The Milky Way galaxy is a big place. So big, in fact, that attempting to tell its story would be a job for God
, or maybe Robert Jordan
. It's the smaller stories that interest us, the galactic mega-epic is just an out-of-focus backdrop for individual heroes and villains.
There's a big war going on. Lots of people are going to fight, many will die. It's the setting of a big epic. And in the midst of all this is...?
Some ordinary guy who can't fight really well, doesn't necessarily get involved in the war, and spends most of the story going on solo adventures while the war rages mostly in the distance, far away.
This is a very common type of plot used mostly in fantasy. Fantasy tends to involve main characters who go on adventures of their own, traveling the land and seeking out what they look for. Yet, to add an interesting backstory and create the feeling that the hero is part of something much bigger, a conflict is usually used as the backdrop. This means that while the hero is snooping around
and seeking out clues, dealing with individual perils and being chased by mostly minor villains, a big war will eventually be shown. The hero will usually not partake in it, yet, to make the hero's actions feel important in the long run, the hero will often be the one who somehow defeats the villain or whose actions result in the side of good winning, even if someone else ultimately kills the villain.
Sometimes leads to The Greatest Story Never Told
. A Pinball Protagonist
story takes it further, by not even letting the character make a major difference in the outcome.
When this happens on a smaller scale, it means The Meddling Kids Are Useless
, especially if the main character isn't the one who actually solves the problem in the end.
Contrast The Chosen One
, who is committed to single-handedly Saving the World
Anime and Manga
- In the original Mobile Suit Gundam, while the titular Gundam and the battleship White Base were state-of-the-art Super Prototypes, they were still just one ship; the story focused not on the Gundam single-handedly destroying Zeon, but rather trying to survive while the Federation forced them into being decoys while they assembled their Redshirt Army to ultimately win the war. The various OV As set during the One Year War are full of this.
- Even the Evangelions are tiny compared to the scale of Aeon War in Aeon Natum Engel. Most evident in Operation CATO where after the initial beachhead assault they get a little Out of Focus.
- Ditto in its rewrite Aeon Entelechy Evangelion, where the Evangelions are strategically impractical, even if they can slaughter almost any enemy they encounter. When the 5th Harbinger Mot, the reskinned Ramiel, shows up, it does gets lots of attention from the High Command, but mostly as a result of it nearly destroying the status quo on the eastern front.
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly takes place against the backdrop of The American Civil War. The titular characters, however, are only involved with it in a tangential sort of way for most of the story.
- Kelly's Heroes is a bank heist movie set against the backdrop of World War II. The fact that a war is going on has its effects on the story, sure, but if it weren't for all the tanks and guns and Nazis the protagonists run into, you may as well be talking about Ocean's Eleven.
- Red Dawn 1984. Obviously the protagonists are involved in the war, but their insurgency is a very minor thorn in the Russian army's side with the regular US Army doing the bulk of the fighting. Made explicit in a scene where they visit the frontlines and get mixed up in a large-scale tank battle.
- Terry Brooks' The Elfstones Of Shannara has the hero Wil Ohmsford protecting The Chosen One while she makes the journey that will ultimately save the world. In the background, Bad Ass Druid Allanon and Ander Elessedil lead the combined forces of Men, Dwarves, Trolls, and Elves against the Demonic hordes of The Dagda Mor. To be fair to Wil, his efforts do result in the end of the war and the saving of the world, and he does kill The Dragon, a Nightmare Fuel inducing monster called The Reaper.
- Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy plays on this theme, in a story about a World War Three fought only with conventional weapons, with multiple small groups of military personnel having some small impact on the overall progress of the war in various ways that collectively get more coverage than the supposed "big men" commanding the respective militaries.
- This is a theme of much of J. R. R. Tolkien's work. Part of the subtext of all his Middle-earth stories are that what looks important to mortals is not necessarily what is actually important, and the world is so big and complicated and subtle that really, only God knows (literally!) what is and is not important, and how much so.
- Bilbo is the main character of The Hobbit but actually spends the entire climactic final battle unconscious, having been accidentally hit in the head with a rock. On a larger scope, while it looks like the most important thing to come out of the war is the reestablishment of Erebor and Dale, the really important thing is eliminating Smaug as a potential ally to Sauron. And of course, Bilbo's discovery of the One Ring and pity on Gollum are both more important than even that.
- And while all this is happening, the White Council fights an entirely offscreen war against the Necromancer and forces him out of Dol Goldur. A simple tactician might consider this more important than anything that happened around Erebor.
- Frodo from The Lord of the Rings is the primary main character, but he does none of the fighting, and does not get involved in the war directly at all. What he gets is the equivalent of a behind the lines assassination attempt. Even he only manages to succeed because his gardener tagged along.
- Even in the First Age, the story looks at first glance like a war story in which the angry Noldorin Elves march to war against the Dark Power, there are armies and sorceries and great cities and fortresses...but in the end, what really mattered in the Elven war against Morgoth was to bring Men into indirect contact with the influence of the Valar for good and wisdom, and to bring Beren into contact with Luthien, and Tuur with Idril, bringing a strain of each race's inheritance into the other race.
- In the Grey Griffins books, the main characters are four kids who mostly snoop around and attempt to solve mysteries and figure things out. Other than a few times they save themselves with their own wits, it's usually adults who save them from danger. When the kids stay in a castle that comes under siege in the second book, adults do all of the fighting, while the kids simply run and try to stay alive.
- Tad Williams enjoys this trope, a good part of the cast of the Otherland novels are little heroes in a big... conspiracy and the main character of Memory Sorrowand Thorn keeps repeating how he is just a little scullion until cast and readers alike want him to shut up about it.
- The Taltos novels also have a definite aspect of this, where Vlad always seems to run into a small manifestation of some larger conflict between powerful Dragaerans and/or Living Gods. Arguably, this occurs because an audience wouldn't be interested in heroes who would be expected to solve problems easily, not to mention that it wouldn't be a very long book with them as main characters.
- Larger-scale example from Warhammer 40000: the Gaunt's Ghosts novels, where the Tanith First is mostly engaged in secondary theatres of war during the Sabbat Worlds campaign, though their side missions are usually vital nonetheless.
- Hell, this happens all the time in Warhammer 40000, and particularly with the Guard in general. Acts of heroism will likely go unrecorded and unremembered because they are happening all the time.
- In the Discworld book Jingo, the main plot has Vimes and the City Watch trying to solve an assassination attempt on a Prince, while, pretty much in the background, Ankh-Morpork slowly gets ready for a war with Klatch. Of course, it's all connected, and Vimes is able to solve the case, buying the Patrician enough time to prevent the war, Just in Time.
- Arguably Monstrous Regiment - the titular regiment is obviously part of the army, but an untrained and very minor part, which over the course of the book never actually gets involved in a battle - what it does is much more important than that.
- The Fighting Fantasy book The Crimson Tide follows the life of a boy seeking his mother, against the backdrop of the war from Black Vein Prophecy.
- Found in the second trilogy of Emberverse books, with Rudi Mackenzie and his band trekking across America while the Church Universal and Triumphant is trying to conquer or subjugate everything west of the Rockies.
- Though most of the series doesn't fall under this trope, The Silver Spike from The Black Company series arguably fits this.
- A lot of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe books fit this bill. Amidst the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe and his Chosen Men are dispatched on missions by the Duke of Wellington that see them fighting spies or hunting traitors or whatnot, with only brief background mentions of the larger war being fought. Most books would climax with some kind of battle between Sharpe's troops and some usually-fictional enemy (often a French unit), but sometimes the action finale would take place during some big historic battle.
- In roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons this is the explicitly recommended way to run games in a wartime setting. Mostly it's because with the given systems large battles are an administrative nightmare.
- Although you can run them as being a particular minor encounter within the larger fray, such as holding a trench against the zombies while the cavalry are out on the flanks...that are just coincidentally far enough out that they don't fit onto the battlemap.
- A very effective way to run this kind of scenario is to let the players be the ones who fulfill this trope. Let them take out the vital bridge, knock out the crucial communications array, or stop the evil ritual which keeps reanimating the dead to fight for the Big Bad. The common grunts of the Red Shirt Army are suffering the attrition and winning the battle, but the players are doing the thing that makes their victory possible. Video games use the same trick.
- Averted in Exalted, which actually has mass combat rules. They're still something of an administrative nightmare because the units have way more stats than the characters do, but you can run a major battle with it.
- GURPS has a similar system that (nominally) makes it possible to run a major battle. However, much like Exalted above, if a few PCs can take on an army the "little" qualification is rather lost.
- Scion Companion provides rules to make running a war scenario a bit easier... largely by turning units of soldiers into "single" characters, system-wise, a little like Nintendo Wars.
- Mutants & Masterminds uses the same system as well, by once again turning a large army into a single character.
- Averted in Death Watch, where the characters are Super Soldiers whose Training from Hell and Power Armor makes them insanely powerful compared to the common grunts of the setting. The players, when thrust into a war, are expected to undertake the mission which turns the tide and leave the attrition to the Red Shirt Army. For example, the players might go in secretly to cripple a key dropship the Scary Dogmatic Aliens are using to ferry troops just in time for the big offensive against them. Players are expected to deal with the highly dysfunctional and fractious commands of their allies' forces. War is extremely common in this game, seeing how it's set in Warhammer 40000. Large hordes of weak enemies - which really represent a mob, platoon, or maybe company, not an army - are treated as a single creature, like the examples above.
- Of all Dungeons & Dragons settings, none played this as straight as Planescape. The Blood War could involve multiple armies, each of them a variant of The Legions of Hell. Each side fields millions of assorted demonic or devilish horrors. Allies, mercenaries, and interfering groups could make the battle even bigger. Through all this wandered a small party of 4-6 player characters. When plot lines called for the players to make a big difference in the war, they usually did it by being a Spanner in the Works or a pawn in some insanely powerful being's plan. They would completely alter the course of fates of beings which - based on power level alone - by all rights shouldn't even notice the player characters exist.
- Video games which have a war in the background usually put the player character in this role. By letting the player be the one to take out the crucial target which lets the Red Shirt Army advance, the player feels like they won the battle, the game maintains its large scope, and the story can be made dramatic. In military shooters, this partially explains part of the reason why the player is so often part of a special operations force; those groups usually get those kinds of missions.
- The original Neverwinter Nights. Aside from gathering the lost Words of Power, the PC is free to indulge in countless crypt ventures, werewolf hunts, and goblin cave raids while the war between Luskan and Neverwinter rages on. This is made even more painful by the fact that in the end, the Ancient Evil baddie still manages to get her hands on the most important Word of Power before you do, thus enabling her to do the very ritual you were trying to stop her from doing by getting the Words of Power first.
- Assassins Creed is set during the Crusades, with Richard the Lionheart's army of Crusaders fighting the Saracen armies of Saladin. However, with the exception of a scene at the end of the game where Altair hacks his way through half of both sides' forces all on his lonesome most of the action is relegated to the background, with the Assassins fighting the Templars covertly in the cities supporting the war. These aren't the standard Cruasader Templars either; they basically form a fourth independent faction (the Assassins are the third).
- Assassins Creed II, on the other hand, decided to go the other way, with Ezio meddling directly in the affairs of a number of important Renaissance figures, from Lorenzo di Medici to Niccolo Machiavelli to Leonardo da Vinci to the ENTIRE BORGIA FAMILY.
- Inverted in Defense of the Ancients: All-Stars. For what is supposedly a large-scale final battle between the Sentinel and the Scourge, each side only fields a maximum of five Heroes and an oddly small number of Mooks.
- Pretty much the way Warcraft III works period. It's hard to raise a large, useful army when you've got a food cap of 100(90 before the expansion), going over certain food limits taxes your gold supply and there are units that can use 7 food (8 with the most powerful mercenaries); this probably stems from the fact that the game was originally planned to be much closer to what DOTA is.
- Played straight with Wing Commander Privateer. Although several mission sets have interaction with the local part of the military fighting the Big Honking War, and a few random references by bartenders about said BHW, for the most part the Gemini Sector has limited practical contact with the rest of the war with the Kilrathi.
- Final Fantasy XII. Most of the game's story concerns Ashe going into hostile territory with very little backup in order to procure the Green Rocks that the enemy wants to power up their mechanized forces. The true, major battle is being led by Marquis Ondore and the remnants of the Dalmascan army.
- Likewise is Final Fantasy Tactics. Ramza doesn't care about Ivalician politics or the Lion War. He wants his sister back, which incidentally means kicking Demonic Invaders out of Ivalice. His actions are vitally important to the course of the war, but not intentionally; he just kills off several claimants to the throne while fighting the Lucavi, allowing Delita to wipe the rest off the map and end up with the Princess and the throne.
- A whole civil war is going on in the background while you fight for the highest bidder in Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. Although towards the end you do start to get missions throwing you into some of the fighting of the Fedcom civil war.
- The Witcher remains this through most of the game. The principle of neutrality is often emphasized, up to the point where the player must make a choice that will put Geralt against one or all sides of a war. In the novels, maintaining neutrality becomes a greater and greater dilemma for Geralt of Rivia.
- Starcraft II has the backdrop of a new great Zerg/Human war, with billions of casualties on both sides. Raynor's Raiders stay out of most of it, spending their time MacGuffin-hunting and taking potshots at Mengsk. That is, until the final three missions, when he gets hired into participating in the human invasion of Char.
- Tales Of Innocence has a big war going on between two countries in the background, but besides crossing a couple battlefields, you rarely see to much of it and spend a decent amount of time doing your own thing.
- Bungie's Myth series also utilizes this kind of narrative. Gradually inverted as the endgame approaches, since the good guys suffer such a devastating Pyrrhic Victory your unit are pretty much all that's left.
- There is also compelling evidence that both narrators are also incredible badasses, as they survive every battle of the campaign and are then hand-picked for small elite teams that decide the fate of the world in the finale.
- Valkyria Chronicles is the story of a valiant band of militias fighting at the front to defend their country. Well, Valkyria Chronicles III is not that kind of story: The Nameless mostly do the jobs that will never be recorded in history, some of which deeply undermine the moral legitimacy of the Gallians' struggle.
- Schlock Mercenary focuses on a few dozen mercenaries in a galaxy of trillions. Of course, they do have more of an impact on galactic affairs than a random sample of a few dozen sophonts, and wind up getting caught in the middle of many important conflicts. It's worth noting that the page quote continues...
Of course, there was this one time
when the fate of the entire Milky Way hung on the actions of a few undercompensated people. . .This was one of those rare cases where a little story had a very, very big ending. Or maybe where the big story has a very, very small beginning.
- Last Res0rt has this with Jigsaw; it's pretty clear that Jigsaw is SUPPOSED to be important as she's the only non-human vampire in the galaxy, but she's still traipsing around on the reality show trying to save Daisy, even if her adventures are broadcast clear across the galaxy (in-world and otherwise). It's justified a little since she's still learning how to use her powers, and if she were any more of a threat, Veled likely wouldn't keep her alive for the entertainment value.
- One of the most well-known examples: Avatar The Last Airbender: A century-long, genocidal conflict between every nation on Earth/wherever (admittedly, there are only four, well, three, now). The main cast? Teenagers riding around having magic adventures on a flying bison. The Hero? Twelve years old (at least, biologically).
- Avatar is an interesting case; part of the premise is that Aang really needs to get involved in the war in order to bring it to a desirable conclusion, but he needs to master the four elements before he can really make an impact on it, and needs to stay out of the way of the major fighting until he is ready for it (not to mention his personal hang-ups about being the Avatar.) The beginning of the second season even has an Earth Kingdom general showing Aang wounded soldiers and trying to convince him that he needs to partake in the fighting. As the series progresses, they get more and more directly involved with the war effort (with much of the second season revolving around getting vital intelligence to the Earth Kingdom high command, and the third season revolving around implementing each side's endgame strategies.)
- Butters in the South Park movie / three-parter "Imaginationland". He even resurrects the entire fucking world using his imagination.
- There is some semblance of truth in this. In the medieval era, it wasn't uncommon for travelers from one nation to interact with citizens from another nation that they're ostensibly warring with. The rise of nationalism and industrialization mostly put an end to this, so it's a strange idea for modern readers.
- As far as specific people go, there's Marco Polo. At a time when the Mongols were the dominant power of the Eastern Hemisphere and Europeans, Muslims, Japanese, etc. were working really hard not to lose their independence to The Horde, Polo went on a trip all the way to the court of Kublai Khan himself and eventually had a record of all that he saw there put together. His account sparked a deep interest in the East among Europeans, and the resulting efforts of Europeans to consume any goods and knowledge from China, India, and elsewhere helped jump-start the Renaissance and the discovery of the Americas.