aka: Omni Impotence
Guardian of Metal
: Me? Oh, I'm nobody. I'm just The Guardian of Metal! Eddie Riggs
: Oh, cool! So, you wanna help me fight demons and stuff? Guardian of Metal
: Nah, I'm not really a fighter. I'm more of a...keeper of timeless secrets.
Our heroes might be good at what they do, but this person is on another level altogether
. For some reason, this makes them useless
An All-Powerful Bystander is a being who is so
powerful that it seems likely they could just solve the entire plot with a snap of the fingers. They are, effectively, God
But they're not going to fix the problems facing the universe. Why? Well, there are a variety of reasons:
- It would mean breaking an Obstructive Code of Conduct.
- It's not "fair", or will end up destroying free will. This is our universe and we deserve to be allowed to live our own lives by our own rules without having a Deus ex Machina solve our woes.
- They're "not allowed". There are other All-Powerful Bystanders out there, so any action they take would be cancelled by an equal and opposite reaction by one of them. Also, they would likely punish the All-Powerful Bystander for trying anything.
- They like to see creatures expand and perhaps even ascend to their plane of existence at some point in time
- They enjoy the suffering.
- Everything they put the Heroes and Villains through is part of a plan of such subtlety and scope that mere mortals can't comprehend it. Whether or not anyone ever finds out the end result is iffy.
- They don't really care. They're gods, not the universe's babysitter. They might also see the problems of the protagonists as absurdly minor in the scope of things as they perceive it.
- Who knows? They have an Omniscient Morality License, and we can only guess at their long-term agenda.
Sometimes a Sufficiently Advanced Alien
, but most of the time, they're presented as something beyond the "simple" notion of an alien being.
Usually, they just show up to give the hero a mission and some cryptic advice
. Often overlaps with the Spirit Advisor
There are both good and evil Bystanders. The evil sort usually give you superpowers in exchange for your allegiance. The good sort do this less often, mostly just giving you a new +2 sword when you've proven yourself sufficiently.
Sometimes, on very
rare occasions, when you are really totally boned
, you might be able to persuade
, convince, or shame them into bailing you out
. However, this usually comes at some tremendous price, and "the consequences are dire". Often, so dire that you end up wishing you'd solved your problems yourself
Sometimes, the Bystander is also a Trickster Mentor
. Their advice is no less cryptic, but is at least more interesting.
The Great Gazoo
can be seen as a subversion of this character. In videogames, may be the Exposition Fairy
. The Interactive Narrator
is a No Fourth Wall
version. Compare Deism
and The Gods Must Be Lazy
. Not to be confused with Badass Bystander
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Anime and Manga
- In The DCU, The Phantom Stranger frequently comes off like this, especially when he appears in someone else's story (which includes most of his appearances since the 1970s).
- Uatu from Marvel Comics, who's bound to exactly the degree of interference that makes the plot more interesting. He is part of a race of beings called the Watchers. They are highly evolved and highly powerful but their roles are to... just watch. Even with the rare instances of Uatu doing anything at all, he's considered one of the more meddling members of his race. In no small part because of his habit of showing up in person to witness major events, even though he could watch just as effectively from anywhere else. Thus, his mere presence serves as a passive warning that something really bad is about to happen, without technically breaking any rules of non-interference.
- And to give you an idea of how powerful Watchers are, there have been a few Watchers that have gone insane and attacked, such as Aron the Rogue Watcher. When that happens, even the Fantastic Four have to call in for help.
- Played up in Earth X, where the Watchers watch but are unable to interfere as a punishment from the Celestials.
- The Watchers once tried to uplift a primitive race. Their efforts merely hastened their charges' extinction. The Watchers' Prime Directive was the result of that tragedy.
- Marvel has a lot of these. The Living Tribunal is a character more powerful than almost anyone, yet he only interferes when there's a real threat to the cosmic order of things... The Living Tribunal did not even consider Thanos' briefly successful attempt to murder half of all the living beings in the entire universe and replace Eternity as the living embodiment of all existence to be a true threat to the cosmic order, simply saying it was 'natural selection' and disappearing when asked for help by the less powerful cosmic beings.
- Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan. Played for Drama.
- Let's not obviate Professor Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, who could solve 90% (if not more) of the X-Men's problems, if he weren't too moral to mess with people's minds and get the job done.
- In Paradise X he briefly inhabits a pocket universe where he did that. It required mental control over most of the planet and he was very happy to be rescued.
- The Guardians of Oa in The DCU. On the few occasions where they have acted directly, they've been shown to have enormous power, but they try not to become involved in events themselves and stick to administrating the Green Lantern Corps.
- In the first Secret Wars, the only thing the Beyonder is missing is a giant DM's screen floating in the sky. In Secret Wars II, he subverts this trope, by taking an active role in the affairs of mortals to the extent of actually destroying Death itself. It doesn't so much work out.
- Superman is a borderline example. Most of the time, he could end his actual adventure in a matter of seconds, being a Physical God all along. He just limits himself a lot out of personal morality, or to avoid losing contact with humanity.
- In Tales Of The Beanworld, Mr Teach'm refuses to help Mr Spook catch the notworm. The problem is that because of the "Catch'm Keep'm" rule, if Mr Teach'm caught it, it would belong to him rather than Mr Spook. It Makes Sense in Context.
- Quite a few of the greater Marvel entities (the Vishanti, the Octessence, and Eternity) do not interfere directly in the workings of the world, choosing to empower magic users like Doctor Strange to be their champions and agents instead. The person can walk away, at the cost of losing the entity's mystical patronage (and thus a lot of power).
- Destiny from The Sandman. Actually, most of The Endless but this is especially true of Destiny.
- Appearing in every #1 issue of DC's New 52 is Pandora, a mysterious figure who is in a tense relationship with The Phantom Stranger after she uses Bart Allen's help to merge the three DC-owned labels into one timeline. She states after a fight with The Phantom Stranger that her powers are greater than both his and The Spectre's. Given that the Stranger and the Spectre have almost limitless power, that's saying quite a bit.
- Raiden in the first Mortal Kombat movie, who seems to pack more power in his pinky than the other characters in their whole bodies, but was unable to offer anything beyond advice to the heroes due to upstairs meddling - by the decree of the Elder Gods, the Big Bad and his minions can only invade Earth if his forces win the Mortal Kombat tournament. If Raiden interferes with the tournament directly, then Earth forfeits, meaning Outworld gets to invade.
- This runs counter to the canon of the video game series, in which Raiden fought right alongside the rest of Earth's forces. Granted, in the games he also wasn't that much more powerful than the rest of the fighters.
- In the games it is stated Raiden had to take a mortal form to compete or else the Elder Gods would stop him. He is implied to be potentially far more powerful than shown in the games and is often portrayed that way in other media.
- Played with in the film Immortals the Olympians are shocked at the atrocities committed by Hyperion and could stop him and his entire army easily. Zeus prevents them arguing that they should have faith in the mortals to solve their own problems and the gods are supposed to only intervene as mortals. This is averted when the gods are forced to intervene twice to save Zeus' chosen hero Theseus resulting in Zeus slaying Ares for breaking the law. Ultimately, Theseus fails allowing Hyperion to free the Titans forcing the gods to intervene directly.
- The Ellimist in Animorphs as well as his Evil Counterpart, Crayak are both Type 3s. Whenever one of them wants to interfere with something, the other gets to as well.
- When the Ellimist first shows up, he recounts the last time both directly acted on the universe. He chokes up a little on recounting the sheer number of species wiped out before they could ever achieve sentience. Even Crayak was stunned at how much damage they did, and ever since, both have pulled back.
- The "voice in Garion's head" of the Belgariad - called the "purpose of the universe", he and his equal opponent would destroy the universe if they clashed, and so they set up the planet as a place where their match would occur through proxies. He contents himself with sitting in Garion's head and making snide remarks about everything when he's not giving cryptic instructions.
- And the Recycled Premise of The Elenium has the Bhelliom and its opposing number in the same situation, minus the snarks (they had baby goddess Aphriel to fulfill that role).
- The Creator in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He can't enter the Land himself to deal with Lord Foul because doing so would break the Arch of Time and release Lord Foul back into the universe. He has to send Thomas Covenant and Linden to the Land to act on his behalf.
- From the Cirque Du Freak series, Desmond Tiny, Evanna and Mr Tall. All powerful enough to decide the outcome of the war single-handedly, but they're not allowed to directly interfere, or else all hell breaks loose.
- The Archive in The Dresden Files. She's almost omniscient and at least as powerful as the old gods still hanging around. She's also magically bound to neutrality and unable to take sides except in self-defense.
- There are a number of other very powerful divine beings in the cosmology of the setting, but they do not directly intervene or act because of others. A good example of this is God and Satan; they do not act in the mortal world unless mortal will chooses for them to exert some influence, and when they do the other is able to act accordingly. For example, if Satan lends some extra Hellfire to his Denarian servants on the mortal world, then the Archangel Uriel in turn is allowed to give someone else access to Soulfire.
- A good example is in Ghost Story, where an angel of death stands guard over someone, and Harry, being Harry, tells her to back off, and when that failed, to help the dying. When Harry says that making a choice like that was simple, The angel's eyes are describes as 'all but openly hostile.' It seems that some angels still resent how mortals have free will and they don't.
- An alternate explanation: Angels resent the idea that they would do anything but what they do; Their actions are god's will. Who is Dresden to question that? Add to that, the angel of death does say she will fight if provoked and while she ferries this man's soul not even Satan will take the soul from her.
- The Arisians (and particularly Mentor) in the Lensman novels are Type 4 (Nurturing). They don't intervene unless it is beyond Civilization's capability to do it on their own, as it is their goal to encourage Civilization to grow and ultimately create a life form superior to them, able to take up their burden so they may retire to another plane of existence.
- The Valar in The Lord of the Rings, who could easily smite Mordor but instead send five minor powers, and tell them not to take direct action either.
- That would be because when they did intervene directly against Morgoth in the First Age, it broke the world. They're not making that mistake again.
- Also, depending on how you interpret him, Tom Bombadil. The Ring has absolutely no effect on him. It's so far below his level that Gandalf rejects the idea of asking him to protect it because he can't understand why it's so important, and would probably just throw it away or something. The possibility of the entire forces of Mordor actually being a threat to him is only a secondary concern.
- Preservation and Ruin are a pair of good and evil All-Powerful Bystanders from the Mistborn books. They are balanced out, being exactly equal in power, though both have found ways to nullify the other at different times. Preservation sacrificed his power and most of his consciousness to bind Ruin thousands of years before the series began. Ruin then uses what little power he has left to alter a series of prophecies, thereby tricking mortal heroes into freeing him, leaving him the unchallenged god of the whole world. Preservation in turn had plans to elevate a successor...
- The Childlike Empress in The Neverending Story plays this role for most of the book.
- The Caeliar in Star Trek: Destiny. Not all-powerful, but incredibly advanced technologically, and capable of resolving the Borg threat relatively simply. However, their culture is stagnant, xenophobic and isolationist in the extreme, apathetic about the wider galaxy. It takes Erika Hernandez to pull them off the sidelines, after first rediscovering her own humanity. In a sense, Star Trek: Destiny can be said to be about the redemption of the All-Powerful Bystander.
- The Djinn in Faeries of Dreamdark withdrew from the world after a mysterious "betrayal", and neglected to come back to it to help save it from extinction, until given significant prodding.
- The Demons from Piers Anthony's Xanth series - especially the Demon Xanth. Type 7 (Apathetic). They're mainly interested in showing up each other and knocking each other up and down their little social ladder. Xanth only takes an interest in his land's inhabitants when they become a way for him to gain status, but after one particularly bold series of events (Yon Ill Wind) left him top demon, he gave his world more attention.
- The Olympians in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books can often solve the problems for the heroes with ease before said problems get out of hand. They don't through a combination of it not being an immediate problem for them, a highly flexible rule of Zeus that is supposed to limit their involvement in the mortal world, and claims that the Fates do not like too much interference whenever the first two fail.
- In The Wheel of Time, the Creator is a divinity who created the universe... and that's about all you can say about him, because that guy apparently didn't ever do or say anything after that.
- In Wind And Sparks by Alexey Pehov the gods (or their equivalent) strongly oppose interfering with mortals' free will. The Dancer, who created the world, does nothing, unless he is bored or the world is in real trouble. Throughout the cycle he just worked as a very conveniently underpriced safecracker for hire and gave several people an incomplete magic textbook. And scared one villain shitless. The nominal head god Melot isn't much better. All he does is Walk the Earth preaching his code of conduct and providing a safe place in his cart for travelers who run into him. Oh, and they both are full of Snark.
Live Action TV
- The Powers That Be in Angel. The Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart would count as the evil variety.
- Babylon 5:
- The Vorlons in general, during the middle seasons, appeared to be this at first. Subverted when the characters eventually decide they would prefer living in a galaxy without the Vorlons or their counterparts the Shadows. Reason being they learned both of them had not really been bystanders, and once their little cold war went hot, the Younger Races got caught in the crossfire.
- And Lorien.
- The Guardians in Doctor Who
- In "The Fires of Pompeii", Donna notes that the Doctor could get the entire population of the city into the TARDIS and take them to safety. Because it's a fixed point in history though, he refuses to do anything to prevent it.
- Later it is shown that messing with fixed points in history has the potential to break time, so he has a pretty good reason not to.
- In "The Night of the Doctor", it's revealed that during the Time War, the Eighth Doctor absolutely refused to get involved... until a brush with death and his latest prospective companion choosing rather to die than be rescued by a Time Lord, pushed him passed the Despair Event Horizon. With the universe facing certain destruction and the Doctor facing being Killed Off for Real if he didn't regenerate, he chose to come back to fight as the War Doctor.
- God in Joan of Arcadia.
- Knightmare has Treguard, Master of Dunshelm Castle. He could offer general advice to the Dungeoneer and his three advisors, but could not (usually) directly intervene - other than pulling the current player out of the dungeon at the end of the series.
- Jor-El in Smallville.
- Justified in that he is dead. He only can really affect Clark, or people that happen to possess a Kryptonian artifact (or manage to enter the Fortress of Solitude).
- Some of the Ascended beings in Stargate SG-1, particularly Oma Desala and Daniel Jackson (during season 6). Any Ascended being who tries to help ends up getting some sort of ironic punishment. The Ori from seasons nine and ten exemplify the Evil Dungeon Master.
- The Ori are more like an Evil Dungeon Master who decides to heap rewards on his jerkass players and send them after the players working with the DM who wanted to keep the game balanced (by not helping the players at all). Results in more than a few Curb Stomp Battles (with the show's protagonists getting stomped) even after it's revealed the Ancients SHOULD have a direct stake in fighting the Ori. After all, the ultimate goal of the Ori is to kill them.
- The Prophets in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (especially fond of "We'll bail you out just this once, but there will be a terrible price you have to pay.")
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Q, who could probably solve most of the ship's problems effortlessly, but spends more time causing trouble than actually helping the cast... though it is at some points hinted that he's a Trickster Mentor towards humanity, who just doesn't really care about how much the crew has to suffer because of his 'lessons'.
- At least once, Q offered his services to the crew as a guide and protector, and was summarily told to shove off. So he did what omnipotent beings do when offended, and sent the Enterprise halfway across the galaxy to make First Contact with an unknown race... The Borg. A dozen of Picard's men die and he is forced to beg for Q's help to escape. Of course, it's implied the Borg were already headed towards Earth, so it's possible Q just wanted to tip the humans off, while still having his fun, naturally.
- The Enterprise crew find themselves in this position several times, able to easily fix dangers and ills facing primitive cultures but being unable to do so because of the Prime Directive. Episodes that play this up might end with them fixing the problem naturally or playing up the drama of sitting back and letting people die; either way, the morality of the issue is sure to come up.
Picard: (As Pulaski insists they save a planet about to be destroyed) Do we make the same exception if it's an epidemic and not a geological calamity?
Pulaski: Of course.
Picard: What about a war? If generations of conflict is killing millions, do we interfere? (pause) Well, now we're all a little less secure in our moral certitude. What if it's not just killings? What if an oppressive government is enslaving millions?
- Star Trek: The Original Series: the Organians, introduced in "Errand of Mercy".
- Various characters in Supernatural exhibit this:
- The Trickster god, who's willing to bend time and space to show Sam how he might have to accept that Dean would eventually die and go to hell, but he's not willing to use those same reality bending powers to let Sam save Dean. In episode eight in the fifth season, the Trickster was revealed as the Archangel Gabriel. This trope still applies—maybe even more so. Instead of being a minor god, he is something (arguably) more badass—or at least more relevant. He finally subverts the trope when he helps the Winchesters to stop Lucifer.
- God Himself is shown to fit this, up to a point. It's revealed that he doesn't care about the fate of the world, but he still helps the Winchesters in minor ways.
- And then there's Death. As a Cosmic Entity responsible for maintaining the natural order into eternity he honestly doesn't care for the fate of a minor planet in the grand scheme of things, but he does give the Winchesters the means to imprison Lucifer so he can continue his duty rather than be tied to a petty archangel.
- Belial from Priest is this. A human who descended to hell to continue fighting against the fallen angel that destroyed his life. Ivan Isaacs traded Belial half his soul so he could fight the same fallen angel for the same reason Belial is fighting them, but without the other half Belial's powers are limited.
- A way to solve the Epicurean Problem of Evil is to present God as an omnipotent bystander. The question is that, if God is good and perfect and omnipotent enough to eradicate evil, then why does evil exist in the first place anyway? One of the most famous answers is the Free Will Defence: God is good and perfect, but he's just a bystander because he refuses to interfere with human free will. In this case, it's perfectly possible for him to use his omnipotence to eradicate evil and brainwash all into worshipping him, but it would be immoral. (This "morality as limiting factor" concept also goes hand in hand with other ways to solve other paradoxes and avoid the implication that God Is Evil, such as the concept of Hell not as eternal torment but as being simple separation from God caused by free will).
- The philosophy of Deism can be summarized as this trope. God created the world, but leaves the natural world to work on itself, refuses to perform any logic-defying intervention, and does not have a preference on which moral code is better. This was a popular philosophy during the humanistic, scientific culture of Enlightenment and supported by important thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, who thought that if God does not prefer anyone, then all men are created equal, while science and logic are more reliable ways to know said all-powerful bystander. The popularity was also because they were tired of the Catholics and Fundamentalists denouncing science and hijacking politics simply because they were arguing "My God is better than your God".
- Urban Arcana features Platonics, Anthropomorphic representations of a particular concept. In they low magic setting of Urban Arcana, they're the equivalent of 17th Level Immortal Shapeshifting Sorcerers. In addition to being able to cast multiple fifth level spells at will, they also have access to spells above CL 5 (Normally only available via ritual incantations). It's possible for a Platonic to cast Wish once a day if they wanted. However, Platonics are bound by "The Pact of the Boundless", which serves to keep their powers in check. Considering that there are Platonics of Genocide and War, the pact is a very good thing.
- Both averted and subverted in Warhammer 40,000. The Emperor is an immensely powerful psychic with a willpower equal to that of the Chaos Gods, but he's been Only Mostly Dead for 10,000 years and thus can't help the Imperium. Said Chaos Gods are allergic to reality (and depending on interpretation may not even be sentient), but do send out daemons and mutations to aid/eat their followers. The Eldar gods are for the most part dead, except for fragments of their wargod that go active on occasion. The omnicidal, immortal, indestructible robot gods of the Necrons, the C'tan, suffered the same fate as the aforementioned war god after their followers felt betrayed and were subsequently shot to pieces.
- Dungeons & Dragons: While gods as well as Demon Lords and Archdevils and more than one Council of Angels certainly do affect things occasionally, mostly they seem to sit around and especially not take a lot of direct action on the Material Plane for the reason of cancelling each other out. If you were too active in the mortal world, apparently, your opposite counterpart would start to take notice — so mostly they just take more subtle action, if that. The biggest offender might be Ao, the Top God of the Forgotten Realms setting, who really can't be persuaded to do anything at all unless his gods really mess up their jobs, which has apparently happened exactly once. In other words, he's so powerful he can boss regular gods around and so apathetic only the antics of gods can make him intervene, and that extremely rarely.
- Exalted boasts millions of gods and elementals but their mandate only lets them rule in Heaven, preventing even the most powerful of them from intervening in the affairs of Creation except under strictly defined circumstances.
- Dominic tries this after the timeskip in Ather City, but Dominic being Dominic, it fails miserably.
- The Sightseers from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe. According to the only Sightseer ever caught in the act, they are a group of time-traveling observers from the far future (how far in the future is unknown) who show up at seeming random to observe and sometimes record events in history. While Sightseers have been spotted (by people looking for them in historical records) at such major events as the death of John F. Kennedy and the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 outside Locarbaidh, Scotland, they've also been seen observing such supposedly inconsequential things as a little league baseball game, the foot traffic in one section of Central Park in New York City, and the repair of a bathroom fixture in an office building in Boise, Idaho. In one case, a Sightseer followed a woman through a Wal-Mart for 20 minutes, taking notes on her precise purchases.
- The Observants on Danny Phantom have found a loophole. They have a strict code "to watch and never act," but they can ask Clockwork to solve any problems they find.
- Clockwork himself counts too. His actions however stem more from boredom and an urge to tweak off the Observants by not killing Danny after all. He also sees "all the paths [fate] may-or may not- take" so he may be trying for a particular outcome that excludes constant meddling and apparently thought nothing of Danny's Bad Future until the Observants demanded that Clockwork take action.
- May be justified, given that the creation of said Bad Future may have been the result of a Stable Time Loop caused by outside interference: Danny's friends and family die, Danny in grief has his ghostly self removed, ghostly self ruins world, ghostly self is sent back in time, ghostly self sets events in motion that cause the death of Danny's friends and family, repeat. Had Clockwork not been involved initially, the Bad Future would never have occurred, but at the same time, without Clockwork's intervention, the Stable Time Loop would have repeated endlessly.
- The Dungeon Master from the Dungeonsand Dragons TV series used this trope so much he was originally the Trope Namer.
- Of the Batman Gambit variety, if the never-made finale's script is to be believed. He was apparently trying to manipulate the children into redeeming Venger, who turned out to be his son.
- There has been at least one episode where he averted this trope, and actively aided the party. This is mostly because they were facing a being more powerful than he and Venger combined, however - he was absolutely needed. And to his credit, he nearly died doing so from exhaustion.
- In one particular episode on of the kids is given the powers of the dungeon master, and uses it to almost effortlessly carry out the quest of the day. Until the last minute were he returns it for the aesop about too much power.