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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 
  • Humans in Chainsaw Man can normally only obtain power by making contracts with devils, usually losing part of their body or shortening their lifespan with each use.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • In Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, The Mark, sometimes called Mark of the Sun or Demon Slayer Mark, are mysterious body marks that grow on demon slayers who have achieved their peak strength and are seemly under the body heat akin to someone with high fever and stress; the power of the Mark makes a slayer grow in strength, agility and perception to much greater superhuman heights, with said power now actually placing them on relatively equal grounds with Upper Rank demons. All of this however, drains the Mark user of all their stamina incredibly quick, making the ability a dangerous choice against demons who simply have limitless regeneration, and further in the story the claim is made that Mark users don't gain all that power for free, it is actually draining from their lifespan itself, the demon Kokushibo affirms that without question all Marked slayers will die before or when they grow to be 25 years old.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: As you'd expect from the series that gave us Equivalent Exchange, this comes up a lot, but the most notable example is circleless transmutation, which is gained by attempting the taboo of human transmutation. You get the ability to perform alchemy without a circle, giving you tremendous power and flexibility. The cost? Well, for Ed, it's An Arm and a Leg. For Al, it's his entire body, leaving his soul stuck in a suit of armor. For Izumi, it's some internal organs, leaving her sterile and intermittently coughing up blood. For Roy, it's his eyesight. It's unavoidable, and it's always bitterly ironic.
  • 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.
  • Hunter × Hunter: Nen powers can have self-imposed conditions that strengthens the ability, with the more convoluted ones giving greater powers, though greater punishments if broken:
    • Gon's Jajanken requires him to shout out his power for it to actually work. He actually finds an interesting benefit from it in that he can psyche people out on what hand he'll throw out.
    • Chrollo's power stealing ability has multiple absurd conditions that pretty much requires him to acquire powers through stealth or force. Actually using those powers also requires him to keep a book open at all times and forces him to fight with one hand. Though when he fights Hisoka, he figures out a workaround that lets him use multiple powers and keep his hands free.
    • To plant a bomb on people, Genthru needs to say a specific phrase while touching someone and the bomb is only armed when he explains it to people. The former condition makes it impossible for him to plant bombs on people that know what he actually is, but by the time he says the second condition, it's already too late for those he armed to do anything about it; him actually having decent fighting skills outside his primary bomb further dissuades resistance.
    • Netero is an interesting case in that using his nen abilities requires him to say a lengthy prayer. What brings it from Awesome, yet Impractical to Simple, yet Awesome is that he spent years honing his prayer technique to the point that he can pray within a fraction of a second, essentially meaning that he can use his powerful abilities at little cost.
  • One Piece:
    • Consuming a Devil Fruit grants the eater some a random and permanent power, but it always comes with one consistent weakness: you gain Super Drowning Skills and will become paralyzed if even partly submerged in water. There is also a type of nearly indestructible material known as Seastone which gives off the same "energy" as the ocean and acts like kryptonite towards Devil Fruit users.
    • The New Fish-Man Pirates rely on a strength-increasing drug known as Energy Steroids to make themselves a credible threat to the Neptune Army and the Straw Hats, but the drug makes its crippling side-effect known after their defeat: it eventually subjects its users to Rapid Aging, and the crew become feeble old men in an instant.

     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 Batman(2016): The Gotham-Twins are a typical example for this. Their Powers are using up their life spans. As Gotham girl says, "what we bought weren't powers for life. It was life for powers."(issue #5)
  • When The Punisher was killed and brought back to life as a Frankenstein-esque cyborg by the Legion of Monsters to defend them, he was eventually restored to full life by the supernatural Bloodstone. However, while the stone granted him a Healing Factor so long as he kept it, he was convinced to discard it when the Legion of Monsters pointed out to him that it was starting to compromise his moral judgement to the extent that he was considering killing someone because of what she might do in the future, one of the monsters informing Castle that his one redeeming quality was that he only killed those who deserved it.
  • 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 

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is a common facet of Chronicles of Darkness games. For example, as the blood potency of a vampire rises, it becomes more difficult for that vampire to feed; when a changeling's connection to the Wyrd strengthens, they gain frailties, supernatural weaknesses and compulsions; as mages grow stronger, they face greater risk of unleashing Paradox.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has had several variant magic systems over the years to evoke this trope, but the most famous is the defiling magic from the setting of Dark Sun. On the world of Athas casting spells of any sort drains life energy out of nearby vegetation and at stronger levels pulls life out of the caster or those nearby. As a result most beings of the setting have turned to psionics to perform supernatural feats.
  • Magic: The Gathering has this being one of the themes of Black cards. Often Black Cards will provide high power for their mana cost, but also require you to pay life, sacrifice creatures, or discard cards in order to use that power. For example, the card named "Greed" allows you to draw a card as many times as you can afford by paying only one mana... and two life, getting you more resources to fight with but putting yourself ever closer to the grave.

    Video Games 
  • 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.)
  • 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 and/or Soul Hearts to take them.
    • Glass Cannon fires a repeatable gigantic tear, but every use lowers you to half a heart remaining, no questions asked. Repentance buffed the item by removing the health cost and instead making you take 2 extra hearts of damage and temporarily shattering the cannon if you get hit while holding it, making the risk/reward a little more worth it.
    • 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 pool, but removes a heart container and replaces it with a worthless Broken Heart. Also, the more you use Magic Skin, the more likely you are to find it later, tempting you to keep using it...
    • Damocles gives you twice as many items, but as soon as you get hit once, at any moment there's a miniscule chance the sword falls and kills you instantly. You can circumvent this with an Extra Life or a perfectly timed invincibility.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening: The Haywire Neo-Generator locks Dante in Devil Trigger mode for the majority of Mission 12, but at the cost of slowly depleting his HP
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Library of Ruina, during a battle, you'll be periodically given the opportunity to pick an Abnormality Page, which provide various benefits to your side. Red "Breakdown" cards tend to be considerably stronger than green "Awakening" ones, but they always have a tradeoff of some kind - like penalizing you in one aspect, activating only after you've been already hit by a negative event, or having a convolute activation method. On top of that, "Breakdown" cards are more likely to appear when the battle is going badly for you, and less likely if you're doing well.
  • Accepting 'THE DEAL' in The Messenger (2018) grants you double maximum health and triple attack power. It also pisses Quarble off enough that he deserts you, enabling Permadeath.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 night 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.
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Zelda series has several:
    • The overall game lore, as revealed in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, reveals that being a Triforce wielder amounts to this. It turns out that Demise, the God of Evil, laid a Dying Curse as he was defeated, stating that he would always come back to plague the world Hylia had created. To this end, Hylia swore that she too would choose an avatar to return to conquer Demise, along with a Champion arising to defend that avatar. These three individuals wield the Triforces of Power, Wisdom, and Courage, respectively; in the series proper, they are held by Ganondorf/Ganon, Princess Zelda, and Link. While the Triforce pieces grant their users amazing abilities, Demise's curse ultimately means that the three are doomed to a cycle of permanent reincarnation—every Ganon, Zelda, and Link have to fight one another, and even if they try to resist or hide, fate will find them anyway.
    • In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the DLC "The Champions' Ballad" offers Link a new weapon—the One-Hit Obliterator. As the name implies, it has the power to destroy any enemy, no matter how large or powerful, in a single blow. However, the magic works both ways—it also reduces Link's health to a single quarter-heart, so one attack from even the weakest enemy will kill him. And just to make things even harder, the Obliterator has a mandatory cooldown period after each use.
      • In the same game, Hylia has sealed a horned demon inside a statue near Hateno Village. Said demon will offer to extend Link's Heart Containers or Stamina Meter, but only at the cost of the other (i.e., if you want to extend the Stamina Meter, you have to sacrifice a Heart Container). Thankfully, the trade can always be reversed if the player changes their mind.

    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, starting as normal humans but slowly transforming into horrible monsters as they become more powerful. 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: 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.
  • High level politicians face significant restrictions to their personal freedom in the name of security.
  • Any known Human who has either incredible strength, beauty or intellect would tell you. That getting as gifted as they were, often requires an undying, borderline-obsessive conviction to some sort of process. For example, true Body Builders (such as Arnold Schwarzeneggar) ate only the right portions and only nutritional meals. Constantly they frequented the Gym, wasting potential decades to get the size they were. But as time withers and weakens the human form, even Titan-level muscle can sag and take extra care to maintain.
  • The Cunard Line's legendary "Greyhounds of the Atlantic", the ocean liners Lusitania and Mauretania, were by far the fastest ships on the North Atlantic run in the early 1900s, with Mauretania holding the Blue Ribandnote  from 1909 to 1929. But their quadruple turbine engines and the high speeds at which they operated meant that they tended to vibrate uncomfortably during their crossings, in contrast to less speedy (but more comfortable) liners like the White Star Line's Olympic and Titanic.

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