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Fixed Relative Strength
For any group of ninjas, the ninjitsu in that group will not be evenly distributed; some ninja will be in a more powerful class than others. Which ninja are more powerful will stay constant even when the group as a whole gains ninjitsu.

Fiction has interesting parallel tropes to the laws of thermodynamics. For example, a given group of Ninjas is subject to Conservation of Ninjutsu, so the more there are the weaker each is. Groups are likewise subject to Conservation of Competence, if one person is very competent their supporters will be very incompetent, and vice-versa.

Sometimes, both of these combine in the form of Distribution of Ninjutsu. When a group, cast, or faction is subject to Distribution of Ninjutsu, the total amount of fighting ability is more or less constant but unevenly distributed, establishing a ranking of who's stronger than who. These ranks tend to stay constant even after characters get stronger. Why is this done? To avoid having everyone be so awesomely powerful no one stands out. It's much like limiting a character type or trait to avoid over saturating the setting.

This can be distributed a few ways. Usually, much like Authority Equals Asskicking, the leader of the group will be the strongest, and all down the chain of command the Ninjutsu gets smaller and smaller until ground level Mooks or Red Shirts are pushovers. If the group is evil, this is much like an in-season Sorting Algorithm of Evil and Sliding Scale of Villain Threat.

Heroes will usually have an analogous ranking to the villains, so each member of the Five-Bad Band will be as badass in their own group as their respective opposite in the Five-Man Band. However, since the heroes tend to be just five, and tend to have no mooks, they will concentrate their combined Ninjutsu such that they are usually slightly stronger than their opposite. This is usually not the case with The Hero and The Lancer when they face the Evil Overlord and The Dragon, as they tend to "hoard" some ninjutsu from their underlings to make them stronger than their analogue.

Another possibility is that the Five-Man Band may sometimes have a near equal distribution of Ninjutsu among its members, with the leader being a well balanced Jack of All Stats while the rest have a specialty. This explains why the Monster of the Week usually has more raw oomph than any 2 or 3 heroes, but falls when they make a Combined Energy Attack or use The Power of Friendship, or form a giant robot. (I'm looking at you, Power Rangers.) It's also worth noting that each side does not necessarily have the same total Ninjutsu to distribute, no one said fiction was fair after all.

In the rare case the leader of the heroes/baddies is the weakest of the bunch, everyone else will be massively more powerful, like a huge bubble becoming lots of medium sized ones. These leaders often compensate this by being The Hero with What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?, which sidesteps Conservation of Ninjutsu.

Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • Dragon Ball Z is pretty consistent this way despite the insane power increases they get later. Goku is the strongest, followed by Vegeta, their various children, Piccolo, Android 18, Tien, Krillin, and finally, Yamcha.
    • DBZ does subvert this trope in the later story arcs. Gohan surpasses Goku and Vegeta in power to challenge Cell and save the world only to fall behind in his training later on. However, an Upgrade Artifact granted by the Elder Kai soon re-establishes him as one of the most powerful fighters.
      • But it doesn't help that Adult Gohan is a fairly consistent Jobber, meaning that even when he's the Ultimate Mystic Fighter that SUPPOSEDLY surpasses any Super Saiyan, he still comes off as weaker then Goku and Vegeta. Somehow. Of course, in GT and other movies set after Z, Goku and Vegeta naturally gets even better power ups.
  • In One Piece the Straw Hat Pirates generally all undergo badass level-ups at around the same time every other arc or so. Despite this, Captain Luffy and Zoro are always at the top, followed closely Sanji, and the three of them are consistently considered to be leagues above the rest of the crew.
    • Word of God states that Ussop will always be the weakest member of the crew, since he's meant to be closest to a normal human.
  • Hunter ◊ Hunter subverts this for three of the four main characters. Their displayed fighting strength changes (as far as we can tell) from approximately
    • Killua > Kurapica = Gon > Leorio at the beginning via
    • Kurapica > Killua > Gon > Leorio during the York Shin Arc and
    • Killua > Gon > Kurapica > Leorio at the end of the Greed Island Arc to
    • Gon > Killua > Kurapica > Leorio in the most recent chapters.

Comic Books
  • Very prominent in Green Lantern. The Green Lantern Corps has thousands of members, most of whom constitute a Red Shirt Army. It is not unusual for them to be killed en masse in battles where the main characters like Hal Jordan not only survive, but win the battle. Even though they all have essentially the same power.

Film

Literature

Web Comics
  • Torg in Sluggy Freelance is arguably the lead, and is pretty much the weakest character on the strip until he got a demon slaying sword and Took a Level in Badass (which means he's still clumsy, but slightly less so). Riff, Aylee, Bun Bun and Gwynn are all far more combat capable, ZoŽ being the weakest character at this point.

Western Animation
  • Storm Hawks has a pretty linear breakdown of power, which gets shuffled later on in season 2 by Stork and Piper.
  • Robin in Teen Titans is an example of a leader who is weaker in comparison to his much stronger peers, but can, at the worst, hold his own with any regular Muggle adult. He's enough of a Badass Normal to keep up with them all when Slade blackmails him into being his apprentice, but one has to wonder how hard they were trying to hurt him.
    • Though with the right technology, Robin can actually solo the rest of his team even when they ARE trying to bringing him down. Though admittedly, most of the team had moments when they overshadow the rest of their team singlehandlely.

First Law of TragicomediesLaws and FormulasFleeting Demographic Rule

alternative title(s): Distribution Of Ninjutsu
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