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This trope posits a situation were two or more powerful institutions or groups keep in other in check but that the acts of a third party could unbalance the systems and lead to open conflict (see page link for a common example). However, the parties might go into open conflict with a third party just to maintain said balance. When employing the trope the author must ask:
- Who gains from maintaining the status quo?
- Who loses from the status quo?
- What are the mechanism that keep the balance of power?
The protagonist tends to play one of two roles, keeper or disruptor. As keeper, the protagonist benefits in some way from the situation or fears what would happen if the balance ceased to exist, such as a open war between the major parties. As disruptor, the protagonist is the third party that gets more from the disruption than from the status quo.