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The Pawns Go First

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Why get that suit dirty when you've got men willing to get dirty for you?
"In chess, the pawns go first."

The Big Bad could easily step in and join the fight at any time, but instead he chooses to wait until all or at least most of their subordinate forces are defeated. Unlike Orcus on His Throne, he's not necessarily passive or staying off-camera, this is a case where he has made a conscious choice to spectate for this particular battle. A sub-trope of We Have Reserves, with the big bad or The Dragon as the reserves.

May show that the villain has no regard for his henchmen's lives and just wants to get his money's worth out of them, that he considers fighting alongside lesser forces beneath him, or that he's too overconfident to consider the heroes a threat. If he's watching from a Slouch of Villainy, it's likely to be all three. If the villain could conceivably have won if he'd stepped in earlier, he may be holding the Villain Ball.

On the other, more pragmatic hand, the villain may be letting his minions soften up the heroes while minimizing risk to himself, or taking the opportunity to observe the heroes' fighting style. Or maybe he plans to try to recruit them if they're good enough to defeat his Elite Mooks. Or maybe he uses the minions as distraction so that the villain can be free doing their main objective while the heroes are either hindered or stuck fighting the wrong battle.

Usually occurs at the top end of the Sorting Algorithm of Evil, with the Final Boss.

Compare Mook Chivalry, Flunky Boss, Run the Gauntlet, Boss Rush. Not an uncommon tactic for The Neidermeyer. Contrast Frontline General. Also contrast Just You and Me and My GUARDS!, where the character is unwilling to fight alone.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Digimon Adventure:
    • It's revealed that all the season's prior Big Bads were working under Apocalymon, and he has all their special attacks in his own moveset.
    • In the original miniseries the reason Devimon resorted to relying on Black Gear-infected Digimon to attack the children after his attempt at simply murdering them in their sleep failed is because he wanted to make sure that when they confronted him again, he'd know all about their moves and abilities. Patamon evolving into Angemon and channeling all his strength to perform a Mutual Kill was the only reason Devmon was defeated. Even then, he mocked Angemon for a Senseless Sacrifice and gleefully informed the kids that even more powerful and dangerous Digimon were waiting for them.
  • Dragon Ball Super uses this to an effect in the latter half of the Universal Survival arc. After Jiren proves to be so overwhelmingly powerful after his first fight with Goku, the remaining Universe 7 warriors find themselves facing off against the other remnants of the other universes' warriors while Jiren and his Pride Troopers, Toppo and Dyst, just step back and watch. Granted some of the other universes could've attacked them as well but figured Universe 7 was the easier of the two to deal with first and went after them. By the time all the other universes are gone save 11. Universe 7's crew, which by this point included Goku, Vegeta, Gohan, Android 17 and Frieza, are battle weary and going up against opponents who're barely even roughed up.
  • In the original Hellsing TV series's finale, Alucard fights through hordes of vampire-ified police officers and civilians to get to Incognito - who is actually an authentic, Ancient Vampire of the same "vintage" (power level) as Alucard (compared to the "watered-down" Nth-generation natural vampires an Artificial Vampires he'd been fighting the rest of the series). Alucard still goes through the recently turned vampire SWAT team like they were wet tissue paper — but when he finally faces Incognito, he explicitly taunts Alucard that he was letting him use up his finite amount of silver-tipped bullets on his pawns, so now he's running low on ammo.
  • Monster Rancher begins with the Searchers fighting some low level but minor mooks. As they get further, soon end up against the elite commander, the Big Four. The leader, Muu, does step in mid-season, but only to find out where his true body lies. Eventually after the Big Four are defeated, he calls in his highest commander, General Dullahan who sends his elite monsters after the group who sure enough, are the toughest challenge yet before Dullhan himself and eventually Muu, who has regained his body by that point and instantly goes after them.
  • In Rurouni Kenshin, Makoto Shishio deliberately had one of his mooks engage Kenshin in battle, but Kenshin defeated him without so much as drawing his sword by engaging in Explosive Overclocking (the mook was proud of his speed, but failed to notice Kenshin slowly increase his speed until the point the mook's body couldn't keep up). Shishio quietly inquired if this meant the mook couldn't even force Kenshin to demonstrate a single one of his techniques... and getting the hint the mook makes one last desperate charge that does indeed force Kenshin to counter with one of his moves.
  • Both Sailor Moon and its Spiritual Successor Pretty Cure deal with the heroes fighting with the evil-summoned Monster of the Week, which ruins their day. As per Magical Girl Warrior standards, they deal with the problem themselves. The latter usually have a theme to their summoning each season.
  • In The Rising of the Shield Hero Medea could, at any time, achieve her end goal by personally destroying the world. Instead she sends an army to fight the defenders and observes the battles because she enjoys watching her enemies struggle and fail. She only intervenes if her forces are in danger of losing ground as she doesn't want anyone else to win.
  • In one episode of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Manjoume makes it inside North Duel Academy (the rival to the regular Duel Academy) and quickly finds out the rules to their "hazing ritual" from Yuri Edogawa, a guy who claims to be their top student. A new student has to duel the top fifty students from least skilled to best, until he loses. Manjoume gladly accepts that challenge and starts kicking some serious A, while Edogawa does little but watch from a rocking chair. After Manjoume defeats the top four under Edogawa simultaneously, Edogawa finally gets up and duels him; he's slightly more of a challenge, but Manjoume still triumphs. At that point, the school's chancellor appears, telling him that he's passed the Secret Test of Character that he's been put through the entire episode, and also says he's earned the right to take over as top student. (Claiming he never really liked Edogawa much anyway.)

    Comic Books 
  • In the Batman comics, Bane used this to brutal effect. In the original Knightfall arc, Bane was smart enough to send other villains against Batman to either weaken him first, track him down, or simply observe his fighting style so he can learn from it. Various subsequent iterations in different continuities and media have played with this to different degrees (some treat Bane as a dumb brute, while surprisingly, the Nolan-verse live-action Bane - though intelligent - did not do this but chose to fight him head-on (because in that incarnation, Bane explicitly had the same training background with the League of Shadows that Batman did). A good example is from the Bruce Timm animated universe: Bane decides to shadow Killer Croc until Batman eventually fights him, and when the mob boss who hired Bane to fight Batman questions this, he explicitly states it is so he can observe Batman's fighting technique.
  • In Santa Versus Dracula, Dracula uses the kids he vamped to soften up Santa and his group first then his own forces (Frankenstein, Wolfman, Invisible Man and Igor) before confronting Santa himself.

    Fan Works 
  • In A.A. Pessimal's Discworld fic Hyperemesis Gravidarum, a group of killers with a grudge are trying to take down the people who closed down a good operation and put them in prison. They are crazy, but not stupid: knowing they are attacking an Assassin, they recruit a platoon of "meat-shields" to take the brunt of the attack and soak up casualties, promising them fifty dollars a head after the fight. Very few of them are still standing at the end.

  • In Harry Potter, Voldemort often shows reluctance to go into a battle unless a) he has no choice, or b) he's absolutely sure that he can't lose (though of course, this will get subverted so our heroes can survive). In the final battle Harry's visions show him holding back as his forces attack the school, and Hermione actually sounds shocked and indignant that he's not willing to fight himself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Two nested occurrences of this trope appear at the end of Equilibrium. First Brandt and DuPont calmly watch Preston kill the guards, then DuPont calmly watches Preston curb stomp Brandt, and only then does DuPont fight Preston. All of this happens in the same room.
  • In Kill Bill: Volume One, when The Bride comes after Yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii ("Cottonmouth"), she first faces the mooks who are dining with her, then the "Crazy 88" squad who roll in on motorcycles. When she kills them all (leaving one last youth among them to run away), she then faces O-Ren in a quiet winter garden setting behind the building.
    The Bride: Any more subordinates for me to kill?
  • In X-Men: The Last Stand, Magneto holds back while his hordes of lesser-powered mutants blitz Alcatraz, telling his right-hand man, "In chess, the pawns go first." This moment serves as one of Magneto's major Kick the Dog moments: for all his grand-standing on mutant rights and brotherhood and superiority, he's just as willing to watch them get slaughtered. When the opening charge of weaker mutants gets taken out by the human forces' new Power Nullifier weapons, Magneto explains to Pyro (who he'd held back from joining the attack) "That's why the pawns go first."
  • The final fight in Jackie Chan's Project A has the heroes mowing down waves of enemies while the head pirate San-po makes a point of standing back and watching the fight.
  • In Dredd, happens along a sorting algorithm. Gang leader Ma-Ma has Judge Dredd and his rookie Anderson trapped inside of her 200 level skyrise under lockdown, but she honestly hopes that the initial groups of low-ranking thugs she sends will kill him. She advances to sending more men, to using miniguns against Dredd, but nothing stops him. Once all of the pawns are used up, she sends in the knights - a squad of four Dirty Cops to take him out. She only does this reluctantly because it is very expensive. Nonetheless, during their ensuing fight the corrupt Judge Lex taunts Dredd that he used up all his ammunition fighting the canon-fodder from Ma-Ma's gang (which he needed now more than ever because the other Judges are as well-armed and trained as he is). The tactic worked, and they come the closest to killing Dredd: he runs completely out of ammo mid-fight, and suffers a gut-shot as a result. To push the analogy even further, Ma-Ma herself turns out to basically be the King. While not completely helpless, she's no match for Dredd in a one-on-one fight, who throws her off the top of the building to her death.
  • Justified in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Scott has to defeat Ramona's evil exes in order to date her in a video-game-like Canada. Gideon, the Big Bad, assembled the seven evil exes and can easily kick Scott's teeth in. We meet him fairly early in the plot and he takes an active role in events, but he forgoes fighting Scott and even tried to make peace with Scott before the end of the film.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Pretty prevalent in a lot of Power Rangers series.
    • Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue, Queen Bansheera kept sending more of her forces to power up her son Imputs, and then later on started doing so to power up herself.
    • Power Rangers Ninja Storm was the more blatant about this as Lothor kept sending more and more of his generals out to be sacrificed. But turns out he had a reason for it, as each monster defeated kept filling the Abyss of Despair up enough that it would be opened, reviving all the monster defeated and starting his conquest for world domination.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Champions supplement "Ninja Hero" the martial arts version of this is explained as a specific perk of being master of a fighting school—if challenged, you can deflect it to your students first, to see if the challenger is worth your while, and also spot any weaknesses in their fighting style you can exploit. (An actual skill in the Hero System called "Analyze Style.")
  • In chess, there isn't a villain per se, but generally, the king's underlings are sent out to fall in battle before the king himself becomes active in the endgame. (And yes, the pawns usually do go first.note )
  • In Warhammer 40,000, the Penal Legions of the Imperial Guard, who are typically used for minesweeper duty by being marched across minefields or explicitly to soak up enemy ammunition during heavy sieges. To a looser extent, the Imperial Guard as a whole are viewed as pawns by the Imperial hierarchy, meant to hold the enemy in place until the Space Marines can arrive and take decisive action. This isn't exactly a fair comparison, however, as the Imperial Guard can be an effective fighting force and drastically outnumber the Space Marines. Strictly speaking, the chess analogy still fits: the Imperial Guard may be pawns, but massed numbers of pawns can still take out the queen (given that for every one who falls, ten more will take his place!)

    Video Games 
  • In Castle Crashers, the Pre-Final Boss fight with a Necromancer has him revive two waves of enemies from the corpse-filled room before facing the players by himself as a Duel Boss.
  • Destiny: In the King's Fall raid, Big Bad Oryx allows you to kill all his top subordinates before facing you due to his belief in the sword logic. By killing them, you prove that you're stronger than all of them combined; that means when you fight him, he either kills you, proving he's stronger than you and receiving a massive boost to his power and authority, or you kill him, proving you're stronger than him in a way that reinforces the tenets of his faith.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, when your party confronts Deimos the Lich, he summons two Mud Golems to fight against your party and he only leaves his throne after you have defeated both of the Mud Golems.
  • EXTRAPOWER: Attack of Darkforce: Every boss battle operates like this, with the player party on one side, the boss character/s on another, and a field of enemies in between. The bosses, like all enemies, will start to engage when a player character is within a given range, but you'll have to fight your way to that point. Especially in the end game, it's not uncommon to see most of your transcendental power, HP, or overall combat effectiveness drained to precarious levels before you make it through the Mooks!
  • In Kero Blaster, the boss fight in the Greenery Zone starts with Kaeru fighting the one-eyed mudmen enemies that appear late in the level as they pop out of the mud; killing one takes off health from the boss's life bar. After enough of them are killed, a King Mook version of the mudmen (known in the code as "Gorgon") burrows out of the ground, and uses the rest of the life bar as its health.
  • In the first entry of the Kunio-kun series Nekketsu Kou ha Kunio Kun (as well as its Western localization Renegade), Kunio would fight Mooks while the stage's boss would hang to the side and watch. When you were down to two or three mooks, the boss would then join in the fight.
  • Hiroyuki from Loopmancer leads his own band of Cyber Ninja enemies, and appropriately in the two stages he's fought in, he will send his underlings to deal with you while waiting for you at the boss area, which you defeat before fighting him. As a boss, Hiroyuki fights alone.
  • Subverted in God Hand with the boss Afro Fist. While he initially sits back and lets his two ladies do the fighting for him, the moment one dies or his couch gets destroyed, he begins to fight... with no cutscene warning to the player either!
  • This is apparently what the Street Fighters are doing in Street Fighter X Mega Man.
  • The God King in Infinity Blade doesn't bother rising from his Slouch of Villainy until you've defeated his minions. Comes full circle in the third game, the God King challenges the Worker of Secrets in the opening, who is too busy updating his blog (or whatever he's doing with his computers) to pay much attention until his guards are down.
  • Subverted in The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer: The heroes think that the powerplant foreman Dug is doing this, but it turns out that he was never loyal in the first place, and was deliberately getting all his bodyguard robots destroyed at the heroes' hands so he'll be free to negotiate with them.
  • In Project Zone, boss and mini-boss units will skip their turns until your units get close to them, while the Mooks start charging from the beginning.
  • The Spawn video games. The demon king Malebolgia is your most common enemy, and he's always seated on a giant throne in Hell. In the SNES title, he shoots lightning from his hands while you box with the Mad One. Afterwards, he gets off his throne and sends you to fight his creation, the New Breed. In Eternal for PlayStation, he stays in the background during the rematch with Violator.
    The Angry Video Game Nerd: He's just sitting there in the back! Eating souls! Like, sitting in the back of a bar eating buffalo wings!
  • In the Vindictus mission "Friends?", unlike most missions, the boss doesn't spawn immediately when you enter the boss room. Instead, you face a constantly replaced swarm of Mooks and Elite Mooks, and the boss doesn't show up until you've taken out one hundred of the latter.
  • World of Warcraft:
    • Some of the instance bosses who are guarded by trash mobs do this. For instance, when you enter Emperor Thaurissan's throne room in Black Rock Depths and start cutting your way through his senators and other members of his court, he will make remarks like "They were just getting in the way anyways."
    • In Tempest Keep, Kael'thas only fights the player after they defeat each of his advisors, defeat the weapons he summons to attack them, and then defeat all four advisors together.
    • On Mount Hyjal, the first four bosses are faced after defeating ten waves of trash mobs, which will reset if the raid wipes.
    • Gothik the Harvester in Naxxramas forces players to fight waves of minions, which will come in on one side and respawn in the other as undead after they're defeated. The player fights him after enough time passes or all the minions are defeated.
    • In the Warmaster Blackhorn encounter, Blackhorn will attack the players from his mount Goriona, but won't jump down to fight them until his minions are dead.
    • In the Siege of Niuzao Temple, the first phase of the fight with Commander Vo'jak involves you and a few allied Pandaren NPCs defending the top of the stairs and fending off his minions as they try to climb up to face you. Vo'jak declares that those who fall against you were too weak to live, and only joins the fight after all his minions are defeated.
  • The fight with Hercules in God of War III starts with you fighting a small legion of skeletons. He joins the fray assisted by more skeletons, only making it a one-on-one after you defeat them.
  • The Kingdom Hearts series:
    • During Kingdom Hearts II, Organization XIII mostly threaten Sora, by summoning lesser non-human nobodies. Their powers lead to The Heartless fighting for them, and only in the end when they're cornered by Sora do they fight back. They actually have a good reason not to, since they want Sora to use his Keyblade on the Heartless, to collect hearts for their Kingdom Hearts. They even stop summoning them and go after Sora and his friends once Kingdom Hearts is complete.
    • In Kingdom Hearts III, this is justified as part of Master Xehanort's plan. The members of the True Organization XIII are meant to fight Sora and co. because a clash of light and darkness is needed to create the weapon that Xehanort needs to accomplish his goal. Xehanort does not care in the slightest about what happens to them after that.
  • The Paper Mario series:
    • In Paper Mario 64 General Guy will deploy his elite soldiers to fight Mario and only emerges directly into battle once all of the Shy Guy combatants are down.
    • In Paper Mario: Color Splash, Lemmy will not fight Mario until Mario defeats all of his circus performers. The last group will provide Mario with a trampoline so Mario can meet Lemmy on the roof of the tent. This is a justified case in that Lemmy guards the Green Big Paint Star, which Mario needs to restore the fountain in Port Prisma—Lemmy's strategy is to hide the Big Paint Star where Mario can't get it, as Lemmy never actually intended to fight Mario in the first place, instead making Mario waste his time fruitlessly at the circus.
  • Baroness Von Bon Bon's fight is like this in Cuphead. The first three phases are each against one of her minions selected from a pool of five. Bon Bon herself only starts fighting in the final phase, and even then she relies mostly on her living castle.
  • In the Kingdom Rush series, several of the bosses play this trope. They stand at the sidelines and send their minions after you first, only joining in once all the waves have been cleared. This usually also ends up being their undoing since the minions give gold to allow you to upgrade your towers enough to take on the boss.
  • This is how the fights against Mr. X go in the first two Streets of Rage games. He sits on his throne menacingly while hordes of Mooks attempt to kill you (in the second game, he sics his Dragon Shiva on you as well). After enough henchmen/Shiva are defeated, he joins the fight, brandishing his signature tommy gun. A similar scenario seems to play out in the third Streets of Rage game, except that after defeating the mooks the supposed Mr. X is revealed to be a robot, which you have to defeat.
  • In Final Fantasy II, when you face the Emperor inside the Cyclone, he declares that you're unworthy of fighting him and sics two waves of Royal Guards on your party before you fight him. Even after you defeat his Mooks, he still fights alongside a Wood Golem and two Royal Guards, with the Emperor himself being in the back row, making him very difficult to attack until you defeat the enemies in front.
  • In Mutant Football League, this strategy is encouraged. If a Star player dies, they're Killed Off for Real (unless you expend one of your limited revives to bring them back), but "Expendable" players will respawn after every game. As such, a workable strategy is to throw the Expendable players at your opponent's lines, let them wear out their first-stringers, then sub in the Star players once the Expendables are used up and go for the kill.

    Web Comics 
  • In The Order of the Stick book Dungeon Crawlin' Fools, the Big Bad Xykon tells his minion to arrange the mooks with the weakest monsters on the highest levels and the strongest ones near his throne room, mostly so the weakest mooks can be slaughtered for his own entertainment.

    Western Animation 
  • The first time we see "Father" of the Delightful Children From Down the Lane in Codename: Kids Next Door, he's the Big Bad Badass. Once his Children are beaten by the Kids, he takes them on and does great... until an adult Nigel Uno gets the upper hand with a soft-ice-cream spraying machine to cool off his fires.
  • Subverted in The Legend of Korra. When Kuvira goes into a one-on-one battle with Korra over control of Zaofu she turns to her forces and announces that she won't send them into any confrontation that she's not willing to take on herself.
  • Beast Wars: During one attack on the Maximals' base, Megatron told Quickstrike to go first. Inferno asked why he wasn't chosen to take point, to which Megatron replies, "When expecting booby traps, always send the boob in first!" Sure enough, Quickstrike got splattered before Megatron could finish the sentence.