All-Powerful Bystander

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Guardian of Metal: Me? Oh, I'm nobody. I'm just The Guardian of Metal!
Eddie Riggs: Oh, cool! So, you wanna help me fight demons and stuff?

Guardian of Metal: Nah, I'm not really a fighter. I'm more of a...keeper of timeless secrets.

Our heroes might be good at what they do, but this person is on another level altogether. For some reason, this makes them useless.

An All-Powerful Bystander is a being who is so powerful that it seems likely they could just solve the entire plot with a snap of the fingers. They are, effectively, God.

But they're not going to fix the problems facing the universe. Why? Well, there are a variety of reasons:

  • It would mean breaking an Obstructive Code of Conduct.
  • It's not "fair". This is our universe and we deserve to be allowed to live our own lives by our own rules without having a Deus Ex Machina solve our woes.
  • They're "not allowed". There are other All Powerful Bystanders out there, so any action they take would be rendered null and void by an equal and opposite reaction by one of them. Also, they would likely punish the All-Powerful Bystander for trying anything.
  • They like to see creatures expand and perhaps even ascend to their plane of existence at some point in time
  • They enjoy the suffering.
  • Everything they put the Heroes and Villains through is part of a Plan of such subtlety and scope that mere mortals can't comprehend it. Whether or not anyone ever finds out the end result is iffy.
  • They don't really care. They're gods, not the universe's babysitter.

Sometimes a Sufficiently Advanced Alien, but most of the time, they're presented as something beyond the "simple" notion of an alien being.

Usually, they just show up to give the hero a mission and some cryptic advice. Often overlaps with the Spirit Advisor.

There are both good and evil Bystanders. The evil sort usually give you superpowers in exchange for your allegiance. The good sort do this less often, mostly just giving you a new +2 sword when you've proven yourself sufficiently.

Sometimes, on very rare occasions, when you are really totally boned, you might be able to persuade, convince, or shame them into bailing you out. However, this usually comes at some tremendous price, and "the consequences are dire". Often, so dire that you end up wishing you'd solved your problems yourself.

Sometimes, the Bystander is also a Trickster Mentor. Their advice is no less cryptic, but is at least more interesting.

The Great Gazoo can be seen as a subversion of this character. In videogames, may be the Exposition Fairy. The Interactive Narrator is a No Fourth Wall version. The Gods Must Be Lazy is a similar trope applied to actual gods. Not to be confused with Badass Bystander.

Examples of All-Powerful Bystander include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Ryuk, from Death Note. He could use his shinigami eyes to kill L and solve all of Light's problems at any moment, but chooses not to. This is because, in his own words, "Humans are so interesting."
  • Yuuko Ichihara from xxxHolic is the All-Powerful Bystander for a collection of universes or "dimensions", she's knows all or nearly so and is capable of granting any wish... for a price, she has stated that something terrible would happen if she doesn't take some payment of the same value and thus her usefulness gets massively handicapped.
    • Expanded on when Watanuki takes over the job from her. He keeps undercharging, and gets mysterious injuries proportional in severity to how much he undercharges.
  • Seijuro Hiko from Rurouni Kenshin taught the main character every sword skill he knows, except that, unlike Kenshin, Hiko's got the raw muscular power to use Hiten Mitsurigi style to its fullest, and doesn't bother with Kenshin's Thou Shalt Not Kill philosophy. The author stated outright that Hiko was far too powerful for anyone else in the series to handle. That's why he was made too apathetic and anti-social to ever go after the Big Bads himself.
  • Evangeline in Mahou Sensei Negima. She's quite possibly the most powerful character to make an appearance yet (curbstomping a demon god and Fate Averruncus, who Rakan was only slightly better than) yet is completely disinterested in helping out (though she has the excuse of being under a Power Limiter most of the time). In fact, she stops the headmaster from interfering during Mahorafest and makes him sit on the sidelines and watch the events unfold!
    • This is only valid during the Mahorafest Arc. After that, she becomes a much more active ally.
  • Kisuke Urahara from Bleach definitely qualifies as an All-Powerful Bystander. He has incredible powers as a former Soul Reaper and yet it seems that he prefers to sit by and let Ichigo and the others do all the work.
    • The Fake Karakura Town arc would have been much shorter and less painful for all concerned had Yamamoto actually intervened more than once (taking out the monster of Harribel's fraccion). Somewhat justified in that he needed to prepare his own attack on Aizen, and was quite probably expecting his subordinates to fall, one way or another, before he took the Big Bad on. He then makes good on his Badass Boast about having been the gotei 13's commander for a millennium.
  • Seravy from Akazukin Chacha. By far, the most powerful character in the series, he was able already to unconsciously defeat the most powerful veteran adult magicians even as a grade-schooler without even being aware of it. In fact, he is considered the only real threat by the Big Bad and in fact is likely the only reason why the rest of the magical world hasn't actually been conquered yet at the start of the series.
  • Ryougi Shiki's Third Personality from Kara no Kyoukai: definitely qualifies. She's effectively omnipotent, but just doesn't care about anything. She's almost completely disconnected from reality, and nothing really matters to her, so she hardly ever uses the nigh infinite power she possesses.
  • Ajimu from Medaka Box. She usually only interferes subtly because she's more interested in finding something she can't do than in doing the things that she can. So far, no luck.


Comics[edit | hide]

  • In The DCU, The Phantom Stranger frequently comes off like this, especially when he appears in someone else's story (which includes most of his appearances since the 1970s).
  • Uatu from Marvel Comics, who's bound to exactly the degree of interference that makes the plot more interesting. He is part of an entire race of beings called the Watchers. They are highly evolved and highly powerful but their roles are to... just watch. Even with the rare instances of Uatu doing anything at all, he's considered one of the more meddling members of his race.
    • And to give you an idea of how powerful Watchers are, there have been a few Watchers that have gone insane and attacked, such as Aron the Rogue Watcher. When that happens, even the Fantastic Four have to call in for help.
    • Played up in Earth X, where the Watchers watch but are unable to interfere as a punishment from the Celestials.
  • Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan. Played for Drama.
  • Let's not obviate Professor Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, who could solve 90% (if not more) of the X-Men's problems, if he weren't too moral to mess with people's minds and get the job done.
    • In Paradise X he briefly inhabits a pocket universe where he did that. It required mental control over most of the planet and he was very happy to be rescued.
  • The Guardians of Oa in The DCU. On the few occasions where they have acted directly, they've been shown to have enormous power, but they try not to become involved in events themselves and stick to administrating the Green Lantern Corps.
  • In the first Secret Wars, the only thing the Beyonder is missing is a giant DM's screen floating in the sky. In Secret Wars II, he subverts this trope, by taking an active role in the affairs of mortals to the extent of actually destroying Death itself. It doesn't so much work out.
  • Superman is a borderline example. Most of the time, he could end his actual adventure in a matter of seconds, being a Physical God all along. He just limits himself a lot out of personal morality, or to avoid losing contact with humanity.
  • In Tales Of The Beanworld, Mr Teach'm refuses to help Mr Spook catch the notworm. The problem is that because of the "Catch'm Keep'm" rule, if Mr Teach'm caught it, it would belong to him rather than Mr Spook. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Quite a few of the greater Marvel entities (the Vishanti, the Octessence, and Eternity) do not interfere directly in the workings of the world, choosing to empower magic users like Doctor Strange to be their champions and agents instead. The person can walk away, at the cost of losing the entity's mystical patronage (and thus a lot of power).
  • Destiny from The Sandman. Actually, most of The Endless but this is especially true of Destiny.


Film[edit | hide]

  • Raiden in the first Mortal Kombat movie, who seems to pack more power in his pinky than the other characters in their whole bodies, but whose interference would cause the heroes to be disqualified.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Ellimist in Animorphs as well as his Evil Counterpart, Crayak are both Type 3s. Whenever one of them wants to interfere with something, the other gets to as well.
    • When the Ellimist first shows up, he recounts the last time both directly acted on the universe. He chokes up a little on recounting the sheer number of species wiped out before they could ever achieve sentience. Even Crayak was stunned at how much damage they did, and ever since, both have pulled back.
  • The Valar in The Lord of the Rings, who could easily smite Mordor but instead send five minor powers, and tell them not to take direct action either.
    • That would be because when they did do that in The Silmarillion, it broke the world.
    • Also, depending on how you interpret him, Tom Bombadil.
  • The Demons from Piers Anthony's Xanth series - especially, of course, the Demon Xanth.
  • The Arisians (and particularly Mentor) in the Lensman novels.
  • The "voice in Garion's head" of the Belgariad - called the "purpose of the universe", he and his equal opponent would destroy the universe if they clashed, and so they set up the planet as a place where their match would occur through proxies. He contents himself with sitting in Garion's head and making snide remarks about just about everything when he's not giving cryptic instructions.
    • And the Recycled Premise of The Elenium has the Bhelliom and its opposing number in the same situation, minus the snarks (they had baby goddess Aphriel to fulfill that role).
  • From the Cirque Du Freak series, Desmond Tiny, Evanna and Mr Tall. All powerful enough to pretty much decide the outcome of the war single-handedly, but they're not allowed to directly interfere, or else all hell breaks loose.
  • The Childlike Empress in The Neverending Story plays this role for most of the book.
  • Preservation and Ruin are a pair of good and evil All Powerful Bystanders from the Mistborn books. They are literally balanced out, being exactly equal in power, though both have found ways to nullify the other at different times. Preservation sacrificed his power and most of his consciousness to bind Ruin thousands of years before the series began. Ruin then uses what little power he has left to alter a series of prophecies, thereby tricking mortal heroes into freeing him, leaving him the unchallenged god of the whole world. Preservation in turn had plans to elevate a successor...
  • The Archive in The Dresden Files. She's almost omniscient and at least as powerful as the old gods still hanging around. She's also magically bound to neutrality and unable to take sides except in self-defense.
    • There are a number of other very powerful divine beings in the cosmology of the setting, but they do not directly intervene or act because of others. A good example of this is God and Satan; they do not act in the mortal world unless mortal will chooses for them to exert some influence, and when they do the other is able to act accordingly. For example, if Satan lends some extra Hellfire to his Denarian servants on the mortal world, then the Archangel Uriel in turn is allowed to give someone else access to Soulfire.
      • A good example is in Ghost Story, where an angel of death stands guard over someone, and Harry, being Harry, tells her to back off, and when that failed, to help the dying. When Harry says that making a choice like that was simple, The angel's eyes are describes as 'all but openly hostile.' It seems that some angels still resent how mortals have free will and they don't.
  • The Creator in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He can't enter the Land himself to deal with Lord Foul because doing so would break the Arch of Time and release Lord Foul back into the universe. He has to send Thomas Covenant and Linden to the Land to act on his behalf.
  • The Other Mother of Coraline is essentially a physical goddess in her world.
  • The Caeliar in Star Trek: Destiny. Not literally all-powerful, but incredibly advanced technologically, and capable of resolving the Borg threat relatively simply. However, their culture is stagnant, xenophobic and isolationist in the extreme, apathetic about the wider galaxy. It takes Erika Hernandez to pull them off the sidelines, after first rediscovering her own humanity. In a sense, Star Trek: Destiny can be said to be about the redemption of the All-Powerful Bystander.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The Powers That Be in Angel. The Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart would count as the evil variety.
  • Kosh and the Vorlons during the middle seasons of Babylon 5. Subverted when the characters eventually decide they would prefer living in a galaxy without the Vorlons or their counterparts the Shadows.
    • The original Kosh is definitely an All-Powerful Bystander; the other Vorlons, not so much, because they aren't mentoring the other races so much as using them as pawns in their war with the Shadows.
    • And Lorien.
  • The Guardians in Doctor Who
    • And also arguably the Time Lords in some stories.
    • In The Fires of Pompeii, Donna notes that the Doctor could get the entire population of the island into the TARDIS and take them to safety. Because it's a fixed point in history though, he refuses to do anything to prevent it.
  • God in Joan of Arcadia.
  • Knightmare has Treguard, Master of Dunshelm Castle. He could offer general advice to the Dungeoneer and his three advisors, but could not (usually) directly intervene - other than pulling the current player out of the dungeon at the end of the series.
  • Jor-El in Smallville.
    • Justified in that he is dead. He only can really affect Clark, or people that happen to possess a Kryptonian artifact (or manage to enter the Fortress of Solitude).
  • Some of the Ascended beings in Stargate SG-1, particularly Oma Desala and Daniel Jackson (during season 6). Any Ascended being who tries to help ends up getting some sort of ironic punishment. The Ori from seasons nine and ten exemplify the Evil Dungeon Master.
    • The Ori are more like an Evil Dungeon Master who decides to heap rewards on his jerkass players and send them after the players working with the DM who wanted to keep the game balanced (by not helping the players at all). Results in more than a few Curb Stomp Battles (with the shows protagonists getting stomped) even after it's revealed the Ancients SHOULD have a direct stake in fighting the Ori.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series: the Organians, introduced in "Errand of Mercy".
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Q.
  • The Prophets in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (especially fond of "We'll bail you out just this once, but there will be a terrible price you have to pay.")
  • Various characters in Supernatural exhibit this:
    • The Trickster god, who's willing to bend time and space to show Sam how he might have to accept that Dean would eventually die and go to hell, but he's not willing to use those same reality bending powers to let Sam save Dean. To be fair, his name makes it clear he's not meant to be helpful. In episode eight in the fifth season, the Trickster was revealed as the Archangel Gabriel. This trope still applies—maybe even more so. Instead of being a minor god, he is something (arguably) more badass—or at least more relevant. He finally subverts the trope when he helps the Winchesters to stop Lucifer.
    • God Himself is shown to fit this, up to a point. It's revealed that he doesn't care about the fate of the world, but he still helps the Winchesters in minor ways.
    • And then there's Death. As a Cosmic Entity responsible for maintaining the natural order into eternity he honestly doesn't care for the fate of a minor planet in the grand scheme of things, but he does give the Winchesters the means to imprison Lucifer so he can continue his duty rather than be tied to a petty archangel.


Manhwa[edit | hide]

  • Belial from Priest is this. A human who descended to hell to continue fighting against the fallen angel that destroyed his life. Ivan Isaacs traded Belial half his soul so he could fight the same fallen angel for the same reason Belial is fighting them, but without the other half Belial's powers are limited.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Urban Arcana features Platonics, Anthropomorphic representations of a particular concept. In they low magic setting of Urban Arcana, they're the equivalent of 17th Level Immortal Shapeshifting Sorcerers. In addition to being able to cast multiple fifth level spells at will, they also have access to spells above CL 5 (Normally only available via ritual incantations). It's possible for a Platonic to cast Wish once a day if they wanted. However, Platonics are bound by "The Pact of the Boundless", which serves to keep their powers in check. Considering that there are Platonics of Genocide and War, the pact is a very good thing.
  • Both averted and subverted in Warhammer 40,000. The Emperor is an immensely powerful psychic with a willpower equal to that of the Chaos Gods, but he's been Only Mostly Dead for 10,000 years and thus can't help the Imperium. Said Chaos Gods are allergic to reality (and depending on interpretation may not even be sentient), but do send out daemons and mutations to aid/eat their followers. The Eldar gods are for the most part dead, except for fragments of their wargod that go active on occasion. The Omnicidal, immortal, indestructible robot gods the C'tan are running around freely and without opposition.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The G-Man from Half-Life.
  • The Greybeards from Skyrim, whose mastery of the Thu'um magic make them some of the most powerful humans alive, but live as hermits and refuse to interfere in the civil war plaguing the province. They will share their knowledge with anybody who comes to them, especially a Dragonborn. But few people have the endurance and patience necessary.
    • They're not joking about the "all-powerful" bit either. Console commands reveal they're all at Level 150, close to twice the player's level-cap.
  • The Wise One from Golden Sun.
  • Zork III introduces a character called the Dungeon Master who set up all the trials and puzzles you faced through all three games, because he was training you to become his replacement.
  • Yukari Yakumo from The Touhou Project; she's a youkai of boundaries and can arguably do absolutely anything as long as she's creative enough. The only problem is that she's incredibly lazy; she hibernates most of the year and sleeps during the day, and even when she's awake she enjoys causing trouble more than fixing it, leaving Reimu and the others to deal with their incidents alone.
  • The more powerful witches in Umineko no Naku Koro ni, who exist above the gameboard and in the meta part of the story can basically do anything. Bernkastel is quite capable of looking through all the Fragments to cheat and see where Kinzo hid the gold. The witches are also clever enough to just solve the story by completely fair means or suspend the game. However, they're more interested in betting on the outcome and using it as a way to entertain themselves as long as possible. They find it fun to see people struggle.
  • Dyntos in Kid Icarus: Uprising because he can forge pretty much anything, and even he created the Three Sacred Treasures to booth.


Webcomics[edit | hide]

  • Sarda the Sage in Eight Bit Theater. Lampshaded in several strips. And in the end, justified - he actually wants the Light Warriors to suffer as much as possible.
  • The Penguin God from Jack Of All Blades, who when asked why he doesn't solve the cast's world threatening problem, states that its because he's going to spend the day thinking about naked people.
  • Uncle Time from Sluggy Freelance. He could probably send everybody in Timeless Space home if he wanted to, but he doesn't bother unless someone falls into his home beneath the Oceans Unmoving.
  • The Palm Tree Ghost from Our Little Adventure. All she provides is guidance to the heroine and is often quite snarky about it as well.


Web Original[edit | hide]

  • Dominic tries this after the timeskip in Ather City, but Dominic being Dominic, it fails miserably.
  • The Sightseers from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe. According to the only Sightseer ever caught in the act, they are a group of time-traveling observers from the far future (how far in the future is unknown) who show up at seeming random to observe and sometimes record events in history. While Sightseers have been spotted (by people looking for them in historical records) at such major events as the death of John F. Kennedy and the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 outside Locarbaidh, Scotland, they've also been seen observing such supposedly inconsequential things as a little league baseball game, the foot traffic in one section of Central Park in New York City, and the repair of a bathroom fixture in an office building in Boise, Idaho. In one case, a Sightseer followed a woman through a Wal-Mart for 20 minutes, taking notes on her precise purchases.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The Dungeon Master from the Dungeons and Dragons TV series used this trope so much he was originally the Trope Namer.
    • Of the Batman Gambit variety, if the never-made finale's script is to be believed. He was apparently trying to manipulate the children into redeeming Venger, who turned out to be his son.
    • There has been at least one episode where he averted this trope, and actively aided the party. This is mostly because they were facing a being more powerful than he and Venger combined, however - he was absolutely needed. And to his credit, he nearly died doing so from exhaustion.
    • In one particular episode on of the kids is given the powers of the dungeon master, and uses it to almost effortlessly carry out the quest of the day. Until the last minute were he returns it for the aesop about too much power.
  • The Observants on Danny Phantom have found a loophole. They have a strict code "to watch and never act," but they can ask Clockwork to solve any problems they find.
    • Clockwork himself counts too. His actions however stem more from boredom and an urge to tweak off the Observants by not killing Danny after all. He also sees "all the paths [fate] may-or may not- take" so he may be trying for a particular outcome that excludes constant meddling and apparently thought nothing of Danny's Bad Future until the Observants demanded that Clockwork take action.
      • May be justified, given that the creation of said Bad Future may have been the result of a Stable Time Loop caused by outside interference: Danny's friends and family die, Danny in grief has his ghostly self removed, ghostly self ruins world, ghostly self is sent back in time, ghostly self sets events in motion that cause the death of Danny's friends and family, repeat. Had Clockwork not been involved initially, the Bad Future would never have occurred, but at the same time, without Clockwork's intervention, the Stable Time Loop would have repeated endlessly.