My argument would be that any meaning to be found in these pregenerated settings is dependent on real world templates. As an example, I've dug up an old copy of the only setting module in my library - a Harndex, from 1983. I own it only because once I was foolish and believed in imaginary worlds. I quote,
"Order of the Lady of Paladins. The fighting-order of the church of Larani, sponsored by the clerical order of the Spear of Shattered Sorrow. Both orders tend to limit their activities to eastern Harn. The fighting-order holds the keeps of Cundras and Fusumo in Melderyn. The knights of the order are currently engaged in the subjugation of Solora and 'crusading' patrols are often found there."
We are so obviously talking about the Knights of Malta and the Knights Hospitallar that one wonders why we don't just call them that? Does it really add anything to use other names to describe things that we can only comprehend from their Earthly examples?
"Lobir, King. The 3rd monarch (323-361) of the Corani Empire. Lobir was the eldest son of Kusem, and came to the throne at age 17 on the unexpected death of his father. A plot to assassinate the young king by Kusem's younger brother, Camrae, was uncovered soon after his coronation. Camrae was arrested and executed for treason. After a slow start, Lobir proved to be an able monarch. He expanded the kingdom with a series of well-planned campaigns until he ran into the Merdi, which persuaded him to halt and consolidate. Lobir was succeeded by his own brother, Raelan."
All very non-interesting. Pretty much a cliche from beginning to end. How, exactly, is this information supposed to help me in a campaign? Apart from some meaningless obscure reference to Lobir as part of a back story describing how a particular item or inscription wound up at a particular place, who gives a shit, really? If I want Lobir to have any personality, I have to draw from Earthly comparisons. What if I want more information on Lobir. Is it available? Do I have a complete family tree? Do I know the circumstances in which he died, or the place he was buried? Do I have any edicts from Lobir, or written accounts about him?
No. Not unless I want to sit down and make it up. Which really means that every campaign setting that's out there is a sort of do-it-yourself starter kit. We will get you just this far down the road and after that, you're on your own.
It might be nice if there were hundreds of thousands of words written on these campaign settings, which did not endlessly repeat themselves, from module to module. There isn't, of course. This little Harndex "encyclopedia" I purchased long ago is 64 pages. I have a copy of "Stormwrack; Mastering the Perils of Wind and Wave" here, from Wizards of the Coast, copyright 2005, which maxes out at 219 pages. It is mostly drivel, talks very little of wind and wave, has a ton of white space and useless artwork and seems to have been printed in what looks like 14-point font. Which is a good thing, as I'm old and my eyes aren't what they used to be. As far as giving me any kind of setting, it woefully suffers the same weaknesses as the Harndex 22 years its senior.
The question is, can I do better?
I think I can, but not because I'm a better writer than these people. Let me produce a lengthy example of the sort of thing I would write (feel free to zip to the bottom to see my final argument):
Your worthy guide has led you from the city of Kronstadt to this small corner of Transylvania. Your back is to the city, and to the croplands that surround it. It has taken most of the day to walk these ten miles, and to climb more than a thousand feet along secondary roadways surrounded by dense pine forest. There is little undergrowth, and little light reaches the needle covered forest floor, except that which slants from the narrow, fifteen foot wide roadway.
Now you’ve reached a low ridge from where you can see the Secuiesc Valley. You face north and see a grand bowl, twenty miles across, surrounded on three sides by mountains and low hills. Somewhere, hidden by the forest that lays like a carpet over the landscape, is the Secuiesc River. It is late September and the land is hot and dry – but you know that soon snow will fall and fill up the roads, making them impassable through the winter.
Your guide gains your attention and points his walking stick at the high, rounded tops of the mountains to the east, a range that begins behind you on your left and extends to the horizon ahead of you.
“Those mountains there,” says the guide; “That’s the Carpathians, the edge of kingdom. Don’t imagine that they make a barrier – there’s a dozen places where bands of men might slip through. And just beyond are the Turks, and their thralled land of Moldavia; there’s plenty there who wouldn’t hesistate to raid into this valley and take what they will. It’s a tenuous neutrality that keeps Transylvania independent of that Ottoman horde – the locals know it's best to let the Turks take what they want. Too much resistance might invite a company of Janissaries, ‘shock troops’ for those who don’t know the Turks ... who would march in to keep order and remain until ‘politely’ asked by the Duke of Transylvania to leave. But by then the damage is done, is it not?
“But look closely at the mountains themselves – there’s more evil in them than what the border lets in. For a thousand years they’ve been home to the decimated tribes that ended Rome and brought darkness to Europe for those Ages: Pechenegs, Cumans, Alans, Avars ... orcs and hobgoblins, hidden in mines and tunnels that go deep beneath the rock. There is tell even of more ancient creatures, deeper yet, destined one day to awaken and swell over this land, if ever they are disturbed.”
The guide swings his stick to the north, and the northeast: “See there, those hills – not as high as the Carpathians, but still menacing. And that bit of purple mountain thirty miles to the north. Those are the Harghitei Mountains, and these here are the foothills that isolate the Secuiesc from those barons in the rich plains of Transylvania. Those hills are still wild, still grown with hawthorne and cedar – and still occupied by the Nori and Alamanni tribes that dwelt here when Trajan came. No lord has ever cleared out the last of their goblin kind.
“It is hoped that the new Baron of this land will do so – he is a strange man, a mage, who came out of the East and was granted this land when a strange mist rose over the eyes of Gyorgy Rakoczi II, the Transylvanian Duke. The Baron is called Garalzapan, an Elf, who is a mage; he has brought others with him, who attend him at his tower – an Egyptian paladin, a dwarven holywoman, a powerful druid that walks through the woods alone ... and others beside. They come and go, ruling this land lightly. Many of the dwellers here are elves as well – and they embrace a religion which few in these parts recognize.”
As the guide relates these odd facts, you recall that religion has brought considerable contention to these parts. Kronstadt, like all cities in Transylvania, is ruled by a German aristocracy, staunch Roman Catholics all ... while the peasantry are mixed orthodox, with many animistic beliefs thrown in besides. Wallachia, to the south of this place, and Moldavia, to the east, are both heavily influenced by the Islam of their Turkish overlords. It is a mix of peoples, beliefs and class struggles within a weakened kingdom caught in a power struggle between the mighty Ottoman Empire on the east and the power of Hungary, Germany and Poland on the north and west. Violence is almost certain to arrive within a few years ...
Now, unlike the previous Harndex or the numerous books put out since, you are absolutely not limited to my interpretation of these facts. I choose to see the Pechenegs as hobgoblins and the Alans as orcs, attacking out of the east during the Barbarian migrations of the 4-7th centuries. YOU can actually go find thousands of words describing these tribes, and designate for yourself what their motivations were. You can also investigate the Carpathian and Harghitei mountain ranges, and the city of Kronstadt, and even Kezdivasarhely the principal town within the hex I’ve just described. You can also look up Prince Gyorgy, as he was a real person; you can check out the whole history of Transylvania, of the Ottoman empire and of the relations between. And you can research pictures on google to your hearts content ... of everywhere. You've never before heard of the Harghitei Mountains? They look like this:
I tell you honestly and right up front. I have no intention of being extraordinarily accurate. I’m not writing a thesis paper – I’m describing a D&D world. I’ve never been to Transylvania. I only know what I’ve read and I only know what pictures I happen to have seen. I am bound to be wrong. I don’t let that bother me. Occasionally I make little alterations to my world when I find I’ve been incorrect about something – and now and then I don’t bother to make the change, because it really doesn’t need to be accurate. After all, it is still a fantasy world.
But if we’re talking starter kits, we’re talking about more than 64 pages and more than 219. We’re talking about more than thousands of pages. And you can stop when you feel you have enough to build a campaign on.
I’m only offering to get you started.
P.S.: The strange Baron and the group of others who attend him? That's the party in my offline campaign. I thought I'd do this area just for that reason.