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Power at a Price

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You mean magic isn't for free?

"All power demands sacrifice."
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Power. The ability to influence, create, change, and even destroy. Things, places, people. It is by nature highly contentious: Some want it and would kill for it, others do not want it, or would gladly give away such a burden. Therein lies the rub. For all its force, blessings, or ability to change, power is not free... of responsibility, consequence, or cost. Some people think the exchange has to be "fair." Be Careful What You Wish For...

Drama derives vigor from the quandary of how power, seemingly free of any strings, has inherent costs. Whether they are hideous mutations, social alienation, or even death varies by story, genre, and kind of power. But the underlying basis is the same: Power at a Price.

See also Necessary Drawback and Weakness Tropes. For related tropes, see Price of Power Index.

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Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 

  • Darker Than Black: The premise of the whole show. Superpower Lottery gives you a superpower but you must pay the price for using it. When it's something that you can do yourself, like breaking your fingers or smoking, it's compulsive. When it's aging forward or backward, it triggers after each use. Also, the show strongly implies that the main price which all Contractors must pay is losing your humanity and becoming an absolutely rational... being. There are at least two ways of using the power and not paying the price, though both aren't cheap either. Losing your body is really a price to pay. Or gradually turning into walking plant. Hei subverts this because he inherited his abilities from his sister, who effectively paid the price for him (and depending on how her merger with him works, she may still be paying the price for every time he uses the power as her sleeping probably wouldn't impact Hei all that much).
  • Hell Girl: Eliciting the services of Ai Enma grants one the power to send whoever wronged them directly to Hell, and all one has to do is untie the red string around a black straw doll's neck. Once you pull the string and finalize your intended target's damnation, however, you will be branded and, after you die, be condemned to Hell, yourself.
  • The Death Note grants any human who obtains one the power to instantly end the lives of others, simply by writing their names within the notebook's pages. One of the myriad rules of the Death Note, however, stipulates that any human who uses one will not be allowed to enter Heaven nor Hell when they die, as their souls would be destined for "Mu". Subverted by Word of God, however: in the world of Death Note, there is no Heaven or Hell, and humans will go to "Mu" regardless of if they use a Death Note.

     Comic Books 
  • The chemicals that Daredevil was exposed to as a child enhanced his senses of hearing, smell, taste and touch but cost him his sight.
  • X-Factor (2006): Quicksilver is able to restore Mutant powers with a touch. Unfortunately, the subjects either die or have their powers became too unstable for them to control.
  • In Saga, every spell that can be used by the people of Wreath requires ingredients, and more powerful spells often tax a person's body, potentially risking life and limb. Early on, Marko's father, Barr, uses a powerful spell to keep their rocketship from being destroyed, but the strain from using it caused his ailing heart to give out. Later on, when Alana's second child becomes stillborn, she begins to inadvertedly project a possible future version of their now-deceased son. Such a spell, however, harms the caster's heart (figuratively and literally), and because she can't stop the spell, Alana's life is placed in peril.

    Fan Works 

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    Film - Live Action 

  • Dracula Untold: Vlad's supernatural powers that he needs to defeat his enemies comes at the cost of his humanity.
    Vlad Dracula: I'm the thing men fear, but at a cost.
  • The Witch Files: The coven discover that casting spells—especially for selfish purposes—comes at a price: Claire starts going blind; Brooke goes deaf; MJ's jaw decays and her teeth fall out; Greta gets early onset arthritis; and Jules goes into early menopause.
  • Wonder Woman 1984: In addition to Be Careful What You Wish For, every wish made upon the Dreamstone has a price to it; Barbara wishes to be "strong, confident, and sexy" like Diana but loses her empathy in the process, while Diana wishes for Steve Trevor back but begins losing her powers in exchange. This is why Maxwell Lord wished to become the Dreamstone; he can control the prices, stealing whatever he wants in exchange for a wish. Even better (for him), he can do this even if he tricks someone into making a wish he wants, basically getting two wishes at once.

    Literature 

  • The Jenkinsverse:
    • Humans have insurmountable physical advantages over other species, but with some serious downsides. Earth's comparatively dense, warm and humid atmosphere means that humans can suffer from altitude sickness if they exert too hard in the thinner, cooler and drier atmosphere preferred by most species. Humans must eat and drink more to stay healthy, have a whole battery of dietary needs that, if not met, lead to malnutrition, scurvy or BeriBeri. The human nervous system, being efficiently fine-tuned for high performance relative to those of nonhumans, is vulnerable to things such as intoxicants or hallucinogens. While this may sound like a case of Cursed With Awesome - humans are the only species capable of getting drunk and enjoying recreational drug use - things like the standard fire suppressant foam found on all starships can drive a human into a paranoid frenzy before they go catatonic.
    • Then there's the SOR, whose training consists of working themselves to and past the point where the human body tears itself apart. Then they use alien drugs that allow them to rapidly regenerate, their bodies all the stronger from having been pushed so hard. They're the closest thing to superhuman, and can die of malnutrition if they're active in their gear for too long, due to the sheer impossibility of eating enough calories to fulfill their bodies' energy needs during such activity.
    • The Ten'Gewek have the same problem but worse. Corti discussing their biology note that they really need all those huge game animals to satisfy their nutritional needs, and there's the possibility of them starving to death in as little as three days. Given Men like Yan grow even bigger and stronger, but it eventually causes a neurological disorder similar to Alzheimer's.
  • The Traveler's Gate: All artifacts of Ragnarus require some cost to use them. It is possible to force others to pay the price for you, but the only one who did that was the Ragnarus Incarnation; every normal Traveler of Ragnarus simply pays the price themselves. These include a wand that eats away at your sanity every time you use it, a knife that makes you forget a single person when you return it (the longer you keep it out, the more important a person you forget), a crown that strikes you mute, and a spear that causes horrific pain to the user. The spear, notably, is typically the Weapon of Choice for the head of the family, as the pain is ultimately an illusion and thus nowhere near as dangerous as the other prices.
  • Discworld: According to Archchancellor Ridcully, magic is actually very easy. The tricky part is getting wizards to not perform magic for every mundane purpose or using it to solve their problems, because the overuse of magic attracts the things from the Dungeon Dimensions, and if they break through, the effect is described as the ocean trying to warm itself around a candle.
  • Mike of The Fold has a perfect photographic memory for everything he's ever experienced. While this makes him a quick study for any academic field or hobby it also leaves him exposed to every trauma he's experienced in full detail, all the time.

    Live Action TV 

    Video Games 

  • The Binding of Isaac: A lot of items require this.
    • Deals with the Devil provide some of the best items in the game, but you need to spend permanent Heart Containers to use them.
    • Glass Cannon fires a repeatable gigantic tear, but every use lowers you to half a heart remaining, no questions asked.
    • Potato Peeler gives Isaac a stacking Meatboy familiar and can be used as many times as you like, but each use will cost you a Red Heart.
    • Magic Skin gives you any item from the current room, but removes a heart container for the rest of the run (it's filled with a useless Broken Heart). Also, the more you use Magic Skin, the more likely you are to find it later, tempting you to keep using it...
  • Dawn of War: In Chaos Rising, there are some very powerful items. The catch is that they are tainted by Chaos and corrupt their users. Interestingly, this also applies to maintaining full purity in the same game, since it grants you ludicrously powerful abilities, though at the expense of forcing you to work very, very hard at maintaining that purity.
  • In Drakengard, forging a pact with a magical creature can grant a person great power and command over magic, but there is always a price to pay for forging a pact:
    • Caim, the protagonist, gave up his voice in exchange for his pact with the Red Dragon, turning him into an Anti-Heroic Mime.
    • Inuart, Caim's friend-turned-rival, gave up his ability to play music when he forged a pact with the Black Dragon.
    • Leonard, a Death Seeking priest, gave up his eyesight in exchange for his pact with a Faerie.
    • Arioch, an elf whose children were killed by the empire, gave up her fertility in exchange for her pact with Undine and Salamander. This would drive her towards cannibalistic insanity.
    • Seere, an innocent young boy, gave up his "time" in forging a pact with Golem, turning him into The Ageless whose age is locked into preadolescence.
  • Heroes of the Storm:
    • Gul'dan is based around this concept. Instead of naturally regenerating mana, he Life Taps to trade health for it. This gives players infinite mana to use... if they're careful. His talents also enforce this, with an option that increases his damage but reduces how much healing he receives, and another that boosts his health but increases his respawn timer.
    • Alarak has a series of talents that lower his overall damage but improve other aspects of his kit. One in particular is Hasty Bargain, which resets the cooldown of all of his skills at the cost of permanently lowering his damage by 3% each time it's used.
  • Warcraft: This is pretty much a universal theme for the series. Draw power from the Burning Legion? You get a serious power boost, but enjoy being twisted into a hideous demon and serving the will of an Omnicidal Maniac. Serve the Old Gods? Sure you can wield shadows and control minds (if you don't go insane first), but Body Horror and Lovecraftian Superpowers are the best you can eventually hope for. Hear the call of the Lich King? You might be a great necromancer, but the Scourge only works with the undead... Even the relatively benign arcane magic is cripplingly addictive, enough to destroy ancient night elven society and cause global misery for the high/blood elf population millennia later.
    • In particular, playable Warlocks in World of Warcraft embody this. They trade health for mana as a key mechanic, and can summon powerful demons for a price. Classic WoW was most harsh about this, with the Warlock's most powerful demon requiring the sacrifice of another player and a separate enslavement spell. If anything failed, that demon could turn on its master.
    • Worgen are immune to being turned undead by anything short of The Lich King himself, but are also monstrous wolf-men. They have their origins rooted in this trope as well: a sect of nigfht elves once practiced a form of Voluntary Shapeshifting into wolves, but they lost control of themselves in the process. Seeking to fix this, they used an enchanted scythe... which instead Shapeshifter Mode Locked them in an in-between form.
  • The Tiamat Sacrament: The titular Tiamat Sacrament is a ritual that can grant a dragon great power, but it requires the consent of six of the Great Seven, and most of them are reluctant to allow this ritual. The ritual causes dragonkind's Blood Memory to be reset, preventing new dragons from accessing the wisdom of their oldest members.
  • 20XX:
    • You have, effectively, six stats: weapon damage, power damage, running speed, jump height, health and energy. Many, many augments you can pick up increase some at the expense of others: Forcemetal Shell, for example, increases your health at the expense of speed, while Glass Cannon buffs your damage output but lowers your health. Your maximum health does not have a minimum level, so if you pick up too many health-reducing items, you will die.
    • Prototype Augments are even worse. These have sizeable benefits, but potentially devastating drawbacks. You might, for example, pick up a cloud of minions (this can get very silly, especially if you have a Splintering Twinifier), but while those will be attacking anything that gets close to you, you'll lose the ability to attack or use powers. Another couple massively increase either your damage output or the effects of all future stat boosts you get, but doubles or triples the damage you take. Still others cause you to burn maximum energy instead of recoverable energy in exchange for significantly increased power damage, make bosses harder in exchange for more rewards, or let you use a Set Bonus without the full set at the expense of a harsh reduction to your damage. (That said, if you get lucky, you can find a System Restore, which lets you wipe away the drawback of all the Prototypes you have when you pick it up.)
  • Grim Dawn: Thematically, the Witch God Solael is all about this. He has overwhelming power greater than either of his two siblings (with none of the foresight or planning), and he will gladly grant you a piece if, and only if, you are willing to make great sacrifices for it. One of his followers in the Forgotten Gods expansion is glad to go at length on it; if you say this seems like the work of a cruel god, he'll fire back saying the world and life itself is cruel, since both will keep taking things away from you and never stop, while Solael gives you something worthy for all the suffering and lets you take things into your own hands afterwards.
  • Stellaris has an entity known as "The End of the Cycle" which promises to grant your empire emmense power if you agree to bring about "The End" (and ignore the tooltip warning you in big red letters, "DO NOT DO THIS!"). It makes good on its promise, and grants you Game Breaking advantages for the next fifty years. Then, when it comes to collect on its part of the bargain, it utterly destroys your empire: every planet rendered uninhabitable, every settlement destroyed, every citizen killed, save for one person who saw this was a bad idea and started a colony on the edge of the galaxy with what little resources they could scrounge together. Worse still, this is a price the entire galaxy will be expected to pay, as the souls of your slaughtered citizens form a fleet of nigh-indestructible terror that will set out to purge the cosmos of all life, with the afforementioned colony being saved for last. And even on the off chance that the fleet of the damned is routed and the galaxy saved, that lone colony will be slapped with a permanent diplomacy penalty so steep, that you can bet any other galactic power still around will want to wipe it out as recompense for nearly destroying the galaxy for your own avarice.
  • World of Horror:
    • The majority of the spells in the game cost either Stamina or Reason to cast, meaning that you're burning away your strength or sanity as fuel.
    • The influence of the Old God Ath-Yolazsth makes it so that spells that normally drain your Reason advance the Doom Track instead. They're specifically noted to be popular with magicians, who appreciate being able to practice their craft without any visible cost to themselves.
  • Crying Suns: Every battleship’s core system, apart from the default Excelsior class, provides some benefits while also imposing a drawback.
    • The Kaos class's core system lets you carry an extra four squadrons and gives you some Scrap whenever you obtain a new squadron. In exchange, your squadrons are always patched and cannot be repaired.
    • The Jericho class's core system halves the cooldown time for the first shot of your non-direct damage battleship weapons and gives your squadrons a damage bonus against debuffed targets. In exchange, your squadrons have a DPS penalty against non-debuffed targets.
    • The Geno class's core system lets your stealth squadrons enter stealth the instant they’re deployed instead of needing to wait, and increases the Back Stab damage they inflict when they come out of stealth. In exchange, all your squadrons have 20% less maximum health.
    • The Hammer class's core system makes your squadrons Friendly Fireproof and temporarily doubles their attack power whenever they get hit by friendly fire. In exchange, the movement speed of your squadrons is reduced by 15%.
    • The Void class's core system increases your chances of starting a fight in an advantageous position, doubles the speed at which your squadrons capture things, and lets you have 6 officers instead of 5. In exchange, the number of commandos you can deploy on an expedition is reduced from 10 to 8.
  • The Raysphere of inFAMOUS is a powerful device that can grant people (or at least those with the Conduit Gene) powerful, superhuman abilties. The cost? It does so by creating an explosion that will absorb the energy from any normal humans caught in the blast, killing them, and redirecting that energy into any potential conduits that have also been caught in the blast. When Cole accidentally set it off in the beginning, the Raysphere destroyed 6 city blocks and killed thousands.

    Webcomics 

  • The Dreadful: Burke's ring was enchanted to make him Immune to Bullets, but at the cost of his sanity.
  • El Goonish Shive: Aberrations take this path to magical power. Sirleck in particular has mutated into a horrific thing that would be perfectly comfortable in H.R. Giger's art.

    Western Animation 

  • Aladdin: The Series: Provides the page image. Mozenrath's gauntlet grants him great power, but wearing it causes him physical pain, and the gauntlet is also implied to have dissolved the flesh on his hand and arm until it's worn on down to the bone.
    Mozenrath: (to Aladdin) This is what I did for power! The magic of a genie was handed to you on a silver platter, but I gave my right hand for power! To wear the gauntlet is painful… but it’s worth it! Worth it to destroy the likes of you!
  • The Dragon Prince: This is how dark magic seems to work, requiring the lifeforce or essence of at least part of living being in order to cast a spell. Excessive amounts of usage also seems to take some kind of toll on the user, as evidenced by Viren draining the life of magical butterflies to keep himself looking like a middle-aged man.
  • Steven Universe: Jasper tried to fuse with a Corrupted Gem Monster to create a One-Winged Angel to stop Amethyst and Steven. Not only did this end up being more of a Clipped-Wing Angel, it spread The Corruption to Jasper herself, turning her into a mindless beast.

     Real Life 

  • The industrial revolution, and the use of oil, coal and natural gas for energy, has brought tremendous scientific and economic progress for humanity, and unprecedented quantities of energy, but releasing carbon into the atmosphere is slowly but steadily warming up the Earth, and modifying the chemistry of the atmosphere and ocean, which isn't very good news.


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