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Screw the Rules, They Broke Them First!

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"Funny thing aboot tha law... Nothin' left ta bind ye means nothin' left ta hide behind."
Sigdi Thundershield, The Order of the Stick

Two or more people or groups have an agreed-upon set of rules, contracts, oaths, or other agreements. But when one side violates these, the other side may well declare those rules null and void, and thus freely disregard and violate them as well.

This can lead to Pay Evil unto Evil, Awakening the Sleeping Giant or This Means War!, and either I Surrender, Suckers or Screw the Rules, They're Not Real! can lead to this. If this happens to someone who believes in Screw the Money, I Have Rules!...head for the hills.

Contrast Honor Before Reason (where one side may adhere to rules while the other breaks them left and rightnote ). At the other extreme, an unscrupulous party may accuse the other side of breaking some minor technicality and use it to weasel out of their part of the deal. Also contrast Defeating the Cheating Opponent, where one side cheats but the other keeps playing fair, and the cheaters still lose.

See also Hostage for MacGuffin, where this trope is the main cause of the heroes getting out of the exchange with both.

Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us is a related trope, where a party justifies amoral actions (which may or may not violate some sort of law or agreement) by claiming someone would inevitably do it.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki: Tsubaki and Hinagiku have a cuteness contest. Hinagiku and her teammates cheat by hypnotizing Tsubaki's teammates into voting for her. Tsubaki counters by duplicating herself so her copies can vote for her. Hinagiku calls her out on cheating, but Tsubaki retorts that she cheated first.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!:
    • The Monster World arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! has Dark Yugi respond to Dark Bakura using tricks to improve his dice results by copying him. He simply notes in response, "If you can cheat, I can too." Bakura responds by creating an Obvious Rule Patch to prevent either of them from using the trick, to which Yugi agrees. (Granted, Bakura has multiple other ways to cheat that Yugi can't copy, such as placing a piece of his soul into the dice.)
    • In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Yusei duels against the corrupt warden, Takasu, who basically cheats in his duel against Yusei by having his men look at the cards in Yusei's hand with the security cameras. So when Yusei's cellmate Alex causes a power outage, Yusei takes advantage of the blackout to switch the position of his face-down cards to trick Takasu into targeting the wrong card.
  • YuYu Hakusho: At one point during the Dark Tournament arc, one of the corrupt organizers begins orchestrating a sabotage against Team Urameshi, in the hopes that their rivals in the quarterfinals win the fight. By the time it's evident that the rivals are going to win unfairly, Hiei and Yusuke begin considering the idea of playing dirty as well to even the score, but Kuwabara calls them out for this, and decides to fight the last remaining rival in one last round. He wins, and the corrupt organizer gets killed by Younger Toguro before he plans his next meddling.

    Comic Books 
  • Commissioner Smirnov in Blacksad is being ordered to let go of a murder case, tipping him that the murderer is wealthy and influential enough to be above the law. This leads him to back Blacksad into getting any semblance of justice by having the murderer killed, write it as a suicide, and force the murderer's henchmen into exposing their boss so the public knows of his crimes.
  • In The Death of Clark Kent, Superman and Conduit agree to fight with Supes not using his heat vision and Conduit not using his Kryptonite rays. When Conduit breaks the rules, Superman follows suit.
  • Defied in one Jem and the Holograms (IDW) comic. After Clash tried to kill Jem at one of her concerts (only for Aja to push her out of the way and get mildly injured herself), Kimber recognized her as the culprit and engaged in a food fight between her group and the Misfits. Unfortunately, the judges of the Battle of the Bands were disgusted by their unprofessionalism and disqualified them, a move that angered both bands.note  As the Holograms decried the decision, citing how one of the Misfits' fans tried to kill them, the judges were still within their rights to do so since not only were the Misfits sponsoring the contest themselves and the Holograms were tied to the rules/clauses of the contest, but technically speaking, the women had no actual proof that Clash was responsible.
  • Wacky Races: In "The Speedy Arkansas Travelers" (issue #5, Gold Key), Dick Dastardly employs chewed bubble gum to halt the progress of the Army Surplus Special. But when the Arkansas Chuggabug's Luke and Blubber get the Mean Machine hung up the same way, Dastardly complains vehemently.
    Dastardly: No fair! They did my dirty trick! To me! I'll sue!
  • A Running Gag in the X-Men Baseball Episodes is that the game starts off being "no powers", but as soon as one player violates this...

    Fan Works 
  • Ashikabi of Thunder and Lightning: Tsukiumi tries to attack Minato the first time they meet, leading to both of Minato's present Sekirei attacking her. When Tsukiumi insists that matches are supposed to be one on one, they remind her that attacking an Ashikabi is also forbidden.
  • Crosswinds of Fate: Brought up and Discussed regarding the matter of parley. Binns and Sable both note that anyone who breaks the rules of parley effectively proves themselves to be untrustworthy, meaning that they're likely to get the short of the stick when it comes to any treaties, and are forfeiting the chance of being taken prisoner rather than killed in combat.
  • In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, some curses are easier to cast "when they bind yourself and others alike", such that if one party breaks it the other party ceases to be bound by it.
    • The Defence Professor tells a story about a medieval Dark Witch who taught Battle Magic (Defence Against the Dark Arts) at Hogwarts on the condition that she vowed not to shed a drop of the students' blood, nor take from them anything that was theirs, while the staff and student body vowed the same to her. A student tricked her into breaking this vow in a very non-obvious way and was then free to kill her in her sleep.
    • Voldemort uses this principle to his advantage: He goads Harry into attacking him in order to break a curse Voldemort invoked when Harry was a baby, that was supposed to prevent either of them from threatening the other's immortality. This also breaks a mutual vow they had made mere hours ago, that prevented either from attacking the other unless the other did so first.
  • Inheritance (Worm): Taylor initially honors the Unwritten Rules during the Teeth's conflict with the Empire... until Cricket and Hookwolf nearly murder her father. She then decides that they breached said rules, and proceeds to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, killing most of the Empire's remaining capes within a day. She also makes a point of killing Kaiser live on TV, warning others that their fate is a direct result of not honoring the Unwritten Rules.
  • Klonoa: Familiar and New Dreams: During the Dream Arena arc, Clawford is convinced that Klonoa intends to kill him during their match, even though that would get Klonoa disqualified and banned from future tournaments. So he decides to try and kill him first, not caring if that results in him being banned.
  • Pokémon Reset Bloodlines:
    • When Dexter gives Ash a hint of how he can beat Daisy's Cloyster, Daisy calls foul and says it's cheating. Dexter responds with a simple "pot, meet kettle", as Daisy had tricked/forced Ash into a battle that would let her use a team that could normally only be legally used for an eight-badge battle.
    • In Ash's Indigo Conference match with Joshua Martin, he reflexively punches out Joshua's Fearow when it flies too close to him for comfort. Joshua insists that what he did broke the rules against trainers directly interfering in the battle. The ref disagrees with his argument, saying that even if what Ash did was against the rules, it was still a justified response since Joshua had obviously instructed his Fearow to get overly close to the opposing trainer with the intent of keeping them from concentrating on the battle, which is considered cheating. As a result, Joshua is disqualified and forced to vacate the event's premises within 24 hours.
  • The Steep Path Ahead: Louise and Saito repeatedly employ I Surrender, Suckers to deal with various threats. This comes back to bite them when they learn that word of their use of such tactics has spread throughout the land, coupled with a warning: "If you have the chance, against a masked woman and a dark-haired boy working together, stab them, because they broke the terms."
  • Thunder in Kanto: Napalm's reaction to being banned from Celadon Gym - something that is considered a violation of the rules for gym leaders? He beats the crap out of the Celadon Gym's staff, forces his way in, and takes a Rainbow Badge from a frightened Erika. There was not even a Pokémon battle, but there sure was a one-sided fight.

    Films — Animated 
  • The Sword in the Stone: When Merlin and Madame Mim agree to a shapeshifting Wizard Duel, they set a few ground rules, such as no turning into mythical creatures "like pink dragons" and no disappearing. After a while, Mim grows frustrated with Merlin's tenacity and decides to end things by transforming herself into a purple dragon, using the weak justification that the wording of the rules (as taken at face value) doesn't specifically preclude her from doing so. Merlin, who had been scrupulously following the spirit of the rules until then, decides to respond with his own "technically legal" game-changer; he turns into a disease germ, proclaims it legal on the grounds that he hasn't actually disappeared and is just too small to see with the naked eye, and infects Mim, defeating her and rendering her bedridden with illness.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • During the championship street tournament basketball game in Above The Rim, Big Bad Birdie's team, led by his dragon Motaw, cheats during the whole game by roughing up protagonist Kyle's team using physical violence to commit fouls. When Kyle's coach complaints to the ref about the roughhousing, he does nothing. When Birdie's older brother Shep decides to join Kyle's team late, which is revealed to be legal, as long as he is on the original roster, he begins to dominate the game. He also doesn't hasitate to do some roughhousing of his own. When Birdie complains to the ref, the guy laughs at him and says, "You must be kidding." Kyle's team makes a comeback to win the game and the championship.
  • Constantine (2005): Papa Midnite has sworn an oath to uphold the Balance between Heaven and Hell. In an attempt to convince him to go back on his oath and intervene in the conflict, Constantine tells him that the forces of Hell have broken the rules and violated the Balance.
  • Fist of Fury sees Chen take this stance. When it's clear pacifism isn't getting him anywhere in finding out the truth about his instructor's death, he goes on a one-man rampage against the rival dojo.
  • In Holiday Inn early in the film Ted "steals" Lila from Jim. Lila leaves Ted for another man, and Ted shows up at the Inn in horrible shape. He falls in love with Linda, who Jim is in love with, and manages to talk her into going to Hollywood with him. Jim's housekeeper encourages him to go to California (where Ted & Linda are busy making a movie based on the in-universe Holiday Inn) and get her back. Jim says "A fella doesn't steal another fella's gal. ...Or come to think of it, does he?"
  • John Wick: No business may be conducted on Continental grounds. However, it is indicated that if someone tries to kill you first in the Continental, you are allowed to use whatever force necessary to defend yourself. You can't kill anyone else, but killing your would-be assassin may be allowed.
  • Discussed in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In a minor departure from the book, King Théoden of Rohan questions why he should answer Gondor's call if their ally activates the alliance since Rohan received no aid from Gondor when they were under attack by Saruman in the previous film. However, when Gondor Calls for Aid later, Théoden honors it. (After all, as the books themselves point out, Gondor was not unwilling but unable to assist Rohan: being already under attack from the east and south, it could barely defend its own borders, was preparing for a siege, and had literally no spare forces to send up to Rohan - and, in particular, no significant cavalry capable of covering the distance overland at the speed necessary: even the men of its southern provinces had to stay home and defend the coasts from the Corsairs before they could spare any great numbers to come to Minas Tirith.)
  • In Mortal Kombat (2021) Shang Tsung leads a group of Outworlders to assassinate Earthrealm's champions before the tournament begins, and when Raiden calls him on this violation he points out that the Elder Gods, as standard for the franchise, have done nothing to enforce their rules. Raiden takes this to heart and intervenes to teleport his remaining champions to safety, then teleports each of them out to face down an isolated Outworld opponent. They also plan to gang up on Goro, Outworld's most powerful champion.
  • On the first possession of the Ultimate Game in Space Jam, Bugs Bunny starts dribbling the ball upcourt until Pound smacks him hard enough to send the rabbit skidding the width of the court. No foul is called, and Michael Jordan gives a "woof" at just how rough the game is going to be. The Monstars continue to play nasty while the Tune Squad plays nice, until the second half. Then the Looney Tunes bring in explosives, firearms, livestock, and Pepé Le Pew's horrendous stench, all of which begins to even the score. No foul of any kind is called, ever, although Swackhammer does call a timeout for a change of plans: that he wants Jordan instead of the Looney Tunes for his Moron Mountain theme park.
    • Also played straight in the sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy: Al-G keeps adding to the rules of the basketball game (which he set up) as it goes along to try to bend the odds in the Goon Squad's favor. When the Goon Squad starts to falter and Dom abandons him, Al-G decides to directly sabotage the Tune Squad by taking away their points and breaking past LeBron James, Dom's father. In response, Dom learns that the only way to beat Al-G is for LeBron to glitch out, as he had done in Dom's video game earlier, but at the cost of being erased. LeBron agrees to take the risk, but Bugs Bunny steps in to do the move himself. As LeBron is about to score the winning point, Al-G tries to physically stop LeBron, only for Dom to toss his father a jump pad so he can score. Al-G helplessly screams, "THAT'S CHEATING!", conveniently ignoring the fact that he cheated first.
  • In Star Trek (2009), when Kirk gets accused of cheating on the Kobayashi Maru Test, reprogramming the simulation so that he could win, he argues that "The test itself is a cheat" since it makes highly improbable no-win situations, so it was reasonable for him to cheat his way into a winnable situation. Spock however counters that this proves that Kirk didn't just cheat, but failed to understand the point of the test in the first place. No-win scenarios do exist, and the point of the test is to judge how you will react in such situations.
  • Star Wars: In The Empire Strikes Back, Cloud City administrator Lando Calrissian plays along with The Empire, allowing them to set a trap for young Skywalker. Lando has qualms about torturing Han Solo and then handing him over to a bounty hunter, but he's cowed by Darth Vader. However, after being ordered to take Princess Leia and Chewbacca to Vader's shuttle, Lando protested, and was met with Vader's "I am altering the deal; pray I don't alter it any further." No surprise that Calrissian gets on the PA system, alerts the city that The Empire has seized control, and actively joins the rebellion.
  • Conman Henry Gondorff joins banker Doyle Lonnegan's crooked poker game in The Sting in order to earn Lonnegan's ire. Once Gondorff is dealt a hand of four Treys, he knows a stacked deck play is in effect. At the climax of the hand, Lonnegan plays four Nines ... and Gondorff lays down four Jacks. When his adjutant wonders why Lonnegan suffered the loss, Lonnegan growls at him: "What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?"
  • Timecop: Foreshadowed well in advance. When Walker and Matuzak are talking about how McComb has been a slippery bastard so far at the very beginning, Walker growls out "if I can't go back in time to save my wife, there's no way I'm gonna let him go back in time to profit." McComb having achieved what he wanted in the second act, Walker goes back in time to Set Right What Once Went Wrong, and sure enough destiny makes it necessary for him to save his wife's life as part of it.
  • TRON: Alan Bradley is reluctant at best to help out Flynn. Part because Flynn's breaking the rules by hacking into the company's system, part because the man incessantly Trolls him and Lora when they're questioning him, and part because...well, Flynn is his fiancee's ex-boyfriend. But then, Flynn lays out the reason behind the hacking - Dillinger stole Flynn's work, using it to make a meteoric rise in the company. Realizing Dillinger (and Master Control) have "broken the rules" convinces Alan to throw his lot in with Lora and Flynn, culminating in a six-felony late-night break-in on company headquarters to get Alan's software (the title character) running and expose Dillinger's crimes.

  • The Discworld book Hogfather concerns a plot by the Auditors of reality to unmake humanity. The Auditors loathe humans for being untidy but have long held an unsteady truce with Death. After a group of them cheats, he wipes them out. Though he could justify this by the fact that they had taken living forms, he uses this trope instead.
    Auditor: You can't do this! There are rules!
    Death: Yes, there are rules. But you broke them. How dare you. How dare you!
  • Heralds of Valdemar series. In Exile's Honour, Alberich is considering whether or not he should help Valdemar, as this would violate his oaths to the Sunpriests. Then he remembers that the priests swore oaths to the Sunsguard as well—and never fulfilled them.
  • In The Mahabharata, the Pandavas are essentially exiled because they lost a game of dice. One of the many reasons they are angry about this was because the guy they were playing against blatantly and constantly cheated. The cycle of cheating escalates to the point of the Kurushetra war that decimates the Kuru dynasty. The war concludes with Ashwattama, one of the last remaining Kaurava generals, murdering the entire Pandava lineage and their in-laws in their sleep and striking Arjuna's grandson from the deceased Abhimanyu stillborn.
  • In The Misenchanted Sword, the war between Ethshar and the Northern Empire comes to an end when the Northern Empire, as an act of desperation, unleashes a horde of demons on Ethshar; this is treated by all sides as if it were an all-out WMD attack. In response, the gods allied to Ethshar break their own rule of non-intervention and wipe the Northern Empire off the map.
  • Sir Etienne, an ally of the protagonist of October Daye, is usually a scrupulously honorable knight who would never pull a dirty move like a Groin Attack...except when the other guy brings an iron weapon to the fight. As almost everyone in the series is some kind of fae and nigh-fatally allergic to the stuff, all bets are off once iron is involved.
  • In The Pendragon Adventure Uncle Press tells Bobby that it's against the rules to bring technology from one Territory to another. The Big Bad Saint Dane does it. In one of the later books, Bobby decides that if Saint Dane can do it he can too, and brings a big earth-drilling machine from a technologically advanced Territory to one with more medieval level. This helps him stop the emergency of the moment, but it sets up a chain of events that makes him lose ground in the long run.
  • Spider's plan in Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain revolves around how the superheroes have refused to accept that the Inscrutable Machine are full Supervillains under the terms of the community truce. Because the heroes say the rules binding them from certain actions against the Inscrutable Machine don't apply to this situation, neither do the rules bind the Inscrutable Machine to adhere to the truce, allowing the team to shatter the rule against attacking the bases of superheroes who are out of town for the conference.
  • The threat of this plays a key role in the Inevitable Mutual Betrayal plot of Skin Game. Through a convoluted series of events, Harry is forced to work for Nicodemus - a member of the series's Big Bad Ensemble - until Nick has accomplished his goal. These two characters absolutely despise each other, but the laws of the magical world prevent them from trying to kill each other while this arrangement stands. One of Harry's goals is to force Nicodemus to throw the first punch so that he can be freed from his obligation to play nice. Thanks to a particularly vicious display of psychological warfare, he succeeds.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • A Discussed Trope in the first Darth Bane novel. Dessel (the future Darth Bane) gets attacked by a fellow miner, and they get into a fistfight. Then the other man attempts to gouge Dessel's eye out... at which point Dessel bites the man's finger off. As Dessel himself notes while the man lay there screaming in pain: you should never escalate a fight unless you're willing to pay the price of losing.
    • Tales of the Bounty Hunters: Han tells Leia that he's skipping out on being her plus-one at dinner with a particular diplomat because the other man cheats at cards. Leia complains that Han cheated right back, and Han replies, "I cheated him better."
    • The Han Solo Trilogy: Muuurgh feels duty-bound to keep his contract with the Hutts, as he gave his word of honor. When it's revealed they got this under false pretenses however, lying about seeing his mate Mrrov (she'd been there on Ylesia the whole time) Muuurgh instantly declares the contract void, having agreed earlier that an agreement made with a liar didn't count. He then helps Han rescue her along with Bria.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • This is implied to be how the ancient conflict between the Shadows and Vorlons started. When the First Ones left the galaxy, the Shadows and Vorlons stayed behind to guide the younger races, the Vorlons by providing structure and stability, and the Shadows by causing conflicts and weeding out the weak. At first they had some sort of agreement and both abode by it, but eventually one of them, it's never said which, decided their way was the only way and violated the agreement. The other reciprocated and thus began the cycle that lasted for millennia if not longer.
    • Sheridan accidentally ups the ante on this at the end of the third season. Apparently, the Shadows and Vorlons still had some basic rules, specifically about not using WMDs. Unfortunately, Sheridan didn't know anything about this, so he nuked a city on the Shadow homeworld. In response, the Vorlons assumed that the WMD treaty is now over, so they whip out their Planet Killer, which is rather excessive compared to a nuke. In response to that, the Shadows decide to whip out their planet killers. Basically, the galaxy quickly goes to shit.
    • Sheridan caused another rules violation earlier in the third season, as well. The Shadows began attacking younger species openly, and no one was willing to join Sheridan's proposed alliance against them because of how scary they were. Sheridan begged Kosh for direct assistance, which he eventually provided, but only with extreme reluctance. It turns out there was a rule in place that the Shadows and Vorlons wouldn't attack each other directly - so in revenge for the Vorlon attack on their ships, the Shadows assault and kill Kosh in retaliation. Naturally, Kosh never bothered to explain any of this to Sheridan. This event triggers escalating rules violations by both sides.
  • One of the "Bar Wars" episodes of Cheers revealed that Cheers and Gary's Old Town Tavern had signed a peace accord calling an end to their prank war. But on St. Patrick's Day, the Cheers gang discovers their wooden Indian Tecumseh is missing. Assuming Gary and his gang stole it, the Cheers gang launches a counterattack that shuts Gary's down. Unfortunately, it turns out that Rebecca had Tecumseh sent away to be refinished without telling the others. Fortunately, it turns out that Gary had decided to take a vacation that week and his tavern was closed anyway.
  • Horatio Hornblower plays with this in "An Even Chance". When Jack Simpson decides to cheat in their pistol duel and fire early, Horatio declines to fire back in cold blood (even though it would be within the rules). After Horatio justifies this with Jack being "not worth the powder", Jack decides to go all out, attempting to stab Horatio In the Back. It's at this point that Captain Pellew decides to interfere with an improbably but awesomely accurate musket shot.
    • In fact, the only thing inaccurate about this scenario is that after his "misfire" Jack should have been immediately executed by the officiant in any case.
  • The Mandalorian: Discussed in "The Marshal". Din Djarin negotiates a deal between the settlement of Mos Pelgo and the local Sand People tribe: in exchange for the Pelgans' assistance in killing the krayt dragon that's been raiding them both, the Tuskens swear that they will keep the peace with the Pelgans forever unless the Pelgans break the peace first.
  • In the Netflix revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, when Jonah and the Bots realize that Kinga and Max have been stealing their riffs for their Invention Exchanges, Kinga blows it off by saying that companies steal things all the time.
  • In an early episode of MythBusters, during a build-off, Jamie was keeping his build within the rules (specifically, the rule saying how much could be spent) until his team found out Adam's team had broken that rule. Cut to Jamie mounting an overbudget component.
  • Played with in an episode of Sons of Anarchy. The Sons and the Aryans agree to meet for an unarmed brawl. Knowing the Sons will be unarmed, the Aryans show up packing guns. The Sons then reveal that they had anticipated this treachery and had made deals with two other gangs to cover them from the bushes. Rather than taking advantage of their now superior firepower, the Sons simply insist that the Aryans honor the original deal and fight them unarmed as originally agreed.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "For the Uniform", Maquis leader Michael Eddington launches chemical weapons at a Cardassian colony, then attacks evacuation ships. Captain Sisko responds with his own chemical attack on a Maquis world and threatens to do the same to others unless Eddington turns himself in. Eddington folds.
    • Implied to be the case during the opening battle of the Klingon War on Star Trek: Discovery. T'Kuvma the warlord accepts the offer of a cease-fire from Admiral Anderson — and then uses a cloaked "cleave ship" to destroy Anderson's flagship, an act that falls under the war crime of "perfidy". Captain Georgiou then responds in kind — when T'Kuvma starts recovering the bodies of his fallen warriors, Georgiou booby-traps one of them with a torpedo warhead (which violates part of the 1980 Geneva Protocols), leading to an explosion that cripples T'Kuvma's flagship. Truth in Television in a way, in that The Laws and Customs of War have historically been interpreted as not protecting people who have already broken them.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Bible:
    • Defied in The Four Gospels. One of the more charitable interpretations of the actions of the Jewish High Priesthood is that they crucified Jesus to prevent Him from either inadvertently or intentionally causing trouble with Israel's Roman suzerains: Rome was not known for dealing mercifully with perceived rebels and only tolerated Judaism as it was.
    • Averted in 2 Timothy 2:13: "(even) if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself."

    Pro Wrestling 
  • In general, face tag teams don't enter unless tagged (versus heels, who will often run in to break up a pin, then back off when the ref admonishes them), but when the heels start double-teaming a face member, generally the face team disregards the tag rule, at least until one of the heels is taken out of the ring.
  • More generally, faces are somewhat more likely to cheat after the heels do it first, as at that point it's just evening the odds.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech:
    • The Clans have a strict dueling code that they use to fight. If it gets violated, though, they have a tendency to go nuts and use all kinds of dishonorable options available to them: calling in reinforcements, ganging up on single targets, or even calling in artillery or airstrikes.
    • The Word of Blake is one of the first factions in the game's story to break the Ares Conventions and resort to such tactics as Orbital Bombardment and nuclear weapons. It doesn't take long for the Inner Sphere powers to decide that if the Blakists are going to violate the Conventions so flagrantly, they're not going to be protected by them either, and start nuking the Blakists right back.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: One of the archdemons is described as being honorable enough to allow enemies to challenge him to fair combat. If they cheat, however, all bets are off.

  • In Hamlet, Hamlet agrees to a duel with Laertes using blunted foil swords. When he gets cut and realizes that Laertes is using a live blade, he manhandles his opponent and fatally wounds him with his own sword.
  • Discussed in A Man for All Seasons, when Thomas More rejects the idea of "Cut[ting] a great road through the law to get after the Devil", on the basis that once the laws are cut down, there's nothing protecting you from the Devil.

    Video Games 
  • Jade Empire: At the end of the Imperial Arena questline, Kai Lan the Serpent, master of the arena, invokes a centuries-old rule to use his right as former champion to challenge you, the new champion. The Black Whirlwind, a companion who has a grudge against Kai Lan, asks to fight him on your behalf, but while Kai Lan opposes the substitution, you can point out that it has happened before. If you do, Qui will then mention the time when Kai Lan surprised you with a toad demon as your opponent, and allow the Black Whirlwind to fight on your behalf.
  • Implied (if not stated outright) in the Kingdom Hearts series. Most Keyblade wielders (and other benevolent inter-worlders) do their best to maintain a world order, and so are generally prohibited from muddling ("Meddling!") in other worlds. The events of the games happen because Unversed, Heartless, and Nobodiesnote  are travelling across the Ocean Between and spreading darkness in many different worlds.
  • This is essentially the reason that both factions in Star Wars: The Old Republic use to defend breaking the Treaty of Coruscant. Given the number of proxy wars, unauthorized secret missions, and espionage going on, (the series is The Cold War IN SPACE after all) neither the Republic nor the Empire was upholding the truce fully to begin with anyway.
  • In Tales of Symphonia, the village of Iselia has a non-aggression treaty with the Desians. After a Desian force apparently attacks the Martel Temple, Genis uses this trope as an excuse to visit the Desian human ranch, which is forbidden by the treaty. However, because the "Desians" that attacked the temple were actually a rebel faction known as the Renegadesnote , the actual Desians end up invoking this trope themselves and attack Iselia in retaliation.
  • In Temple of Elemental Evil, there is something of an unwritten rule between the Gods of the setting not to directly intervene in mortal affairs. When one of the evil Gods breaks this rule and manifests an avatar to attack your party in the final battle, one of the Good-aligned Gods promptly manifests his own avatar one round later, none too pleased at the breach in protocol and more than willing to answer it in kind. When the two Gods then teleport away to continue their battle in private, the evil God doesn't leave without first raising all of the enemies you'd previously killed during the fight as zombies.... which, in turn, prompts the good God to respond by fully healing your party before he leaves as well.

    Visual Novels 
  • The final two cases of The Great Ace Attorney involve prosecutor Barok van Zieks on trial for murder, being prosecuted by Kazuma Asogi, whose father was falsely convicted for being the Serial Killer known as "The Professor" and wants vengeance on van Zieks. When Ryunosuke tries to call Kazuma out and insist that van Zieks deserves a fair trial, Kazuma asks whether Ryunosuke means a fair trial like the one Kazuma's father supposedly had.

    Web Animation 
  • DEATH BATTLE!: The fight between Balrog and TJ Combo starts off as a championship boxing match, but given this is Death Battle, somebody was going to break the rules and go for the killer blow. Balrog is the one who breaks them first, with a grab, headbutt, stomp, and sucker-punch, followed by incapacitating or possibly murdering the referee who tries to disqualify him for it; TJ proceeds to use suplexes and kicks in the ensuing fight, ending with him taking victory over Balrog by decapitation.

  • Erfworld: The Magic Kingdom prizes its neutrality very highly, so when Jojo gets a squad together to oppose Parson, he warns them they can't attack first or they'll be the criminals. He does end up attacking first, but manages to spin it in his favor by claiming Parson violated the neutrality first. Parson didn't actually violate the neutrality, but he did violate the spirit of the rules by doing a few things everyone thought were impossible.
    • Also implicit in others interactions with Parson's side. Parson has, in course of the story, engaged in actions that in both our world and Erfworld are war crimes. While these were effective in the moment, by the time the story ended they had become a liability through all other sides considering them contemptible and fair game for all tactics.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • In "Turn the Table" an important vote, one which had powerful runic protections that would strike and petrify anyone that broke Dwarven law within the location (including vandalism and assault), is interrupted and declared over with no result. The Exarch, a vampire that had been trying to rig the vote, attempts to assault Sigdi (one of those responsible for the interruption) stating nothing prevented him from murdering her; Sigdi answers that since the rules applied both ways, nothing really stopped her or her massive extended family that was also there from returning the favor. He's promptly dragged into the sun and held down until he burns to ash.
    • This is the exact reason why Belkar (who otherwise is very proud of being a Chaotic Token Evil Teammate and firm believer of "Screw the Rules, They're Not Real!") decides to pretend he has done Character Development: as a vision of Lord Shojo explains to him, if he keeps running around stabbing everyone in sight and raising hell, people are just going to become fed up with having such a threat in their midst and kill him.

    Web Original 
  • Jreg: In "Centricide 4", Anti-Radical attacks Ancap with a poisoned knife to either kill him or turn him into a Neoliberal, expecting that he won't retaliate because of his adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). Ancap responds by pointing out an aspect of the NAP that everybody seems to forget: if you violate it, you lose protection from it. He then guns down Anti-Radical.
  • In The Nostalgia Critic's scathing review of Patch Adams he balks when Patch's Love Interest is murdered, realizing it would be morally wrong to disrespect the memory of a murder victim and even contemplates quitting the review right then and there. Then he does research on the spot and learns the real murder victim was a male colleague of Dr. Adams and that said Love Interest was a complete work of fiction that completely bastardizes the man the character was based on for drama:
    Critic: BAD MOVIE! IT'S A BAD, BAD MOVIE!! I AM SO ASHAMED OF YOU!! BAD MOVIE!! Okay, all bets are off! If this movie can't even represent a dead person by getting his GENDER right, NOT making up a false romance, AND A CHILD MOLESTING STORY, ALL OF IT FABRICATED...
  • Phelous: Referenced in his review of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, where Shao Khan agreed to spare Johnny Cage if Raiden spared a group of his minions, only to kill Johnny anyway. Phelous points out that Raiden would have been well within his rights to kill Khan's minions in response, and says he's not sure who's the bigger idiot; Khan for not expecting Raiden to retaliate, or Raiden for letting himself be bound by an agreement that was no longer in effect because Khan broke it.

    Western Animation 
  • Bravestarr. The title character once reluctantly agreed to a bargain with Tex Hex, because he knew that Tex was such a compulsive backstabber that he would never honor his own end of the deal, which would then leave Bravestarr free to break it as well.
  • Defied in The Legend of Korra: Realizing that the Wolfbats are cheating in the Pro-Bending finals and bribed the referee into ignoring it, Korra suggests her team do the same, but Mako shuts the idea down, saying the Wolfbats bribed the ref to turn a blind eye to them cheating, but any rule-breaking done by the Fire Ferrets will result in them being disqualified. Though the Wolfbats do wind up winning handily thanks to their cheating, karma soon strikes them hard when Amon and the Equalists attack the stadium and remove their bending powers, ensuring that this ill-gained victory will be their last.
  • A fairly common joke in Looney Tunes cartoons is for the Karmic Trickster to answer a cheater by cheating better. One example is a cartoon where Bugs play blackjack with Black Jacques Shellaque. Black Jacques draws a 10 of Spades and pulls a second 10 of Spades out of his sleeve. Bugs beats him with a 21 of Hearts.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Fall Weather Friends", Rainbow Dash and Applejack resort to increasingly dirty cheats in their eagerness to beat each other at a race. At one point Rainbow Dash literally says "That's it! All bets are off!" when she decides to break one of their self-imposed rules after a particularly nasty shove from Applejack. The irony though is that Dash started it when Applejack gained the lead and Dash's ego naturally wouldn't let it stand.
  • In The Owl House, Lilith justifies the fact that she cheated in order to give her student a boost in a duel by saying she figured Eda would cheat to help her student anyway. To be fair, she was right about that, but it's ambiguous enough that some might assume she would've cheated either way. Eda, for her part, is too delighted that her prissy, self-righteous older sister is in fact Not So Above It All to really care.
    Eda: Welcome down to my level!
    • Significant in that we find out later that Lilith has done much worse cheating than this.
  • Samurai Jack ep, "Jack vs Aku". The two decide to settle things through simple hand-to-hand combat, with Aku claiming he won't use his powers while Jack can't use his sword. It starts out even at first, but not surprisingly, Aku starts going back on his word during the match and eventually it's revealed it was all a ploy to get Jack's sword. But Jack pulls an I Know You Know I Know on him by planting fake swords around the area. Eventually Jack retrieves his real sword, fights him as usual and Aku flees with things pretty much back to normal.
  • One episode of The Transformers had Megatron propose that the Autobot/Decepticon feud be settled by a one-on-one duel between him and Optimus Prime... after he had augmented his own weapons systems with parts taken from other Decepticons in violation of Cybertronian dueling law. He wins, but once the Autobots realize that Megatron had cheated by analyzing Optimus' wounds, they conclude that since the Decepticons cheated, the Autobots are not bound to honor the terms of the duel and admit defeat. They then drive the Decepticons off in the rematch.
  • In one X-Men: Evolution episode, Hank McCoy/Beast has the X-Recruits play a ball game as part of an improvised gym class, stipulating that they couldn't use their powers. When one hit the ball extremely hard, another angrily accused him of cheating and likewise activated his powers. The resulting melee ended with Hank tumbling out of the gym amid noise and clouds of dust (or something).

    Real Life 
  • If one side violates a contract, the other party is no longer bound to it either.note 
  • Warranties often have clauses that say if the customer treats a product in a way that leads to damage that is outside normal usage of the product, the warranty is void.
  • In warfare, this is one of the ways being a Combat Pragmatist can backfire. Sure, if you're the weaker one they'll fall for it once or twice, but a more powerful nation can break the rules in many more ways than a weaker one can, so sometimes, it's better to just stick to the conventions and not call the unbound wrath of the other party on yourself. Traditionally The Laws and Customs of War are not viewed as protecting people who have themselves broken them and even have provisions in place to allow for them to be "broken" if the other side breaks them first: while it's illegal to attack protected locations like churches, schools, historical sites, and protected peoples like medics, civilians, and hors de combat — injured soldiers who can no longer fight, not considered combatants —, protected locations become legitimate legal military targets if used for "a military purpose" (like storing weapons or housing combatants) and protected people become legitimate military targets if they engage the enemy in combat.
  • In The American Civil War, the Proclamation of Retaliation was essentially "if you start executing/enslaving prisoners of war, so will we".
  • Historically, being declared Outlaw was an invocation of this trope: having broken the law, the convict was no longer granted the protection of the law, and so could be killed without need for a trial.
  • This bit Japan hard in the lead-up to the Pacific War of World War II.
    • The limits on naval power under the treaties Japan had signed meant that Japan would always be at a disadvantage to the United States. So Japan decided to break the treaty and start building more ships. The United States, no longer bound by the treaty since Japan broke it, immediately implemented plans and started building more ships than Japan could ever hope to match. One of the reasons for the attack on Pearl Harbor was that Japan was fully aware that if they didn't attack America quickly and force them to sue for peace, the planned expansion of the Pacific Fleet would mean that the Imperial Navy would simply be overwhelmed. Needless to say, that's exactly what happened anyway.
    • Japan's horrendous treatment of Allied prisoners of war, made the Allies unhappy with them. One reason why there were few Japanese POWs, apart from the Japanese themselves preferring to die fighting instead of surrendering, is that the Allies themselves would rather kill enemy soldiers than capture them, out of anger towards Imperial Japanese atrocities.
  • Related to the above, there were a series of treaties between the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan during the interwar years that placed restrictions on naval armaments. Tonnage of individual warships, overall tonnage of ships, and size of guns were all limited. There was no real enforcement mechanism, but if one nation announced they would no longer abide by the limits, everybody else would be released as well.
  • In response to the Laconia Incident (in which a pair of U-boats tried to rescue sailors from the water after sinking their ship, only to be bombed by Allied warplanes despite attempts to call a truce), Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine at the time, ordered midway through the war that his U-boat commanders were not to give any aid to the crews of any Allied vessels they sunk, whether they were military or civilian. The Americans had themselves been practicing unrestricted submarine warfare since entering the war. However, this ended up having consequences when it came to the Nuremberg Trials, as the Allies' having committed the same acts meant they couldn't charge Dönitz, more than likely saving him from the death penalty (he actually got off with 10 years imprisonment, the lightest sentence of anyone found guilty at Nuremberg). Additionally, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz defended Dönitz by pointing out that Dönitz hadn't done anything different than his own US Pacific Fleet had done to the Japanese (and with far greater effect).
  • This was the cause of the Berber Revolt in the former Umayyad Caliphate. Despite the stipulation that the non-Muslim Berbers could avoid paying the jizya tax if they converted to Islam, the leading Arabs chose to heavily tax them anyway after conversion when they realized that their conquests were taking a toll on their wallets. Despite the stipulation that Muslims were not to harm fellow Muslims, the Berbers launched a bloody rebellion and carved out several states for themselves.
  • This trope is the reason for Oda Nobunaga becoming known as Demon King Nobunaga. The Tendai monks of Mount Hiei were giving sanctuary to the Azai and Azakura Clans, Nobunaga's enemies, and allowing them to use their monastery as a staging point. As such, they were no longer a neutral party, causing Nobunaga to respond by razing and burning the monastery with extreme prejudice.
  • When al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a CIA drone strike in Kabul, the Taliban protested, claiming that the killing was a violation of the Doha Agreement they negotiated with the American government. A White House spokesperson responded by pointing out that the Taliban had promised to stop harboring terrorists as part of the deal, so they had no justification to claim the moral high ground.
  • The libertarian idea of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) prohibits initiating or threatening any forceful interference against an individual, their property, or any promise for which the aggressor is liable and the individual is a counterparty. However, the NAP doesn't preclude violence used in defense of oneself or others, meaning people who violate it can expect forceful retaliation.
  • In 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan agreed to the Budapest Memorandum, in which they would give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for assurances that neither America, Britain nor Russia would use or threaten military force or economic coercion against them except in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. After Russia violated this agreement by annexing Crimea in 2014, backing Ukrainian separatists shortly thereafter, and invading Ukraine in 2022, there have been increasingly loud calls for Ukraine to amass a new nuclear arsenal, as Russia has proven that it won't respect Ukraine's sovereignty or the Memorandum.
  • The whole concept of self-defense. While it's normally illegal to assault a person, if they're the ones who instigated it (or are otherwise putting your life in danger, e.g. mugging you) it's perfectly legal to hit them back if the situation requires it. How far this goes depends on the jurisdiction, some places operate on a "duty to retreat" where violence is only allowed if there is no other option, while others have "stand your ground" laws that allow you to respond with deadly force if your life is under threat, even if you have the option to run or hide.
  • This can be used to explain the rationale behind social contract theory. The basic idea is that a legitimate government has the legal authority to require that the people remain obedient and loyal to it... but only as long as said government fulfills its obligations to the people. If the government becomes incompetent, corrupt, and/or tyrannical, it loses its legitimacy, giving the people the right to replace it, by force if necessary. This idea can be found everywhere from the Chinese concept of the "Mandate of Heaven" to the Declaration of Independence.
    • In Germany, for example, to prevent a totalitarian government similar to the Nazi regime, the Grundgesetz note  added "right to resist" rule if all much stronger restrictions to install such government failed (overlaps with Screw the Rules, It's the Apocalypse!), since Nazi Germany technically had a de jure very liberal constitution inherited from the Weimar Republic, but the liberties were abandoned due to the Article 48, creating a Loophole Abuse by Adolf Hilter in 1933 to ensure a totalitarian regime and not repealing the constitution to give the impression of legitimacy.


Video Example(s):



During the race, Santiago sabotages Moon's racecar bed by installing a nightlight on it which wakes Moon up, causing him to crash. In response, Moon's pit crew sabotages Santigo's racer, Judy-etto, by stealing her favorite blanket, which will cause her to wake up if she doesn't have it.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / ScrewTheRulesTheyBrokeThemFirst

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