aka: Cut Off The Snakes Head
"If I've learned anything about video games, once you've killed the boss, it's just like 'Alright, everybody give up.'"
It's well known that to actually defeat evil, you have to directly kill the Big Bad
— you can't just hack through enough of his soldiers to leave him relatively harmless
. So the army of good
will stall the army of evil
while the hero and his friends sneak in to kill the Big Bad
This trope can be justified if the mooks
were not loyal to the villain in the first place; they may have been forced to fight against their will
, or obeyed out of fear of death or a Fate Worse Than Death
. Alternatively, without the unifying figure of the Big Bad
, The Empire
would rapidly collapse into warlordism.
It's notable that this trope only applies if the Big Bad dies
. There's no situation where whittling the guy within an inch of his life will even dent his or her organization/get them killed by, say, the good army that could probably take him, and will only rarely cause the disrespectful Lieutenant of Evil
to make his bid for power.
Compare Challenging the Chief
where if the whole organization is based on Asskicking Equals Authority
, the hero can take over by defeating the leader. Contrast Combat by Champion
, where you may actually get an agreement that if you and the Big Bad
fight, and he dies, you win. Straight for the Commander
is trying to create this trope on the enemy by taking out the commander, but a Decapitated Army
doesn't have to result.
A form of No Ontological Inertia
. Compare Golden Snitch
for when the objective is an object instead of a person, and Instant-Win Condition
for when the objective was not considered important until you claimed it. When it applies to the hero
, see We Cannot Go On Without You
. See Load-Bearing Boss
for cases where even the villain's headquarters die with him. When the villain's entire army
collapses without him, it's a Keystone Army
. When you make a drastic change in the entire world, you've just captured the Cosmic Keystone
. Overlaps or leads to And There Was Much Rejoicing
. Savvy villains attempting to avoid this effect can attempt an El Cid Ploy
. See also Losing the Team Spirit
A common subversion is for followers that actually were loyal to go into an Unstoppable Rage
and launch a Roaring Rampage of Revenge
against whoever was responsible. The Remnant
is another possible subversion, when some followers of the Big Bad
stay banded together and keep fighting in the long run.
This trope is not about
an army of Headless Horsemen
or otherwise undead without heads.
As a Death Trope and Ending Trope, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
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Anime and Manga
- At the end of Code Geass, Prisoners are freed and people rejoice when the evil overlord, in the middle of his global reign of terror, is killed by Zero, the supposedly dead freedom fighter. The kicker? The evil lord is actually the protagonist, and wasn't actually evil. Maybe.
- It helps that, in this case, Lelouch's army is literally incapable of self-determination. He geassed them all into mindless slaves. They have no will other than obeying his orders or that of his immediate subordinates, and they were all in on it.
- This actually happens to the Black Knights at the end of the first season as well. Given the series "Chess Motif" it's actually symbolic. When Lelouch, serving as the king and the group's strategist, is eliminated from the board, the rest of the group falls to pieces.
- Fighting Britanian Empire with only a handful of forces hoping that this pitiful struggle will somehow ignite the rebellions all over the world was some wacky plan from the very beginning.
- In Code Geass: Nightmare of Nunnally, after Charles disappears from the world as a result of Nunnally refusing to complete his Assimilation Plot, the undead Knights of the Round fade from existence, as they only exist because of his power.
- Played straight and defied in Fullmetal Alchemist. The coup specifically targeted Central command's top officers to disorganize and rout the enemy forces. It worked, at least until Fuhrer Bradley revealed himself to survive the assassination attempt. Defied by the Northern Force of Briggs, where their general was taken as hostage.
General Olivier Armstrong: It seems you do not know me well, gentlemen. One of our contingency is "If the situation calls for it, leave me behind." Survival of the fittest is the iron law of Briggs, and if I bite the dust here, it just means I am not fit to live. Do not take the notion of "I have raised them" as superficial. They can work with, or without me, and that's what makes a Briggs soldier.
- The Mahora Festival arc in Mahou Sensei Negima!, where thanks to an added condition in the ritual the heroes were rushing to stop, all that was needed to attain complete victory was for that arc's Big Bad to be defeated by Negi. This really pissed off Chisame, since it meant that all her efforts didn't matter in the end.
- Averted in Jack Rakan's Pensieve Flashback, where killing Lifemaker didn't stop the end-of-the-world ritual, and it took the entire fleet of three world superpowers to block it.
- Subverted in Naruto, where after Gato dies, his thugs plan on looting the Land of Waves since he can't pay them. While the heroes don't have enough strength left to fight them off, the arrival of the citizens of the Land of Waves combined with Naruto and Kakashi making Shadow Clones forces them to retreat. Which makes it a double subversion.
- Apparently played straight with Orochimaru and the Sound. Within days of his death, discipline and security collapsed in at least two high-security facilities.
- One Piece does the "inch of his life" variety in every major arc. It often works because these are not armies, but pirate crews that work on Asskicking Equals Authority. By winning, Luffy almost immediately proves that the rank and file aren't coming out on top. Specific examples:
- Captain Axe-Hand Morgan's defeat caused his Marines to stop fighting immediately. He was an extremely Bad Boss and they all hated him, enough to have him arrested after the fact.
- Luffy had to defeat Arlong and destroy Arlong Park in order to set the village people free. It helps that, in just a couple of attacks, the Straw Hats put his Mooks out of commission and were left with his foremen.
- The only way to stop the war in Alabasta was for Luffy to beat Crocodile and prove he's been manipulating the country this entire time. Played for Drama since the rebels/soldiers/Baroque Work agents weren't going to stop for anything.
- Enel had to be defeated because, aside from his high-ranking soldiers, nobody liked him anyway.
- Rob Lucci, while only being The Dragon to Spandam's Big Bad, had to be defeated by Luffy, or else he would just zoom on ahead and kill Robin. And even when Rob Lucci went down, the Straw Hats still had to make a grand escape from the Buster Call.
- More justified with Gecko Moria, who was holding all the shadows from people around the world. Without those shadows, people die when exposed to sunlight. Once he was beat up enough, he forcefully let go all of the shadows he had collected.
- Averted with Impel Down and Marineford. Luffy isn't strong enough to beat Magellan, and nobody too high up in the Marine chain is actually defeated. The war only ends because Whitebeard, whom the Marines were really after, was killed, and Shanks popped up, who agreed he'd take on all of the Marines and pirates if things didn't stop.
- Averted in the Fishman Island arc. When Hody Jones goes down, his senior crew members go insane and just start killing everyone. They reasoned that even if they died, they could kill enough people for their legacy of hatred to persist. The Straw Hats had to beat the entire lineup and a vast portion of their 100,000 strong army to settle things. Incidentally, most of said army was human slaves and fearfully-loyal Fishmen, so they at least gave up when Hody went down.
- Utawarerumono repeatedly uses this trope. In the anime version all the wars, except that against Kunnekamun, are won that way.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, when the supreme king is defeated, his massive demon army immediately scatters.
- In Dragon Ball Z Movie 12, a fairly large group of old villains are wreaking havoc after escaping Hell. Son Gohan takes out their de facto leader, Frieza, in one punch. Immediately, the rest of the army scatters and flees.
- Subverted in Maoyuu Maou Yuusha. The Hero attempted to assassinate the Demon King, believing he could end the war immediately. After finding that the demon ruler is really a Demon Queen, she informs him that if he did kill her, the human rulers would cover it up because the war benefits them and the demons would simply chose a new ruler in no time. After finding that she is not evil, Hero realizes the better option for ending the war is to work with her.
- Somewhat subverted in Fairy Tail Tenrou Island arc. Team Natsu defeats Hades but are about to be beset by the Grimorie Heart mooks which they don't have the power or strength for. The arrival of Marakov and the rest of the S-Class participants, though heavily bandaged, ready to fight is enough to scare them off though.
- Averted in Marvel Comics' "The Siege," when Norman Osborn is defeated but the heroes still have to deal with the rest of his invasion force, especially the Sentry. However, played straight in the Marvel Universe in general when pretty much everything Osborn had a hand in is entirely dismantled, dismissed, or overhauled the moment he's in jail.
- Subverted in the Bone comic series. After the Hooded One is defeated, the Rat Creatures and Pawans initially act as though they are defeated and retreat, but then regroup and attack again a minute later.
- In Halo: Halos in Space, it is suggested that killing the "boss alien" will make all the others go back to Alien Town.
- In the alternate ending of My Immortal, Ebony dies and ends up in Ironic Hell, and everyone rejoices and returns to normal.
- The former Trope Namer comes from a famous Crowd Song in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz; however, there it was justified, as the Munchkins were oppressed by the Witch of the East, and the "evil army" of the Witch of the West (the Winkies) turned around and cheered the destruction of their oppressor.
- In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine's death seems to reduce the entire Imperial starfleet to virtual catatonia. They aren't even shown retreating or regrouping; they just suddenly are gone. They had also just lost Darth Vader, the second in command, and Admiral Piett, the commander of the fleet, along with their Death Star and flagship Star Destroyer, so this was more of a complete rout.
- This was picked up on by Timothy Zahn, who worked a Hand Wave for it into the plot The Thrawn Trilogy. The Emperor was bolstering his forces morale via the Dark Side, and when he died the shock forced the Imperials into retreat. It also didn't help that the Executor, the most powerful vessel of the fleet and carrying all the leading personnel, was destroyed a few minutes prior.
- Despite this, the Expanded Universe shows that the Empire didn't magically cease to exist that day, even despite colossal losses. It was definitely when the tide turned, but the Empire remains a major force holding a decent amount of territory for years, and even by the time Han and Leia's kids are fully grown they're The Remnant with yet another plan to try and rise once more every so often. The massive force that ruled the whole known galaxy for so long did not say "well, the Emperor's dead, so I guess we'll ALL give up, go home, and just watch Oprah all day."
- Also occurs in The Phantom Menace when the droid control ship is destroyed, causing their droid forces to deactivate on the spot.
- Averted in Revenge of the Sith. Early in the film General Grevious immediately takes command after Dooku is slain by Anakin and the Republic is fully aware Dooku's death isn't enough to end the war. Furthermore, the Separatist forces on Utapau keep fighting even after Obi-Wan kills Grievous. Afterwards Palpatine goes as far to have Vader execute all the remaining Separatist leaders to ensure no loose ends.
- In The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick kills the Big Bad and the war stops, because whoever kills the guy takes his place. Played with because the immediate battle was already over at that point, and had been for days. The army curb-stomped Helion Prime in a single night, and the only thing Riddick actually stopped was the subsequent genocide of everyone left on the surface. Nor do the Necromongers stop their crusade for the Underverse altogether; Riddick has simply become their new leader. Riddick reveals that his brief rule is not met with approval by the Necromongers, as he has stopped virtually all conquest and refuses to make a pilgrimage to the Underverse to become a true Lord Marshall (e.g. have the Super Speed ability). Finally, he departs to find his lost homeworld, leaving Vaako in charge.
- In The Last Starfighter, when the titular Gunstar has to defeat an entire armada, the aim is to destroy the command ship's communications turret. Doing so will throw the large array of fighters into disarray. In the video game, it is the Instant-Win Condition.
- The battle at the start of the movie Gangs of New York seems to invert this—the Dead Rabbits stop fighting almost instantly.
- Nicely subverted in the film version of Prince Caspian, when both sides agree that the entire battle shall come down to a duel between High King Peter of Narnia and King Miraz of Telmar. Peter wins, but there's a Starscream handy to start the battle up anyway. It's okay, though, because that's when a literal Deus ex Machina saves the day.
- Used on a small scale in the movie The Fifth Element. Encountering a Hostage Situation, Bruce Willis takes a moment to figure out which bad guy is the leader, then offers himself as a "negotiator", turns the corner and immediately shoots the leader between the eyes. This works because Mangalores are honor-bound not to fight if their leader is killed. One even complains "no fair".
- In Equilibrium, this is explicitly part the plan of La Résistance, although it wouldn't have worked if the La Résistance didn't also destroy all the prozium factories once they had the signal that the Big Bad was dead.
- In Army of Darkness, the skeletons run screaming and the good guys declare victory the instant Semi-Good Ash disposes of Bad Ash.
- Averted in Black Hawk Down; when Mike Durant is captured, a militia man explains to him that even if General Aidid is captured, they will not suddenly put down their arms and adopt democracy.
- Inglourious Basterds revolves around several plots to kill Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Bormann. The film heavily implies that fulfilling this condition will win the war for the Allies. (Not that it would have worked out so neatly in Real Life...)
- The 2010 Alice in Wonderland subverts this trope in favor of an Instant-Win Condition; it's not the Red Queen that Alice has to kill, it's the Jabberwock. The massive, otherwise invulnerable dragon was the only reason anyone obeyed her, and her entire army rebelled the second it was dead.
- In the movie Prince Valiant the titular hero fights with the throne usurper while the palace guards fight his supporters. Once he kills the usurper, guards stop fighting and swear allegiance to him. It Makes Sense in Context, but not fully.
- Subverted in Sahara. The heroes rationalize that if they take out Kasiim, his army should surrender. When they succeed, both immediately note that it should never have worked. Then the camera pans out to reveal that the rebel army showed up and surrounded Kasiim's army while they weren't paying attention.
- The Movie of V for Vendetta has shades of this: V's plot to take down the government hinges on the assumption that the rank-and-file will become ineffective after he kills off the head of the government... and kills off all second-in-commands, and blows up a building for good measure. Not so in the original comic book, where V not only killed off the heads of government, he took over, then destroyed, their primary means of communication. No leaders, no way to keep order, and a whole lot of pissed-off people being told by the One-Man Army that did it all that they can now either choose true freedom or doom themselves again.
- Averted in The International: the Big Bad chairman of the evil bank flat out tells the protagonist that even if he kills him, his bank will continue its evil activities like nothing had happened. As the protagonist is pondering this, someone else shoots the Big Bad...and during the credits we get a montage showing that just as promised, the chairman was replaced and the bank kept its operations while maintaining its clean facade.
- In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, HYDRA is an aversion, as befits an organization named after the Hydra Problem. After the Red Skull was killed(?), several HYDRA agents were recruited into SHIELD and re-formed the group under their enemies' noses. Seventy years later when this was discovered by Captain America, he and his allies couldn't just kill the leader but had to dismantle SHIELD entirely in order to cripple HYDRA's activities. And even then, multiple splinter cells remain like those led by Baron Von Strucker and John Garrett.
- Justified in In The Name Of The King, where the death of Gallian causes all the Krug to stop, turn around, and wander off, even though they were winning the battle. The Krug are actually mindless beasts, who were only turned into an army by Gallian's sorcery. After his death, they're beasts again.
- Averted with King Konreid's death, but only because an Unexpected Successor is found. In fact, the trope almost worked because Konreid's nephew Duke Fallow (who is in league with Gallian) would have otherwise taken the throne and ended the fight against Gallian (all the generals are sword to obey the king, whoever it is).
Live Action TV
- In Lucha Libre, the easiest way to win a trios or atomicos match is to score the pinfall or submission on the designated captain of that team.
- In the 5th Edition of Warhammer, killing the general not only cost your opponent a powerful hero and all the General-related benefits, but actually caused every enemy unit to test for Panic, possibly causing the entire enemy army to run for the hills. Nowadays, this only affects Undead armies, who start to fall apart because the necromancer is no longer animating them and because they have fewer General-related benefits, though killing the enemy general is still a victory condition in certain scenarios.
- Warhammer 40,000 uses this more in the background material than in game mechanics:
- Orks (and Warhammer's Orcs) are normally in a state of Enemy Civil War until some powerful Warboss gathers them into a WAAAGH!, and if he dies his army tends to dissolve into its component tribes and clans as his would-be heirs compete to take over. This doesn't mean that the Orks will stop fighting their original enemy, though, it just means that enemy is dealing with dozens of competing warbands instead of a united horde.
- Followers of Chaos can be even more fractious than Greenskins, so killing their leader may simply result in a brief pause as a new leader asserts themselves, drive them to eat each other (maybe literally), or fight on even harder.
- Played mostly straight with the Tau Ethereals, the members of the guiding caste who, it is implied, use a form of Mind Control to make sure Tau society works the way it does. If they die, the rest of the Tau army can undergo a Heroic BSOD and bug out... or, without the Ethereal's guidance, go into an Unstoppable Rage and massacre the enemy with massed pulse rifle fire.
- Going straight for the enemy command structure was a trademark tactic of Warmaster Horus Lupercal, Primarch of the Sons of Horus and leader of the Horus Heresy. When the Siege of Terra was dragging on and loyalist reinforcements were getting closer, Horus lowered the shields of his capital ship to tempt the Emperor to try the same approach with a teleportation attack. Ironically, Horus was killed in the duel and his own legion fell victim to this trope, fleeing with his body and leading the retreat.
- Averted in a spectacular way when the Ultramarines went after the Alpha Legion's Primarch. After (possibly) killing Alpharius and his top commanders, the Ultramarines found that this in no way impacted the Alpha Legion's performance, and after taking a drubbing to their foe's superior coordination, maneuvering, and "dishonorable" tactics, the Ultramarines retreated and resorted to an orbital bombardment.
- Narrowly averted, then played straight in the Old World of Darkness. In the Demon The Fallen back-story, had Michael defeated Lucifer before the War of Wrath began, the Rebellion would have been stopped. He couldn't. Much later, when the Fallen were cast into the Abyss, God made damn sure Lucifer wasn't with them, going as far as to let him go free (even if depowered), because in his presence, other Demons would have endured ANY imprisonment.
- Not quite averted, but explored in the Dungeons & Dragons module "Red Hand of Doom." Defeating the end boss does not decapitate the army. There's a percentage chance that one of his lieutenants is able to take control. The percentage decreases the more lieutenants you killed leading up to defeating the end boss.
- The almost universally known example is, of course, Chess. If you can checkmate the enemy king, it doesn't matter how horribly outnumbered your pieces are or what strong position your enemy has achieved, they simply lose.
- Macbeth. Although the battle itself is happening offstage and we are led to believe that it's going poorly for Macbeth's loyalists, once Macduff emerges from the castle with Macbeth's head on a pike the fighting stops. Everybody immediately hails Prince Malcolm as the new King of Scotland.
- Also happens earlier, where Macbeth and Banquo defeat Macdonwald's forces by killing him and displaying his head on a pike. In this case, Macdonwald's army is formed mostly of mercenaries, who realize that since their payer is dead, they have no more reason to fight.
- Battle for Wesnoth turns this into a game element. Each force is led by a commander, whose death means defeat no matter how many minions he has left. These units can still act if there are allied leaders however, but defeating all leaders is the most common way to win a scenario.
- One of the PVP battlegrounds in World of Warcraft allows an instant win for killing the other faction's NPC leader.
- In the classic dungeon Dire Maul, after the party kills King Gordok all the surviving ogres declare them the new rulers of Dire Maul. If the party does so without killing the other bosses, they will get extra rewards in the tribute chest that they receive.
- Killing some raid bosses causes the trash near them to disappear until the instance resets next week. Many bosses' adds disappear when they're defeated, but there are some subversions, such as Sartharion (whose adds often kill the players after they defeat him with the drakes still alive), Herod (who causes an army of very weak Scarlet Trainees to rush the party after he dies), and Instructor Razuvious (whose Understudies are still alive, but get a damage increasing debuff that enables you to kill them very quickly).
- Wrath of the Lich King is a subversion and a justified use of this trope. When Arthas Menethil is killed, the heroes learn that without a Lich King the undead Scourge will run out of control, becoming more dangerous than before. Bolvar Fordragon then takes up the Helm of Domination to become the new Lich King and order the Scourge to stand down.
- Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander have similar conditions as the standard, with the added caveat that a destroyed Commander/ACU goes up like a nuclear bomb, typically taking out the rest of their army/base anyway. This is justified by the fact that they're the literal brains of the operation, and serve as the Avatar for the player. Every other unit is just a machine controlled by the commander, and have no direction upon his death. Skirmish and multiplayer games can be set to allow the player to continue if they still have other forces remaining.
- In Total Annihilation, this sometimes leads to 'combombing', where a player will deliberately position their commander in the centre of an opponent's base- typically early in a game, when the resulting explosion will do more damage than anything else currently available could, wiping out most or all of the opponent's forces and infrastructure. Naturally, this only works if the option to fight on is enabled, otherwise this will result in either a Mutual Kill or an instant loss.
- On the other end of the morality spectrum was the other version of 'combombing', which involved flying in a rapidly built transport plane to pick up the enemy commander, and then self-destruct the plane. Units without hilariously massive amounts of health would not survive. If the option not to fight on is enabled, it's an instant win. If it is, the bomber would usually try to position the commander in the most harmful position possible, to win quickly. Naturally, players frowned on this. Fortunately, the AI was just as vulnerable to it.
- In the Total War games, killing the enemy general causes his troops to take a morale hit, making it much easier to mop them up. Of course, the same can happen to your general, too. In the Medieval games peasant uprisings are particularly prone to this, being mostly made up of peasants with terrible morale. So long as the general unit isn't made of spearmen, 20 cavalry can rout an army of a thousand.
- On the strategic level, killing the faction leader and all of his heirs causes the faction in question to dissolve into leaderless rebels.
- Averted to a degree from Empire onwards. Killing generals on the battlefield would not necessarily stop enemies (especially veteran units) from retreating that easily while in Shogun 2, assassinating the daimyo and his heirs only serves to hand power over to said daimyo's wife.
- Subverted in Starcraft, twice. First in Protoss Mission 2, "Into the Flames", Tassadar destroys a Cerebrate in hopes it will disable (or at least disorganize) the forces it controls. It does neither. Then in the finale, the Protoss with help from the Terrans go after the Overmind itself, figuring this should render the Zerg swarm helpless. Cue the expansion: Brood War.
- The subversion is justified in-game; if a Cerebrate is killed, the Overmind simply makes a new one, with all the memories and experience of the old Cerebrate still intact. Finding a way permanently kill these Cerebrates and successfully apply this trope is a crucial plot point.
- Played straight whenever a vital Zerg controller is successfully destroyed; Any Zerg that entity was controlling will go berserk and massacre anything near it, including fellow Zerg. This is a BIG DEAL for the Zerg if said entity was responsible for their entire species. To their credit, both the original Zerg Overmind and later Kerrigan were Genre Savvy enough to create "backup controllers", that would salvage small portions of the swarm in case that happened.
- Cleaning up the devastating aftermath of this trope is a major theme in the Heart Of The Swarm expansion.
- In several battles in the Shining Force series, killing the resident (minor) boss enemy will instantly cause every other enemy on the field to drop dead. Also applicable to your team in most games, where the death of the leader's character is an automatic total defeat.
- An example of this is seen frequently in Beat Em Ups, where if you defeat the final boss of a stage while he still has Mooks on screen, all of them spontaneously and simultaneously die.
- Thankfully played straight in Nowel's scenario in Magical Battle Arena, where all you have to do to beat the combined forces of Ruru, Kirara, Sarara, Nanoha, and Fate in her final stage is to take out Ruru.
- The Age of Empires series has the Regicide game mode, where the death of a player's king would cause them to lose, and all their units surrender.
- In Mount & Blade and its variants, this is both averted and played straight. Averted when it comes to the enemy leader and played straight when it comes to your army.
- Both played straight and averted in Fire Emblem. Some missions end immediately after you defeat the opposing army's commander, while in others the enemy will continue fighting even after you kill the boss until you complete another objective, like wiping out the enemy to a man, surviving for a given number of turns, or occupying the tile the boss was sitting on. It's entirely possible (and annoying) in one of these missions for your lord unit to kill the boss only to be finished off by a bunch of Mooks next turn.
- Warcraft is good with this trope. Played straight in the first where the orcs win after King Llane is murdered by Garona. Invoked by Orgrim Doomhammer in the second when he killed Lothar, but subverted as it only makes the Alliance angrier and the Horde lost the battle. Averted in the third when Arthas killed Mal'Ganis (because he was not the real leader of the Scourge) but played straight with the death of Archimonde.
- Llane himself frequently stated that "as long as a strong heart was on the throne, the men's morale would not falter." It's possible that Stormwind would have held if Llane survived.
- The Rambo Light Gun game uses this in a minor way: whenever there's an "officer" among the enemies, killing him first will startle some of the soldiers on-screen, which will not attack for a few seconds.
- Iji subverts this twice. Killing off Elite Krotera doesn't stop the Tasen's dominion as they're on the brink of extinction and they'll fight back at anything to the last man. Near the end, Komato General Tor discusses this trope with Iji as he reminds her he's just one general in their immense army and that if he goes down, another general will give the command to obliterate Earth. And anyway, he already gave the order and only a word from him will stop the final attack. Only beating the crap out of him convinces him to call it off.
- Diablo II does this in Act 3. When you kill the high council the Zakarumites will no longer attack you and flee in fear.
- Knights of the Old Republic tries to invoke the trope but fails. When Bastila leads a few Jedi to board and cripple Darth Revan's flag ship and capture the man himself, his apprentice takes this as a good reason to have his vessels fire on said flag ship's bridge and usurp the leadership of the Sith empire.
- Played pretty much straight in Soul Calibur III: Raphael Sorel's story mode starts during the attack of his mansion/castle by disproportionate forces: an army (complete with some catapults and trebuchets) against him, Amy Sorel and his too-good-to-be-shown-onscreen servants. What do you have to do? Defeat the general, of course!
- Played straight out of the book in the Dynasty Warriors series. Killing the enemy commander results in instant victory for your side, even if you and your commander are the only ones still alive.
- Simultaneously subverted. When you kill an enemy officer, the soldiers in his unit keep fighting... unless they're too busy running away in fear.
- In Resistance: Fall of Man, the deaths of the Angels at the end of the game causes the rest of the Chimera to die off once they lose their psychic contact with their Angel controllers. However, they come back in the sequel after the emergence of a new Angel/human hybrid, Daedalus.
- Scarface: The World is Yours handles this in an odd way: you can kill all the gangsters you want, but unless you mow down the leader, the gang in question will be back for more. While killing the leader in of itself does not kill all the rest, it does prevent that gang from returning, and the leader is usually one of the last to spawn anyway.
- Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War has the "Assassinate" victory condition, where killing the enemy commander is an Instant-Win Condition.
- Also, all of the Tau's units in the game will suffer massive morale damage if their Ethereal is killed.
- The Instant-Win Condition for the Tau and Ork strongholds in the Dark Crusade campaign is killing their leader, which causes the army to fracture and retreat. Deliciously subverted with the Orks however, as Gorgutz not only manages to escape but detonates his entire stronghold as he leaves, just because.
- This seems to occur at the end of Half-Life, with the death of the Nihilanth ending the threat of its army. The ending of the expansion Opposing Force however shows that it was really a thermonuclear warhead obliterating the entire facility that ended the invasion, the Xen army not able to teleport to any other location on Earth. (The game's relevance to continuity is dubious, but Word of God has confirmed the validity of the ending.)
- In Fallout: New Vegas, defeating Legate Lanius either by either killing him or convincing him to retreat will officially win the battle for the NCR (and if the player is fighting for Mr. House or an Independent Vegas, all that's left to do is to take care of General Oliver via the same means). However, this is also simultaneously averted: Lanius is second-in-command of the Legion after Caesar. Regardless of whether or not you're gunning for the Legion, killing Caesar himself has basically no effect on the end battle, although it is stated that Caesar himself is essential to the Legion's survival as a whole, as he's the personality the Legion is built around and without him it will fracture.
- After the Master's death in Fallout 1, most of the surviving first-generation Super Mutants emigrated east, settling in Broken Hills, and later Jacobstown. Since they and most other remnants of the Master's Army have no interest in continuing their former mission, this trope is pretty much played straight.
- Subverted by the Enclave from Fallout 2 through Fallout 3. In spite of losing at least four major headquarters and having their entire upper echelon of leaders gutted at least twice, the Enclave has managed to regroup and recover from their losses almost every single time. Only time will tell if the Enclave has finally been defeated once and for all, after the destruction of their headquarters at Adams Air Force Base in Broken Steel.
- It happens often in Crusader Kings. If you declare war on an enemy king, quickly defeat him and conquer his provinces, you can force him to hand over his titles to you. All of his vassals will then become yours, and any that had taken arms to defend their former liege will cease hostilities. On easier settings, this means that you can conquer the totality (or almost) of the map with relative ease.
- Justified in EarthBound after defeating Giygas, in that he was the source of all the enemies' evil thoughts.
- For that matter, defeating any Sanctuary guardian causes all the enemies in the area to run away from Ness and his friends.
- Played with in Lords of Magic: Defeating an enemy lord removes their faction from the game, and the game ends when only one lord's faction remains. However, if two lords ally together and one is defeated, the surviving lord takes control of the defeated lord's faction, and if a lord dies without allies, their soldiers become neutral wandering bandits and swear to avenge themselves against the lord who defeated them.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, when the Archdemon is killed, the Darkspawn all turn and flee. Justified in that he's mindlinked to them: the Darkspawn Chronicles DLC, in which you play a Darkspawn, describes this as a voice in your head telling you to kill.
- Lampshaded early in the game when Alistair explains how to end the invasion: "We cut off the snake's head."
- This is Subverted in two ways: First, if you complete "the dark ritual", the Archdemon isn't actually killed. Secondly, in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening, it turns out that many Darkspawn didn't go underground, and most of the game is spent fighting them.
- In Baldurs Gate Dark Alliance, killing a boss causes all of his minions will drop dead.
- Justified in Super Robot Wars Original Generation: after Bian Zoldark is defeated, his troops scatter, but only because he previously gave them the order to do so if he was killed.
- Although quite a few of them try to regroup under his second in command to continue their war. Essentially everyone in the force that wasn't in on the plan of submitting to the Federation upon his defeat or those that only agreed thinking they wouldn't lose and changed their minds when they did, kept fighting. And when these guys are defeated a few remenants go into hiding and again try to restart the war in the next game.
- Happens in Bastion. On the second level, there's a large windbag guarding the core being supported by many smaller windbags. Defeating the head windbag will cause the others to shift their loyalty towards you... and then spontaneously die.
- Justified in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, since all of the sand monsters dissolve once you kill off The Vizier.
- A Lord of the Rings game for the Game Boy Advance has mechanics which embody this trope. The battlefield is divided into three stripes - the middle and the flanks. All three can have leaders on them - either named characters or generic captains. Those generate command points, which are required to make units act on the battlefield. When a stripe is devoid of those - either because they died or left for another one - only the natural rate of command point generation applies, which happens to be "one point or none at all". So, basically - without a leader, units stand without orders, and the enemy can slaughter them however he pleases.
- In Centurion: Defender of Rome the death of a general is followed by the general retreat of a significant part of his army. If the units aren not very brave to begin with then it overlaps with Keystone Army. Also provides an strategical example; if the player loses Italy, taxes are no longer collected in any province.
- And if that's not enough, numerous enemy provinces have the enemy general out in front — meaning that he's likely the first unit to fall in battle.
- In Killing Floor, defeating the final enemy, the Patriarch, immediately ends the game, even if some of his mooks are still alive.
- Once you kill the leader of the Lutadors in Inversion all the rest basically give up. Despite the fact they had basically won the war a month ago but it's probably best not to think too much about it.
- In Commander Keen Episode 3: Keen Must Die, Keen faces the Vorticons, a dog-like alien race, who try to do everything to kill Keen. When Keen kills his arch-enemy Mortimer McMire, the vorticons instantly return to their previous peaceful life, as it turns out Mortimer used to be enslaving the whole race with "mind-belts".
- In the third level of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (the club level), a few bouncers usually lead the charge against your characters. Once they go down, the current wave of mooks panic and book it instantly.
- Averted in BioShock Infinite. Killing Daisy Fitzroy doesn't put an end to the Vox Populi. In fact, they've remained a threat, if not bigger than ever throughout the game now that Daisy is no longer controlling them.
- In Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, the capture of Darah Dan Doa leader Suhadi Sadono effectively ends the conflict in East Timor.
- The penultimate mission of the original game ends as soon as you kill Grinko - the still-surviving mercenaries under him figure that, with him dead, there's no reason to keep doing a job they're no longer getting paid for.
- At the end of Raiden Fighters, chances are you've killed the so-called "dictator" controlling the enemy forces. Credits then say they start running away.
- Raiden Fighters 2 ends with the same possible result. But the ending credits do say it's important to keep watch of the enemy. Cue Raiden Fighters Jet.
- Played straight and then subverted in Homeworld; gameplay-wise, destroying the enemy flagship in the final level is an Instant-Win Condition, justified by the fact that said flagship contains the almost-literal God Emperor of the enemy faction and morale would almost certainly collapse immediately. (Though in practice the flagship is so far from the action that you won't get near it until the enemy have already been pounded flat.) Ambiguously canon semi-sequel Cataclysm then goes on to explore what happened next: A Succession Crisis deteriorated into full-blown Enemy Civil War and a few vengeful hardliners are still mounting raids on the titular Homeworld fifteen years later.
- This trope forms a key game mechanic in the Langrisser series. Killing an enemy leader will cause the subordinate units in the squad to die automatically. Thus, taking out the leader first removes the threat from the map but limits the possible experience the player can gain, while killing each individual unit maximizes experience gained but requires more time and resources (since sub units get buffs from their leader's field of influence).
- Justified in Batman: Arkham Origins: Deadshot is apparently such a Bad Boss that any Mook who hasn't yet been taken out will instantly run for the exit as soon as Batman has taken care of their boss.
- In FEAR's penultimate level, killing Paxton Fettel causes the Replica Soldiers he was commanding to freeze in place.
- The Metal Gear series has a long standing history of averting this trope:
- Subverted in Final Fantasy II. When the Emperor is killed in his cyclone castle, Leon simply takes over the Empire.. then loses it BACK to the Emperor when he returns from Hell with newfound powers. Played straight with the second battle with the Emperor, which is the final boss fight of the game, where his soul is destroyed, and presumably his empire as well.
- Final Fantasy VII plays with this trope quite a bit. The goal of AVALANCHE in the opening Midgar parts of the game is to destroy the Mako Reactors controlled by Shinra to wreck them. When President Shinra is killed by Big Bad Sephiroth at the end of these segments, it looks like Shinra is toast.... then his son Rufus appears and takes over the company for the majority of the rest of the game, and Shinra continues to antagonize the player forces throughout.
- Played straight when Rufus himself is killed toward the end of Disc 2. Although Co-Dragons Heidegger and Scarlet take command, it's made clear by the Turks and other civilians that Rufus's death has left the company's private army without direction, and Heidegger and Scarlet are not cut out for leadership. Then Heidegger and Scarlet are killed in the Proud Clod boss fight near the end of the Midgar Disc Two Final Dungeon, and rogue scientist Hojo, Sephiroth's father, who is attempting to destroy the city, is killed by AVALANCHE in a following boss fight, ending the dungeon and leaving Shinra completely leaderless and insignificant for the final disc of play. Rufus turns out to have survived, but his office was destroyed, and the rest of Shinra Headquarters is destroyed by Meteor in the ending. Although Shinra returns in Advent Children, they had shrunk considerably in the 3 years since the end of the game.
- Game play wise, this is one of the winning requirements in the Fort Condor battles. After enough time has passed on the battlefield, the enemy commander will pop up and start advancing himself. If the troops you are hiring are able to kill him (you will need a good number of troops), you win the battle. It's also played straight if the enemies rush the shed where the player is directing the Fort Condor forces, which will force the player party into a mini-boss fight against the commander, a much stronger version of the Grand Horn enemy. The team simply needs to kill the mini-boss to win the battle. In the final Fort Condor battle, which is part of the main storyline and thus has to be faced, this is recommended to get a very strong piece of armor, but if the player is defeated in this battle, they lose Fort Condor, the Huge Materia in it, and the Phoenix Summon Materia.
- Fans! uses this with a certain amount of justification: when the General—a warlord from the future whose cadre of troops had a loyalty bordering on worship—finally dies, Kath (who earlier mentioned that she'd "read enough fantasy to know how gods die") immediately called for the troops to lay down their arms. Though some try to fight on, the combination of watching their godlike leader die and Kath's assumption of authority cows them.
- Rikk's troops in the relaunch have this problem too, being too dependent on him. When he's knocked unconscious in a fight, his team falls apart.
- Subverted in this Girl Genius strip.
- In The Order of the Stick, after Roy throws Xykon into the Gate, his remaining goblin underlings attempt to surrender (giving the reason that because Xykon's dead, no one's paying them, though "Start of Darkness" provides some alternate possibilities), but Belkar kills them anyway.
- Even the heroes were prone to this. Without Roy's leadership the group's members were split in two and ended up becoming indecisive and/or hindering and fighting with each other, accomplishing nothing for months. The only exception is Haily who used her time to form a resistance and was crucial in reuniting the order so they can rez their leader.
- Start of Darkness contains an interesting subversion. A charismatic goblin known as The Dark One has united all the monstrous humanoids, so the humans fake a peace talk and kill him, hoping his horde falls apart. Instead, his army goes berserk and embarks on a year-long killing spree of everyone and everything they come across. The resulting slaughter is enough to cause the Dark One to ascend to posthumous godhood via Gods Need Prayer Badly.
- Bob the Angry Flower showcases this quite nicely.
- Erfworld takes this trope quite literally, to the point of exaggeration. To quote Parson on the subject of the death of the leader of a faction:
- In Impure Blood, the monsters all fall apart -- literally -- when the head has been killed.
- Ancient armies often did behave this way. Many of Alexander the Great's victories were based on having his Phalangial infantry hold off the numerically superior enemy while Alexander and his Companion horsemen cut their way through to the enemy leader and either killed him or forced him to flee the field, causing the collapse of enemy resistance. This was the tactic that won the day at the Battle of Issus and led to the collapse of the Persian empire.
- There were a few cases where this backfired, notably at the battle of Chalons, where Attila's army was having a successful go at fighting the Roman's allies, the Goths, until the old king Theodoric the Goth fell off his horse and died, upon which a cry of "Avenge the King!" went out amongst the Goths, who proceeded to drive off the Huns.
- The U.S government has been guilty of this, killing off high-ranking members of drug cartels and terrorist organizations again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The success rate of these incidents has varied; sometimes it does the job, while in others it gives the group an extra incentive to hate America.
- This is a problem with such groups that have a large following of devotees. If you cut off the head, this will only strengthen the devotees because that person will be seen as a martyr.
- The US and other modern militaries also subvert it, with a very particular chain of command. Taking out a general just means that command devolves upon the next guy in line who, if the general did his job correctly, knows all the same information. Taking out several links in the chain of command at once, such as by a lucky artillery hit on a command post, is another matter however.
- Primate research ran across a case like this: an exceptional individual led his troop on a successful campaign of expanding the troop's territory against all the other troops nearby. Removal of said individual from his troop and territorial boundaries returned to their prior state. They returned him to his troop and the "conquest" started all over again.
- This is the rationale of #18 of The Thirty-Six Stratagems.
- Multiple occurrences on either side of the war in the long-running Chinese Three Kingdoms war.
- The Allies planned to defeat Germany in World War II by killing Hitler, although he did it (by committing suicide) before they could get him. In retrospect, it's most likely a good thing that he wasn't killed, as many (like to) believe that his micromanaging the war, plus pinning his generals against each other was a major element of the Axis defeat.
- While there wasn't a death of the head of the military for Japan (at least, in a military operation), the war continued on for many a Japanese soldier because they refused to believe Japan would surrender. It took one person nearly 35 years to stand down because he was waiting for orders from his CO.
- In the lesser version of war: any time the best player of a sports team is injured/leaves/retires, it'll be tough for the team to win without him. Which is why it's usual to have a defender following the standout (and possibly injure him out of the game...).
- The Prussian Army came very close to this trope in the battle of Auerstedt (14 October, 1806) when its commander, the Duke of Brunswick, was incapacitated by a (as it turned out, mortal) wound. King Frederick William III, who was present on the field, then failed to appoint a new commander-in-chief or to try to take command himself. The resultant loss of co-ordination between the various parts of the army (two-fifths of which were not even brought into action until the retreat already started) enabled Davout's outnumbered corps to score a remarkable victory.
- When in late 1813 some Allied roving corps attacked French-held Bremen, they could not make any impression on the city's fortifications. Then a rifleman belonging to the Lützow Free Corps managed to kill the French commandant with what even contemporaries described as a lucky shot. Shortly afterwards the garrison, which consisted largely of Swiss soldiers, capitulated.
- On February 22, 2002, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle by government forces. Three weeks later, his army, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) had signed a ceasefire with the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and by August had disarmed and disbanded its military forces, bringing the Angolan Civil War to an end after 27 years.
- A political example: the 1968 campaign of Robert F. Kennedy was cut short by his assassination. He remains the only presidential candidate to have been killed while on campaign, and after his death, the U.S. Secret Service's mandate was extended to protect presidential candidates.
- Causing this was the whole idea of blitzkrieg: fast-moving tank columns disrupt supplies and command and control, leaving the enemy army leaderless.
- Double Subverted by the death of Muammar Gaddafi. After he was killed in his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011, there were rumblings of an insurgency continuing afterwards, which appeared to be unfounded until an uprising in January 2012 occurred in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid. The uprising was initially reported as one by pro-Gaddafi troops, but it eventually turned out to just be a group of local tribesmen, and a serious Gaddafist insurgency in Libya has failed to manifest as of this writing.
- The battle of Novi, on 15 August 1799, opposed General Barthélémy Joubert's French Republican armies to Marshal Alexander Suvorov's Russian and Austrian force. Joubert was killed at the beginning of the battle, which ended in a French defeat. There was no mass panic among the soldiers, as the other generals were Genre Savvy enough to hide Joubert's death from them; but for lack on a single commander who could see the battle from above and move the troops wherever they were needed, the French left wing, centre and right wing each effectively found themselves fighting a separate battle against a unified Allied army.