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Despair Gambit

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What's a villain to do when the hero is invincible, or too strong to attack head on? Whether because of tactics, defense, The Power of Love, will, or because they won the Superpower Lottery, the conventional tactics just aren't going to do the trick. By contrast, perhaps the villain is so weak that physical attack is impractical, or stands to gain if their enemies are not merely killed but admit defeat. In such a case, a good alternative strategy is often to attack the hero's resolve, and make them give up the fight.

Blow up their hometown. Kill their loved ones. Spout cutting Breaking Speeches and Straw Nihilist diatribes at every opportunity. Steal their belongings. Turn everything good they've done against them. The ultimate goal is to drive the goodie past the Despair Event Horizon and make them more an enemy to themselves than to the villain.

As with other such plots, it tends to backfire. Messing with the hero on this level makes it personal, incurring the risk of focusing the hero's attention squarely against the villain, or even triggering an Unstoppable Rage. There's also the possibility of riling a previously neutral party. And finally, if the villain wins, it doesn't make the hero any less unbeatable; it's possible he just creating an evil even greater than he is, with special interest in destroying him. Because the story tends to be on the hero's side, this gambit is more likely to fail in the long run, though it may succeed in evaporating their hope at a critical point.

This is a common tactic of an invading army, the intent being to weaken the defenders by subduing their morale. This is also the basic idea behind terrorism. The Hope Crusher is a villain who is quite fond of this tactic. It's also a way to deal with being unable to employ the 18th stratagem.

See also Villain Ball, Driven to Suicide, Despair Event Horizon and Despair Speech.

Compare Revenge by Proxy, when the indirect loss is done solely for the sake of inflicting loss.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • A Certain Magical Index: One-Eyed Othinus tries to do this to Touma by attempting to make him feel worthless and a villain, by replacing him with someone else, who although different in large ways, has no effect on history, and how a simple change of perspective, without the assumption that he is a hero, turns his actions into that of a villain.
  • In GUN×SWORD, Woo not only defeats Van in battle but also forces Van to recognize his own terror and confront the possibility of dying. It nearly works: Van is so shaken by his new fear of death that he is prepared to give up his revenge quest and run away. Fortunately, his sidekick calls him on his cowardice and challenges him to man up. The Power of Love does the rest.
  • In .hack//SIGN the plot of the main villain involves a whole lot of this.
  • In Inuyasha, the Baby tried this on Kagome by giving her very cruel breaking lectures that hit her where it hurts the most for her: her love for Inuyasha, her insecurities towards Kikyou, and her fear of becoming Inuyasha's Unrequited Tragic Maiden. It almost works, but Kagome decides that even if her thoughts on Inuyasha and Kikyou are muddled, they're hers and the Baby has nothing to do with them, leading to a mix of Anguished Declaration of Love and Shut Up, Hannibal!.
  • In Monster, Johan seemed to be attempting this with Doctor Tenma.
  • Madara of Naruto successfully pulled one on Obito by maintaining Plausible Deniability. He mind-controlled various shinobi, including Rin, to create a situation where Obito would witness the death of the one person who made his life worth living. The ensuing despair made him the perfect accomplice for Madara's plan.
    • It's later mentioned that Madara taught this tactic to Obito. In the anime there's a flashback showing Obito (successfully) pulling this on Nagato. Both of them later try it on Naruto, who manages to resist.
  • The Incubators from Puella Magi Madoka Magica drive teenage girls to despair by making contracts with them and encouraging them to Make a Wish that they know will backfire, leaving out important details of the Magical Girl contract such as the required lichification, and eventually driving the girl to the Despair Event Horizon wherein they will become a Witch, which will then be killed by other magical girls for it's energy. The witches will also drive people to suicide, ensuring more despair. The point of this is to use that energy to save the universe from heat death. It backfires: Madoka uses her wish to become a god and erase the whole witch system from existence, and when the Kyubeys try to bring it back in The Movie, Madoka defeats them again- for good this time.
  • The "Revenge Arc" of Rurouni Kenshin deals with Enishi's attempt to reduce Kenshin to a pathetic homeless wreck by destroying everything Kenshin holds dear, in revenge for Kenshin's (accidental) killing of Enishi's sister and Kenshin's first love, Tomoe. It actually works for a while, after Enishi convinces Kenshin that he (Enishi) had murdered Kaoru; in realiti Enihi couldn't kill her because she reminded him of Tomoe, so he took her prisoner instead. When Aoshi found out that the "Kaoru" who died was a puppet and Kenshin rescued Yahiko from one of Enishi's cronies, he recovered and decided to go rescue her.
  • This is the Anti-Spiral modus operandi in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, arranging Manchurian Agents, Colony Drops and Hope Spots because the Power of the Spiral can't be defeated through main force. All to save the world, of course. Although this is effective on some characters, it ultimately backfires, leading Team Gurren to the Anti-Spirals' home dimension and giving them a plethora of Lagann-type mechs with which to take them down.
  • This is Knives' instruction to his minions in Trigun, in the hopes that it will make Vash give up his stewardship of humans and join the other side. In the anime, it works, and Vash breaks down, becoming almost catatonic, at least until a moment of redemption redoubles his resolve.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • This is the entire reason Batman wears a mask. The safety of anonymity means that villains can't harm the loved ones who they don't even know about. Not only that, but it's the reason most superheroes have a Secret Identity in the first place.
    • The Joker has done this several times, such as in The Killing Joke and the film partially based on it, The Dark Knight. He does it either because that's the way he is or because he secretly, desperately wants to prove that everyone else is really as hopeless as he is.
  • Daredevil:
    • In Guardian Devil, Mysterio finds out that he's dying, crosses the Despair Event Horizon himself, and decides he wants a Taking You with Me "swan song" where he can drive Daredevil insane. It ultimately backfires, as Daredevil keeps a grip on his sanity, and after finding out who his enemy is and listening to his Motive Rant, turns the tables with a Kirk Summation that convinces the self-proclaimed "artist" that he's never had an original thought or spark of creativity in his life, and that he's "a human xerox at best". Mysterio ends up surrendering and committing suicide.
    • Kingpin tries to do the very same thing in Born Again, and much like the above example, it backfires horribly. With everything taken away from him, Daredevil no longer has anything holding him back, thus truly becoming a "man without fear."
  • Spider-Man: Following the death of his brother Kraven the Hunter, in Kraven's Last Hunt, Chameleon becomes increasingly crazy and devoted himself to putting Spider-Man through one of these, and along the way, he confirms/learns Spider-Man's identity. This includes convincing Peter that he's in a Cuckoos Nest scenario and is actually an unhinged and depressed writer, as well as trying to attack Peter's family and friends.
  • Superman:
    • Lex Luthor defeats Superman in Superman: Red Son in this way: after every attempt to take out Superman by brute force fails, he attacks Superman's psyche instead with an Armor-Piercing Question.
    • This sort of thing is done more than once. In Neverending Battle, Manchester Black throws all of Superman's available nemeses at him then finishes up by killing Lois (though that last part turns out to be a telepathic illusion). The point in this case is to try to get Superman to sink to his level via tragedy. Superman allows the telepath into his mind to reveal there's a part of him that really wants to do that, but he doesn't succumb.
    • Discussed in Justice (DC Comics). Superman says he's only as invulnerable as his most vulnerable friend or ally.
  • Watchmen: Ozymandias convinces Doctor Manhattan that he's giving his acquaintances cancer basically for this purpose.

    Fan Works 
  • This is Darth Nihilus' plan for Jaune in Jaune Arc, Lord of Hunger. After Jaune falls to the Dark Side, Nihilus's spirit instills him with a paranoid fantasy in which everyone is out to steal his Force powers. This makes Jaune prone to lashing out, which is exactly what happens when Pyrrha tries to pull an intervention on him. When he physically hurts Pyrrha, Jaune snaps out of his stupor and is horrified by what he's done to the point where he nearly throws himself over a cliff. In order to escape the feeling of guilt, Jaune resorts to handing Nihilus's ghost full control over his body. This was exactly what Nihilus wanted from the start, as he now has a host through which he can revive himself.
  • Mutual Killing Game Gensokyo: During the first culprit's execution, Monokuma ensures that they feel despair by prying open her third eye, enabling her to feel emotions once more... including regret. Freshly horrified by their actions, they don't even bother resisting as a spear goes directly through her heart.
  • Persona: One Last Promise: The Harbingers of Death attempt this whenever they find a possible member of the SPT, aiming to terrorize and destroy their willpower.
  • In Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights, Joker wants to pull this on everyone, everywhere, in every universe... before he negates everyone and everything in existence, that is.
  • The Starlight Series has the Borg Queen attempt to inflict this upon Lilo when she goes back in time to kill her parents.
  • Worst Case Scenario (Clcman): The Light aims to break the spirit of all the members of Young Justice in this fashion so that they'll stop interfering with their schemes.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Joker in The Dark Knight uses this tactic, but by simply killing innocent people and cops until it's the people of Gotham who despair and turn on Batman for not giving up and turning himself in.
  • Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is all about these. He even explicitly says so.
  • In The Patriot (2000), the British colonel burns a church with its town inhabitants still inside and pillages towns. When the patriot militia descends upon one of the villages it prompts one of the soldiers who just lost his family to shoot himself in the head.
  • Kahn tries this in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Kirk is trapped with his friends underneath miles of solid rock inside a dead satellite (well, dead on the outside, anyway). Of course, Kirk is simply toying with him; they only need a few hours to repair the ship and beam back up, rather than the several days Spock reported in code.

  • Frankly, the elaborate revenge undertaken by The Count of Monte Cristo consists of his putting his enemies through one of these.
  • In The Dresden Files, a fallen angel did this to Harry, convincing him to kill himself.
  • This is Lord Foul's stock-in-trade in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Unlike many users of this tactic, Foul is actually successful more often than not; a full list of the characters he has driven or nearly driven past their personal Despair Event Horizon would be far to expansive for this page, but the most notable would be High Lord Kevin in the backstory, whom Foul drove to despair and then convinced to use the Ritual of Desecration, which might defeat Foul, but would also wipe out almost all other life in the Land. As it turned out, it didn't defeat Foul or even really inconvenience him that much, but the bit about "wiping out almost all life in the Land" was entirely accurate, and Kevin died knowing that in his despair he'd destroyed everything he'd loved or fought for- just as Foul planned.
  • Fate/strange Fake: Jester Karture plans to drive False Assassin to despair by forcing her into a situation where she will have no choice but to kill Tsubaki Kuruoka, an innocent child.
  • In Harry Potter, the Death Eaters use this at least as a supplemental strategy, striking randomly at civilian targets to foster fear among the populace. Their targets are meant to be the impure and blood traitors, but by their standards that includes everyone who isn't a Death Eater or supporter.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Once Sauron loses his body, this becomes one of his main tactics. In addition to the more overt Mind Rape of the Nazgûl and the intimidation tactics used at Pelennor (such as catapulting Gondorian soldiers' heads into the city), he twists the Palantíri so that his enemies gradually lose all hope of vanquishing him. This prompts Saruman to commit a Face–Heel Turn and start collaborating with him, and Denethor to send his own son off to die and commit suicide in the midst of the decisive battle. In the film, Denethor's condition is even worse, such that he refuses even to send for help and even orders his soldiers to abandon their posts.
  • In the novel Miracle Monday, The Devil's agent on Earth tries this on Superman (by trying to trick him into killing an innocent person) hoping to break his spirit (and in turn, the inspiration he provides humanity.) It fails because Superman just won't do it.
  • It eventually becomes clear that this is one of the Dark One's main goals in The Wheel of Time: hurt the Dragon personally until he turns or takes himself out. In The Gathering Storm, he succeeds, and Rand almost tries to unmake the world before he snaps out of it.
  • In Worm, Skitter realizes that since Omnicidal Maniac Scion has only just begun to feel human emotions he has no way to cope with his grief. So she throws reminders of what he's lost in his face until he's so bewildered and hurt they're able to take him down.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Cobra Kai, this becomes Terry Silver's tactic for ruining Daniel's life. He basically infiltrates every aspect of Daniel and Amanda's life, being incredibly nice, helpful, friendly, accommodating, and sweet, and always with a gigantic smug shit-eating grin on his face. He knows everyone else will take it at face value and love him while Daniel will go bananas waiting for him to inevitably twist the knife, and that given Daniel's habit of overreacting to things everyone will think Daniel is the asshole. It works so well that it even makes Amanda leave Daniel after he attacks Silver at a social event, and Daniel is driven to a pathetic, defeated, drunken mess who has given up fighting Silver for good. Thankfully Jessica Andrews sat Amanda down and explained that no, Daniel is not overreacting (this time) and that she knows from experience that Silver really is a dangerous violent sociopath whom she still has nightmares about, while Johnny of all people sat Daniel down and actually lent him a sympathetic ear, both of which bounce him back good as new.
  • Supernatural:
    • This was Azazel's plan throughout Sam Winchester's entire life, in an attempt to get him to agree to become Lucifer's vessel.
    • Death brings back Bobby's wife as a zombie so he'll be forced to kill her a second time. Again, this is to break down Sam's support network.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • In Baldur's Gate II, Bodhi tries to pull this on the Player Character by attempting to kidnap their love interest if they had completed a romance. The attack fails if you romanced an NPC from the Enhanced Edition, but succeeds with all original four love interests. The gambit fails, at least partly because Charname goes in for a Roaring Rampage of Revenge instead.
  • In Diablo III, several bosses try this on for size. Azmodan is hilariously ineffective at it. Diablo does better, though.
  • Even For Eternia: Rowan and Dawn manipulate the party into confronting King Callister, who wants to enact genocide on the Umbra. When the party arrives, Dawn outs them in front of Callister so that he'll execute them, resulting in Rubellum accidentally wiping out Kingsridge in her first Despair Shift. This makes Rubellum lose hope in her ideals and give up the Calypso Fragment to Dawn.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the protagonist actually uses this to defeat Darth Sion. His connection to the Force basically makes him invincible, so in order to kill him for good, the player has to convince him to give up that connection willingly and die.
  • In Live A Live, this is Streibough's plan for surpassing Orested. Given the latter's reaction, it's safe to say it's Gone Horribly Right.
  • In Shin Megami Tensei IV, the Omnicidal Maniac race known as the White dearly wish they could just wreck the Yamato Perpetual Reactor and just return Creation to the Nothing it was before to escape God's plans, but they have no real existence to do so; they need a physical proxy to do it. Thus, they pull a massive Despair Gambit involving three Alternate Timelines, the forces of Law and Chaos, and four Samurai, hoping that at least once, they will get the champion they need.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Danganronpa, Monokuma is a master at this, to the point of despair being his favorite word. His general plan to get the students to kill each other is to utilize motives that crush any thoughts in the students that they can get out of their imprisonment without resorting to murder, like showing videos threatening their loved ones, trying to release their darkest secrets, or starving them until a murder happens. In the end of the first game, he turns out to be broadcasting footage of the Deadly Game, in order to inflict this on the entire world. The best-of-the-best students were sheltered at the school to protect them from the chaos of the Tragedy, and seeing them instead pushed into murdering each other would tear apart the hope of the outside world. The villain also directly tries to break the resolve of the remaining students by revealing the state of the outside world, but Makoto's Rousing Speech causes both gambits to ultimately fail.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: Salem's Image Song and her Volume 3 finale speech discuss her plan to destroy humanity by turning them against each other and sinking them into despair. She is determined to ruin Ozpin, stating that her only route to success requires first destroying Ozpin's faith in humanity, which can't be shattered until she has destroyed the hope and optimism his "simple soul" represents; this is implied to be the resolutely optimistic Ruby. Salem and Ozpin were both made immortal by the gods, she as a punishment for turning humanity against them and he for a mission to redeem humanity. Salem thinks she can end her curse by destroying the planet, which requires Ozpin to give up the fight. Ozpin has been so beaten down by the fear that his task is impossible while Salem lives that he's closer to the Despair Event Horizon than anyone realises. Meanwhile, Ruby has been hiding despair of her own about the people she’s lost, and Salem makes sure to hammer this when speaking to Ruby through a Seer Grimm in Volume 7; this is one of the factors leading to Ruby’s breakdown in Volume 9, although she does ultimately come back from it with a renewed sense of purpose.

  • A pair of pages of Super Stupor lampshades the danger of this: The villain apparently didn't anticipate that "proving" to a superhero that killing is A-OK by killing his girlfriend is only a good idea when you're ready to sacrifice your own life in the name of your political statement.
    Punchline: Which of these is he more likely to say: "My one true love is dead. All good and hope is dead! I will now aid her killer in world conquest." Or: "Well, fuck. Y'know, I always wanted to see if I could pull a nervous system outta someone without tearing it. And look! A volunteer!"