valis wrote:I've always felt that it's critical to the setting to be fallout from radiation. None of the others even make sense.
Nuclear fallout makes sense as an explanation for the setting if viewed from a Silver Age Marvel Comics perspective, in which it's natural for radiation exposure to result in superpowers.
I think the later explanations were created because it's felt that nowadays "radiation did it" no longer suffices as an explanation, since it's perhaps more widely understood now that radiation results in leukemia and fruit flies with weird numbers of legs but seldom results in telepathy or teleportation. All the recent Marvel Comics reboots tend to add genetic engineering, exotic drugs, and/or Infinity Gems to superhero origin stories. Rather than just transforming due to exposure to the Gamma Bomb, the Hulk in the cinematic and Ultimate Marvel universes was the result of a deliberate military effort to replicate the WWII super soldier project. The 2003 Hulk movie had Bruce Banner subjected to genetic engineering by his father. In the 2002 Spider-Man movie, Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically engineered spider rather than a radioactive one—this isn't really more "realistic," but as pseudoscientific explanations go probably it's easier to swallow. In 1995 Warren Ellis wrote a parodic miniseries called Ruins
in which the various Silver Age origin stories resulted in deformity and death, and it's long been a running joke that a "realistic" Spider-Man would just have cancer. In the 2012 Amazing Spider-Man
reboot, both Spider-Man and all his villains were in one way or another tied to the mad science research of Oscorp. The Ultimate Marvel comics universe was similar, except that Oscorp was under contract to the government attempting to recreate the supersoldier program that produced Captain America, and the chemical "Oz" that created the mutant Green Goblin and the spider that bit Peter were results of that research. In the current crop of Marvel-inspired Netflix series a mysterious corporation called IGH (speculated to stand for Inhuman Growth Hormone) seems to be responsible for the mysterious chemicals that granted superpowers to Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, which might tie their powers to research involving the Inhumans. In Marvel's Earth X
and its sequels, radiation is just a catalyst that activates dormant genes originally introduced in humanity by the Celestials long ago. In the Wildstorm comics in the 1990s superheroes originated from a mix of alien experimentation, human engineering, and in a few cases nanotech.
Of course, you can look at the urge to update classic origin stories like this as the result of joykilling pedants overthinking what should be simple fantasy and just embrace the classic trope of superpowered radioactive mutants. And that's fine. That's what the fourth edition Gamma World rules (the edition I have) did, noting briefly that radiation is probably not going to result in beneficial mutations before noting that a "realistic" campaign set after a nuclear holocaust would be a lot grimmer than Gamma World is intended to be. But I don't think updating origin stories is bad
per se. "Genetic engineering did it" is an equally fantastic explanation for telekinesis as "radiation did it," but it's not a worse one, and I can definitely imagine dystopian governments or corporate nation-states creating engineered soldiers to fight in future wars, soldiers whose descendants continue to have exotic powers. Similarly, alternate realities or aliens or nanotech seem like perfectly serviceable ideas.
While a nuclear exchange would probably not gift superpowers to the survivors, it remains a very effective way to explain why civilization collapsed, so it can still be part of Gamma World's background even if the backstory is supplemented with other elements. For the most part, Gamma World PCs aren't going to know very much about pre-cataclysmic history anyway, so it doesn't matter much what explanation a GM goes with. There was a war and lost civilization of the Ancients collapsed. No one knows what exactly happened. That's really enough.