For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.
— The Bible
, Ephesians 6:12
These unnamed, unseen forces are pulling the strings. They can be good, evil, or ambiguous.
This trope can be thought of as a character similar to the Big Bad
. This entry refers to the thing that is represented by a character, rather than the character itself. Not all Big Bads
are mysterious enough to be Powers That Be
, and not all Powers That Be
are threatening enough to be Big Bads
Even good Powers That Be tend to rub the heroes the wrong way,
as they tend to be too distant to understand the heroes' concerns and protectorate
One variety of the Powers That Be
is the Ancient Conspiracy
, another is The Omniscient Council of Vagueness
. Another one is God
himself. If the powers are warring with each other, it could be Heaven And Hell
. Contrast Pals With Jesus
, where the relationship is entirely personal and personable. See also Physical God
and Sentient Cosmic Force
Sometimes, this term is used by fans to refer to network executives
or other forces
behind a work's fate.
Not to be confused with Anne McCaffrey
series, which has this at the title of the first book and an alternate series title.
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Anime & Manga
- Morganna the AI from .hack//SIGN was only depicted as a voice from the sky that can smite the main character and sends out monsters. In fact, it never even states her name in this particular anime series.
- The Data Overmind in Suzumiya Haruhi is the actual power behind the humanoid interfaces (Who are basically just mouthpieces, or better, agents). The Overmind is mainly neutral, wishing only to observe. There is however, another such entity called the "Sky Canopy Domain" which is more hostile. Also, there's the Agency that Itsuki belongs to and the whoever runs the time travellers.
- The dead Original King or Shinou Heika from Kyou Kara Maou could fall under this trope as well, since he has been controlling and manipulating almost every action of the great demon tribe for the past 4000 years!! Despite this, however, he is not evil and is actually working to defeat the Big Bad of the series, Shoushu. Could also fall under Ancient Conspiracy.
- ZONE in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds seems to fit this, seeing as he can CONTROL TIME.
- He also says strange things that don't entirely make sense, like giving Yusei Shooting Star Dragon so that "all possibilities become equal".
- Tenchi himself in Tenchi Muyo!. Kajishima's cosmology in general has much in common with Gnostic worldview, except that Choushin aren't really evil, unlike the real Gnostic views about the Demiurge.
- Implied about Amaterasu in The Five Star Stories.
Folklore & Mythology
- For humans, it was the gods. But then for the gods, most of the European mythologies, at least, had some version of Fate/the Fates, whose edicts no god could avoid. The Greeks and Romans mentioned it every once in a while, usually in the form of prophecies, but the Norse gods were already planning for their own deaths at Ragnarok—they knew they couldn't avoid it.
- This is still true for most modern religions. The Judeo-Christian God is probably the best example here - not only is he all-powerful and ineffable, but his original Hebrew title is "YHWH" (pronounced Yah-weh), which basically means "The Power Which Is". Similarly, in Latin he is IHVH (Jehovah) which means "That Which Is". Even in English, he is sometimes referred to as "The Great I AM".
- In NERO there are the Elemental Lords, each of which except one has an opposite: Light and Dark, Death and Life, Order and Chaos, Reason and Dream, the four traditional elements and Time which is the most powerful.
- The god(ess)/angel equivalents in the Young Wizards series are actually called "the Powers that Be" (or more often "the Powers") in the series, and the universe's version of Satan is called "The Lone Power". Occasionally there are references to an even greater Power That Is, most certainly the One (God). (If this series wasn't the trope namer, it certainly could've fooled us.)
- Above Discworld gods there are eight mysterious beings called the Old High Ones. Only one is known: Azrael, the Death of Universes.
- Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones uses this up to the pommel. The "Magids" (magicians who keep the worlds running) are supervised by the Upper Table (who are rarely seen) who are in turn supervised by Them Up There. There is also known to be more above Them Up There but they are so secretive no one even knows what they're called (or something like that, I'm not entirely certain).
- In the Anne McCaffrey /Elizabeth Ann Scarborough Petaybee book series, the Big Bad of the Powers Trilogy, the Intergal company, are called the Powers That Be, or PTB for short, by the native inhabitants of the world, named Petaybee, a play on PTB, as they were settled there when their ancestral lands on Earth were too valuable for them to be left there.
- The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien's legendarium in general) has the Valar, who are essentially angels. A variation in that they are bound in the world. However, above and beyond them is Eru Ilúvatar (who is implied to intervene at 'the end of all hope' when Frodo's will fails in The Return of the King, and is described thusly in The Book of Lost Tales:
Eriol: Who was Ilúvatar? Was he of the Gods?
Rúmil:' Nay, that he was not, for he made them. Ilúvatar is the Lord for Always who dwells beyond the world; who made it and is not of it nor in it, but loves it.
- In S. M. Stirling's Emberverse the Change turns out to have been caused by what's best described as the Universal Mind having an argument with itself and coming up with the least awful option. Mind you this least awful option resulted in the worldwide collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions.
- In The Acts Of Caine, most of Overworld's Devotional Powers such as Khryl are examples of this trope, as well as the Outer Powers like the God of the Black Knives (a.k.a. the Smoke God). On Earth, the Blind God is also one of these.
- In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero's Daughter, the Lady Miranda serves is one of these.
Live Action TV
- In WCW, during 1999 and some of 2000 when Vince Russo became the man in charge, the ruling force was literally named on air as the "Powers That Be". Russo came out on TV finally in April of 2000 during WCW Monday Nitro to put a face to the actual body of power.
- In Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the plot is dominated by Keikobad, the King of the Spirits. The character never appears in person but it his Leitmotif with which the opera opens.
- The Dark Powers of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. They are mysterious and incredibly powerful. (Powerful enough to, through sheer power or some kind of deal, shut the Gods themselves out of Ravenloft.) The 2E version of the Campaign Setting actually had separate arguments printed for them being Good, Evil or Neutral. Although most information leads towards Evil. Their MO is mostly to punish evil... by giving someone exactly what they wish for and precisely what they do not want. Attention-seeking manipulative child? Gets mind control powers that don't work on anyone he loves AND a corresponding curse that makes anyone he loves see him as repulsive. Wizard-King seeking to live forever to master every aspect of magic? Turning into a lich, but as a side-effect cannot learn any new spells. And so forth.
- The Planescape setting is literately centered around the city of Sigil, located at the very center of The Multiverse and the only place where gods can not go and that has magical portals to every place that exists. While the city is basically pure anarchy and populated by mortals, angels, demons, undead, and even weirder beings, there is also The Lady of Pain, which is customarily considered its supreme ruler. She's unusual in that she's both a definite and well known being and that she's frequently seen physically wandering the streets of the city, but almost everything about her is a complete mystery. She appears as a completely silent figure in long robes and an intricate metal mask that covers all of her features and nobody has any clue what she is, how she came to Sigil, or what she actually does! All she does is silently floating through the streets, which causes people to also call her simply "her Serenity". Only when someone actively tries to shift the status quo of Sigil or attempting to take control over its portals, or some fool starts to worship her does she appear to the offender and causes him to be ripped apart by her shadow, to silently continue floating down the roads. While the Planescape setting is actually highly developed, the writers intentionally left the Lady's identity completly open, stating that there is no truth the players could ever hope to unveil. This doesn't stop characters within the setting to come up with theories that range from an ancient over-deity to three squirrels standing on each other shoulders dressed in a robe and using a simple levitation trinket.
- The Messengers from Hunter: The Reckoning. They imbue mortals with superpowers and give them the ability to see the monsters that harrow humanity every day. On the other hand, sometimes the Imbuing goes very wrong, and hunters who grow more powerful also start losing their grip until the Messengers take over and use them as puppets.
- There are a few hints to their nature spread throughout Demon:The Fallen. Namely, that it's angels, or Lucifer, that imbues Hunters.
- The "Hunter Storyteller's Guide" has the canonical truth: they are actually servants of the Ministers, the Ebon Dragon and the Scarlet Queen, the sentient manifestations of Yin and Yang.
- The Great Beings have recently started to fill this role in BIONICLE. Previously, we have had named characters such as Artakha, Tren Krom, and The Order of Mata Nui filling a similar role, often manipulating the heroes without really letting them know what's going on. However, we now have a web serial titled "The Powers That Be" which revolves around some of these beings getting violently murdered.
- God Of War takes this trope a step further by having the main protagonist kill the forces that be by essentially becoming one by the time the plot ties up.
- The "entity", referenced only obliquely in Chrono Trigger, oddly enough plays no role at all in the story. In the sequel, the all-seeing FATE plays a much larger role.
- While they leave it vague, the "entity" is actually the planet. It's what opened the time gates, leading the heroes to eventually defeat Lavos. The main conflict in the game is essentially "the planet vs Lavos." The "entity" reprises its role in Chrono Cross by summoning Dinopolis to defend itself against FATE, only this time it fails.
- Silent Hill, where it is never clear what's causing all strange events.
- Nexus War originally did this with the nine Elder Powers, but in later versions they became less mysterious to the point of becoming prone to Level Grinding.
- The Powers That Be were your bosses in Afterlife, although they were decidedly hands-off.
- The Precursors from the Jak and Daxter series were an ancient race that have Physical God status, but they're rarely ever seen in person unless you count Daxter, who's been there since the first game.
- Half-Life, where the G-man and his "employers" manipulate minor but crucial things to their own ends. However, as seen in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, these powers are not all powerful.
- The Reapers from Mass Effect. Oh, they're bastards, but their level of technology is beyond even the furthest reaches of the most advanced galactic science, they have almost completely inscrutable motives, they inspire superstitious awe and they've dictated the development of space-sparing civilisation for untold billions of years. And they had a creator, who fulfils this trope to the letter.
- The Elder Gods in Mortal Kombat.
- In spite of trying to come across as this, the Seven Deities from Asura's Wrath are not this trope, though they are practically Physical God's of varying power. The real example is Chakravartin, who's a Big Bad example of this. Asura kills him and destroys Naraka, Chakravartin's home plane, with a massive punch.
- Igor, proprietor of the Velvet Room in all the Persona games, serves as a sincerely helpful aide to the heroes, among them handling the critical mechanic of Persona fusion. While his advice on any given situation will be obtuse or cryptic more often than not, he always serves to steer the main character in the right way.
- If we go even further up the cosmic power scale, there's his boss Philemon, the embodiment of mankind's good and constructive side, and Nyarlathotep, the embodiment of mankind's evil and destructive impulses.
- In Dishonored, there's the Outsider, an ancient, possibly omnipotent, possibly omniscient, definitely non-human (though human-looking) entity who manifests every now and then to grant powerful magic abilities to certain pivotal individuals. He states that he gives gifts only to those he deems "interesting" - whether that individual will use them for good or evil explicitly doesn't enter into the matter, and he doesn't influence them either way. Just about everything else about him, his nature, what he represents, and the realm he inhabits is unknown.
- Shin Megami Tensei: Similar to Philemon and Nyaralathothep of their tangential Persona universe, Lucifer and YHVH are the Powers That Be of the series proper (and a few others), whose constant schemes for dominance either directly cause or try to exploit each game's central conflict. Although all MegaTen Gods are arguably immortal by default, the size of their human fanbase determines their power; Lucifer and YHVH, on the other hand, each only need one sentient life form who desires their respective thesis to continue existing; hence their neverending battle.
- In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, TAROT is an Ancient Conspiracy started originally to take over the world's economy... and they've been more successful in doing just that than anyone suspects. Their unlimited wealth and influence makes them much more than just the criminal empire most superheroes see them as, to the point that they've been able to decide not only important things like who will win an election (they put George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in office, among other politicians worldwide), but they can decide little things like what movies will win an Oscar, or what clothing style trends will become popular.
- In the Whateley Universe, there probably are Powers That Be interfering in some of the character's lives, but no-one has definite proof or any idea of who they might be. And neither do the characters. The authors might, though.
- To Boldly Flee introduced the Plot Hole to the Channel Awesome Universe as a sort of all-powerful entity capable of destroying the universe should it destabilize. The source of it's stability is a single person, who acts as a balancing force and prevents further damage to the Plot by seeking to minimalize the Plot Holes that form due o everyday life in the verse. The current holder of that position is Douchy McNitpick.