Unscrupulous Hero

Not all fictional heroes are the sort of person you might expect to be a hero of a story. The idea that there is an "Ideal Hero" and there are "Anti-Heroes" who deviate from the ideal has been around since classical antiquity if not earlier. Since then, writers have explored many types of antiheroes, each of which lack one or more traits of an Ideal Hero.

An Unscrupulous Hero is an Anti-Hero who is a step further down the slippery slope from the Knight in Sour Armor and Pragmatic Hero; where the former lacks the positive outlook and the latter the moral cleanliness of the Ideal Hero, this archetype combines and amplifies both, especially the lack of moral character part, while remaining A Lighter Shade of Grey than the antagonists.

Despite this, these heroes share one overriding heroic trait: unlike a Nominal Hero, they are heroes in the true sense of the word: when they have to take a stand on one side or another, they choose to fight for good for a morally positive reason, and aren't just helping the heroes for selfish reasons.

These characters tend to fall under two different categories:
  • They are usually defined by dark experiences that have made them cold and unforgiving, and due to the settings in which they exist, there will usually be no compunctions to using more extreme methods. They are as much about payback (or any assorted type of catharsis) as they are the greater good, and their targets will be deserving of it, more likely than not. You probably shouldn't expect them to be mindful of collateral damage, though.
  • They may be a little more selfish, but unlike a Nominal Hero, have a much stronger honor code that keeps them from becoming less sympathetic.

In terms of sympathy, personality, etc., these characters can vary widely. For some, their admirable motivation may be their only good trait; others may be highly sympathetic, having all the characteristics of a compelling Anti-Hero combined with the fact that they are willing to sacrifice for a good cause.

A heroic character on this part of the scale runs the risk of kicking one too many puppies and ending up a Fallen Hero if he can't get over his demons. Often found in conjunction with Tragic Hero and Byronic Hero.

Compare with Knight Templar and Well-Intentioned Extremist. Compare and contrast with Nominal and Sociopathic Heroes (both of whom are more...well...sociopathic). Also compare and contrast with the Tautological Templar and Visionary Villain for villains who just think they're the good guys.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In the OVA of Dogs: Bullets & Carnage, the leads all have shades of the first type except for Badou who's closer to a cowardly Loveable Rogue. In the manga, they edge a little closer to Nominal Hero.
  • Hellsing has Father Alexander Anderson, though he does have shades of a Nominal Hero. He mainly targets vampires and heathens, believing them to be an affront against God and danger to the innocents of the world. And he sometimes takes it a little too far with his Ax-Crazy attacks and Blood Knight beliefs, but he also adores children, acts like a surrogate father to his Iscariot followers, respects Integra's principles and Nerves of Steel attitude, and takes a stand against Maxwell when he starts killing the innocent survivors of Protestant England.
    • Another mention goes to Anderson's Iscariot followers, most of whom he raised himself. Compared to Maxwell and his fanatical Holy Crusaders, Heinkel, Yumie, and the rest of Iscariot are under Anderson's Even Antagonists Have Standards direct influence, which prevents them from committing similar atrocities against innocent but non-Catholic populations.
    • The TV series' version of the protagonist himself could qualify... until he Takes a Level in Jerkass near the end.
  • Reiji becomes this later on in Kurogane no Linebarrel.
    • In some ways, the protagonist himself also kinda fits.
  • In Death Note we have L, the Hero Antagonist to Light/Kira's Villain Protagonist. While L does try to capture Kira because he's a murderer, his main motivation is because he sees Kira as a challenge, and it's revealed that in general he only cares about cases he finds interesting, making him something of a Nominal Hero in this regard. Describing himself as "childish and hates losing," he is willing to resort to, among other things, kidnapping, torture, lying and invasion of privacy to get the job done. The series lampshades how Not So Different he and Light are from each other fairly often. Still, L only reserves his justice for people he sees as evil, and to be fair his accusations seem to always be correct. Moreover, while L does order the deaths of a few criminals to help further the investigation, these criminals were on death row anyway.
  • Rurouni Kenshin's foil, Saito Hajime. Vicious verging on sadistic, believes Kenshin's optimism to be foolishly deluded, and yet is utterly relentless in punishing the wicked and doing what is right for his country. He also does (ahem) have shades of a Nominal Hero, though, as he's more of a Jerkass and sociopath than usual examples. The manga's Revenge Arc, though, makes him firmly the latter, considering what he did to Mumyoi.
  • Eren Jaeger from Attack on Titan.
  • Lelouch, exiled prince turned masked revolutionary from Code Geass, falls under this for most of the series, fighting for the freedom of the world from the Holy Britannian Empire but causing a lot of damage in the process... and dealing with a lot of issues.
  • Stocking from Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt falls into this category. While her attitude is largely the same as Panty, she's generally more levelheaded and shows more responsibility in missions than her. This is a major plot point in the last two episodes, where her efficiency causes her to be Put on a Bus. And the ending comes along and subverts this, with Stocking suddenly skewering Panty.
  • Ryuko from Kill la Kill. While her motives are self-serving, she's willing to help anyone if the Absurdly Powerful Student Council starts messing with them. This is actually an Exploited Trope, since both times she's done this, she gets screwed over by them. The first time, it was a student who tagged along with her and Mako for No Late Day who wanted to steal Senketsu from her. The second time, it was Nui Harime, who pretended to be bullied so she could get close to her and destroy Senketsu, whose parts were used to power up Satsuki's Mooks.
  • Violence Jack himself. Although he starts off being somewhere between a Protagonist Villain and a Nominal Hero, as the story progresses he becomes more heroic and the people he kills are always only evil people.

    Comicbooks 
  • Rorschach from Watchmen is basically a psychotic nihilist who's lost all faith in humanity and yet, he'll still fight for his vision of justice. This is particularly evident in the story of Dr. Malcolm Long, who becomes "infected" with Rorschach's disorder after a Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: while he begins viewing the world as cold and cruel, he also feels compelled to stop injustice and abuse whenever he encounters it.
  • Disney Italy's Paperinik the Devilish Avenger has leanings toward this type of Anti-Hero. He is Donald's superhero (sort of) alter ego, but Donald initially created it to avenge himself against torts (real or imagined) he suffered, his main reason to fight criminals is that crime in general piss him off (assuming they didn't somehow target Donald or Paperinik in the first place), and the most light-hearted stories still have him doing things like sick a lynch mob on the Beagle Boys (they had organized a marathon with Paperinik's Secret Identity as the prize to empty Duckburg and sack it. Once he found out they didn't actually know his real identity, Paperinik lured the citizens back in town and had them catch the BB in the act).
  • Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, is a multiple murderer who shows no real regret for any of the people she's killed, and once even cracked a joke after killing a teenager who had been possessed by an Evil Weapon and wasn't really responsible for his actions. Her teammates or other heroes regularly have to restrain her from killing people and do not always succeed. Nevertheless, she is on the side of the good guys.
  • Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan. Cynical or not, and crazy though he might be, he's a journalist because he cares about the truth, and a savage beating from people who don't appreciate it won't make him see otherwise. Unscrupulous in that there is absolutely nothing he won't do to get to it, no matter what.
    • Really, nine out of ten of the characters Warren Ellis has ever created, if not Nominal Heroes, fall here. Most of his main characters follow the basic template of 'violent, cynical, and snarky chain-smokers who still possess moral codes'.
  • Depending on the Writer, John Constantine from Hellblazer could count. He's generally violent and anti-social, but when it's time, he'll stand up for most of the little people against the forces of heaven and hell.
    "He dances on the edge of the known like a crazy man, pitting himself against Heaven and the Pit, because he is John Constantine, and because he is alive."
    Dr Occult to Tim Hunter on John Constantine, "The Books of Magic"
    • Even on the best of days, though, he still could qualify for Unscrupulous status as he has zero scruples when fighting.
  • If he's not being written as a Nominal Hero, Namor tends to be this.

    Fan Works 
  • Post-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes in Ain't No Grave. Seventy years as one of the world's deadliest assassins made him both very good at violence and extremely desensitized to it, and seventy years of torture and dehumanization by Hydra left him with a lot of pent-up rage once he got back enough of a sense of self to realize what had been done to him, so his crimefighting efforts tend to be pretty brutal. However, he's a pretty nice guy - when his brain's cooperating - to his friends and innocent bystanders.
  • Rattlesnake Jake gets this portrayal in Old West. When he's hired by Sheriff Rango to keep Mud (the former town of Dirt) safe from mercenaries, the violent and antisocial outlaw agrees to work for the chameleon he respects begrudgingly only because he's been lately between jobs, and he's repeatedly frustrated by Rango's reluctance to simply finish off the villains. However, Jake respects his contract, and as he's forced to keep Grace Glossy and her son safe, he shows nobleness under his rough shell and reveals himself to have experienced a dark and troubled past.

    Film 
  • James Bond in Licence to Kill, although he borders on Sociopathic Hero. As part of his Roaring Rampage of Revenge to take down drug lord Franz Sanchez and avenge Felix Leiter, he kills off quite a few bad guys in particularly terrible ways, like feeding someone to sharks and shoving another down a stone grinder.
    • He's more clearly this in Skyfall, where unlike most Nominal Hero incarnations of him, has heroic tendencies (objecting to abandoning another wounded agent, for example) while of course, still womanizing and having a merciless demeanor.
  • Sheriff Matt Morgan from Last Train From Gun Hill is simply trying to execute his duty to the law; however, he has no qualms about threatening his former friend's son, whom he's captured and holding for rape and murder, among other dirty tricks.
  • Hit Girl from Kick-Ass starts off a bit too ruthless to be this trope but in the end, fits, as almost all her victims are taken for granted to have at least been unsavory, if not evil.
    • Big Daddy to some extent as well, since he's basically a tragic, overly vengeful Batman Expy.
  • Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: he will lie and reason with friends and foes alike if it means saving himself or gaining the upper hand in his Xanatos Gambit.
  • Frank Bannister in The Frighteners. He cons people by sending ghosts to haunt houses so he can come and "exorcise" them, disrupts funerals in order to promote his business, and is shown to be quite rude to the ghosts he works with; however at least he isn't like Johnny Bartlett who murders people for game. By the end of the film, Frank has become a better person.
  • The Blues Brothers, especially Jake. They mean well enough as they just want to save the orphanage they grew up in, but they're not above scamming patrons, acting like jackasses and endangering bystanders more than they really need to.

    Literature 
  • Despite being a straight up bad guy in the films, in the novel Denethor of The Lord of the Rings starts off as a wise ruler dedicated to protecting his kingdom, though he treats his allies with suspicion and verbally abuses his son. Eventually, however, the combined stress of Faramir's coma and his despair from battling Sauron in the palantir send him Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
  • Mr. Slippery from Vernor Vinge's novella, True Names, is an out-and-out criminal hacker, in it for the fun, but when the chips are down, and the world needs saving, he's willing to save it. And not just because Federal agents have made him a deal he can't refuse—though that certainly removes any lingering doubts he might have had.
  • The Light Novel Fate/Zero gives us the adoptive father of Fate/stay night protagonist Shirou Emiya, Kiritsugu Emiya. Unlike most examples in this page he still has his moral character however it is how he channels it that makes him this.
  • Felix Harrowgate of Doctrine of Labyrinths is a wizard uses his powers to put the dead to rest, save a country from invasion, and take out Magitek machines before they can annihilate another country, all at considerable risk to himself. Unfortunately, he also says horribly cruel things for the sheer joy of it, repeatedly mind-rapes people including his own brother, and has a rage blackout in which he seriously crosses the line with an anonymous sex partner.
  • Pocket in Christopher Moore's Pocket the Fool novels. He is deeply cynical, sarcastic and bitter due to his childhood as an orphan and generally being treated like a slave by his master King Lear. However he is protective of Cordelia whom he genuinely loves and has a sense of justice when it comes to other oppressed groups. That the latter also tends to go along with his acute sense of vengeance he finds very convenient.
  • In The Fire Rose, Jason Cameron is pretty amoral. To the extent that he's a good person, it's because he takes Cut Lex Luthor a Check and Pragmatic Villainy so far that they take him out of the "villain" sphere entirely; he's a philanthropist because that (used to) earn him street cred in his social circle, and because a well-fed proletariat work well and don't start riots. Likewise, he's known for fair business dealings because he doesn't need to do anything shady, but he doesn't especially care that his apprentice and agent gets his rocks off on rape and uses his magic to rig cockfights, except that they show him to be a complete tool and unfit to be a Master. At least he develops genuine feelings of love for Rose at the end.
  • Commander Sam Vimes from the Discworld series would be a textbook Ideal Hero except that, in his words, "in certain specific areas" (mostly fighting) he has no rules whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to his immediate superior, Lord Vetinari (an Antihero who takes whatever steps are necessary to protect the city), and his immediate subordinate, Captain Carrot (who is The Cape).
  • Conan the Barbarian. He's not shy of any activity where there is an opportunity for violence, wenches and loot. Theft, piracy, assassination, mercenary work, Conan will do it all. He never kills anybody who doesn't deserve it or isn't trying to kill him first, he keeps his word, and he will fight without pay for someone who engages his sympathies. Despite his string of casual romances with different women, he is quite respectful to all of them, and while he is happy to burn and pillage, rape is absolutely out of the question.
  • Thomas Cromwell, as portrayed in Wolf Hall. He's a fair-minded businessman and lawyer, a good husband, determined to give his children a better upbringing than the one he got, and intensely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey. However, he is rumored to have killed a man as a teenager, spent time as a mercenary on the Continent, and willingly engineers the execution of Anne Boleyn and her supposed "lovers" because of the role they played in Wolsey's downfall. So he is shown as a good man in most aspects, but tarnishes himself by his unwillingness to forget insults and willingness to serve the ruthless and capricious Henry VIII.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24: Gives us Jack Bauer, Probably the most famous unscrupulous hero in popular culture.
  • Blake's 7: Avon probably averages out here, especially in series 1 and 3 where he's amoral enough to try and abandon Blake on a Hellhole planet but occasionally shows concern for the others, especially Cally. In series 2 he has enough Pet the Dog moments to push him closer to Good Is Not Nice, but by the final series the stress of maintaining a rebellion he wants nothing to do with turns him into a Nominal Hero.
  • Doctor Who: Can you believe that Doctor started like this? Yes. He's devoted to his grandaughter Susan and is disgusted by villains like the Daleks but aside from that his morals are loose at best, with his flaws ranging from pride and paranoia to outright moral cowardice in trying to abandon Barbara to die on Skaro rather than risk further exposure to radiation, as well as Ian and Barbara becoming his companions only after he trapped them within the Tardis against their will. But by the conclusion of the first three stories he gets over this and becomes a Pragmatic Hero.
  • Revolution: Miles Matheson after the blackout became this. He helped to start a dictatorship because he wanted to bring peace and order, as shown in flashbacks in episode 3. However, he became the Butcher of Baltimore, hurt Rachel (shown in flashbacks of episode 17), and handed Alec over to the Texans when Alec balked at assassinating the Texan president (shown in flashbacks of episode 14). He ended up leaving the Monroe Republic when Monroe went too far and Miles failed to assassinate him (elaborated on in the first season finale). He makes it clear to Charlie that he hurts people and he doesn't think twice about it. Later on, Charlie's influence causes him to become more of a Pragmatic Hero.
  • Veronica Mars: The title character's intent is always to catch the bad guy, but her methods can range from manipulating an officer in order to steal evidence or eavesdropping on therapy sessions. Her motivation is almost always revenge rather than justice. She certainly enjoys her Kick the Dog moments, but her targets are always REALLY terrible people so the audience doesn't flinch too much.
  • Tsukasa Kadoya, the main character of Kamen Rider Decade, is held in prophecy to be the Destroyer of Worlds, who will bring about an end to the Rider multiverse and kill all the Kamen Riders. He acts less "ultimate evil", however, and more "kind of a tool" - he will troll and endanger other people to find and defeat the bad guys of the fortnight, although he'll throw himself into the firing line as well. Much of the series' mystery is "Is Tsukasa a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, or actually the ultimate evil?"
  • Breaking Bad has Hank Schrader become one in Season 5B. He spends that entire season trying to bring Walter White down, who by this point has become a monster. However Hank's tactics to do so range from the morally questionable to downright illegal. He even at one point flat out says that, if a plan involving a cooperative Jesse should go wrong, that he doesn't care if Jesse gets killed.
  • Revenge: Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke is this or a Nominal Hero, true to form as an expy of the Count of Monte Cristo, sets out to get payback against the people responsible for supposedly the death of her father and the loss of her childhood. Ruthless as she is, most of her targets however are treacherous and indecent, particularly Big Bad Conrad Grayson who it turns out was part of the very terrorist ring Emily's father was accused of being in on, making her takedowns all the more karmic and satisfying. To her credit, Emily never kills on purpose outside of self defense, and ascends to a Knight in Sour Armor in season 4 after capping off her revenge on Victoria as she tries to make amends by living more honestly.
  • Farscape gives us Dominar Rygel of Hyneria, a cowardly, kleptomaniacal, dethroned monarch (only in the figurative sense - he still has a flying throne he uses for transportation) with shaky moral values, and who is implied (and sometimes shown) to be capable of some very dark deeds. However, he is still unquestionably a hero, and it is suggested that many of his more vile character traits are a direct result of his being dethroned, exiled, and tortured for cycles on end by a sadistic Peacekeeper.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Rock is usually this type of hero, when portraying a Face. The basic characterization of The Rock is that his ego is completely out of control, and this trait remains no matter what "side" he's on. The Rock doesn't care about anything other than himself. The only things that change are whether or not he's willing earn his victory with his own wits and skill or willing to take cheap and easy path to a championship, and whether or not he cares about having the crowd on his side. However, both of these methods are also done to satisfy his ego; he does it just to prove he can do it.

    Tabletop Games 

    Videogames 
  • Ammon Jerro of Neverwinter Nights 2 is literally Hell-bent on saving the Sword Coast from the King of Shadows at all costs. He goes so far as to stealing the most sacred relic of a extraplanar race of Holy warriors, making several infernal pacts with various demons and devils of the lower hells, killing any who oppose him (knowingly or not), abandoning any allies if they do not pull their weight, and even razing entire villages if it means he has a better shot at defeating the King of Shadows. He's even the Disk One Final Boss. That is until he joins you anyways.
  • Zevran from Dragon Age: Origins qualifies, if the player can gain his loyalty. He can be recruited after he tries to kill you; he swears to help you end the Blight if you spare him. He advocates the use of poison, rather enjoys his profession and is one of your more ''morally ambiguous'' companions. With that in mind, he is also fiercely loyal to your PC if you can get his affection high enough and is nowhere near as bad as his former employers, the Antivan Crows.
    • The player character can be played as an Unscrupulous Hero. You can lie, extort, steal and murder your way through Ferelden, all in the name of stopping the Blight (or For the Evulz, depending on the player). Given that you are the only thing standing between Thedas and total annihilation via darkspawn, anything goes.
    • By the third game Leliana hates it but takes this view herself: given the threat no act is too vile, her loyalty is such that nothing is off limits. The Inquisitor has to intervene to keep her from continuing down this dark path.
  • Team Fortress 2's ruthless mercs (and long-suffering P.A. Miss Pauling) may not have consciences, but they are capable of human affection, which is more than their ironically named business rival, Gray Mann, can say...
  • The Third Street Saints have become this by the time Saints Row IV rolls around.
  • Midna in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess may be this, especially at the beginning. Even when she had no sympathy for those who lived in the light, she still fought for a righteous cause. She loves the people under her rule and wanted to save them. Plus, her dispassion for the people of Hyrule is no different from a government's lack of interests in another nation's politics. She may not have cared about saving the world of light (at the time) but she sure as hell didn't want to worsen the situation either.
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is mainly about Dracula's development from a Nominal Hero, who is only 'good' because he's fighting SATAN, into one of these (kinda). Admittedly not much of a jump, as although he does get some Pet the Dog moments regarding his family, he never stops being utterly ruthless, and the mountain of tragedy he's gone through over the centuries never leaves him entirely. The main development is that while his desire for vengeance on Satan and Zobek certainly remains at the forefront of his motivations, it becomes clear as the game goes on he really just wants to be at peace with his family, and in the end, Marie and Alucard forgive him and help him find his peace.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics: Delita is an embodiment of this trope, also Izlude may be taken into account after the events in Orbonne Monastery.
  • Uncharted: Samuel Drake of A Thief's End is a harsher, colder version of his younger brother Nathan. When he puts a gun on Nadine Ross' head, he threatens to shoot her and Nate pulls him at the last moment setting the shot in the air, proving that he was indeed going to murder her. Then Rafe reveals that he's a manipulative liar, whose only redeeming virtue is that he genuinely does love Nate.
  • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright has been out of the law business for the better part of a decade. When met with an opportunity not only to identify a murderer but get back at the person who drummed him out of the work in the first place, he does so by relying on the tactic (evidence forgery) that was originally responsible for derailing his career. At least this time he did it for the right reason (since the evidence necessary to convict the killer was taken by said killer at the scene), as opposed to being on the wrong end of it (where the tainted evidence was used to sabotage his case instead of provide a falsified advantage). Still, it's certainly not something he'd ever have resorted to otherwise.

    Webcomics 
  • Celesto Morgan, of Dominic Deegan, is the appointed Champion of Chaos and Destruction. While he views himself as a champion of freedom and destroyer of tyranny and evil, his actions frequently show him to be almost as destructive as the things he fights, such as his battle with The Infernomancer in Lynn's Brook, in which he killed more people than the man he was there to stop. He has also been the vigilante executioner of two, up until that point Karma Houdinis in the story and has become He Who Fights Monsters against the Beast.
  • Vriska from Homestuck would embody this trope were opinions on her not split further than the San Andreas Fault. Forced by her lusus to become a Serial Killer from a very young age, she soon grows to embrace the role and kills thousands of trolls through FLARPing. Her Establishing Character Moment is throwing one of her players off a cliff with Mind Control because she can. She then goes on to try and establish a caliginous relationship with him - only he doesn't return her feelings, so her "courtships" come off as abusive, even for the twisted culture she exists in. Later she even goes as far as turning Jack Noir into a Physical God just so that she can have some impact on the story and murdering said caliginous crush for having the guts to stand up to himself. And yet through all this, she has every intention of defeating Jack Noir and spends much of her time assisting John on his quest, developing romantic feelings for him as time goes by. In her mind, she is following the footsteps of her powerful, infamous and morally bankrupt ancestor, but at crucial points proves she is either too cruel or not cruel enough to play that part.
  • Norah and Paige from Agents of the Realm are underplayed version, both being fine examples of Jerk with a Heart of Gold.

    Web Originals 
  • Worm gives us Armsmaster, who arranges the death of multiple "villains", including a fifteen-year-old girl he knew to be The Mole, in order to give himself a chance to defeat Leviathan in a one-on-one fight.

    Western Animation 
  • The Dreamstone juxtoposes this with the Sugar Bowl Land Of Dreams (yes, odd). While usually sweet natured and borderline messianic, the heroes seem completely apathetic to the fact most of Zordrak's mooks are harmless cowards Trapped in Villainy, and often take sadistic pleasure in punishing them or taking their retaliations outside self defense compared to vice versa, mostly all on the principal of trying to give them bad dreams. Later episodes made them more passive, like something in Pragmatic Hero territory.
  • In Phineas and Ferb, Buford may boast about being a schoolyard bully, but when Phineas and Ferb need help, he can always be counted on.
  • Jerry in Tom and Jerry depending on the episode. Without getting into his sadistic nature towards Tom, he is generally a Friend to All Living Things. But he's definitely not above using violence for reasons other than self-defense or protecting others (often as vengeance for a legitimate wrong, but occasionally, because he's bored). Often when his actions are unambiguously unheroic, especially when unprovoked, we get a rare Laser-Guided Karma victory for Tom.
  • In El Tigre, although Manuel Rivera is usually on the good guys side, that doesn't stop him from doing mischevious things from time to time.
  • Bugs Bunny might be acting in self-defense when he injures or kills people, but damned if he's not enjoying it.
  • In The Venture Bros., Brock Samson and Dr. Venture, despite being self-centered individuals, fall here on their best days when they show some regard for human life and collateral damage. Usually though, not so much...

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UnscrupulousHero