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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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"No good deed goes unpunished
All helpful urges should be circumvented
No good deed goes unpunished
Sure, I meant well — well, look at what well-meant did!"
Elphaba, "No Good Deed" from Wicked

We all know that karma can be a bitch, but sometimes it's a total jerkass. It's not enough that the bad guy is a Karma Houdini. It's not enough that the good guy Can't Get Away with Nuthin'. It's not even enough that he's a Butt-Monkey or The Chew Toy, put through the wringer for no reason. No, sometimes fate isn't satisfied until disaster befalls the good guy purely as a result of him doing the right thing.

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If this happens because the hero helps people who are ungrateful, it can be a case of All of the Other Reindeer or The Farmer and the Viper. If this happens because the hero doesn't want unnecessary violence, it can be a case of Pacifism Backfire. More often, helping out exposes the hero to some other danger, like the wrath of a villain whose plans were disrupted by said good deed, or the wrath of a populace that is opposed to the method of said helping out, such as in many Burn the Witch! stories that involve actual witches, or being Arrested for Heroism. Or being targeted by people who assume you have Chronic Hero Syndrome and so will be glad to help them for free.

Not every hero can handle this, and if it happens often enough or particularly badly enough, a hero may very well fall. If they stick it through even to the end, knowing what's coming to them, it shows who they are in the dark.

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It should also be noted that this trope is more complicated than it looks. Sometimes good intentions bring unjust punishment, but sometimes good intentions result in very bad results because the good-intentioned person was also foolish, incompetent, ignorant, or just mistaken. In many cases whether a bad outcome was undeserved or not depends on the details. As Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long observes in one story, "Good intentions are no substitute for knowing how the buzzsaw works." Which doesn't mean that life is not often cruelly unjust, it merely means that things are often not as simple as they look at first glance.

Named for a well-known saying attributed to Clare Boothe Luce. The Wide-Eyed Idealist is prone to this. Very often, it is a consequence of doing Not Quite the Right Thing. Compare Being Good Sucks, where it's the act of being good (rather than the deeds themselves) that brings suffering, and contrast Laser-Guided Karma where every deed (good or otherwise) gets paid back in spades. If someone sees a hero going through this, it may lead to Sympathy for the Hero. Compare Androcles' Lion and Character Witness, two Tropes that can prove the exact opposite.

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Examples:

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    Music 
  • The Band's "The Weight" is about a favor that keeps ballooning and leading to competitions when each recipient adds new tasks to it. According to songwriter Robbie Robertson, the lyrics were inspired by what happened to saintly figures in the films of Luis Buñuel.
  • Daughtry's "Waiting For Superman" is about a man who wanders the city doing good deeds. When he knocks down a woman who was about to be hit by a cyclist, the woman yells at him for shoving her, having not noticed the cyclist. When he stops a purse snatcher, he gets roughed up by security guards who assumed he was in league with him. When he pulls a suicidal man away from the ledge, the man yells at him. Finally, he saves a girl from street thugs and returns her to her mother, but a man who witnessed the event calls the police and he is nearly arrested until the girl and mother vouch for him. The girl gives him a hug, causing him to smile and consider it Worth It.

    Myth and Legend 
  • In some versions, Mordred of Arthurian legend. At the Battle of Camlann, Mordred draws his sword in order to kill a serpent at Arthur's heel during peace negotiations, but Bedwyr sees this as an act of betrayal and calls for war. This ends with Arthur and Mordred killing one another and Mordred being seen as a traitor forever. Ironically most versions also say Arthur was negotiating in bad faith, it was really a play for time until his allies could get there.
  • One of the tougher concepts of Christianity is that even when you are doing the right thing, sometimes you will suffer unjustly for it. But take heart, for that is the example Jesus set, and expect from his followers.
  • In the Turkish folktale "Five Boiled Eggs", a poor young boy receives a free meal of five boiled eggs from an innkeeper. He grows up and becomes a wealthy merchant, and returns to the inn years later, asking how much he has to pay. The innkeeper charges him 10,000 akches, claiming that if he hadn't eaten the eggs, they would have hatched into hens, which would have laid more eggs that would have hatched into hens, and so on. When the merchant refuses to pay so much, the innkeeper takes him to court. But it's subverted, when Turkish folk hero Nasreddin Hodja offers to defend the merchant. On the day of the trial, Hodja deliberately shows up late and claims that he had the idea to plant and harvest the boiled corn from his breakfast instead of eating it. When the innkeeper scoffs at the idea of growing boiled corn, Hodja points out that he couldn't have hatched chickens from boiled eggs either. The innkeeper gets laughed out of court.

    Podcasts 
  • The Adventure Zone: Balance: The party goes out of their way to rescue an enslaved orc boy. Guess who shows up at exactly the wrong moment and shoots a crossbow at a powerful flaming dwarf the party had just about talked down?

    Tabletop RPG 
  • As settings, both Old World of Darkness and New World of Darkness love this. Do a good deed? Well, it'll cost you a pound of flesh and probably not greatly impact things anyway. Do the easy bad deed instead? Get rewarded with power/riches/expediency, but dinged by the Karma Meter. Do option 1 enough times and you'll get killed or ground to a masochistic paste. Do option 2 enough times and you'll destroy yourself. Do half and half and live a quasi-happy/angsty life... for a time. Try to live in happy ignorance and apathy, and somebody else will ding your Karma Meter for you when you aren't looking.
  • So common in Warhammer 40,000 that it's rare to see anyone even try to do good deeds anymore. A quote from the forces of Chaos Codex: "Let no good deed go unpunished, and let no evil deed go unrewarded."
  • Dungeons & Dragons adventure A Hot Day in L'Trel in Dungeon magazine #44. After the PCs risk their lives to save a woman from a burning house, the woman sues them because she was injured during the rescue. (How is this different from real life? Well, the PCs do have the option to kill her out of spite, and with a few well-placed diplomacy checks, bluffs, or intimidation, get off scot-free.)
  • The Abyssal Exalted in Exalted have this in spades. Picked out at death to serve Omnicidal Maniac undead gods and given corrupted divine powers, they can choose to go the Dark Is Not Evil route. Only the more positive, life affirming things they do, the likelier it is the said gods take over your body and someone you care about is randomly killed. This is why Abyssal Exaltation is the only type that both a) must be willingly accepted by the recipient and b) allows for the possibility of redeeming and changing state into a Solar Exalted. The designers already knew that it's a screw-over, and thus made it both require you to willingly sign on with the Neverborn (i.e., you've got it coming) and allow an escape mechanism.

    Visual Novels 
  • The protagonist of Don't Take This Risk is a young woman who gets a phone call from a man who mistakenly thought he was calling a suicide hotline. Despite not having a clue who he is, or knowing anything about him, she attempts to help — depending on your choices, she might try and talk him down herself, or try and persuade him to hang up and call the hotline. There are nine outcomes, none of them good, leaving the young woman either psychologically scarred or trapped in a relationship with this man for her trouble.
  • In Super Danganronpa 2, when Monokuma releases a personality-altering Despair Disease in Chapter 3, Mikan Tsumiki, the Ultimate Nurse, takes it upon herself to care for those who are infected. While Mikan admits during her Free Time Events that she does enjoy the sense of power being a nurse gives her over the injured and sick, it's still a fairly kind act. Unfortunately, as a result of spending so long in close proximity to the sick, Mikan gets infected herself, resulting in her reverting to her Ultimate Despair self, killing Ibuki(one of her patients) and Hiyoko, then getting executed for the murders.

    Web Comics 
  • Captain Tagon of Schlock Mercenary may be a merc, but he's a genuinely principled and decent man who, for instance, will refuse to blow up a train full of civilians despite the very personal nature of the mission. This comes to bite him in the ass when it turns out that the train was not full of civilians at all, but rather a battalion of enemy heavy infantry.
  • Squid Row: After Grace lets all the special orders accumulate, and Randie clears them, the viciously unpleasant Grace get more hours.
  • As currently stands in Roommates each and every magical problem Sarah Williams ever had (including Labyrinth) can be traced back to her deeds in the Kid!Jareth arc where she... was nice to a child. For her misfortune: A Fair Folk Child From The Past, and fae are usually kinda clueless how to pay back such things.
  • The main plot of Far to the North is kicked off when a family of Northerners takes in what they think are starving refugees. They turn out to be a band of slavers who quickly turn on their hosts.
  • Freefall has Florence the Bowman's Wolf, who in one early story arc gets involved in rescuing civilians from a hurricane and risks her life to save one Mr. Kornada. Kornada then steals her headset and forces robots to commandeer the ship, leaving her stranded in water so cold she has a life expectancy of 20 minutes — all so he can attend a completely pointless meeting. Arguably zigzagged in that this leads to Florence's Interspecies Romance with the human veterinarian who saves her life. The weight then sways back into "punishment" territory when Kornada nearly gets Florence frozen and shipped off-world, and is then revealed to be planning to electronically Mind Rape every robot on the planet, lobotomizing them, all so he can steal all their money. And completely oblivious to the fact that this could well destroy the fledgeling colony, which depends on the intelligence of the local robots to continue functioning.
  • In Red's Planet, Red's Pet the Dog moment of feeding other castaways means that all the other aliens of its race come after her.
  • Strong Fantastic Racism in Impure Blood means that the protagonists face this wherever they go, most notably when Dara single-handedly fights a squad of rampaging golems to protect a family, then gets beaten unconscious by the people she had just saved.
  • For a Lighter and Softer example: Commander Badass of Manly Guys Doing Manly Things raised his children to be responsible. Which enabled his daughter to finish all the chores needed to earn herself a pet millipede that he's afraid of.
  • Kind of: in Out-of-Placers, Kass buys a shiny stone for a high price out of pity from a struggling Yinglet (small rodents) merchant. It promptly turns him into a Yinglet. A female. Though, admittedly, it was safe until he broke it himself...
  • Mr. Tensaided suffered a case of this in El Goonish Shive when he gives Susan the rest of the day off to deal with a personal issue, only to get swarmed by a hoard of grandparents in complete disagreement as to what constitutes "appropriate content" for their grandchildren. A good deed is usually fairly safe in this comic, but Tensaided had to go and tempt fate as well.
    Mr. Tensaided: It's Sunday anyhow. Mostly just returns.

    Web Original 
  • Agent Washington from Red vs. Blue could be a poster child for this trope. He went against his orders to spare Agent South's life... and she shot him in the back as thanks (following orders from the same command as him, no less). After he returns to work, instead of receiving the support he needs to stop The Meta, he gets saddled with bureaucracy and a team full of idiots. And after he takes down that military organization and puts a stop to its numerous unsanctioned experiments based on fragmented AIs, he gets slapped with a number of criminal charges for his efforts (most notably, 7 counts of destruction of military property).
    • During a training round against Tex, York discovered that his partners Agents Maine and Wyoming has started using lethal force against Texas and attempted to switch sides to help Texas. This results in Tex calling him out for "abandoning his team" and him getting too close to a grenade thrown by Maine, costing him his left eye.
  • The ending of Operation Graveyard counts as this. See it HERE
  • In V4 of Survival of the Fittest, Luke Templeton talks Clio Gabriella out of committing suicide and generally helps her out. How does she repay him? By shooting him in the chest and head.
  • In his review for Babes in Toyland, The Nostalgia Critic was bothered throughout the entire thing by the Ghost Of Christmas Future, who was trying to get him to do a Christmas parody. But when he sees the ghost drinking and depressed, he puts on his daddy voice and tries to cheer him up by letting him pick what review he'll do next week. Big mistake, as the ghost instantly picks How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Jim Carrey version.
  • Not Always Right features several stories where an employee might be doing a good thing, but end up getting reprimanded by their employers and yelled at by customers, sometimes to the point of losing their job. In particular this story involves an employee instinctively saving a toddler from running in front of a car, only for the mother to accuse them of child abuse instead of being grateful.
  • In the Whateley Universe, Bladedancer gets visions that she needs to leave Team Kimba and keep a low profile for something in the future. Phase, her roommate, helps. For Phase's good deed, he gets treated by the entire school like a jerkass who fired Bladedancer from the team and then booted her out of the room. Oh, and Phase gets a supervillain as a replacement roommate just to make things worse.
  • In Ultra Fast Pony, Twilight Sparkle goes to Ponyville on her own initiative, in order to prevent Night Moon Mare from destroying the world. After the day is saved, Princess Celestia arrives on the scene. She doesn't care at all about the barely-averted apocalypse—she only cares about the tea party that Twilight skipped in the process of saving the world. As punishment, Celestia banishes Twilight to Ponyville.
  • In the Flash cartoon Yes & No: A Dyseducational Road Movie, the drivers who do things the right way suffer some sort of indignity (like getting stuck in a traffic jam or behind a funeral procession) or cause more damage than the drivers doing things the wrong way (like running over somebody's dog or causing a three-car pile-up).
  • This can happen in GoAnimate "Grounded" videos. For instance, in this video, Caillou stops his father, Boris, from robbing a bank. However, when Boris gets arrested, Caillou is arrested as well. His crime? Being a "baby show" character. Boris is given three and a half years in jail and is put in a fancy jail cell with all amenities while Caillou is given life in prison stuck in a smaller part of Boris' cell without even a bed or a toilet and Boris is allowed to beat up Caillou whenever he wishes.
  • In the Doctor Locklear series, while Locklear performed a life-saving surgery on a young man who turned out to be a rapist and murderer, his wife went into premature labor and both her and the baby died. It's what made him quit the hospital he worked and drove him mad enough to harvest criminals for their organs.
  • The Season 5 finale of Arby 'n' the Chief ends like this. After Arbiter and Master Chief expose Trent Donnovich for having a private affair, despite about to be getting married with Claire. Trent and his staff are defeated and Arbiter and Claire resume their relationship, but at the cost of having their account permabanned by Bungie Network Executive, Brian, for months. Additionally in Season 6, once they do get access to their account back, Arbiter learns that his actions have also "fractured" his relationship with Claire, as she tells him a part of her is angry at him for ruining what could have been a very promising future for her had she had not known of Trent's true nature.


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