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Challenging the Chief
To be the man, you've got to beat the man.

A society has a ritual challenge system that determines who's strong enough to be the leader.

There can be variations on how ritualized the challenge is. Sometimes a spontaneous fight could occur and then everybody makes sure everybody else hangs back to let the two duke it out. On other occasions, the right to challenge may need to be specifically invoked, maybe with a particular phrase. In such a case you can very well expect the crowd to make a collective intake of breath and you get double points in the TV Tropes Drinking Game if the challenged chief was walking away but then stops and slowly turns around. There also may or may not be a strict rule that the loser has to die. If there is, you may get The Hero in an ethical quandary if they believe Thou Shalt Not Kill.

You'll also get wider variations on the effect on the plot. For instance, in a case which has shades of You Kill It, You Bought It, it may be an outsider, often Mighty Whitey, becomes chief of a community by winning a duel against the previous chief, or just by killing them without knowing about the tradition. This will tend to pop up at the beginning to generate a plot or find a way to get a character into a society that should, by logic, wish to kill him on sight.

You also get the concept being used as a way for being able to stop an enemy horde when outnumbered. They use this rule in the enemy culture to just challenge the ruler and then make everything hinge on that one fight. If The Hero wins, he gets to order the enemy horde to go home. Occasionally, The Hero has to be told about this rule by some helpful tribe member or he'll make the challenge and then there'll have to be a bit of conversation about whether he gets to do so.

When the duel is to solve some other disagreement than leadership, it's Combat by Champion.

A community with such a cultural tradition is usually portrayed as as Proud Warrior Race Guys where Asskicking Equals Authority. They will also frequently approve of certain methods of attaining a Klingon Promotion. This trope might justify Decapitated Army.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime And Manga  

  • In Bleach, Kenpachi Zaraki gained his position as Captain of Squad 11 by walking in and killing the last captain; Shinigami rule states that this works if done in front of 200 witnesses. This is apparently the normal method of transferring leadership in the Eleventh Division, the winner not only gaining a Captain's rank but also the hereditary title of "Kenpachi".
  • The Marines in One Piece are not so...barbaric to use such a method. Unfortunately, the conflict over the Fleet Admiral position degenerated into a variation of this between Aokiji and Akainu, with no small part due to their opposing ideologies and the fact that they hated each other. The feud was so bad, that the higher-ups just went ahead and had the two fight a Duel to the Death on the barren island of Punk Hazard to get the position filled already. The winner would be Akainu, but he spared Aokiji's life in a rare moment of sympathy, and the latter proceeded to ditch the Marines, having no desire to serve under his rival or a form of justice he was opposed too.

     Comic Books  

  • Played with in the Marvel Transformers comic. Shockwave retains leadership of the Decepticons by kicking Megatron's ass; however, Shockwave clearly didn't want to fight, because he's all about logic (which to him is "whatever will achieve the best outcome") and the Decepticons were at the time under danger from the outnumbered and wounded Autobots.
  • In Fables, Mowgli finds a wolf pack who might know where to find the missing Bigby. The wolves won't talk, so he challenges the alpha male for leadership. It works.
  • The Wolfriders in Elfquest are another example. Though their leadership is usually inherited, tribe members can also challenge the chief and take over. The Go-Backs, at least later on in the series, appear to have the same thing.
    • Still, the trope is used very sparingly, because (1) elves do not kill elves and all life is sacred, and (2) the chief is always respected and loved, and the challenge happens only when there is enough evidence that the chief is unable to do their job properly. A good example is Scouter's challenge of Ember's position very late on in the series: Scouter won, and Ember was left behind to do a Vision Quest until she was fit to catch up with the tribe again and reclaim her role as chief.
  • Astérix:
    • Asterix and the Big Fight: in order to destroy Asterix's village, the Romans call a Roman-loving Gaul chief to fight Vitalstatistix, using the fact that the druid Getafix is currently neutralized. Vitalstatistix manages to win without the magic potion by running around the ring and eventually punching the exhausted adversary - but he refuses to take control of his village, who then go to Gallo-Roman to regular Gaul.
    • In Asterix and Caesar's Gift, Caesar grants the deed to the village to an ignoble retired legionary as a prank, who in turn trades it for a jar of wine. The new deed-owners go to the village, and eventually end up challenging Vitalstatistix to an election. Geriatrix also gets in on the action, but nobody pays attention to him.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Heavy Metal 2000, the Big Bad Tyler kills the king of a tribe of lizard people and takes his place as their leader.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Hellboy II had the "challenge the leader to stop the army" version down to a pat.
  • The Chronicles of Riddick has the "You keep what you kill" principle embedded in Necromonger religion which leads to this trope occurring for Riddick.
  • Kung Fu Hustle. Sorta. When The Beast breaks Brother Sum's neck, he apparently becomes the leader of the Axe Gang but it's more the fact that the gang is not averse to following the lead of someone who can kill them all with his slippers. However the old boss apparently defeated an entire gang just by killing the leader so maybe it is part of an established trend.
  • In the In Name Only Film of the Book of The Postman, in the Holnist Clan/Army, "Law 7: any clansman may challenge for leadership of the clan." The "laws of eight" are given to us in the first third of the movie. They very much become a Chekhov's Gun.

    Literature 
  • Dune follows the trope but subverts its usage. Paul Atreides refuses to face Stilgar, the chief of the Fremen sietch Paul belonged to, in ritual combat because they both knew Paul would win and Paul wanted Stilgar to remain chief of the sietch as Paul went to war for the whole planet Arrakis.
  • In Nation this is how the cannibalistic Raiders work. The villain of the piece ends up in charge of them via the "outsider becomes chief" route and since it's a Alternate History 1860s setting, he feels like it's a natural result of being Mighty Whitey. However this then bites him in the butt when the hero uses the rule for the "fight the leader, stop the horde" method.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus, this is how the Amazons get their queens. This comes back to bite them when their Queen, who would side with the romans, is challenged by a Gaea-backed usurper who keeps on coming back to life whenever she is killed, winning through simple attrition.
  • In The Riftwar Cycle there is a mention of a moredhel chieftain who conquered another tribe (and assimilated it into his own) by killing their leader in a fair fight.
  • Implied that most warrens in Watership Down work this way.
  • The War Games of Zelos by Richard Avery (Edmund Cooper), part of The Expendables series. The people of the planet Zelos have a regular competition to determine who is the greatest warrior. The winner may challenge the King to a duel to take his position. All of the fights are to the death.
  • In Steve Perry's Matador series, this is how succession in the Musashi Flex (a sort of ongoing loosely-organized martial arts tournament) works. Anyone in the top ten of the rankings can challenge the top-ranked person, and if they win, they automatically become number one, regardless of their previous ranking.
  • In Raiders of Gor, Tarl Cabot kills the captain of a pirate ship for abusing a slave girl and discovers that doing so makes him the captain.
  • In Wolf of the Plains, Temujin becomes khan of both the Olkhun'ut and Kiryat clans by killing their respective khans.
  • R.A. Salvatore's The Crystal Shard sees Wulfgar challenging the leader of his native tribe so that he can lead the barbarians against the Big Bad. In order to make the challenge in the first place, you must prove your right "by blood or by deed". He shows off the horns of an ancient white dragon he killed (with Drizzt's help) and gets a "by deed" chance.
  • King Bucko Bigbones has a standing offer for anyone to take his office in Lord Brocktree... if they beat him in a fight. Dotti does so in order to blackmail him into assistance, but she probably didn't need to - he has a longstanding grudge against Ungatt Trunn, so he likely would have helped anyway.
    • The trope was also mentioned in Taggerung, where Gruven's father, Gruven, challenges their tribe chief, Sawney Rath. It is then swiftly subverted; Sawney kills him before the fight could even get underway.
  • How the Minotaur Emperor in Dragonlance gets and keeps his job- Minotaurs settle almost all disputes through ritual combat, so the logical extension of this is that any warrior who has earned high enough distinction can challenge the Emperor for the throne. As a side-effect, this ensures that, as the Minotaurs feel it should, Asskicking Equals Authority.
  • The easiest way to get a Shardblade in The Stormlight Archive is to Duel to the Death for it. And since Shardblades are so valuable, most Shardbearers are the people in charge.
  • In Animorphs, a key tenet of the Andalite military is that any soldier can challenge any action their superior wishes to take, which then results in a trial to determine the outcome. Frivolous challenges are kept in check, however, since losing means disgrace AND having your tail blade chopped off.
    • This is also slowly cultivated as a bit of a conflict between Action Girl Rachel and the team's leader, Jake. It's not too bad at first, but as Rachel slowly sinks into Blood Knight and later Sociopathic Soldier territory, it becomes more and more of a defining point between them.
  • In the John Carter of Mars series green martians determine Jeddaks this way. In the first book Tars Tarkas challenges his tribe's Jeddak and beheads him in a single sentence.
  • In the second Raised By Wolves book by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Bryn is challenged for her Alpha position by the refugee wolf she took in, who can't stand to serve under anyone. This, apparently, is a common procedure in werewolf society: Anyone in the pack can challenge the Alpha for their position and the Alpha must accept the challenge. The battle between the two should be a Curb-Stomp Battle, since the challenger is a werewolf and Bryn is a human being, but since he's now a member of her pack, her position as Alpha allows her to essentially command him to die. Raises the question of how anyone ever wins these challenges.
  • In Generation Kill, Evan Wright discusses the emphasis that Marines place on physical fitness and combat skill. One of the Marines, Sergeant Rudy Reyes, is the undisputed martial artist master in his platoon, and as a result, is constantly being ambushed by his fellow marines, hoping to gauge their own skills against his (it is implied that their skills are measured in terms of how long it takes them to lose the fight they started). Then again, all of the Marines in the Force Recon platoon Evan Wright is shadowing are constantly ambushing each other in mock-combat to keep each other sharp.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode "Tacking Into The Wind", where the new Chancellor from TNG "Reunion", Gowron, is screwing things up during the Dominion War, mismanaging the Klingon battle efforts to humiliate and disgrace the popular General Martok (who he fears will challenge him for leadership). In truth, Martok is too honorable and loyal to the Empire to even consider trying to take control for himself. After some harsh truths from Dax about Klingon politics, Worf realizes that SOMEONE has to challenge Gowron on honorable grounds (such as calling him on intentionally mismanaging the war out of fear for losing his position). Worf does challenge him, wins, becomes the next Chancellor, but almost immediately passes the torch to the most honorable and capable Klingon he knows (as well as his friend and mentor), General Martok.
    • Strangely, this is not the first time that Worf determined who would be Chancellor of the High Council of the Klingon Empire. The reason Gowron became Chancellor in the first place was because Worf killed Gowron's rival Duras in a duel over a totally unrelated matter, making Gowron the winner by default. He also resolves the issue of how the government is to be run when the clone of Emperor Kahless comes forward. Strangely, nobody seems to realize that the most important thing one must have in order to get ahead in Klingon politics is the approval of Worf.
  • In an early episode of Stargate SG-1, Carter has to challenge the chief of an alien society in order to win her freedom. It's supposed to be a fight to the death, but she beats him without killing him.
    • It's also unusual in that this is a heavily male-dominated society (women are considered property and must never show their faces). For a woman to challenge a man and beat him. It's unheard of. O'Neil smooths things over by giving the chief a pistol as a gift before they depart.
    • On a couple of different occasions ("The Warrior", "Birthright") we see the Jaffa right of "joma secu" by which a Jaffa challenges the current leader to a fight to the death for leadership of the tribe. In "Birthright" the challenger loses but is spared. In "The Warrior" the challenger wins, because it's Teal'c.
  • In the Doctor Who story Ghost Light, the villainous Josiah plans to murder Queen Victoria under the delusion that the British monarchy works like this.
  • In Babylon 5, the Narn appear to use this, with G'Kar periodically having to fend off threats to his authority over the Narns on the station. The Minbari have their own version, with a twist: the challenge is to stand in an increasingly lethal energy beam; the winner is the one who doesn't chicken out and leave the energy beam first.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Fenrisian Wolves from Warhammer 40,000 According to the background, the only way for a Space Wolf Marine to get a pack to follow him is to become the pack leader- by killing the previous one (as part of that ritual of manliness, usually. Doing it with a gun doesn't work.).
  • Also in Warhammer 40,000 orks decide their leaders based on single combat ranging from low cunning to high explosives, but usually pit fighting. They do this because orks consider skill in combat more important than any real leadership capability, intelligence or strategic merit.
    • Orks being orks, though, there isn't a formal system (formality being a foreign concept to orks) in place for managing challenges. Notably, they aren't required to be one-on-one, although ganging up isn't allowed (they'd have to share power, another thing orks don't understand). When a high-ranking ork boss dies, a free-for-all is the usual result. This can be used to great effect against them: the Siege of Perlia, for instance, collapsed when Cain inadvertently challenged the Warboss to a duel and won, causing a fight to break out among the subordinate clan bosses — who were promptly roasted by a flamer courtesy Imperial reinforcements. Each clan boss's own court of nobs broke into infighting in a similar manner, and the whole Waaagh! was broken up in jig time by the Imperial Guard counterattack.
  • The Sabbat of Vampire: The Masquerade had this in place for certain positions in their power structure. The Storyteller was encouraged add whatever arcane stipulations or requirements he saw fit, in order to emphasize how unorganized the Sabbat was (the sample: "You can't challenge the Archbishop now - it's not the third night after the new moon!").
  • Garou society in Werewolf: The Apocalypse works like this. Their code of laws states that "any leader may be challenged in a state of peace" but that "no leader may be challenged in a time of war." Naturally, many leaders try to declare a perpetual state of war after defeating their predecessor.
    • Werewolf: The Forsaken has in its backstory that the children of Father Wolf eventually challenged and slew him for his role as protector of the world. This had serious repercussions.
      • The main reason the Pure and the Forsaken are fighting boils down to if the death of Father Wolf was a good idea. The Forsaken actually killed him, and claim that if they didn't, he'd of just gotten weaker and weaker to the point where the worlds wouldn't have ANYBODY strong enough watching over them. And the Pure claim that the Forsaken did it out of manipulation by Luna, and Father Wolf would of been just fine running the show
  • Can easily happen in BattleTech's Clan society, where trial by combat is a common way for the ruling warrior caste to settle disputes and grudges already and even rank is generally determined by combat performance up until one reaches the highest levels. Seeking advancement or the removal of an incompetent-looking immediate superior by challenging them for their position is explicitly allowed as long as protocol is observed (and can often pass even if it's not, depending on circumstances).

     Video Games  

  • Joked about in the sixth Touhou game when Cute Witch Marisa asks Ninja Maid Sakuya whether the position of Chief Maid works like this. It doesn't.
  • In Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction Ratchet inadvertently becomes the new Space Pirate Captain after defeating Captain Slag. However, at the end of the game, it is hinted Rachet then gave the title to Captain Qwark.
  • The trope made an earlier appearance in Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, where Ratchet battled an amnesiac Captain Qwark, who had somehow become a tribal chief on a jungle planet.
    Clank: Just keep the mask on. He thinks you are his new leader.
  • Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of The Betrayer has frost giant jarls decided this way. The ex-jarl you meet notes that he was beat by a weak but clever giant who challenged him after he was fatigued from the last fight. One option for the quest to get rid of them is to become the Jarl (and get a +1 charisma bonus for free) of the (self) exiled giants by beating ALL of them in a king of the hill fight.
  • In the expansion for Warcraft III Rexxar has to take control of the ogre tribe this way, after going through the trials to become a member - which, par for the course, would have killed any ogre attempting them.
  • World of Warcraft also has this, particularly for the Orcs and the Horde in general.
    • Before the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, Garrosh disagrees with Thrall's decision on how to deal with the undead threat, and challenges Thrall for leadership of the Horde. It looks like Garrosh will win, until the fight is interrupted by an undead attack, which changes Thrall's mind.
    • Garrosh ultimately becomes warchief, and is himself challenged by Cairne Bloodhoof. It is however a ploy - Cairne intended to lose in order to cement Garrosh's wildly unpopular leadership and save the Horde from civil war.
  • In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, this is the only way to become head of several factions (though not the Morag Tong, strangely enough).
    • In most of the cases where it is necessary, the rules of the faction does not actually require it, providing for alternate ways... that the actions or attitude of the chief in question makes unfeasible. The Morag Tong inverts that: this trope is how it is supposed to be, but the leader is quite happy with just stepping down.
  • The Gorons in Zelda series have a culture revolving nearly entirely around physical strength. The strongest and toughest Goron is the tribal chieftain, no exceptions. This comes into play in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, wherein the Gorons will not allow you to enter their mines until you beat one of their elders in a sumo contest (which is actually impossible to win unless you cheat with the iron boots).
  • In the Mass Effect verse, this is typically how regime changes happen on Tuchanka. Should he survive Mass Effect 1 and claim chieftain-ship over effectively all of Tuchanka, Wrex fully expects this to happen to him some time eventually. And hopes it's Grunt who does it.
  • Brutes in Halo vie for power this way. One of the tie-in novels, Contact Harvest, reveals that this is how Tartarus (Big Bad of Halo 2) got his position.
  • Subverted in the Franchise/Pokemon core games, in which you challenge the champion, and win, you are declared the new champion. Some Key NPC's treat you as such, and you are granted to Champion-only areas, but when you return to the Pokemon League, the old Champion is still there, often using the same lines as earlier. You aren't expected to stay there and defend the title, probably due to the idea being boring for the player.

     Web Comics  

  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja villain Frans Rayner at one point intends to "kill the President, thereby becoming the President." He doesn't seem to care that it doesn't actually work that way, stating that he'll convince people that it does.
  • Played with in Curvy, after the girls are rescued/trapped by a pirate ship, and one of them tries to challenge the leader under "the universal pirate code". "There is no universal pirate code. Try getting caught by a different romanticized version of a criminal organization next."
  • In Kevin & Kell, Frank Mangle challenges R.L. as CEO of Herdthinners Inc. Then Kell breaks the fight up before someone gets killed, and this is interpreted as her defeating both of them, so she gets made CEO.
  • Played for laughs in this The Non-Adventures of Wonderella strip.
  • Played with several times in The Order of the Stick.
    • When they encounter a band of thieves in the forest, Haley challenges their leader - an eighteen-year-old sorceress - for control of the gang. She fails miserably. In fact, she fails epically. Then the bandit leader's father (and predecessor) challenges her; since the sorceress is out of spell uses for the day she is easily vanquished. And then Durkon arrives and accidentally knocks out the bandit leader...
    • Subverted in this strip. Annoyed with the lengthy and embarrassing Initiation Ceremony for a hobgoblin tribe, Redcloak learns that a shortcut is to defeat the current chief. So he insta-kills the guy running the ceremony with a Slay Living spell. When he thinks to double check whether that actually was the chief, the guy standing behind him with a big feathery headdress and jewelled sceptre quickly responds in the affirmative.
  • In Sam and Fuzzy, this is how the Ninja Mafia works - at least, this is how it works if you kill the entire Ruling Council (so none of the official successors are left alive). Sam, as the only survivor of the murder of the previous Ruling Council (although it was actually his ex-girlfriend who did this, killing herself in the process), is therefore considered the rightful Ninja Emperor - and becomes the focus of all the plotting that comes with it.
  • In S.S.D.D the Collective of Anarchist States is a meritocracy, a lower ranking "adviser" has the right to challenge a higher advisor's decision and if their colleagues agree they get promoted. In the "Tower of Babel" arc the First Adviser and most of her cabinet take advantage of this when it looks like they're headed for a full war with the CORE by allowing the dumbest one on the cabinet to win a challenge and running across the border while he's still confused.
  • In Homestuck, the title of HER IMPERIOUS CONDESCENSION is inherited this way. It's genetic; those with royal blood have to challenge the current IMPERIOUS CONDESCENSION upon reaching maturity. And those of royal blood are compelled to fight one another too.
  • In Drowtales, Sarv'swati Vel'Sharen expands her clan's armies by doing this. She challenges a Black Sun chief. He's shown to be sexist by the standards of the universe, especially given that most of the drow societies are matriarchies, but he admits defeat once he is beaten and puts his troops under her command.

     Western Animation  

  • Parodied in an episode of Futurama, with Fry challenging the leader of a post-apocalyptic society of children to what is essentially a skateboard race. His victory over a small child is denigrated further by the revelation that the society is in fact a LA creche.
  • Happens in an episode of Justice League where Superman is transported to the distant future. After being attacked by a pack of mutant wolves, he challenges their alpha, and is next seen using the wolves like sled dogs and wearing the alpha's hide like a cape.
  • Archer becomes a pirate king after this trope happens. Another pirate tries to oust him by using an Elite Mook as a stand in, citing the pirate code as allowing this. Archer accepts the challenge, and shoots him.
    Pirate: Whoa, whoa! You can't use weapons!
    Archer: The code says it's a one-on-one fight, it doesn't say anything about unarmed combat.
    Pirate: (glancing at the code) Well, it's implied!
  • In the Adventure Time episode "The Silent King", Finn becomes the new king of the goblins after driving off the old one.
  • Dinobot invokes this twice in Beast Wars. The first time, after being booted from the Predacons, heads for the Maximals and challenges Optimus Primal. Their match gets interrupted by the other Predacons and Primal keeps his position. He attempts this again when Primal is killed at the end of the first seasons, but Rhinox puts the kibosh on that fast.

     Real Life  

  • "Champion of the world" titles in professional boxing pretty much work this way. The current champ retains the title until they are beaten, at which time they relinquish it to whoever did the deed. In fact, historical lists of boxing champions often mention the number of times each champion averted this trope.
  • Elections are a more civilized version of this. My chief is more popular than your chief!
  • This phenomenon is common among packs of mammals with a single breeding male and several female breeders (gorillas and lions being the most common example—it only occurs in wolves if the pack is made up of unrelated animals, which mainly only happens in captivity), as the alpha male ages to point of weakness. A younger male challenges the elder for alpha status. The loser is either demoted or driven out of the pack. In terms of biology, this prevents the alpha's genes from dominating the pool of available females.


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