As opposed to the Ancient Conspiracy, which is generally in control of (at least a significant portion of) the world or planning to be so, a group with an Ancient Tradition has some tradition of passive observation or of helping destined heroes or are an Ancient Order of Protectors guarding some object of power. These are groups that pretty much stay in the background, but aren't actually controlling things from the shadows like an Ancient Conspiracy. Often big on Only the Knowledgable May Pass. It may be an Ostentatious Secret, with its existence and even its membership well known.
If a member of a passive Ancient Tradition is a recurring character, they tend to break their vow of non-interference with shocking regularity. If the tradition starts taking a more direct approach, they often become The Order.
Examples of Passive Observation:
- The Marvel Universe has the Watchers, an alien species dedicated to observing everything in the universe without interfering. Further in accordance with the trope, Uatu, the particular Watcher living on Earth's moon, has been known to break or creatively bend his oath of non-interference with some regularity to warn chosen superheroes of that world when 'cosmic' trouble rears its head.
- The mere presence of Uatu, without actually speaking a word of warning, is a clear indication that something of cosmic significance is about to happen. And most of Marvel's heroes know it.
- On one occasion, the Watchers as a group made a decision to violate their own rules: in Marvel 602, they help prevent the destruction of the omniverse, which they feel would leave them without anything to watch. In doing so, they condemn all the people and possible people of a certain reality to non-existence, which is one of the reasons why they never interfere.
- A DC example might be the Endless from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, because even though they have interfered with the affairs of humanity for millenia, they aren't evil or good, but just sort of impartial.
- The Beast Player: The Ahlyo are the only ones to know about the Dark Secret of Lyoza. They are mainly passive observers, only making sure that an ancient catastrophe doesn't strike again.
- Illuminatus!: the collective Discordian Cabal. It's implied that the ELF itself is actually relatively young, like its contemporary compatriots. They just happen to know and guard some very old secrets. The actually oldest and most mysterious organization in the book is called A.'.A.'., which is not an acronym of anything; anyone claiming otherwise is an impostor.
- Played with in the Red Room series. The titular organization is an army of agents and soldiers who protect the world from evil monsters. They're also just a branch of a larger Ancient Conspiracy.
- Most of the varied series of Star Trek except Star Trek: Enterprise have as a rule the so-called "Prime Directive". This Directive states that before a society reaches a certain technological level (usually but not always defined as approaching the capacity for faster-than-light travel), that that society is not to be interfered with in any way, or have even the existence of Starfleet, spaceflight, or other worlds revealed to them, lest it change their society. As with most "rules" on Star Trek, this was broken with impunity whenever the plot called for it, or the conditions met with the moral indignation of the observer (usually The Captain), etc...
- Star Trek: Enterprise did have two Organians (from the Original Series episode "Errand of Mercy") who had been observing the reactions of sentient species to an incurable virus for ten thousand years under strict non-interference rules. However because Humans Are Special the 'younger' of the pair intervenes to stop two main characters from dying, leading to an eventual change of policy.
- The Prime Directive sometimes means not interfering with other cultures at all, even space-faring ones at a comparable tech level. It also sometimes mandates hidden interference if it is necessary to keep the other culture existent, and sometimes specifically prohibits it even then. Some Expanded Universe materials attempt to Hand Wave this issue by treating the Prime Directive as a complete mess, drafted in too much haste as a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible mistake, and so riddled with exceptions and loopholes that Starfleet captains can interpret it to mean whatever the hell they want it to mean.
- The Ascended Ancients from Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis have a "strict" non-interference policy with several glaring loopholes (*coughAnubiscough*). They'll adhere to it to the point of just being pricks. Though to be fair, they adhere to it even when the result might be their total anihilation by the Ori, so they must really believe in non interference (or have tremendous faith in the SGC).
- The Watchers from Highlander: The Series observe the Immortals but do not interfere.
- Except for Horton's splinter group, who decide to kill them all rather than risk letting any of them get the Prize.
- In Doctor Who, traditionally the Time Lords fulfilled this niche, only interfering if something would seriously threaten the timelines. The Doctor was considered a criminal for his desire to interfere with the other civilizations. Of course they started to experience some serious Motive Decay during the Last Great Time War.
- The Keepers in the Thief series claim to be this ("Propaganda is Written by the Winners. History is written by the observer.") but in reality, often start meddling in worldly affairs themselves (preferrably, with Garret's hands).
- The Psijic Order in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was originally formed as a religious sect against changes to the Altmer worshipping traditions. Then, their entire island of Artaeum disappeared for 500 years and upon its return, the Psijics refused to discuss anything that had transpired. Their only discernible role as an organization in-game is to safeguard magical artifacts from those who would abuse their power.
- The previous information (not appearances — Skyrim was the first time they showed up in person) on them had them closer to the aiding category, in that when they Artaeum was present (it has disappeared for varying lengths of time more than once) the Psijics often served as advisers to rulers — though the Tamrielic Empire, for reasons never quite explained, did not like the Psijics taking this role, and so prohibited it in the Imperial government proper, and discouraged it for Provincial governments.
Examples of Aiding
- The Oogami family in Destiny of the Shrine Maiden train the priestesses of the Sun and Moon so that they can seal Orochi.
- Kuanjitta and her ancestors in Madlax guard Thirstary, one of the books of power.
- The Hieda family in Shrine of the Morning Mist protect against demonic forces and assist the Amatsu family in sealing Yagarena.
- The hereditary priesthood that guards Orpheus's head in the Brief Lives arc of The Sandman.
- The Guardians of the Universe who give the Green Lantern Corps their power in The DCU.
- The 2010 S.H.I.E.L.D. miniseries reveals that The Shield is not an espionage agency founded by Nick Fury, but dates back to Ancient Egypt, with a mandate to bring humanity to its ultimate destiny.
- New 52: The Stormwatch 2011 organization, which seems to have its origins in Demon Knights.
- The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- The Medji in The Mummy Trilogy.
- The Fraternity in the film version of Wanted, whose job is to assassinate those decided by fate to prevent a more horrible event from occurring.
- Now You See Me: The Eye , a group dating back to Ancient Egypt dedicated to protecting true magic, are orchestrating the Four Horsemen's performances as a way to test them for membership. Dylan turns out to be a member, and by the end, the Horsemen are in.
- The genuine Middle Ages Gaelic religious movement Céli Dé (Companions of God) seves this role in Stephen Lawhead's Celtic Crusades trilogy, surviving to the present day as the Benevolent Order.
- The Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code turned out to be this at the end of the day. All the organization is concerned with is protecting the descendants of Jesus and practicing their own brand of Gnosticism. The organization appeared to be an Ancient Conspiracy and much more powerful at first glance because it attracted a lot of bright people to join its ranks; however, the achievements of these members (that we know of) are almost always accomplished independently of their Priory membership.
- The Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised in Discworld. Their main job is to ensure that history happens as intended, although with the number of people who've messed around with time manipulation one member describes their job as mostly being attempting to ensure that time holds together at all.
Marco Soto: We're the most secret society that you can imagine.
Newgate Ludd: Really? Who are you, then?
Soto: The Monks of History.
Ludd: Huh? I've never heard of you!
Soto: See? That's how good we are.
- The Brotherhood of St. Zherneau was founded in Charis after reading knowledge about the true history of Safehold and its enforced Medieval Stasis left to them by an Adam. From that point, on they became the safeguard of that history and knowledge, and work to ultimately bring that knowledge back to Safehold. Most of Charis' previous kings were part of the plan. Upon revealing themselves to Merlin and Cayleb, the Brotherhood becomes a check-and-balance for the Inner Circle, vetting new candidates to be inducted.
- Hell's Foundations Quiver introduces the Sisterhood of Saint Kohdy. They've been active much longer than the Brotherhood, but the source of their knowledge is a journal left behind by one of the original seijins, who had only begun to suspect what had been done, so they lacked the full awareness of Safehold's past that the Brotherhood possessed. They are just as committed to defeating the Corrupt Church, and have access to mainland resources that the protagonists otherwise lack.
- Second Apocalypse has the Mandate, a school of sorcery committed to preventing the second apocalypse. Because their ancient enemy is so long forgotten that it is considered a myth, the Mandate are something of a joke among the sorcerous schools, but then again they're the only ones who still know Gnostic magic, which is far more powerful than the Anagogic magic of the other schools.
- Robert A. Heinlein's short story Lost Legacy. A benevolent secret society of people with psychic abilities lives under Mount Shasta. Their membership has included Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. They help the protagonists refine their mental abilities and fight the opposition group that wants to keep humanity ignorant.
- In the short story "The Splendid Source" by Richard Matheson, the hero discovers that an ancient fellowship makes up and spreads most or all of the world's risque jokes. (Ernest Hemingway, alive at the time the story was written, is shown to be a modern-day member.)
"That is history's secret," rejoined the Dean, "veiled behind time's opacity. Our venture does have its honored past, however. Great men have graced its cause — Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Dickens.... Shakespeare, of course.... Horace and Seneca.... Yea, in the palaces of Tutankhamen was our work done.... Scraped on rock, in many a primordial cave, are certain drawings. And there are those among us who believe that these were left by the earliest members of the Brotherhood. But this is only legend..."
- The Watchers' Council from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
- Although how much they aid the protagonists is debatable. Giles might be a good guy, but most of the time, when the other Watchers show up, they actually cause problems for the heroes.
- Game of Thrones: Founded some 8,000 years ago and electing their 998th lord commander in Season 5, the Night's Watch is by far the oldest institution in the realm.
- The Illuminati in the first Deus Ex sort of fall under this trope in the first game, as they would originally, at least according to Everett, only "influence" the world, instead of directly controlling it. They help you in the fight against MJ12, but it is questionable if their motives are any better, especially when you see that Everett has one former leader in semi-cryo to keep him alive and conscious for advice, while falsely telling him that he cannot cure his illness. The second game on the other hand, they are definitely not just in the shadows, "influencing".
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution reveals that not only do they attempt to control the world (though they're not very successful at it) but they may not even be that "Ancient".
- Chizuru Kagara, guardian of Orochi's seal in The King of Fighters '96.
- Knuckles, guardian of the Master Emerald in Sonic the Hedgehog.
- Konoha of Arcana Heart, part of a half-dog Ninja clan with an ancient pact of appointing someone as the Millenium Guard of Kamui, the Thousand Years Protector.
- In Touhou Project, Yukari Yakumo is a one-woman Ancient Tradition who only helps when she feels like it, although the fact that she sleeps most of the time undoubtedly also affects things.
- In Immaterial and Missing Power, she's a playable character. The entire incident is thanks to her, indirectly.
- In Imperishable Night, she's Reimu's pairing and thus a playable character.
- In Silent Sinner in Blue, she persuade Reimu to train for the upcoming journal to the Moon. So that she can sneak into it while Reimu and company fight the Moon soldiers.
- In Scarlet Weather Rhapsody, she's a playable character.
- In Subterranean Animism, her power is amongst Reimu's attack mode. She sponsors Reimu to stop Yasaka Kanako's nuclear conspiracy. Kanako herself is two-woman Ancient Tradition with Suwako.
- All in all, Yukari has been intervening many times to ensure that Gensokyo is a haven for the youkai. Sometimes directly, usually through proxies.
- Somewhere between the types, but more 2 than 1, we have the Archaic in Penumbra, a secret society devoted to researching aliens and monsters and keeping them separate from humanity. Unusually for this trope, they're extremely corrupt, and willing to sacrifice the lives of lower-ranking members to protect the upper echelons.
Dead workers are inefficient workers. Always wear safety goggles when handling hazardous materials, and be sure to store your personal cyanide capsule well away from Archaic-issued aspirine.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Blades have apparently been reduced to this. Originally the Emperor's bodyguards, they were purged following the Great War and now only two remaining members are left and they are the only ones with a vague idea how to fight the dragon threat because they were dragonslayers prior to being bodyguards.
- The Treewalkers in The Night of the Rabbit, who have the power of using trees to travel across different worlds, times and possibilities. They use their magical powers to help the people of worlds they visit.
- In Wolfenstein: The New Order, the massive technological leaps made by the Nazis that allowed them to win WWII are revealed to be the result of them discovering and reverse-engineering the technology of the Da'at Yichud, an ancient society of Hebrew scientists who have spent thousands of years developing hyper-advanced, seemingly magical inventions in secret. It's eventually revealed that they had begun to break their vows of secrecy and aid the Allies near the end of the war, but by then it was too late.
- The Brotherhood of St. Paul's Stole in Vampyr are an society devoted to studying vampires and writing records about them. This lead to an schism in the order when one faction just wanted to study them and the other wanted to fight them, seeing vampires as an threat. The latter ended up forming the Guards of Priwen.
- The Utrom Guardians in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) are one of these: established almost a thousand year ago in Japan, they protect the stranded Utrom aliens from outsiders.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: This seems to be the White Lotus Society's schtick. Apparently, all old people know each other.
- In ThunderCats (2011), Thundera's Clerics, in addition to acting as Church Militant Praetorian Guard, also have a more passive tradition of guarding Thundera's history, and keeping the Book Of Omens' contents and location a secret. They allow the book's existence to become mythologized and doubted, and conceal specifics from their ruler, and the people he sends in search of the book. But when an ancient enemy attacks, and the book becomes necessary to defeat him, the remaining Clerics immediately begin providing aid and information to their king.
- Santa Claus. The Western tradition of lying about a fictional person giving gifts to children is actually impressively wide spread and frightening accepted as both a matter of course without much thought or organized pre-meditation beyond trying to decide what present "Santa" gives.
- One of the proposals on how to deal with keeping nuclear waste safely buried is to create a quasi-religious cabal (an "atomic priesthood") dedicated to warning people to stay away from nuclear waste burial sites.