The game's introduction provides some details about the End of the World. It's a somewhat strange history that pins the specific blame on a terrorist group called "the Apocalypse," but more or less states outright that the Apocalypse was no more than a virulent symptom of a much greater disease:
Having conquered the rigors of simple survival, man was able to turn his energies to more esoteric considerations - theology, political ideology, social and cultural identification, and development of self-awareness. These pursuits were not harmful in themselves, but it soon became fashionable to identify with and support various leagues, organizations, and so-called “special interest groups.” With the passage of time, nearly all the groups became polarized, each expressing and impressing its views to a degree that bordered on fanaticism. Demonstrations, protests, and debates became the order of the day. Gradually enthusiasm changed to mania, then to hatred of those who held opposing views. Outbreaks of violence became more frequent, and terrorists spread their views with guns and bombs.That's about as philosophically topical as Gamma World gets, which is probably a good thing, but it nevertheless does put the lie to the notion that the game was simply fluff without any substance. Even as a kid, I detected a strand of commentary on the present in these words, a commentary that takes an ironic turn when one considers that the major power groups of Gamma World's present -- the cryptic alliances -- are every bit as polarized and fanatical as the ones that brought down Man's 24th century utopia. I often played this up in my games, suggesting that history might eventually repeat itself, except with cryptic alliances standing in for the special interest groups described above.
As presented in the introduction, the Apocalypse threatened to destroy the capital of every nation in the world if there was not an immediate cessation of all sectarian violence. When their demands were not met, the Apocalypse made good on their threat. This initiated a retaliatory strike against the Apocalypse, who, in turn, unleashed the full fury of the weapons they had at their disposal:
Oceans boiled, continents buckled, the skies blazed with the light of unbelievable energies.Gamma World doesn't dwell on this history, which occupies less than a page of its 56-page rulebook. Like most old school games, the history is intended to provide a thin context for the destruction of the world, one that the referee should feel free to alter or adapt as he sees fit. Of course, the default start date of the Gamma World campaign is 2471 (changed to 2450 in the second edition, for reasons unknown), which is about 150 years after the events that ended civilization. This ensures that any histories that do exist are likely garbled and incomplete, if not outright mistaken. Furthermore, all intelligent beings except androids, robots, or computers are at several removes from the pre-apocalyptic world, thereby ensuring that it be portrayed as a mythical time -- a Golden Age when the gods walked the earth.
Suddenly it was all over.
The civilization of man had been slashed, burned, crushed, and scattered to the four winds. Whether The Apocalypse had intended to completely destroy all life on the planet and had failed, or if they simply had not had enough power, is debatable. Some scholars contend that The Apocalypse voluntarily stopped their promised destruction when they witnessed the horror they had unleashed and then destroyed themselves. At the time, and even now, the question is moot.
Strange though Gamma World's future history is, especially when compared to other post-apocalyptic RPGs, I actually like it a great deal. On a theoretical level, I simply appreciate that it's a different take on what was, in the 70s and 80s, an often banal genre of science fiction. On a practical level, I think it bears much fruit. Most importantly, it sets the stage for a world that's more than just the 21st century plus mutant bikers. That is, the Gamma World is an alien, fantastical one, filled with wonders and terrors totally unique to itself. In short, it's a fantasy world and players and referees alike ought to treat it as such. I personally find this quite liberating, as it gives me free rein to include all sorts of oddities and weirdness, just as I have in my D&D campaign.