside around them.
These fit best inot the Sword and Sorcery setting.
However an entire underground complex of creatures like orcs or kobolds does not work well. In Sword and Sorcery the hero may wander into a city in the desert full of snakemen, or wash up on a mysterious island full of savage tiger men, but these things are never a threat to the outside world. These things of the Other Side, the magical, are always hidden, spoken of in legend but not a threat to actual civiliszation.
An isolated village may mysteriously disappear overnight leading the heroes to investigate but once they have entered the "dungeon" they may not leave until the enemy has been dealt with, or if they escape, on a return to the place they will find it to be completely abandonded.
This means that the classic "dungeon crawl" with it's many repeated trips back to town to drop off loot, pick up henchmen and heal up is not really possible with these types of dungeons.
A stronghold of men works very well but again not a good candidate for "dungeon crawls". If the hereos goal is to infiltrate the stronghold and kill the leader, or rescue a prisoner, then they certainly won't be able to make multiple trips, killing off more and more guards every time till the leader is left alone.
IF they leave the stronghold, whatever way they used to get in will be fortified, guards will be doubled or tripled. If the heroes were working for a local lord the stronghold may also decide to outright attack the lord laying seige to his own stronghold, leading the villagers the heroes know and love being killed.
Dungeon 2: A wizard did it
Oh sure it may be a witch, or a necromancer, or a sorceror, or a liche, or a wizard. But they will usually be evil.
They may be terrorizing the local populance, or raising an army, or be researching evil magics.
The end result though is that they have a castle/tower/underground cave that the heroes must enter to either kill the wizard or steal something from him.
If done well this is an excellent "dungeon" for sword and sorcery.
But like the stronghold the heroes will not get to come and go as they please. Especially if the wizard is extremely powerful. After attempting to rob him they may find themselves the target of terrible magics soon after, and indeed this is the reason most lords ever allow them to lay in their strongholds for so long without molestation.
It is best to let a wizard who is not actively attacking you to his own devices rather than face his wrath. Of course hiring some heroes to do the job is certainly a way to deal with them. These heroes annoyances may even amuse the wizard as they see them as useful test subjects fo their evil magics.
Dungeon 3: Abandoned tombs/underground cities/mines.
This is the bread and butter of the sword and sorcery "dungeon".
Not truly "Occupied", the heroes may encounter one group of inhabitants without neccessarily inciting the wrath of everyone in the complex. Organization between groups of inhabitants may or may not exist .A sword and sorcery world is chock full of lost cities and tombs, abandoned shrines and temples.
Usually these places will be "lost" and the heroes will stumble across them when trying to get somewhere else. Or they may actively be chasing legends. Either way the general population will not know the location or may be kept away from it by terrible legends or powerful natural defenses, like a difficult road, or fierce jungle animals.
If they are able to keep it a secret they may be able to leave and return several times but usually when they return they will find that either others have found it, or that what inhabitants there were have left with anything of value or interest. Also possible is that the entrance will be covered by a landslide or earthquake.
Essentially it's best to think of Sword and Sorcery as a short story instead of a Novel.
The heroes enter a lair for some reason, check it out, try to accomplish their mission and get out again never to return.
Adventuring leads to an increase in power
Classic role playing game rules usually dole out some form of experience for either completing a quest successfully, beating your enemies, and sometimes even for gathering up treasure and and other valuables.
This is usually because the role playing aspects of increasing power are usually abstracted, there is some sort of abstract reward for success which eventually translates into some abstract bonus for the character in time.
In Sword and Sorcery however we are usually presented a fully formed hero, who quickly goes about their quest and the story ends with their victory or defeat.
If they do return in further stories usually something will have happened in between the stories, say spending a few years with a band of mercenaries. In Sword and Sorcery usually "power" does not equate to how many people you can kill. It is usually measured in actual knowledge and skills. Travelling the world allows you to know more about the people and places in it.
A successful thief does not necessarily have a great skill in climbing, or shooting, or walking silently, but are more likely to have powerful friends contacts and allies.
Simply knowing when a valuable item will be moving from one stronghold to another is far more valuable than being able to pick someones pocket. Having a well placed friend in a stronghold who will leave the right door unlocked at just the right time is far more likely to be successful than simply a magical like ability to climb up walls.
In Sword and Sorcery you do not gain fighting ability simply by clashing swords with alot of enemies, you will be far better served in using your fame to secure you another great swordsman as a teacher (gold works just as well as fame in these situations).
Indeed in fine Heroic tradition the weapons master teaching an unskilled student is the first step on many quests.
Fine Armour and weapons are good but knowing how to use them is far more important. Many games will merely hand wave experience gain as this type of training, suggesting possibilities for including them in Role play but people rarely take advantage of them.
In Sword and Sorcery a famous hero is often sought out by those who need something done. They do not hang around bars waiting for a job. Fame, and the favor of your lord are just as valuable as a +1 to your to hit roll all with the benefit of not being mysterious and magical.
Too often players will think of their characters as merely a collection of bonuses to attack which are useful only in ensuring that they gain more levels for more bonus to gain more levels.
The problem with generic fantasy is that once you introduce magic as being fairly available and relatively safe to use, the character will soon come to the conclusion that if everything goes truly wrong then the other high level characters working for the King will be able to step in and take care of things.
In Sword and Sorcery the Heroes are the people that are stepping in to do something, But without magic they must rely on good old muscle power to get things done, if there is an opposing army marching on them they have no magical abilities weapons or spells to wipe them all off the map. The only thing that will stop them is another army, or killing the person who has sent them.
Since that person also has no infinite sources of magical power or fighting ability it means that the heroes will have to depend on their connections, favors, information and natural human abilities to take care of the threat.
The funny thing is that these favors and plans are far more dependable than magic. If an upstart sorcerer has chosen the heroes to vent his anger on, and the local lord owes them a favor they can quickly pick up a battalion of men to march on the sorcerers tower. Human talent and resources are just as interesting as magic.
If you wish a kingdom of your own you must earn it, it will not be given to your hero just because he has risen to a high enough level, it will be won when he has amassed enough influence in the world to thwart those who would take it from him.
Now we tackle the last Trope of Classic Fantasy Role playing.
In Most Fantasy role playing games, whether on computer or pen and paper, one of the most fantastic elements (ie hardest to believe) is magical healing. Whether through potions, magic items, spells, or innate magical abilities, "magical" healing is everywhere in most fantasy games. The concept of the
Healing "potions" that players can buy at the local market is now considered normal in any game.
The reason this has gone on for so long is because, hit points, or damage points, or life points, are all fairly abstract systems which take into account fighting ability, endurance, luck, as well as a characters physical size and strength.
Even though characters have more "hit points" as they go up in levels, game masters found out that if characters are not fighting enemies of equal toughness the players would feel no excitement, due to there being no risk of death.
So the enemies get more hit points as well, or the characters fight more powerful monsters.
The problem with this system is that after the first fight the characters would have to go back to town and rest up for weeks to get their hit points back. And so Magical healing was born. Now characters could plow through a whole nights worth of encounters one after the other, by the end of the night their healing spells and potions were used up and they would head back to town with their treasure and tally up their experience points.
As you can see this type of fight-treasure-town cycling is what leads to alot of the mechanics and "game balancing" rules of the d&d system. That is because the main conceit of D&D is that there are large underground dungeons, close to town, where you can move through 10 to 20 of the rooms in a night, Each of those rooms will have an encounter or a fight, but when the characters decide to leave they are free to go.
More than that all of the other creatures in all of the other rooms will happily sit in their own space waiting for the characters to arrive in their room instead of all of them converging on the characters at once.
Now lets look at a sword and sorcery version of an adventure.
We'll use the classic Conan short story "The Tower of the Elephant" (I'm not going to look up any specifics, so if my details aren't quite spot on at least you'll get the gist of it).
First Conan hears about the tower at a tavern, that there is a huge amount of treasure inside as well as a huge sorcerers gem which is the source of power for the Towers Owner, some wizard guy.
He decided immediately to break in.
So immediately he has an objective, get the gem, and any other loot he can carry. He is warned that there are terrible guards keeping others from doing so (explaining why this place is in the middle of the city and unlooted).
He also has a time frame, he cannot enter, look around, leave, and come back again. He has to complete this "adventure" in one night of game time.
He enters the garden surrounding the tower. There he meets another thief who joins him, there are now two people in the "party".
They meet some lions as their first "encounter". Now ordinarily these lions would rip them to pieces and this would be the end of the adventure but the other thief has a mysterious powder that puts them to sleep.
Note here, this advanced thief does not have a lot of hit points and is therefore able to fight the lions, he has the right connections to get this powder to defeat the lions, something a thief would not have when he begins his trade.
The first encounter over they now climb to the top of the tower to avoid the guard who wait by the front door. They do this with a super strong super light rope the thief has acquired or made, again through his connections and knowledge.
Now they are at the top of the tower. The other thief enters the door first but is killed instantly falling back outside the door.(he was bit once by a venomous spider, doesn't matter how many hit points he had he's dead)
Conan decides to brave the room anyway and enters.
Inside is a "Giant" spider. We're not talking something the size on elephant, or even a man, but the size of a dog. But Conan has been warned by his friends death that the spider is poisonous so a single bite will kill him.
So Conan is forced to dodge and run about the room avoiding the spider until he picks up a chest and throws it at the spider squashing it dead.
So Conan loses no "hit points" and the spider is instant killed not by an attack per se but by being squashed by a bit of room furnishing,
Conan then continues on and meets a big elephant headed guy, they talk for a bit the elephant guys asks Conan to put him out of his misery and take the gem down to the evil wizards guy.
Conan kills him takes the gem, gives it to the wizard, the wizard is sucked into the gem, The tower collapses and Conan escapes, probably with a few gems he grabbed from the spider room.
And that's it. Conan did not deal a single hit point of damage nor did he take one.
That is because a sword and sorcery story is short, there isn't time for a large labyrinth of varying bizarre rooms and endless scenes of the heroes fighting yet another group of bad guys in yet another room.
Sword and Sorcery lends itself well to short episodic adventure and without needing to rely on a lot of fantastic additional add ons to make it all work.
Making it perfect for a night of roleplaying fun.
But expand what you think of sword and sorcery because yes there are swords but there is also definitely sorcery.
All of the fantastic creatures, spells, monsters, wizards, sorcerers, rooms full of treasure, lost cities, dragons, underwater tombs, and races of terrible lizard men, all of these are sword and sorcery too. It's just how they are used that is different than fantasy. In Sword and Sorcery the fantastic is, well, fantastic. It is not everyday, everyplace, regular stuff. And doesn't that make it more fun?