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Plot Leveling

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Lucas: Let see here... we got time and space, every human emotion, every natural element and nature itself, life and death... what do we go for next?
Dawn: Only one place left to go... (points skyward) we go for GOD!
Lucas: Wait, no. We got that one too.
Dawn: Oh.

Looks like we've come to the end of our story. The villain has been vanquished, the princess has been rescued, and the hero is rich beyond his wildest dreams. Now, everyone gets to live happily ever after...

But, wait! Turns out, fans like it so much that they want a sequel. Problem is, the hero's story is supposed to be done. Why would he go back to adventuring when he's already content?

The solution: "Level up" both the dangers the hero faces, and the rewards they stand to earn. Instead of a mere mafia boss, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil delivers a beady-eyed Diabolical Mastermind to deal with. At the same time, the hero can look forward to niftier powers and legacies. This adds some extra oomph to the sequel, while avoiding accusations of plot recycling.

This leveling up can get ridiculous if the series continues for long enough, with the producers being forced to one-up themselves with every succeeding installment. It might even be carried out to the point that the only way left for the hero to become any more omnipotent is to make him Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence or depower him.

This trope has a unique relationship with video games, since Rule of Fun and Excuse Plot often allow more leeway when designing sequels.

So Last Season plus Post-Script Season. When it's the same bad guys getting an upgrade, it's a Lensman Arms Race. Closely related to Sequel Escalation.

Compare Changing of the Guard.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball, we go from a military commander who wants to be taller before ruling the world, to an evil demon king who actually succeeds, to the proud and arrogant prince of Goku's extra-terrestrial warrior race that can crush Goku and his friends with little effort, to the ruler of the galaxy that commanded said prince, to a genetic amalgam created from various good and bad guys including said ruler, and the... what can probably be called the ancient magical abomination Majin Buu, who destroys planets and people with ease for the hell of it. Serial Escalation has made it so the series is widely known for parody-level absurd battle powers and fights, where you could practically sneeze and destroy a planet, but put it back almost as easily. There was a single reversal in Dragon Ball Super, however, when it's made clear that said galactic ruler (Frieza) was in fact always capable of being a greater threat than most of his successors, but simply never could be bothered to improve himself; This is a result of trying to work some sanity back into a franchise riddled with Post Script Seasons.
  • Sailor Moon held very tightly to its Plot Leveling with nearly every season's Big Bad hunting for some Victim of the Week's trinket. The concept was really stretched in the last season's mangling of the manga story, where the trinkets are known to belong to any of the superpowered senshi — leading one to wonder why the Big Bad never targets any of them until near the very end.
  • One Piece comes with Plot Leveling built in. We start in the East Blue, the weakest of the four main seas. Then move up to the Grand Line, which lives up to its hype of being difficult to sail and survive. Finally, the sailors who travel across the Grand Line's second half, the New World, refer to the first half as "Paradise" out of comparison to the New World. However, the author throws a curveball once in a while. For example, right after the Alabasta arc, which Luffy took two defeats to just barely win on his third try against Crocodile, was the Jaya arc, the main antagonist was Bellamy. It took Luffy one punch to put him down, without stretching.
  • Bleach was this until a point where it went out of control, so for the first arc after the Time Skip the author decided to remove Ichigo's original Game-Breaker powers and gave him new ones which require him to start leveling up again... For a total of five minutes until he got stronger versions of his old powers, letting him beat someone who was apparently as strong as him pre-power sacrifice without Bankai or his Hollow Mask.
  • A failure in this department became something of a problem with Bubblegum Crisis. The series started out with out-of-control Nanotechnology and a Kill Sat. Given the series premise, it was hard to scale up from an incident involving multiple loose weapons of mass destruction, and as a result things ended up becoming more cartoonish and comical as the franchise went on, with 2040 AD eventually descending into self-parody.
  • Lyrical Nanoha hit the power ceiling with A's, after Nanoha, Fate and the Wolkenritter take care of the Book of Darkness. After that, these people are the strongest mages in the multiverse, and going up from the Book of Darkness required a lateral move; instead of a more powerful adversary, StrikerS went with a conspiracy headed by a Mad Scientist, brought in some new trainees, and added in office politics that prevented Riot Force 6 from operating at full power. After that, they scaled the plot back down and invoked Changing of the Guard for Sound Stage X and ViVid, with less-galactic-level issues dealt with by younger protagonists. Riot Force 6 was reassembled in Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force, but opinion is divided on how well that went.
  • Fist of the North Star:
    • The series crashed into the ceiling headlong when it went for a Post-Script Season. They had already killed off the greatest warlord of the Century's End, Kenshiro's big brother and Evil Counterpart Raoh, and Kenshiro was already such an Invincible Hero that there was no way that they could either power him up any more or give him another credible challenge, but they had to try anyway. The Land of Shura arc was the result of their attempt to scale up Raoh; they created an Evil Counterpart style to Hokuto Shinken based on an evil version of touki, and had Kaioh be Kenshiro's biological older brother instead of his sempai. They also made the Land of Shura be Kenshiro's birthplace in an attempt to rebuild the Emotional Torque of the first series. General fan consensus is that it didn't quite work.
    • The post-Shura arcs' aversion of this trope demonstrates exactly why it's necessary. After Kenshiro leaves the Land of Shura, the manga starts using villains who would have been Punks of the Week in the first series (and in fact, the final villain was retconned into having been an ordinary Giant Mook). While the series tries to refocus on the younger supporting cast, such as Ryu and Bat, inevitably Kenshiro is going to get involved in the fight, at which point the villains don't even know that they're already dead. Even more than Land of Shura, these arcs are seen as a sign of terminal Franchise Zombie-ism.

    Comic Books 
  • A fundamental problem in the whole superhero comics industry. Any superhero or superhero team with a few decades of publication history has probably saved the entire multiverse at least once, which makes it hard to do stories about bank robberies. For example, it's a rare Avengers story these days that doesn't involve the fate of the whole planet, at a minimum.

  • It seems possible that the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were unprepared for sequels. The heroes went from battling undead pirates and local guardsmen to facing Davy Jones and the East India Company.
  • The Back to the Future trilogy. The final scene with the DeLorean flying out to rescue Marty's son at the end of the first movie was a joke scene, and wasn't intended to be taken seriously. High box office earnings and strong positive reaction, however, allowed the creators to follow through with more films. Furthermore, Marty's future is better insured by the end of the third film, as well as Doc Brown, who gets a wife, kids and a hovering time-traveling train.
  • National Treasure. The main characters went from committing the one large crime of stealing the Declaration of Independence, to breaking and entering into almost every famous government building ever built. Then, they kidnapped the president. The writers were unprepared for a sequel, they had absolutely no plans for one. In fact, they changed the ending to avoid a Sequel Hook.
  • The original Highlander movie suffered from this. The mantra, "There can be only one," seems like a joke when you consider the numerous sequels that dart back and forth through the timeline.
  • In The Matrix, Neo eventually becomes The One, and apparently gains Reality Warping abilities. However, Neo's implied godlike powers are mostly limited in the sequels to what he already showed off: flying and stopping bullets.
  • The villains of The Dark Knight Trilogy seriously up their game with every installment. Ra's Al Ghul had lofty plans, but they were foiled in the end by Batman and Gordon, the biggest thing he did that actually stuck was probably burning down Wayne mansion. The Joker caused mass panic all over Gotham and, though he didn't directly kill very many people, he still managed to drive Harvey Dent, the hero of Gotham, insane, ending with Batman taking the blame for all of the people Harvey killed as Two-Face. Bane put Batman out of commission for several months and completely took over the city while he was gone. He also came very close to detonating a nuclear bomb in the middle of Gotham.
  • Occurred with the first four Die Hard films: first an office building is held hostage, then an airport, then all of New York City, and finally all of the USA. The fifth movie toned it back to a smaller time villain in a foreign country.


  • In Lone Wolf, the first five books are all over the place, but the first twelve books ultimately formed a self-contained series that focused on dealing with the threat of the Darklords, a world-class threat that could conquer all Magnamund if not stopped. After this, the Grand Master series had to scale up from that, so they included a third tier of Kai powers that had never been heard of before and made use of Naar, the god of darkness who was behind the Darklords, using minions who made the Darklords look like chumps and yet hadn't taken any part in the Darklords' ambition. After the Grand Master saga was completed and Lone Wolf became the Supreme Master, the game reversed course. Instead of creating a fourth power tier, it had the player take on the role of one of Lone Wolf's apprentices, who had Grand Master abilities (and a few new ones) but didn't actually deal with stuff on the Supreme Master's level. Forgivable, though, as book 20 has Lone Wolf basically going To Hell and Back, and if he'd actually killed Naar then any further books would just feel like mopping up the remaining dregs of evil.

  • This seems to be the Modus Operandi for the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Can't think of a plot? Introduce another seemingly forgotten Sith faction from nowhere and build them up to be the greatest threat the galaxy has ever known. Done to such an extreme that the most recent main storyline series had Luke facing off against an Eldritch Abomination that was made out to be stronger than the Emperor. For the record, the Emperor has been used as a benchmark for enemy Power Levels.
  • A characteristic of E. E. "Doc" Smith:
    • Done to extremes in the Skylark Series. The main hero and villain are geniuses at the start. And their brains are enhanced with each new book until they're capable of understanding five-dimensional physics and building spaceships with their brains. In case the earth getting destroyed wasn't a big enough threat, by the end of the series the whole universe is at stake. Instead of basic science-y weapons, they grab a team of psychic witches to translocate all the planets inhabited by the villainous race to a star system that is set ablaze and burns so fiercely that it'll take millennia to cool down. Or something. The details get a little muddled by the reader's laughter.
    • Common in his other works, too, like Lensman. If he starts a book with 1km long spaceships fighting, by the end of the book he'll have hundreds of 10km long spaceships fighting. Unfortunately, he kept writing sequels, so each new one starts at the level the previous book stopped at...
  • Terry Pratchett's "Witch" books in the Discworld series were accused of this. Granny Weatherwax always had to fight a stronger foe - in this case, stronger meaning "better at mind magic" — until, as of Carpe Jugulum, the fight didn't seem like it had a point. Terry wisely took the criticism and moved Granny to a supporting role in the Tiffany books afterwards.
  • Done by David Weber in Honor Harrington; Honor gets roughly one promotion per book, and there's roughly one revolutionary advance in military technology per book. So while the big space battle of the first book is one outgunned cruiser versus a disguised battlecruiser in a peacetime skirmish, the most recent books involve battles between hundreds of ships flinging tens of thousands of nuclear missiles at each other in a galactic-level, multi-sided war. Honor has literally reached highest rank possible in both of the navies in which she currently serves. Weber intended to break the cycle by killing her off and letting her children pick up where she left off about two books back, but co-author Eric Flint gave her a literal new lease on life by pushing the newest war up about 20 years and shifting the focus to other groups of characters to keep from having to promote Honor so damn much.
  • After starting as a low-level CIA analyst in The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy's main character Jack Ryan has nowhere else to go after serving as President of the United States for two-and-a-half terms and eventually his son and other young protagonists must take over for him as the focus characters.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ends with Mr. Wonka having found an heir in Charlie and the boy and his family destined to live the good life in the factory, thus leaving the characters without any real needs. So Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator starts with the titular elevator, which was escorting everyone back to the factory, accidentally ending up in orbit — where they encounter evil carnivorous aliens and have to rescue the crew of a space hotel from them. Then a Halfway Plot Switch reveals that Mr. Wonka has invented a Fountain of Youth pill, and when Charlie's still-bedridden grandparents overdose on them, he and Mr. Wonka have to undo the damage. The book ends on a Sequel Hook with everyone headed to the White House to be honored for their heroism; Roald Dahl didn't get past the first chapter on a third book, but one wonders what he might have come up with to top the first two...

    Live-Action TV 
  • Stargate falls victim to this, but usually manages to make the upgrade interesting.
    • They started by defeating a single Goa'uld (Ra) who had a single ship in The Movie.
    • Then, in the series, it turns out that was just one of many Goa'uld with many ships. However, he turned out to have been the leader of all the Goa'uld, and actually commanded many ships, although they hadn't been seen. But now he's been replaced by Apophis, who's very similar in most respects.
    • They defeat Apophis, and he gets replaced by Sokar, whose schtick is that he was the inspiration for the devil. Yes, that devil. He also has some fancier tricks up his sleeve, and a bigger fleet, that make him a bigger threat to Earth than Apophis was.
    • Then Apophis turns out to not have been defeated after all, kills Sokar, takes over his fleet and his armies, and now he's stronger than ever and out for revenge on Earth, rather than just generically desiring conquest.
      • At some point in here, Osiris shows up as a recurring villain, mentioned as so evil the other Goa'uld got together and Sealed Evil in a Can before the protagonists inadvertently free him.
    • Then Apophis gets killed (for good!) by the Replicators, who threaten to implacably devour all matter in the universe and who have been giving Earth's Asgard allies trouble since early seasons.
    • That threat isn't even dealt with before Anubis, half-Ascended Goa'uld with advanced Ancient knowledge and the ability to conquer all the other Goa'uld with ease, appears. He comes up with an army of unstoppable super-soldiers, which take several episodes before the protagonists even figure out how to kill one.
    • After Anubis and the Replicators are all defeated at once, and the protagonists have acquired ships that can destroy Goa'uld Ha'taks with ease, in come the Ori toilets battlecruisers that can destroy the Tau'ri ships with ease.
    • The spinoffs not running for as long, don't suffer quite as much from this problem. The Wraith remain a constant threat from the first episode of Stargate Atlantis to the last, though they get the occasional upgrade (like the ZPM-powered Hive Ship in the finale), and the protagonists also have to deal with a fancier, more powerful kind of Replicators along the line.
    • But now in Stargate Universe, the Ha'taks have caught up, and can kick the asses of the ships that could destroy the ships that can destroy the space toilets. When viewers politely asked "WTF?", the writers responded by saying that the rest of the universe hasn't stayed stagnant as our heroes have grown stronger. Presumably the Lucien Alliance stumbled across and reverse-engineered some lost bit of Ancient technology; that seems to be the source of most technological advancement in the Stargate-verse.
  • Chuck used this when, after his father rid him of the Intersect Mark I, Chuck intentionally downloads the Intersect Mark II into his brain which comes with Suddenly Always Knew That powers in addition to intelligence information.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer went through this in the first five seasons. First season: Vampire (the Master). Second season: Three vampires, all especially vicious (Spike, Dru & Angelus). Third season: A "true" demon (the Mayor). Fourth season: A demonic cyborg (Adam) and a military installation (the Initiative). Fifth season: A god (Glory). Sixth season broke with the formula: its Big Bad was made out to be three rather ineffectual, if evil, nerdy wannabe villains. They were switched out in favour of Willow in the last few episodes. She may have been at about the same power level as Glory by that point, but the seventh season ramps it up again with The First Evil and an army of uber-vamps. Eighth season (in the comic books) has the Flying Brick Twilight, who may outdo Willow and Glory just with his level of invulnerability.
  • Doctor Who has been doing this, most obviously since the new series started in 2005. Game show controlling Daleks, Cybermen and Daleks invading Earth, The Master seizing control of Earth and decimating the population, Daleks again, this time attempting to destroy the universe, Time Lords returning and attempting to end time... then, not just time ending, but making it so that nothing even existed in the first place. The sixth season finale features the (almost) final death of the Doctor, which is arguably worse than the universe not existing.
  • Supernatural starts with the boys hunting monsters and ghosts, which leads to them hunting demons, which are the strongest foes they face for a while. As the demons they face keep getting more and more powerful, eventually angels enter the mix, and somewhat surprisingly, they're not all friendly. Of course, Satan is a bit of a pain in the ass later, and most recently, this has all been taken to its logical conclusion with the newest Big Bad being somewhere around Death and God's level in terms of power.
  • Haven ran into this in its later seasons. It originally started out as the story of Audrey Parker, a cop who is stuck in the town of Haven, Maine and helps the Troubled townspeople, all while trying to piece together the mystery of her past and who exactly the Colorado Kid is. As the seasons go on, Audrey has to deal with cosmic entities, reincarnation, and The End of the World as We Know It. More specifically, she finds out that she is immortal and constantly returns to the town of Haven every 27 years, after which she goes into a magical barn and takes the Troubles with her. Unfortunately, things get messed up and she can no longer do so. Then she finds out that she's actually the reincarnation of Mara, an evil Cosmic Entity who created the troubles and who was punished by being forced to help the Troubled. They end up dealing with her lover, William, before having to deal with Mara herself, who unleashes all sorts of Troubles on the town. The final season is Audrey dealing with Mara's father, a Satanic Archetype who cuts Haven off from the rest of the world, wipes everyone's memories of its existence, and almost destroys the world.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Arguably this is what destroyed the original Dick Tracy comic series. While in the 30s Tracy would investigate bank robbers and gangsters using magnifying lenses and fingerprint kits, by the 40s he was stopping Nazi supervillains with his 2-way wrist radio and electronic tracking gadgets. This leveling of threat and technology continued for years; in the 50s he stopped a disembodied voice from taking over the world with an atomic laser, and by the 60s was fighting space aliens on the moon in his antigravity space cruiser. In the 70s the strip was rebooted, with Tracy returning to being a cop investigating criminals, but by that time the strip had lost all social relevance.

  • BIONICLE was supposed to last for one year, but the sets sold well and the writers saw potential in the story.
    • 2001: elemental robo-warriors, the Toa fight wild animals, then tougher animals, their evil selves, and the main villain, the all-powerful Makuta.
    • 2002: Toa deal with swarms of all-destroying critters likewise wielding elemental powers.
    • 2003: Makuta returns and unleashes his "sons", of whom only six are enough to cause serious damage. Makuta himself is defeated, seemingly for real. Was also meant to be the ending, but LEGO kept extending the line's run.
    • 2004: flashback which reveals that most of the menaces the Toa have had to face before are pretty low-tier.
    • 2005: Executive Meddling forces the writers to reuse the concept of The Swarm, this time with Giant Spiders that take over continents and serve the Brotherhood of Makuta. The Dark Hunters, previously represented by two operatives, are shown as an expansive organisation and one of the world's most powerful forces.
    • 2006: back in the present, six thugs easily beat the Toa, so a new set of heroes take center stage. Beings more powerful and knowledgeable than ever are revealed, and the world is expanded into a wider universe.
    • 2007: these newbie Toa battle ancient warlords and their army of sea creatures while the universe around them literally dies and has to be revived. Makuta is back, though the Toa don't fight him.
    • 2008: the original Toa team returns, more powerful than ever. Their foes? A whole team of Makuta.
    • 2009: subversion, in this semi-retool, the bad guys are powerless desert fighters, but the conflict is only a setup for...
    • 2010: planet-sized robots duke it out for the fate of the entire universe as LEGO wants to be done with the line.
    • Post-Script Season: all the various characters start looking for the precursors, one of whom is a loose mass murderer capable of who-knows-what, but the story simply stopped there.

    Video Games 
  • Pokémon:
  • Sierra dropped the ball with this one and their Quest for Glory series. After the first one, where you save a small Barony, you jump immediately to saving the entire world from an evil genie. There's not much they can go from there, so you then save the world from an evil demon, followed by saving the world from an evil vampire, and finally saving the world from an evil dragon. Each one plays itself up like it's somehow worse than the one before it, even though the end results are pretty much the same.
    • Sierra did try to avoid this though. Originally the Hero was going to essentially go from the second game into what became the fourth game. They inserted the third game when they realized the going from foiling a wizard's plot to summon an evil genie to defeating an eldritch horror was a bit of a jump.
  • The Metal Gear series of games went to increasingly absurd lengths (naturally) to justify Solid Snake's continual returns from retirement. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake involved a replacement for petroleum and theft of nearly every nuclear weapon in the world. Metal Gear Solid involved genetically engineered super soldiers, a clone brother who took the Cain and Abel trope too much to heart, and invisible nukes. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty involved mass-produced Metal Gears, an anti-Metal Gear, a third clone brother, a kidnapped president, a Metal Gear fortress, and whatever the hell happened at the end. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots had to work hard to top that, but it did. And it was awesome.
    • To give some perspective, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a prequel to the rest of the series, revolved around... destroying a 1st generation superweapon and assassinating a defector. Plus there was something about getting hold of enough money to take over the world in there...
  • Bowser, of Super Mario Bros., has gone from locking a Princess in a castle to cursing her whole castle with creepy dreamworld-doors, to lifting it up into space, to trying to take over galaxies. But, of course, Mario hasn't been lazy either. He's gone from "my only move is to jump on your head", to literal kick-boxer, to using the power of the stars, to body possession. Oh, the number of his power-up-items also increased rapidly.
    • And the RPGs. Take Paper Mario. First you had invincible Bowser take over the kingdom, then the Shadow Queen nearly take over the world (and it's an unsealed thousand-year-old demon with lightning powers too), and then Count Bleck (and Dimentio) try to destroy the entirety of existence (in the former's case for good, latter's case to remake in own image). Mario & Luigi series too to an extent, the first game had Cackletta steal Peach's voice, second had aliens try to conquer the planet and genocide the population and the latter kinda went down a level again with Fawful and the Dark Star.

    Web Original 
  • Critical Role has this, though justified by the show being a Dungeons & Dragons campaign so the plot had to level up with the players. We arrive in the middle of it, since the campaign had been running for two years before it was streamed.
    • Vox Machina started out fighting various minor threats, with the Dungeon Master house-ruling weaker versions of iconic monsters like Liches and Dragons for the party to fight. Their first major Story Arc involved freeing a demonically-posessed royal family.
    • The first on-stream arc had Vox Machina adventuring through the Underdark, fighting Duergar, mismatched abominations and eventually a powerful Beholder that had taken control of an Illithid colony.
    • A minor "filler" story arc occurred after, though it did involve one half of the party fighting an adult White Dragon.
    • The third arc saw Vox Machina liberating the hometown of one of its members from an evil married couple of a powerful vampire and sorceress who sought to revive a God of Evil. In doing so, they had to start a full-on revolution among the populace and fight an entire undead army.
    • The next arc is where things really stepped up.Four Ancient Chromatic Dragons descend on the world, destroying several major cities entirely and each alone posing more of a threat than anything the party has fought before, requiring the party to gather legendary weapons from all across the world.
    • After defeating this threat, the party took some downtime clearing up loose ends (although one of them involved literally going to Hell), before the final arc started: Vecna, the Sealed Evil in a Can from the Briarwoods arc, was revived for real, and succeeded in becoming a God. Vox Machina had to seek help from the Gods themselves to find the items needed for a ritual to seal Vecna away once more. It was made clear that this was as far as it would go: win or lose, this would be the end of Vox Machina's story, and the next arc would begin a new campaign with new characters.

    Western Animation 
  • Somewhat subverted in Kim Possible. The titular character gained an uber-powerful, all-purpose battle suit in the Grand Finale... but then the show got renewed for a Post-Script Season, so the first episode of the new season had the suit get damaged and stuck in repair until the new final episode.

Alternative Title(s): Plot Relevant Power Up