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A society has a ritual challenge system that determines who's strong enough to be the leader.

There can be variations on how ritualized the challenge is. Sometimes a spontaneous fight could occur and then everybody makes sure everybody else hangs back to let the two duke it out. On other occasions, the right to challenge may need to be specifically invoked, maybe with a particular phrase. In such a case you can very well expect the crowd to make a collective intake of breath and you get double points in the Tropedia Drinking Game if the challenged chief was walking away but then stops and slowly turns around. There also may or may not be a strict rule that the loser has to die. If there is, you may get The Hero in an ethical quandary if they believe Thou Shalt Not Kill.

You'll also get wider variations on the effect on the plot. For instance, in a case which has shades of You Kill It, You Bought It, it may be an outsider, often Mighty Whitey, becomes chief of a community by winning a duel against the previous chief, or just by killing them without knowing about the tradition. This will tend to pop up at the beginning to generate a plot or find a way to get a character into a society that should, by logic, wish to kill him on sight.

You also get the concept being used as a way for being to stop an enemy horde when outnumbered. They use this rule in the enemy culture to just challenge the ruler and then make everything hinge on that one fight. If The Hero wins, he gets to order the enemy horde to go home. Occasionally, The Hero has to be told about this rule by some helpful tribe member or he'll make the challenge and then there'll have to be a bit of conversation about whether he gets to do so.

A community with such a cultural tradition is usually portrayed as as Proud Warrior Race Guys where Asskicking Equals Authority. They will also frequently approve of certain methods of attaining a Klingon Promotion. This trope might justify Decapitated Army.

Examples of Challenging the Chief include:

Anime And Manga

  • In Bleach, Kenpachi Zaraki gained his position as Captain of Squad 11 by walking in and killing the last captain; Shinigami rule states that this works if done in front of 200 witnesses. This is apparently the normal method of transferring leadership in the Eleventh Division, the winner not only gaining a Captain's rank but also the hereditary title of "Kenpachi".

Comic Books

  • Played with in the Marvel Transformers comic. Shockwave retains leadership of the Decepticons by kicking Megatron's ass; however, Shockwave clearly didn't want to fight, because he's all about logic (which to him is "whatever will achieve the best outcome") and the Decepticons were at the time under danger from the outnumbered and wounded Autobots.
  • In Fables, Mowgli finds a wolf pack who might know where to find the missing Bigby. The wolves won't talk, so he challenges the alpha male for leadership. It works.
  • The Wolfriders in Elf Quest are another example. Though their leadership is usually inherited, tribe members can also challenge the chief and take over. The Go-Backs, at least later on in the series, appear to have the same thing.
    • Still, the trope is used very sparingly, because (1) elves do not kill elves and all life is sacred, and (2) the chief is always respected and loved, and the challenge happens only when there is enough evidence that the chief is unable to do their job properly. A good example is Scouter's challenge of Ember's position very late on in the series: Scouter won, and Ember was left behind to do a Vision Quest until she was fit to catch up with the tribe again and reclaim her role as chief.
  • Asterix and the Big Fight: in order to destroy Asterix's village, the Romans call a Roman-loving Gaul chief to fight Vitalstatistix, using the fact that the druid Getafix is currently neutralized. Vitalstatistix manages to win without the magic potion by running around the ring and eventually punching the exhausted adversary - but he refuses to take control of his village, who then go to Gallo-Roman to regular Gaul.


  • Hellboy II had the "challenge the leader to stop the army" version down to a pat.
  • The Chronicles of Riddick has the "You keep what you kill" principle embedded in Necromonger religion which leads to this trope occurring for Riddick.
  • In Heavy Metal 2000, the Big Bad Tyler kills the king of a tribe of lizard people and takes his place as their leader.
  • Kung Fu Hustle. Sorta. When The Beast breaks Brother Sum's neck, he apparently becomes the leader of the Axe Gang but it's more the fact that the gang is not averse to following the lead of someone who can kill them all with his slippers. However the old boss apparently defeated an entire gang just by killing the leader so maybe it is part of an established trend.
  • In the In Name Only Film of the Book of The Postman, in the Holnist Clan/Army, "Law 7: any clansman may challenge for leadership of the clan." The "laws of eight" are given to us in the first third of the movie. They very much become a Chekhov's Gun.


  • Dune follows the trope but subverts its usage. Paul Atreides refuses to face Stilgar, the chief of the Fremen sietch Paul belonged to, in ritual combat because they both knew Paul would win and Paul wanted Stilgar to remain chief of the sietch as Paul went to war for the whole planet Arrakis.
  • In Nation this is how the cannibalistic Raiders work. The villain of the piece ends up in charge of them via the "outsider becomes chief" route and since it's a Alternate History 1860s setting, he feels like it's a natural result of being Mighty Whitey. However this then bites him in the butt when the hero uses the rule for the "fight the leader, stop the horde" method.
  • In The Riftwar Cycle there is a mention of a moredhel chieftain who conquered another tribe (and assimilated it into his own) by killing their leader in a fair fight.
  • Implied that most warrens in Watership Down work this way.
  • The War Games of Zelos by Richard Avery (Edmund Cooper), part of The Expendables series. The people of the planet Zelos have a regular competition to determine who is the greatest warrior. The winner may challenge the King to a duel to take his position. All of the fights are to the death.
  • In Steve Perry's Matador series, this is how succession in the Musashi Flex (a sort of ongoing loosely-organized martial arts tournament) works. Anyone in the top ten of the rankings can challenge the top-ranked person, and if they win, they automatically become number one, regardless of their previous ranking.
  • In Raiders of Gor, Tarl Cabot kills the captain of a pirate ship for abusing a slave girl and discovers that doing so makes him the captain.
  • In Wolf of the Plains, Temujin becomes khan of both the Olkhun'ut and Kiryat clans by killing their respective khans.
  • R.A. Salvatore's The Crystal Shard sees Wulfgar challenging the leader of his native tribe so that he can lead the barbarians against the Big Bad. In order to make the challenge in the first place, you must prove your right "by blood or by deed". He shows off the horns of an ancient white dragon he killed (with Drizz't's help) and gets a "by deed" chance.
  • King Bucko Bigbones has a standing offer for anyone to take his office in Lord Brocktree... if they beat him in a fight. Dotti does so in order to blackmail him into assistance, but she probably didn't need to - he has a longstanding grudge against Ungatt Trunn, so he likely would have helped anyway.
  • How the Minotaur Emperor in Dragonlance gets and keeps his job- Minotaurs settle almost all disputes through ritual combat, so the logical extension of this is that any warrior who has earned high enough distinction can challenge the Emperor for the throne. As a side-effect, this ensures that, as the Minotaurs feel it should, Asskicking Equals Authority.
  • The easiest way to get a Shardblade in The Stormlight Archive is to Duel to the Death for it. And since Shardblades are so valuable, most Shardbearers are the people in charge.

Live Action TV

  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode Tacking Into The Wind, where the new Chancellor from TNG Reunion, Gowron, is screwing things up during the Dominion War, mismanaging the Klingon battle efforts to humiliate and disgrace the popular General Martok (who he fears will challenge him for leadership). In truth, Martok is too honorable and loyal to the Empire to even consider trying to take control for himself. After some harsh truths from Dax about Klingon politics, Worf realizes that SOMEONE has to challenge Gowron on honorable grounds (such as calling him on intentionally mismanaging the war out of fear for losing his position). Worf does challenge him, wins, becomes the next Chancellor, but almost immediately passes the torch to the most honorable and capable Klingon he knows (as well as his friend and mentor), General Martok.
    • Strangely, this is not the first time that Worf determined who would be Chancellor of the High Council of the Klingon Empire. The reason Gowron became Chancellor in the first place was because Worf killed Gowron's rival Duras in a duel over a totally unrelated matter, making Gowron the winner by default. He also resolves the issue of how the government is to be run when the clone of Emperor Kahless comes forward. Strangely, nobody seems to realize that the most important thing one must have in order to get ahead in Klingon politics is the approval of Worf.
  • In an early episode of Stargate SG-1, Carter has to challenge the chief of an alien society in order to win her freedom. It's supposed to be a fight to the death, but she beats him without killing him.
    • It's also unusual in that this is a heavily male-dominated society (women are considered property and must never show their faces). For a woman to challenge a man and beat him. It's unheard of.
  • In the Doctor Who story Ghost Light, the villainous Josiah plans to murder Queen Victoria under the delusion that the British monarchy works like this.
  • In Babylon 5, the Narn appear to use this, with G'Kar periodically having to fend off threats to his authority over the Narns on the station. The Minbari have their own version, with a twist: the challenge is to stand in an increasingly lethal energy beam; the winner is the one who doesn't chicken out and leave the energy beam first.

Tabletop Games

  • Fenrisian Wolves from Warhammer 40000 According to the background, the only way for a Space Wolf Marine to get a pack to follow him is to become the pack leader- by killing the previous one (as part of that ritual of manliness, usually. Doing it with a gun doesn't work.).
  • Also in Warhammer 40000 orks decide their leaders based on single combat ranging from low cunning to high explosives, but usually pit fighting. They do this because orks consider skill in combat more important than any real leadership capability, intelligence or strategic merit.
  • The Sabbat of Vampire: The Masquerade had this in place for certain positions in their power structure. The Storyteller was encouraged add whatever arcane stipulations or requirements he saw fit, in order to emphasize how unorganized the Sabbat was (the sample: "You can't challenge the Archbishop now - it's not the third night after the new moon!").
  • Garou society in Werewolf: The Apocalypse works like this. Their code of laws states that "any leader may be challenged in a state of peace" but that "no leader may be challenged in a time of war." Naturally, many leaders try to declare a perpetual state of war after defeating their predecessor.
    • Werewolf: The Forsaken has in its backstory that the children of Father Wolf eventually challenged and slew him for his role as protector of the world. This had serious repercussions.
      • The main reason the Pure and the Forsaken are fighting boils down to if the death of Father Wolf was a good idea. The Forsaken actually killed him, and claim that if they didn't, he'd of just gotten weaker and weaker to the point where the worlds wouldn't have ANYBODY strong enough watching over them. And the Pure claim that the Forsaken did it out of manipulation by Luna, and Father Wolf would of been just fine running the show

Video Games

  • Joked about in the sixth Touhou game when Cute Witch Marisa asks Ninja Maid Sakuya whether the position of Chief Maid works like this. It doesn't.
  • In Ratchet and Clank Future Tools of Destruction Ratchet inadvertently becomes the new Space Pirate Captain after defeating Captain Slag. However, at the end of the game, it is hinted Rachet then gave the title to Captain Qwark.
    • The trope made an earlier appearance in Ratchet and Clank Up Your Arsenal, where Ratchet battled an amnesiac Captain Qwark, who had somehow become a tribal chief on a jungle planet.

 Clank: Just keep the mask on. He thinks you are his new leader.

  • Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of The Betrayer has frost giant jarls decided this way. The ex-jarl you meet notes that he was beat by a weak but clever giant who challenged him after he was fatigued from the last fight. One option for the quest to get rid of them is to become the Jarl (and get a +1 charisma bonus for free) of the (self) exiled giants by beating ALL of them in a king of the hill fight.
  • In the expansion for Warcraft 3 Rexxar has to take control of the ogre tribe this way, after going through the trials to become a member - which, par for the course, would have killed any ogre in the tribe who.
  • In Morrowind, this is the only way to become head of several factions (though not the Morag Tong, strangely enough).
    • In most of the cases where it is necessary, the rules of the faction does not actually require it, providing for alternate ways... that the actions or attitude of the chief in question makes unfeasible. The Morag Tong inverts that: this trope is how it is supposed to be, but the leader is quite happy with just stepping down.
  • The Gorons in the Zelda series have a culture revolving nearly entirely around physical strength. The strongest and toughest Goron is the tribal chieftain, no exceptions. This comes into play in The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, wherein the Gorons will not allow you to enter their mines until you beat one of their elders in a sumo contest (which is actually impossible to win unless you cheat with the iron boots).
  • In the Mass Effect verse, this is typically how regime changes happen on Tuchanka. Should he survive Mass Effect 1 and claim chieftan ship over effectively all of Tuchanka, Wrex fully expects this to happen to him some time eventually. And hopes it's Grunt who does it.

Web Comics

  • Used in Order of the Stick. When they encounter a band of thieves in the forest, Haley challenges their leader - an eighteen-year-old sorceress - for control of the gang. She fails miserably. In fact, she fails epicly.
    • Subverted in this strip of Order of the Stick.
    • Also invoked by the end of the Azure City Siegue, when Redcloak accepts the challenge of the Azurites' head priest for one-on-one combat.
  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja villain Frans Rayner at one point intends to "kill the President, thereby becoming the President." He doesn't seem to care that it doesn't actually work that way, stating that he'll convince people that it does.
  • In Sam and Fuzzy, this is how the Ninja Mafia works - at least, this is how it works if you kill the entire Ruling Council (so none of the official successors are left alive). Sam, as the only survivor of the murder of the previous Ruling Council (although it was actually his ex-girlfriend who did this, killing herself in the process), is therefore considered the rightful Ninja Emperor - and becomes the focus of all the plotting that comes with it.
  • Played for laughs in this The Non-Adventures of Wonderella strip.
  • Played with in Curvy, after the girls are rescued/trapped by a pirate ship, and one of them tries to challenge the leader under "the universal pirate code". "There is no universal pirate code. Try getting caught by a different romanized version of a criminal organization next."
  • In Kevin and Kell, Frank Mangle challenges R.L. as CEO of Herdthinners Inc. Then Kell breaks the fight up before someone gets killed, and this is interpreted as her defeating both of them, so she gets made CEO.

Western Animation

  • Parodied in an episode of Futurama, with Fry challenging the leader of a post-apocalyptic society of children to what is essentially a skateboard race. His victory over a small child is denigrated further by the revelation that the society is in fact a LA creche.
  • Happens in an episode of Justice League where Superman is transported to the distant future. After being attacked by a pack of mutant wolves, he challenges their alpha, and is next seen using the wolves like sled dogs and wearing the alpha's hide like a cape.
  • Archer becomes a pirate king after this trope happens. Another pirate tries to oust him by using an Elite Mook as a stand in, citing the pirate code as allowing this. Archer accepts the challenge, and shoots him.

 Pirate: Whoa, whoa! You can't use weapons!

Archer: The code says it's a one-on-one fight, it doesn't say anything about unarmed combat.

Pirate: (glancing at the code) Well, it's implied!


Real Life

  • "Champion of the world" titles in professional boxing pretty much work this way. The current champ retains the title until they are beaten, at which time they relinquish it to whoever did the deed. In fact, historical lists of boxing champions often mention the number of times each champion averted this trope.
  • Arguably elections are a more civilized version of this
  • This phenomenon is common among packs of mammals (gorillas being the most common example—it only occurs in wolves if the pack is made up of unrelated animals, which mainly only happens in captivity), as the alpha male ages to point of weakness. A younger male challenges the elder for alpha status. The loser is either demoted or driven out of the pack. In terms of biology, this prevents the alpha's genes from dominating the pool of available females.