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God's Hands Are Tied
"Even the gods are bound by laws, Kaelyn."
Kelemvor, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

There's a nasty enemy out there; a threat so nasty that even the gods are helpless before it or seemingly powerless to stop it. It turns out that while the gods are vulnerable or ineffectual in dealing with this enemy, a mortal is less so. So it's up to a mortal (i.e. Our Hero) to save the day. When this trope is in effect, there will be no Bolt of Divine Retribution and the most support The Hero can expect to get is a Holy Hand Grenade.

Within fictional works this can go two ways. If treated intelligently a valid reason will be provided as to why there is no Divine Intervention. If handled poorly by the writer, it can come off as a weak apologetic excuse as to why the supposed omnipotent Big Good is standing idly by and not helping, while the mortals risk life and limb. If no satisfactory explanation is offered, then The Gods Must Be Lazy.

Examples or variations of this trope include:

  1. The gods are bound by certain rules that an everydude is not (such as a Balance Of Good And Evil).
  2. The deity in question is a benevolent God. It can do anything except interfere with free will, this includes the villains free will as well. The god can interfere with free will, but it doesn't because that would negate the purpose of free will in the first place. It doesn't want a creation filled with puppets, and thus interfering defeats the objective.
  3. The god is likened to a parent, putting mortals to a cruel test, when in actuality it wants them to grow, understand and become stronger, so they can be, like it, independent.
  4. The deity is all-loving, i.e. it loves the heroes as much as it loves the villains. Asking it to intervene and destroy the threat is akin to subjecting it to a Moral Dilemma. Like asking a parent to choose one child over the other, it cannot and will not, thus refuses to participate.
  5. The hero has willingly made a Deal with the Devil.
  6. The god has a divine plan beyond the comprehension of the heroes, and intervening at the wrong time could ruin everything its been working so long and hard for to achieve.
  7. The deity is so insanely powerful, it merely interacting with the cosmos to purge the threat, could unravel the fabric of reality and destroy everything.

Only in rare circumstances can this apparent 'deadlock' be broken, for example, the devil goes back on his word or the balance of power shifts unexpectedly.

Not to be confused with Good Is Impotent. Compare Neglectful Precursors, Omniscient Morality License and All-Powerful Bystander. Contrast with Bolt of Divine Retribution and Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter.


Examples

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     Anime and Manga 
  • While never addressed directly, this is the basic premise behind (the School Girl Lesbians Humongous Mecha plot of) Kannazuki no Miko and the title itself refers to the month of October, when the Gods were said to be away, hence Orochi was able to come back unopposed except by the two eponymous miko.
  • If a Death Note shinigami (god of death) uses his powers to kill a human in order to save another out of love, they will die. They're safe, though, if they don't care about the one they save.
  • Dragon Ball's gods seem to be bound quite a bit by this. This trope might explain why, during the Buu saga when the aforementioned Buu is devouring planets and even deities left and right that the gods don't extend Goku's one day on Earth indefinitely to give him more of a chance to fight. They eventually do bend the rules a bit to allow Vegeta to come back and fuse with Goku.
  • The protagonist of Edens Bowy is a "God Hunter" who has the power to slay the immortals and is highly resistant to their divine magic. Against human opponents, however, this power doesn't do anything.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Sandman, Dream explains that, as an Anthropomorphic Personification, the same laws of nature which empower him, also bind him. This provides a reasonable justification for why he doesn't solve every plot point with the massive application of cosmic powers, without simply making him real dumb.

     Films 
  • Bruce Almighty features God telling Bruce that he can't manipulate free will, even if he has all of the power of God. This is done either because God really can't manipulate free will, or because doing so would invalidate the reason for free will in the first place. Either way, it's one of the ways Bruce learns to appreciate what he has.
  • Dogma: God could stop the threat but is indisposed, having assumed a vulnerable human form only to be ambushed and left in a coma by the Big Bad's minions. The angels are unable to directly do anything on their own, so it falls to the last scion to save the world and rescue God. By euthanizing God's current host which is trapped in a vegetative state
  • The Back Story of Disney's The Black Cauldron involves a "a king so evil and so cruel, even the gods feared him".
  • Another one from Disney, and an odd variant of the Trope. In TRON: Legacy, Flynn practically is considered a god on the system he created...but his fallen-from-grace creation managed to out-fox him, making him a prisoner in his own creation. It would also be impossible to kill one without killing the other.
  • In The Adjustment Bureau, it could be said that "the Chairman" limits his own power by deliberately limiting the power of the agents he uses to enforce his Plan—enough so that a human with a particular level of determination can prevail against "the Plan" by his free will, and eventually convince "the Chairman" to change the Plan to accomodate this.

    Literature 
  • Everworld: Ka Anor can eat gods, but is dependent on his Hetwan hordes to handle their mortal supporters. The Queen of the Fairies even mocks the Hetwans for bringing up Ka Anor as a threat, which seems kind of badass when we see super-powered deities wring their hands over him.
    • Likewise, the Greek gods have a habit of giving mortal heroes their divine favors but not actually doing much fighting themselves—-Ares and Heracles seem to be the main exceptions, but even they're prone to refuse for childish reasons. Athena, being more Genre Savvy than the rest, tries to convince them to get out and actually fight the god-killing abomination out to destroy them.
  • This is a basic premise of Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels.
  • The Lord of the Rings is a major offender. The good gods of Middle-Earth live in the continent where Tolkien puts you when he doesn't want you to be a major part of the story anymore. In order to help the Free Peoples defeat the Big Bad, they send a grand total of five wizards. Only one of them actually does help, and the most powerful one turns evil. Wow, thanks for the help!
    • There was a halfway good reason for this; the Valar had come to help Middle-Earth a few times in person, or at least with massive armies, and every time the world went into the brink of destruction as a result. Possibly they feared that another armed intervention could cause more harm than good.
      • Just the army of Maiar blew up the sub-continent Beleriand, and if it hadn't already been depopulated by Morgoth's armies, all the Elves, Humans, and Dwarves there would have died. If the Valar themselves joined a fight, more than just a continent would be destroyed. That doesn't always explain why they don't take less physical involvement, although Ulmo does exactly that. At one point, Tolkien described Il˙vatar (God) chiding the chief Vala for founding Valinor instead of staying in Middle-Earth to help directly.
    • ManwŰ, the leader of the Valar, would help out. The great Eagles were his emissaries, and it's implied whenever they appeared to help he either allowed it or outright ordered it.
    • Two of the five (Alatar and Pallando) went far into the East where the main characters of Tolkien's legendarium never go as "missionaries into occupied lands." Tolkien at first wrote that they indeed fell into evil, but later on he decided that they may have been just as successful as Gandalf, weakening Sauron's support in those lands and delaying military forces from helping him. We just never get the chance to meet them and find out.
      • A very late change in the story. For the vast majority of the history of Middle-Earth, Gandalf was the only faithful wizard. Radagast withdrew to himself and lived with the animals instead of helping the fight, Saruman fell from grace, and the until recently unnamed blue wizards were never mentioned after they stepped off the boat.

  • Early in the Incarnations of Immortality series, the Incarnations believe God is honoring a Covenant to avoid intervening in mortal affairs, since He is good. However, Satan, being Evil, cheats and intervenes constantly. Starting in "For the Love of Evil," we find the trope Have You Seen My God? applies instead and find out why God has not been intervening in mortal affairs.
  • In the Discworld book Hogfather, Death cannot enter the realm of the Tooth Fairy, as children have no concept of death. His granddaughter, Susan, on the other hand...
    • Also, although Death can remember the future, he's constrained not to take action based solely upon these memories. In Soul Music, he has to be told what Susan is up to by Albert before he can go to assist her, rather than simply pre-remembering where she's going to be.
    • The Auditors are also limited in their actions, being compelled to obey instructions, and being constrained from taking direct action in the world (unless they're sneaky about it).
    • The actual gods of Discworld are somewhat constrained by the rules of the dice-games they play, using mortals as playing pieces. Unless they're cheating, of course. Or misremember the rules. Or they mislaid some of the pieces. Or they're too busy laying bets on what's going to happen without their help. Mostly, they're constrained because they're just not all that bright.
  • Bridge of Birds is a case where the gods are restrained by rules—if they abuse their power, they can be deposed and replaced. However, they can help indirectly (leading to more than one half-literal Deus ex Machina.)
  • Happens quite a bit in the Tortall Universe. Gods are bound in various ways.
    • In Song of the Lioness, the Great Mother Goddess tells Alanna that there are times when the gods can't intervene and it's up to human actions to decide what happens.
    • In The Immortals we find that the gods have a hierarchy, depending on how many worshippers they have. Mithros is a Great God because he's the god of war and justice. The Graveyard Hag, meanwhile, is a minor goddess everywhere but Carthak, where everyone but the Black Godnote  must bow to her. (Guess who Daine gets in hot water with.)
    • Happens again in Daughter of the Lioness: the god in question used to be a major power (and still is - in his home country) but then his people got conquered, which changed the power dynamics. He's not happy about this and has been plotting ever since it happened (two or three centuries ago) to fix it.
    • And in the third Provost's Dog, Pounce flatly tells Beka that the gods are watching their Hunt and that they have reached the point where only the actions of humans can decide the outcome.
  • Happens regularly in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where gods have ancient binding contracts restraining their behavior, but a hero can "go anywhere and challenge anyone" as long as he had the balls.
  • In King Rat, neither King Rat nor his fellow animal-kings can fight the Pied Piper, because they're too scared they'll be the one he'll use his music to control. Only Saul, who is half human and half rat-spirit, can oppose the Piper, as his hybrid makeup can resist both rat-control tunes and human-control tunes.
  • Not so much gods as Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, the Ellimist and Crayak in Animorphs can not directly (or at least, overtly) interfere with other species under normal circumstances, generally guiding their allies or followers instead. The reason is that these two beings are basically locked in a galaxy-wide Cold War: the Ellimist is good and wants to help everyone, Crayak is evil and wants to destroy everyone, and any open conflict between them would probably be very, very bad for everyone involved.
    • The Ellimist Chronicles shows what happens when their hands are not tied. If I remember correctly at least 10% of the galaxy was destroyed before the Ellimist acquired his interdimensional powers. The Cold War style battle is required to keep the fabric of reality from falling apart.
  • In David Weber's Oath of Swords, Bahzell takes the War God to task for his failure to prevent the disaster that shook up the world and decimated Bahzell's people. Tomanak goes on for pages outlining a scenario where the Light and Dark gods are at constant war all over the universe, and cannot meet directly in any given encounter for fear that the overflow of power would grind the world to dust.
    • He also notes that the good gods spend a lot of their effort stopping the really powerful demons from entering into the world. Considering that the weaker demons that can get in are a pretty serious threat even to a champion this is probably a very good thing.
  • The Arcia Chronicles are set in Tarra, a world created by the so-called Old Gods. Said Old Gods were then rendered Deader than Dead by the invading "Lightbringers", seven extradimensional gods serving an overdeity they call "the Light". Seven thousand years later, though, the Light calls all of them back to Its throne, because new dangers to It arise. So, Tarra is left unprotected against lurking monsters and it's up to the local mages to fend them off like no tomorrow.
  • The Reflections of Eterna cycle, by the same author as Arcia Chronicles, features a similar setup: Kertiana was created by four Physical Gods ("Abvenians", which means "the ones who left"), basically as a holiday resort for them and their compatriots—a cadre of godlike Guardians of Sunset who defended The Multiverse against a destructive outside force trying to engulf it. However, after the Guardians' main citadel, the eponymous Eterna, fell, the Abvenians never returned to Kertiana and it's strongly implied that they perished. Other Guardians of Sunset still occasionally visit Kertiana but they are too busy protecting all the worlds from outside threats to deal with internal troubles.
  • In the Belgariad by David Eddings the gods have absented themselves from the world because if they get to fighting with their evil brother Torak again, they would likely destroy the world. Also, everything—even the gods—is being controlled by two "Prophecies"—which are self-aware and more like super-gods than the conventional meaning of the term—but the two competing Dark and Light Prophecies fight for control of the Universe according to certain agreed upon rules, including acting through the agencies of a "Child of Light" and a "Child of Dark" (persons or even gods who exist in the world and can take action in it).
  • In The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, Screwtape explains that neither Heaven nor Hell works at all openly, at least nowadays, because Heaven wants people to pursue goodness without coercion or bribery, and Hell doesn't want people to realize there IS a Hell, because then the vast majority of them will realize there's a Heaven too and that will just encourage religious belief.
  • And in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, the angels and demons stay under cover basically to avoid escalating their conflict into a premature Armageddon.
  • Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Creator is of equal (possibly greater) power to the Big Bad, Lord Foul. But he exists outside of this creation, The Land. If he tried to enter The Land to deal with Foul directly, he would end up breaking the Arc of Time, destroying The Land. Which is exactly what Foul wants. So The Creator is forced to use proxies like Covenant.
  • The Gods rarely intervene directly in the Riftwar Cycle. This is explained partially by the Gods being bound by rules. As a result of this, the God that most frequently interacts directly with the world is Banath, God of Thieves, who is able to do so because breaking the rules is a key part of his nature.
  • In Dragon Lance, whenever the evil goddess Takhisis comes to Krynn, she always has a mighty army at her disposal, including evil dragons and flying fortresses. All her good counterpart Paladin does to stave of total destruction is to come to Krynn as a bumbling old wizard who pulls a few strings here and there, which for some reason is always enough for the heroes to defeat the Queen of Darkness in the end.
  • In the The Dresden Files there are several beings of incredible power, from Fairy Queens of the Summer and Winter courts, to God. In the realm of Fairy Queens, they can only harm a mortal who has some debt or existing contract with them. Even if they are being attacked by a mortal who has no contract with them, their attacks are severely weakened. The Queens are also limited by the fact they cannot interfere in the machinations of other Queens of their court. This rule prevents the Queen mothers, the oldest and strongest of the Queens, from stopping a war between the courts when they know the Summer Lady, youngest of the Summer Court, started the war. That said, there is nothing about not using a mortal, like the hero Harry Dresden, from helping stop the war.
    • Also, the angels in the Dresden Files are also bound by numerous laws that restrain their actions, usually aimed at stopping the Fallen angels. Most of their actions center around aiding their mortal allies, the Knights of the Cross. For example, the Archangel Uriel's job is to preserve mortal free will, not tell humans how they are to use their free will. An example of this is that in Changes, Harry's legs become paralyzed, and his daughter is about to be killed by evil Mesoamerican vampires. There are several open offers by several dangerous entities for power, and Harry is running out of time, so he summons Uriel. Uriel sadly tells him that, since his daughter's predicament was the result of mortal choices, there is very little he can do.
  • In the Noob novels, the physical gods from the Fictional Video Game were worn out by multiple events from the backstory and are still recovering several millennia later. They have servants taking care of their business instead, but their power is limited compared to what their masters used to be capable of.

    Live Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, the Vorlons and Shadows (actually Sufficiently Advanced Aliens) seem to have a pact to manipulate the younger races without going directly to war against one another (though killing members of younger races seems to be fair game). When Kosh violates this by arranging for some Vorlon ships to shoot down some Shadows, he winds up assassinated.
  • Stargate SG-1 is a prime example of this trope in the last 2 seasons. Turns out that there is an evil counterpart of their race that is just as strong as they are. Neither of them can destroy each other, so it is by all logic up to the simple human to defeat an army of godlike-powerful beings. Oh and it's also against their rules to help them, even if their own life depends on it! Otherwise they are Neglectful Precursors of the worst kind.
    • Thank you for being clear about it, but yes, this is correct. The Ancients, Ascended Beings, take their Prime Directive quite seriously, and wouldn't intervene in the affairs of mere mortals, even if it meant that all life in the galaxy was wiped out. Worse, they refuse to even turn a blind eye; anybody who tries to help out lower beings is immediately demoted to a mortal. Most notably, they refused to do anything about the half-Ascended Big Bad Anubis, even when he threatened to wipe out all life in the galaxy, and stopped Daniel Jackson from doing anything about it.
      • It gets better, though: the only circumstances where the Ancients have broken their own rules is when their own butts were on the line. Merlin demoted himself to human and began to build a device capable of destroying ascended beings. This is perfectly within the rules as we know them. This prompted the Ancients to interfere and send one of their own, Morgan la Fey, to stop him. Hypocrisy much?
      • Not trying to excuse the Ancients' douchery, but Merlin did technically break the rules. When he retook human form, he retained all the knowledge he had gained when he ascended, which is the big no-no of becoming mortal again.
      • While the Ancients were definitely Neglectful Precursors overall, the Anubis situation wasn't the horrible neglect it looks like at first glance. The seemingly intractable problem - a disembodied Goa'uld with all the scientific knowledge of the Ancients - was finally solved by Oma Desala moving directly to fight him, meaning that she would be bound fighting him forever. It started with Oma Desala breaking the rules to help lesser beings ascend, only to be tricked into helping Anubis (which is the kind of thing the Ancients were explicitly trying to avoid by not interfering). As punishment for Oma, the Ancients half-way de-ascended Anubis, kicking him out of their club-house but leaving him with all their secret knowledge and access to all their old toys, thus creating the nearly unstoppable threat in the first place while laying all the blame on Oma. Sounds horrible, but remember, she helped him ascend in the first place. All the ancients were demanding was that she clean up her own mess by facing the consequences for breaking their only rule. Then again, they also leave her to figure out this solution on her own, not once suggesting that her sacrifice might solve the problem.
      • Except that they were basically allowing Anubis to kill people in order to guilt trip Oma into sacrificing herself, which is definitely douchebag behavior.
    • On the other side, we have the Ori, the Evil Goatee-wearing twins of the Ancients, who not only interfere in the affairs of mortals, but direct them to worship the Ori and kill or convert unbelievers. They have no problems with throwing their power around, and will grant their preachers some measure of their power. When they come after our galaxy, which had, until now, been shielded by the Ancients, the Ancients still refuse to do anything about the Ori, even when they try to destroy the Ancients. Buncha lazy ascended bastards.
      • On the other hand it's implied that the Ancients are blocking the Ori from truly acting, they do empower the Priors,but they have to sneak in Adria, who was called a "cheat". Ascended beings seem capable of great feats yet the Ori don't even act to save themselves, either they were too weak or they didn't want to risk all out war with the Ancients yet.
      • Daniel says at one point that Adria claimed that even if the Ori could get the entire Milky Way to worship them, an outright fight between them and the Ancients would result in significant casualties for the Ori. It's possible that the Ancients believe that if it came to a direct battle between them and the empowered Ori, that they could have a chance of actually winning. It's also possible that "death" for a being at that level of existence means something different than it does for a mortal.
      • It must mean something different, as the possible meanings of "death" for a mortal definitely includes ascending to the level of the Ancients.
  • In Doctor Who the Black Guardian, an Anthropomorphic Personification of Chaos, recruits Turlough to kill the Doctor as he can't be seen to act directly.
    • In the probably non-canon web animation Death Comes to Time, this is a major plot point, the Time Lords can't use their Reality Warper powers without damaging the Universe.
    • As Time Lords are often considered Gods this could be seen to apply to them due to their strict policy of non-interference, which the Doctor strongly objects to. Though considering how powerful they are and the trouble that evil members of their race like The Master have done, there does seem some Strawman Has a Point. And they do intervene sometimes, notably in "Genesis of the Daleks" they sent the Doctor to avert the creation of the Daleks.
    • Their hypocrisy is emphasised in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe, where their founder Rassilon is shown to have destroyed races to prevent them ever challenging the Time Lords.

    Music 
  • A major plot point in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle is Wotan being constrained by his own treaties.

     Mythology and Religion 
  • One possible answer to the ancient question why God allows evil to exist, even though he would have the power to stop it. Even if he wanted to, it could interfere with a greater plan beyond the scope of a human life time.
  • In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the demon king Ravana was blessed by Brahma to not be killed by any god, spirit, or other supernatural being. Vishnu exploited Ravana's only weakness - he became human, exempt from Brahma's ban. This makes this trope Older Than Feudalism.
    • In the mythos, Brahma is actually the source of a lot of the screwups that Vishnu (or, occasionally, Shiva) have to go in and fix. There is even a separate myth dedicated to explaining why he's The Scrappy of the religion.
  • Occurs in Greek Mythology when the Giants attack Mount Olympus. Most of the Giants have immortality clauses which state that no god can kill them, so the Olympian gods rely on Heracles to fight the Giants (or at least finish them off after the gods have beaten them up).
    • Another version says that the Giants are immortal as long as they're in a particular country. Heracles' key job was to drag the unconscious giants to the next country, where they were mortal and would die.
  • The Qur'an accuses the contemporary Jews of the area of using this trope, and it even uses the expression word for word.
  • In the theological model of Pandeism, 'God' (or the closest thing to it) has actually wholly become our Universe, and so has given up the ability to actually intervene in it in order to experience what existence as a Universe unfolding of its own accord is like.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Exalted, when the Primordials created the world, they created the Gods to maintain it, so that the creators could enjoy playing Games of Divinity. The Gods resented their position as slaves, but were created so that they could not strike at their creators. So they gave powers to humanity and raised a number of Exalted to do the dirty work for them. The Primordials didn't see that coming...
    • The Primordials made everything with built-in restrictions so it couldn't harm them. Except for humans who were deemed too unimportant to bother. Exalted prehistory is similar to Ancient Greek creation-myths.
      • On a sillier note, the major gods in Exalted (the equivalent of the Olympians) don't interfere in Creation much anymore because they're all distracted by the Games of Divinity. These games are so addicting that not even gods can keep their attention away from them. Fanon consensus settled on calling them Everquest.
    • It gets worse. In the present day, Creation is being gangbanged from all directions by the Deathlords, the Yozis, the Raksha, and assorted fantasy monsters. Meanwhile in Yu-Shan, the gods are too busy politicking and divine-blackmailing each others, neglecting their duty. The Sidereals can't do much about them, in fact they are often dragged into divine-realpolitik.
  • The gods in certain Dungeons & Dragons settings, most notably the World of Greyhawk, must abide by specific limits, such as not being able to manifest avatars or otherwise interfere directly in mortal affairs. Mostly, this is a way to Hand Wave the question as to why the gods don't simply manifest and solve certain problems themselves, forcing mortals (such as the Player Characters) to do the dirty work. That said, in some cases the gods can act directly if their human agents fulfill certain quests-in Greyhawk's case, the goodly god Rao was able to actively banish all the demons still loose in the world once a brave party of adventurers undertook a perilous quest to retrieve one of his holy artifacts.
    • This is mostly notable in that, in Greyhawk at least, the rules come from mutual agreement made by the gods of that world, and not by the physical or magical laws of reality that bind them. The gods can choose to interfere in the world at any time if they so desire... but that's counted as explicit permission for one of their opposites to come in and do the same thing without penalty. And usually the interference of the second god involves undoing as much of the work of the first god as possible.
    • An example from Temple Of Elemental Evil: Hedrack, the high priest of Iuz, will summon his deity if the fight with the players starts to go badly. St. Cuthbert will then teleport in and take Iuz away so they can fight somewhere private.
    • Of course, none of this prevents the gods from freely providing indirect help to their mortal servants. While the granting of divine magic is the most common way this is done, one of the original justifications for Hit Points in the early editions of D&D was that at least some of the increase in character hit points and saving throws came from the increased divine favor and help they received as they gained levels.
    • Some beings that are considered gods can manifest fairly freely, such as Lolth, as she's also formally a demon and is allowed to manifest that way.
    • Fridge Logic suggests that this "hands off" approach should be problematic for deities whose divine portfolios are essentially defined in terms of phenomena of the mortal world (as opposed to more abstract concepts like "goodness" or "evil"). A god of storms can't very well both actively govern the weather and not affect the mortals that have to live with it; a goddess of love who isn't allowed to bring new couples together as she sees fit effectively can't do her job. This contradiction is usually not addressed.
  • One (unproven) theory for why clerics in the Ravenloft setting don't experience as close a connection to their patron deities as those in other D&D settings is that an "Unspoken Pact" exists between the gods and the Dark Powers, by which they've agreed to keep their respective mitts off each others' territories.
  • The Chaos Gods in Warhammer 40,000 seem unwilling or unable to directly enter or affect the Materium (unless, possibly, there is a severe instability of the Warp, or a large concentration of Chaos worshipers). They are said to have directly infused Horus with their power, and when he was destroyed by the Emperor, they fled in fear of being harmed. The Emperor himself is worshiped enough to likely be a god within the Warhammer cosmology, but he is limited by the fact that his body is still (barely) alive and confined to an incredibly complex and immobile life support machine, though its implied he is occasionally able to directly help his followers. The Eldar gods were an aversion, as they apparently took part in the war against the Necrons and C'tan. However, after most of them were eaten by Slannesh, of the three who survived, one spends most of his time in an impenetrable Warp matrix, where he advises one of the most enigmatic Eldar factions, the second was broken into pieces (though those pieces are still able to occasionally manifest to provide military aid to the Eldar) and the third is held prisoner by one of the other Chaos Gods as a testing ground for his newest diseases.
    • This also applies to Warhammer Fantasy, where all gods seem pretty much like the Chaos Gods in that they can influence the mortal world, but can't directly enter it.
  • In Scion, the gods have their hands tied on two levels. The first is that the Titans have broken free and are currently storming the Overworld, so the gods have to spend their time fighting them off up there. The second is that if they did manifest on the World, Fate would snap on them like handcuffs. In fact, that's why the gods no longer seek human worship - Fate is a bastard in Scion. This is why the gods have spent so long having children with mortals - Scions are not subjected to the whims of Fate as they are, making them the perfect weapon against earthly Titan plots.
  • In Legend of the Five Rings, it is not the incarnate kami that must accompany Shinsei to defeat the Dark God Fu Leng but rather seven mortal heroes. Shinsei's stated reason is that "fortune favors the mortal man". The unstated reason is that if Jigoku (the Realm of Evil) managed to corrupt the kami Fu Leng into their greatest champion, then what could stop them if all the other kami are Tainted as well?

    Toys 

    Videogames 
  • Interesting variant from Rayman 2: The Great Escape: Rayman must summon a god who can wipe out the pirates invading the planet. The god, Polokus, is seemingly omnipotent whilst he's on the planet, but it turns out he only has power whilst he's on the planet. In the skies, he would be more helpless than a baby, so it's up to Rayman to stop the pirates on their flying ship.
  • Grandia II, although that's a bit of a spoiler. He's not lazy, he's dead, slain protecting the world from the same great evil that's returning now. Ironically, that evil was resurrected by the former God's High Priest who learned the truth and couldn't handle a world without a God, even if the best one he could find was half dead and evil.
  • This is explicitly spelled out as the plot for Mortal Kombat 4; Shinnok, a rogue Elder God who took the Thunder God Raiden a near-apocalyptic attack to take him down before, and who successfully killed off most of the pantheon upon his return, is apparently not powerful enough to fend off a bunch of mortal martial artists.
    • The gods that defend realms suffer from this in that they're supposed to protect their realms from outside threats, but are ill-suited to it. Shown with Raiden and Earthrealm, if an outside realm makes a challenge in Mortal Kombat, the realm challenged can't refuse, and its defender gods can't take part in Mortal Kombat unless directly challenged. If an opposing realm wins 10 Mortal Kombats and invades the defending realm, the defending realm's gods still can't do anything since the invading realm will likely merge the realms, making its gods dominate and the defeated realm's powerless. This is the reason given as to why Raiden initially isn't in Mortal Kombat 3, with Earthrealm merged with Outworld, Outworld's gods rule and Raiden is out of job and can't do anything.
  • Blizzard Entertainment's games do this surprisingly often.
    • StarCraft: The Xel'Naga created the Protoss, then the Zerg, which turned against them. The Zerg either killed them all or turned them off to the whole "creating new species" idea and sent them all into hiding. Really more like Neglectful Precursors than gods.
    • Warcraft: The Titans imprisoned the Old Gods on Azeroth and then left. Considering the recent events, they did a pretty poor job at it. They did show some foresight and left the dragons as guardians, but even those weren't immune to the influence of said Old Gods. And of course the Burning Legion is led by one of them who turned evil, and they do not appear to be trying to anything about him.
    • A recent event in World of Warcraft shows that they are becoming aware of how much Azeroth has been corrupted. The proposed solution: "re-originate the planet".
    • On the other hand, there are other gods than the Titans. Elune, some of the less evil trollish loas, the Earthmother, and others are all fairly active in granting their followers powers and in some cases intervening directly. And while it's debatable whether the Holy Light counts as a "god" it's certainly very helpful.
      • Exactly how much some of the above can do is unclear however. Elune's exact nature isn't stated, and exactly what the Earthmother and Holy Light are is also sketchy.
    • In Act IV of Diablo II, the player must journey through Hell and face down the titular Prime Evil, Diablo. The player is instructed in what to do and how to proceed by the Archangel Tyrael, who is forbidden to aid the player directly. Of course, given Tyrael's pitiful performance fighting Diablo and Baal two acts ago, the player is probably more powerful than him anyway. Which is a very worrying notion, if you think about it. Mere mortals are not supposed to be able to kick vastly more ass than a damn archangel.
      • Tyrael is still a huge improvement compared to the other archangels that have no interest in saving humanity from the Prime Evils, especially the leader of the archangels Imperius who also thinks we need to die.
      • Finally revealed in III: the same thing that was preventing the forces of Hell from mounting a full-scale invasion of the mortal world was preventing the Angels from fighting back. Diablo and crew were just more ready, willing and able to find loopholes in the rules and niches in the armor. This turns out to have been good for humans, as direct confrontation between angels and devils typically results in situations like The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Valkyrie Profile is a particular offender. The entire point of the game is gathering up human souls to do the fighting for the gods.
  • Of all the series to parody this . . . the fourth game of The Clue Finders introduces Egyptian gods towards the end, who provide the main characters with magical boons to help them beat up an evil god. Said gods would fight him themselves, but the passage leading to him is marked with a sign: "You must be under this height to defeat the forces of Chaos." (And the height is forty feet, no less!)
  • In Persona 2, the conflict between the heroes and the forces of evil is revealed to be a cosmic contest between Nyarlatothep and Philemon. However, whereas the former can (and will) possess people, manipulate them, and take personal action, Philemon can only assist the heroes via the power of Persona and hope for the best. Technically, this is to mantain the position that Humanity can overcome whatever Nyarlathotep throws at them without further intervention, but Philemon's noninterference policy is very, very flawed.
  • Much of Jade Empire dealt with the difficulties of gods when it comes to controlling events that lie outside their prescribed domain. The most notable is the Water Dragon, who was unable to protect her physical form or resume her post due to her powers being limited to the production of water and guiding of the dead.
    • Also Forest Shadow, who, despite being a powerful demon, lacked the necessary strength to destroy Mother.
    • The nameless evil feeding on the psychic anguish of those who fell at Dirge could not be banished by any god for a simple reason: As it originated from outside of the world, it had no place in the cosmic order and so no god had the ability to banish it.
  • In Final Fantasy XIII, the Fal'Cie are each "bound to a single Focus and granted finite power to that end". They are not happy about this.
  • In Everquest II: Sentinals Fate, the gods cannot face Roheen Theer, the big boss of the expansion because he is the Avatar of the Nameless and can easily destroy gods. It is up to the mortals to kick him back to the void.
  • The first God of War has the Greek pantheon sending Kratos off to kill Ares for them, simply because Gods cannot fight or kill one another. So a mortal directly trained by a God seemed to be their best option. Somewhat off-put, however, by the fact that Kratos himself is a demigod.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword where we have a prologue mentioning the goddess Hylia fighting and sealing away the Demon King Demise, but while Hylia leaves things for her chosen hero, she herself is nowhere to be seen. About half-way through the game it's revealed Hylia was left crippled by her fight with Demise and could help keep her seal on her by reincarnating as a human.
  • The page quote is provided by Kelemvor, god of the dead in the Forgotten Realms setting, in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. Because he's pretty nice as gods of the dead go, he initially refused to put the souls of the Faithless into the Wall of the Faithless to be slowly consumed. However the rest of the pantheon forced him to do it because despite its evil, the Wall provides an incentive for worship: Gods Need Prayer Badly, and they're also the only source of magic in the realms.

     Visual Novels 

     Webcomics 
  • The Snarl from The Order of the Stick inspired this trope's original YKTTW. It's said in-story that some have speculated that the deities were more vulnerable to the Snarl than a mortal of the same level would've been, but whether this will have any importance has yet to be seen.
    • The main plotline continues this theme, in that the gods cannot act to affect events in the mortal realm and thus must use their agents (clerics, paladins) to get things done. Furthermore, the entire reason this world's Cosmic Keystones exist is because the gods would otherwise need to unmake reality to fix it.
    • Considering that the Snarl killed the entire Eastern Pantheon, it's no wonder the gods don't want to mess with it.
  • In Sluggy Freelance the Goddess of Goodness runs away from the Demon King in terror; she'd already lost to him once before, and that was before she spent a thousand years trapped inside a refrigerator. It falls to Torg, a quasi-ordinary human with a Cool Sword, to fight off the Demon King so they can escape the Dimension of Pain.
  • In El Goonish Shive, Immortals have near god-like power on the spiritual plane but on the physical plane they are weaker than many magic users. Due to this and the rules of their Obstructive Code of Conduct, they empower and guide humans who have magic potential when they need something done on the physical plane.

    Western Animation 
  • In Gargoyles, the Third Race have vast godlike power, but their ruler Oberon has magically forbidden them from interfering with mortal life, unless they get permission (or find a loophole that resembles permission). One simple way around this law is to temporarily turn into a mortal human.
    • Oberon himself, on the other hand, is not bound by this, thanks to Screw the Rules, I Make Them!. This is how he justifies trying to take Xanatos' and Fox's newborn son Alexander back to Avalon for the Gathering. Of course, since Alexander is descended from the Third Race thanks to his grandmother Titania, he arguably isn't "mortal life".
    • Also, as seen a couple of times in the World Tour arc, normal people can get dragged into things if they're in the area two of the third Race are having a fight in (Raven vs. Grandmother, the Banshee vs. the knight) or if they're summoned (Puck in general).
  • In the Transformers metaseries, Unicron is generally a lot more active and seems stronger than his good nemesis Primus, despite them being more or less equals, because they're both planets and Primus can't act that much without harming his inhabitants, in addition to worries about harming the fabric of reality via action that Omnicidal Maniac Unicron doesn't have.
  • Invoked in The Legend of Korra in season 2, where Unlaq tells Korra that as the Avatar she should try to remain neutral despite the tensions between the Southern and Northern Water Tribes that resulted when the North landed their troops in the South to "guard the spirit portal" and help the South re-embrace spirituality. This results in most of the Southern Tribe seeing her as a traitor for not supporting them and trying to go after Unlaq themselves, as Korra is usually just telling people to calm down instead of acting as an intermediary.

    Real Life 
  • Fiction authors in general may be essentially considered omnipotent gods of their fictional universes, since they are completely in control of what happens and what the characters do. However, they are bound by the Obstructive Code of Conduct of "make the work enjoyable", which mean no Deus Ex Machinas, no Out Of Character Moments, etc. Furthermore, if one believes I Just Write the Thing to be true, the author's control is even more limited.

God of GoodReligion TropesGods Need Prayer Badly

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