Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Genuine "10 List"

Hey...  Listen...  I know I said last week that I was going to return to an exposé on the magical system I'm creating for the world I'm creating for my novel, A Spell of 13 Years, but I'm going to do something different again.  
I hope this doesn't disappoint anyone.  But it is my blog so...  There you go.  
I've mentioned before that I'm reading this Japanese novel entitled "If Cats Disappeared from the World."  I got the book on May 10th.  Right now I'm somewhere around page 17, so I'm averaging less than a page a day.  But that's OK, because I'm enjoying the experience.  I can always tell I'm reading a good story because I'll keep thinking to myself, "I wish I had written this."  With this book I'm thinking that every page.  That and, "I wish I could go a sentence without pulling out my English-Japanese dictionary."  
I've finished a page the other day where they main character, who has discovered that the headache and fever he's had for some time is actually a stage four brain tumor and that he has a week to live, has come home to find the Devil in his home.  While walking home, the POV character is thinking of a scene from a movie he saw where the young lady, also having learned she was going to die soon, has written a "10" list.  A list of the ten things she wants to do before she dies.  He thinks about how he tried to come up with his own 10 list, but ended up deciding that doing something like that is too embarrassing and stupid.  
When he wakes up from collapsing on his sofa, his cat hovering over him worried, he finds the Devil standing in the middle of his room.  The Devil is a jovial fellow it seems, who looks exactly like the main character except he's dressed in a yellow "aloha shirt" and shorts (he comes from a warmer place, remember?).  
The Devil asks, "So...  What are you going to do now?"  
The man replies, "Well...  I was thinking...  Maybe...  I should write a 10 list?"
The Devil laughs at him.  Uproariously.  
"Just like in that movie?  Really?  You're not kidding?  Ok.  Well...  Why don't you?  Let's see what you come up with."
So, with the Devil standing over him as he sits at his computer, the man writes out his 10 list.  Here is what he comes up with.  I've included the original Japanese on the chance with some of the items I mistranslated his items.
1) ジェット機からスカイダイビング。
Sky-dive from a Jet Plane. 

2) エベレスト登頂。
Climb to the summit of Mt. Everest.

3) フェラーリでアウトバーンを疾走。
Dash down the autobahn in a Ferrari.

4) 満漢全度
"Mitsurikan All Seats."  As best I can tell, a type of banquet practiced in the Manchu era of ancient China where there would be so many items on the menu it would take the guests days to eat through them all.

5) ガンダムに乗る。
Ride in a Gundam.  For anyone reading my blog who doesn't know, a Gundam is a giant humanoid shape fighting vehicle from a Japanese animated series of the same name.  There's a life sized model of a Gundam in Tokyo.  

6) 世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ。
"Crying out Love at the Center of the World."  I don't know exactly what he means he wants to do.  It is the name of a well-known Japanese novel and movie where a young lady discovers she has a terminal illness.  Probably the movie he got the idea for doing a 10 list from.  

7) ナウシカとデート。
Going on a date with Nausicaa.  I assume he refers to the Nausicaa from the famous animated movie "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," one of the early films of Hayao Miyazaki.   

8) 曲がり角でコーヒーを持った美女とぶつかり、そこから恋愛に発展。
Bump into a beautiful woman holding coffee at a street corner and have it develop into a love affair.

9) 大雨のなか雨宿りをしていたら、かつて片思い先輩に再会。
Run into senior classmate from school that I had an unrequited crush on while taking shelter from a storm. 

10) 愛がしたい。
I want to fall in love.

When the Devil reads the list, he laughs out loud again.  "What?  Are you still in Junior High School?"  

Now I noticed two things about this man's list.  The first one was, while the specific items on it are a bit different than a 10 list I would write, the tone is very much in keeping with what mine would be.  There would be the impossible things, like riding in a Gundam, or for me having a crater on the moon domed and turned into my own personal villa.  There are the fantasies of running into someone who instantly falls in love with you in some series of events as logical and convoluted as a Rube Goldberg machine.  And in the end, there is the one, single raw desire stated as simply as it can be said, to find love in a world that seems to have withdrawn the possibility from you.  

Later, after thinking about it, I noticed something else about the list.  That it is also filled with things that, to put it simply, are common dreams.  Dreams that are there because one thinks they should want them.  Like streaking down the highway in a hot sports car or climbing to the top of the tallest mountain on Earth.  You've heard about other people doing this and you think to yourself, "Yeah...  That would be cool."  And there they stay in your head as things you should aspire to do.  That are normal to want.  

How much satisfaction can a person get fulfilling a borrowed dream?  

The character in If Cats Disappeared from the World discovers the same thing.  After laughing at him for a bit, the Devil says, "Well...  Let's get started!"  He takes the man to his bank where money is withdrawn (the Devil is apparently a cheapskate, too) and takes him to the airport where they get a jet to take them up to sky-dive.  The man tells us that the Devils pushes him from the plane and as he fell through the limitless sky found himself face to face with his dream come true.  

Or, that he'd like to say it was that way.  What he discovered was that it was WAY UP THERE!  And Cold!  And SCARY!  And that, as he was falling, feeling like a complete idiot, he thought to himself, "Are there people that REALLY want to DO THIS?"  

Yeah  There are.  But the main character wasn't one of them.  It was a borrowed dream.  On his list because he didn't take the time to think about the the things he REALLY wanted to do.  

The biggest problem with a 10 List is the "before I die" part.  That indistinct, hopefully not to be realized anytime soon time limit, we are more willing to borrow dreams from other people to fill all the slots.  

I think that a 10 List should have no such time limit.  Or a time limit that's really close.  Like, the 10 things I want to do NOW.  Or by the end of the day.  Or in the next 30 seconds.  

One of the things on my rewritten 10 list was to get this blog posted by the end of the day, instead of putting it off until tomorrow.  And I've just done that.  

Now to see if I can get to Nepal in the next couple of hours for item #2...

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rethinking Problems Freakily

A couple of weeks ago I promised a blog about the magic system I'm working on for the fantasy novel I'm writing, A Spell of 13 Years.  I didn't publish that entry due to an influx of circumstances flowing into my life.  And I'm not going to write it today, mainly because I'm just too tired to think about magic today.  
That's OK, though, right?  We're all friends here, right?  
Last night I stayed late at work.  The IT department for my company wanted to upgrade the records server my department uses to store the files we work on.  We're running out of space in the various partitions on the server and the guy working on the project wanted to install a new indexing system, one that would allow the partitions shares to expand as needed as we uploaded files.  This would give us time until they could extract the older data and put it into deep storage, which would take about two weeks.  "It'll take about 30 minutes," I was told.  I just needed to let him know when all the other employees were gone and the server wasn't being used.  I gave him the call around 8 PM and sat in my office catching up on the latest episode of Big Bang Theory  
As sometimes happens in endeavors like this, it took a bit longer than expected.  "Thirty minutes AFTER I install the upgrade, which will take about 45."  But then he lost contact with the server and needed me to tell him what was on the monitor connected to the server.  Then I needed to power cycle the server and bring up the boot menu to change the LAN setting from "static" to "DHCP."  Then I had to download a firmware ROM and make a disk image of it to upgrade the server's firmware.  Then...
It was around 2:05 AM when the IT guy said to me.  "That's it.  We've reached the limit of what we can do.  I'll have to have a technician come out there tomorrow..."  
I think I blanked out for a moment at this point.  It was my premonition coming true.  All this week, since arriving to work on Monday morning, I kept having this feeling, this secret fear, that "something" was going to go serious wrong.  That something or other was going to keep me from reaching the three day weekend I very much wanted.  And now it was happening.  I'd have to come out on Saturday to open the door for this technician and stay there while he or she did whatever it was that needed to be done to restore our server by start of business Tuesday morning.  In fact, I'd probably have to come in Sunday as well as Monday, because whatever the problem was would prove to be that intractable.  
Why did was I thinking this way?  I think it's because things at work were going really well.  I'm not used to things going my way.  A good day now and then, with several days where I'm fighting to barely hold things together, that is about what I expect from my days.  
What do I call days filled with dark, dreary despair?  Weekdays.  
But that hasn't been the case.  Work has been long and hard, but largely quite good.  There have been only three days this month when the department hasn't made its daily goal.  This is how I want it to go.  
Which means there has to be this big, negative energy bill building up out there in the cosmos, and the records server huddling in the corner of network room with its thumb it is mouth, weeping and pouting and not willing to talk to anyone, was the sign that that bill was about to come due.  
Going to shift gears a bit.  There was something else that I came across this week that I've been pondering a new concept brought to me via an interview with one of the authors of the book, "Freakonomics," Steven D. Levitt.  
Mr. Levitt has taken the concepts he put forth in his bestselling book and has started applying them to other problems the world is facing, such global warming.  Not having read his book, this interview was an introduction for me on his ideas.  
The one that struck me as most interesting was the story of Takeru Kobayashi.  He is Japanese food eating champion who doubled the world record at the Coney Island Hot Dog eating contest the very first time he competed, eating 50 hot dogs in twelve minutes when the previous record was 25.  Levitt talked about Mr. Kobayashi's training method before entering the Coney Island competition.  He conducted numerous experiments during his training.  He tried dipping the hot dog and bun in water before eating it.  Eating while jumping up and down.  Breaking the hot dog in half.  
What was different about Kobayashi's efforts was the problem he was trying to solve.  All the other food eating competitors were trying to figure out the answer to, "How can I eat more hot dogs in 12 minutes?"  Kobayashi's experiments were conducted to answer a different question: "How can I make 1 hot dog easier to eat?"  
By asking a different question, and coming up with the answer, THEN repeating the procedure 50 times in a row, Kobayashi made food-eating championship history.  
Another little shift now.  Think of it as "double-clutching" into third gear.  
Back in April I mentioned in a previous blog entry a Japanese book I was interested in reading, "If Cats Disappeared from the World."  I purchased a copy of this book recently, after searching for it in a Japanese book store in Little Tokyo.  Because of the picture on the cover, the staff put it on the same shelf as pet-care books.  I'm up to page 14 now.  I read the first three pages while eating lunch at my favorite Japanese restaurant (a ramen shop where I always order the chicken curry rice).  I hoped to keep that pace up, but it's proven difficult.  It took me two days to ready the paragraph where the main character talks about his medical examination, and the doctor's diagnosis that he has a stage 4 brain tumor that will probably take his life within a week.  
I'm going to finish the book though.  I know this to be true.  I've had a goal of reading a complete Japanese book for a while now, and I've made other attempts, like reading a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone translated to Japanese (the Japanese translated the British English version), but I've not been able to sustain the effort.  
This time I will, though.  I can feel it.  It's a different certainty from the one that made me certain that something would arrive to rob me of my well deserved three day rest.  For one thing, the theme of the story, about the things that make life worth living, attracts me.  Plus, reading the story, I've decided that I like the main character telling us the story in the first person.  And I like how each time I've read a "favorite part of the story so far," it is followed by another one.  Like how walking home after leaving the doctor's office he comes across some young guys playing guitar on the street, singing loudly about how you should live every day to your fullest, and his reaction is to think they're idiots, and ask how standing in front of a train station singing for change is doing that.  This is followed by the scene where the Devil appears in his home, looking exactly like him except he's dressed in a yellow Aloha shirt and shorts, sporting sunglasses, even though its cold outside.  Oh...  Yeah...  He's just come from someplace...  Warmer.  
But beyond all that, which would apply to any good story that I would be reading, is the sense of accomplishing something.  I'm reading a book in another language.  I'm following it.  The jokes are funny and I get them.  And this makes me feel good about myself.  It makes me happy.  
The interview with Mr. Levitt made me think about the problems in my own life.  How can I rethink them?  How can I approach them differently.  One example immediately came to mind.  I've long had the goal of writing a lot of short stories.  I've wanted to submit at least a dozen short stories each year, one per month, for years now.  I've not done that yet.  Maybe, like Mr. Kobayashi, I should rethink the problem.  Instead of thinking how to write a bunch of short stories, I should figure out how I can make 1 story easier to write?  Maybe?  
After my little black-out last night, I tried to think in these terms.  The server HAD TO be up by Tuesday.  We were doing very well this week, my department, and I wanted to see that continue.  I told the IT guy to call me when he had the technician lined up.  I'd be there on Saturday to let him in.  Sure, I cursed a bit once I hung up.  But then I thought about what I could do in my office while the technician did his thing.  I could bring my laptop and write, for one.  I would figure something out.  
Turns out I didn't have to.  When I got up this morning, I had an email message waiting for me.  The IT guys figured out a way to reestablish a connection with the server.  They rolled back the upgrade and the server was happy and communicative again.  No need for me to go in.  My weekend was back.  I celebrated by going to Russell's, a bistro-style dinner in Old Town Pasadena and ordered their "Big One" breakfast with blood orange mimosa.  I then came home a took a nap.  
I still think something bad is coming my way.  That's just how the universe works.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In The Beginning... Decisions on Creation

Last week I promised a write-up on the magical system I’ve created for the world of my novel, A Spell of 13 Years.  Unfortunately that is not quite going to happen.  While writing last week’s blog, and going over what I have for the background and magical system, I discovered I had a few holes to fill.  
What I am going to do, however, is write out what I have.  I suppose you can say that I’m going to have you guys, whomever is reading this blog, look over my shoulder while I create my universe.  Any helpful suggestions are welcome.
In The Beginning...
There was everything.  And Nothing.  All was One and One was All.  It was as it always was.  
But not as it always would be.
Then, the True God drew breath and spoke a Word.  And with the Word All Things Became.  The True God Expanded into the Nothingness that surrounded the Completeness that was the True God.  All was still One, but now One was Everywhere and Anywhere.  
The True God looked upon Itself and came to Know Itself.  And its Knowledge of Itself created a New Being.  
This is my take on the Genesis of the universe where Spell of 13 Years is presented.  
I have three sources of inspiration for the religious basis of the universe.  The first is Jewish Kaballahism.  My primary source book is the Sefer Yetzirah or The Book of Creation.  It is the oldest, and some say the most mysterious of kaballalistic texts.  References to it in other works appear as far back as the 1st Century in the Common Era.  Tradition says that it was written by Abraham, the Patriarch of the Jewish People.  
Though this is certainly an oversimplification, the book is a magical text.  There are stories of rabbis in the ancient days using the Sefer Yetzirah to create calfs on the sabbath for feasts.  
What resonated with me was the emphasis on “the word.”  The Hebrew alphabet, as I’m sure many people know, is also their counting system.  From the Sefer Yetzirah I learned that Jewish mystics believe that the Hebrew used in writing what Christians refer to as the Old Testament has been altered.  For if the “words” were written as they were spoken by God and His Angels, then anyone reciting from these holy texts would create light and life just as God did.  
This was something I wanted to have in the religious and magical background in my universe.  
As a side-note, another concept that the Sefer Yetzirah gave me concerned causality.  It is safe to say that most belief systems hold that the present is born from the past, and that what happened before and what happens now leads to what happens in the future.  The Jewish mystics that wrote the Sefer Yetzirah, however, believed in the opposite.  It was there belief that the future reached back in time to create the past it needed for it to become.  In meditation, they would attempt to hear their future selves tell them what they needed to do in order for them to reach the state of being they were striving for.  
I found this way of thinking very exciting.  It was the spark for the series of science fiction stories I’m writing in a future universe I call the Tauian Adventure, about an alien race called the Tau that visits Earth in the first half of the twenty-first Century, staying in orbit for 40 years, then departs, taking one hundred and forty-four thousand humans with them.  Those left behind expand into the galaxy to find the Tau and discover what happened to “The Chosen,” the people the Tau took with them.  
The second source of inspiration for my universe’s creation myth comes from Gnosticism.  The Gnostics are a Christian sect, largely found in the Middle East and Africa.  They bear some connection with the Coptic Christians in the region in that their texts followed the same route in terms of translation and language.  The book we call The Bible was a collection of religious texts that were primarily written in Aramaic, then later translated into Greek and then Latin.  Coptic texts, as well as those of the Gnostics, were translated from Hebrew into Coptic, Egyptian using Greek phonetic letters.  There are numerous religious texts, both from the Jewish and Christian traditions, that were excluded from the Bible either because they were consider apocryphal, meaning their reported author could not be verified, such as The Book of Adam, or which were deemed heretical, such as The Book of Judas, which has Jesus escaping death on the cross and laughing at the blindness of those who can’t see the truth before their very eyes.
Ironic Note: In the Synoptic Gospels, the four books that make up the heart of the modern New Testament, Jesus never laughs.  In fact, he admonishes those that due for it might turn into weeping and mourning (Luke 6:25).  There are, however, several instances of Jesus laughing in the Gnostic texts beside the one referenced above.  
What made the Gnostics a heretical sect was not just having Jesus laughing now and then.  It was their belief that the universe was created by an entity other than God.  This “Creator God,” or Demiurge, a term the gnostics borrowed from Plato, shaped the universe from the stuff of God.  The Demiurge was presented in different ways depending on the sect at first, sometimes as a servant of the True God, doing his will to shape creation, and in others as a more natural force, an entity that was created to create. Eventually, though, the demiurge came to be regarding as the source of Evil in the universe.  It is depicted as a “jealous god” that carves a hole in creation in which it takes the breath of life, stolen from the True God, to create beings to give it praise and prayers.  
The existence of the demiurge in their theology gives Gnosticism a certain logical framework.  A question I remembering hearing in catechism as a young boy was, “If God is good, why is there evil in his creation?”  The answer given was that evil came out of the actions of people due to God giving them free will.  This would lead to subsequent questions, such as, “Why didn’t God just make people good?” which would be followed by other questions after that.  
In the Gnostic theology, the answer was simple.  There was evil in the world because the world was created by an evil being.  Period.  The Gnostic version of the garden of Eden is different as well.  Adam and Eve are kept there by the jealous Creator God, are told to have no other Gods besides him, and are UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES are they to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The True God sends the serpent into to garden to tell them to eat from the tree, for Knowledge will open their eyes (“Gnostic” has the same greek word meaning “knowledge” as its root as words like “Diagnosis” or “Prognosis”).  When Adam and Even do so, they see the Creator God for what he is and are cast out into his imperfect, evil world to fend for themselves.  
It is this similar yet different feel in these texts and the stories they contain that appealed to me, and so I put a Creator God in my universe.  
The third inspiration comes from the scientific theory on how the universe was formed; The Big Bang theory.  When writing fantasy stories in the past, I would always look to science to create the magic I needed.  If someone were going to fly, for instance, what would that take?  How much energy would need to be expended?  What aerodynamic principles would be in play?  Because it was magic, I would allow myself some play in the mechanics, but the amount of energy that needed to be generated and transferred was pretty well established.  
The passage above, mimicking the opening lines of the Biblical Genesis, is my universe coming into being from a single, all encompassing, dense state.  At the moment when “Something” comes out of “Nothing,” it is due to “The Word” being spoken by the True God.  In science, the cause of this moment of expansion is not fully understood as it exists before time began.  
I still have things to work out.  Is the demiurge the source of evil, or is that just what the priests tell the people?  Questions of faith where I have to figure out the truth.
Next week: Magical Words and how they are formed. 

Sunday, May 04, 2014

How Do You Believe In Magic?

I’m working on the final draft of my novel, Spell of 13 Years.  It is a fantasy novel, in a world in which magic is known to exist, but since the main character is not a practitioner himself, I contented myself with just showing the impact of the magical effects of the spells and such that happen in the book through the first three or four drafts.  Now that I’m working on finishing the piece for publication, I thought it was time to hammer down the specifics of magic in my universe, which lead me to a reconsideration of magic as it’s presented in fantasy games and literature.  
Hard vs. Soft Fantasy.  
I heard a panelist at a WorldCon I attended in the last few years declare that she wrote “Hard Fantasy.”  I immediately knew what she meant and put myself in that same camp.  
Hard Fantasy, as with “Hard Science Fiction” is a story in which the rules of magic are clearly laid out and are not violated by the characters just to allow something to happen.  The difference between science fiction and fantasy is, of course, is that the rules of Science Fiction is science itself, a collection of knowledge proven to be accurate by the work of all of those in the field.  There may be the occasional experiment that produces unexpected results, like the faster than light neutrinos that the scientists at CERN reported a couple of years ago, but generally speaking there is one body of information that is agreed upon by a vast number of people.  
The rules of fantasy, though, don’t have that same degree of...  Trying to find a word here...  Approval, shall we say.  Like religion, which has a strong relationship to magic, there are as many beliefs on what magic is and how it works as there are religions in the world.  It becomes the author’s job to decide to create his or her own “science of magic.”  For a writer of “soft fantasy,” this is less of a problem.  Magic is whatever you want it to be at the moment.  The problem for me, from a story-telling standpoint, is that such a magical system allows for too many outs when it comes to conflict.  The enemy has you surrounded, then a just cast a translocation spell and Poof!  You’re someplace else.  That’s why even the softest of fantasies, where magic is what it is, there are some restrictions placed on its use, to give some sense of drama.  
Having already made this distinction, I knew that I had to have very specific rules and ideas as to what magic is, where it comes from, how it works and, most importantly from a story-telling standpoint, how it is experienced.  
Fireworks or Tiny Sparks.
I think magic can be divided into two basic flavors from the standpoint of how characters in a story experience such events.  
The first one is the big, flashy, Fire Ball spells, Levitation, Transmogrification, right there in front of you, how can you not possibly believe it’s not true, type of magic.  This is probably the most traditional kind of magic fantasy stories are written about.  It’s the magic of Harry Potter, most role-playing game systems and movies made in Hollywood.  The casting of such spells and their impact is big and obvious.  Dragons appear, walls explode, tables and chairs become alive and walk about on their own.  Abracadabra, it’s there.
I am certainly not opposed to this sort of magic, several of my favorite stories were written using it, my preference, at least currently, is something much more subtle.  I prefer the unexplained.  The “coincidence” that someone claims was their spell.  It is a relativistic experience, where I’m feeling the poltergeist shake my bed as I try to sleep, but the skeptic standing in the bedroom doorway believes its just the train passing by on the tracks behind the house.  
One of my favorite magical systems in a role-playing game was in Vampire: The Masquerade, and the series of books that followed.  The basic premise was that “normal people” did not see the world for what it really was, with Vampires, Werewolves and Mages running about doing fantastical things.  This “veil” over their perception caused them to see things in a more “realistic” context.  If someone cast an “electricity spell” on another person, a normal person passing by would see the victim of that spell step on and be electrocuted by downed power lines.  It’s funny, but research into human memory and perception tell us that people often do reshape their recollection of events so that they fit with closely held preconceptions of how things are or ought to be.  
I think this sort of expression of magic makes it more mysterious and amorphous, and hence more powerful.  It becomes something that can touch on primal fears, rather than another sort of weapon to use.  
Is it just secularized religion?  
This is what I think what magic is in most literary presentations.  It is the stuff of gods and goddesses, separated from it’s liturgical source.  It’s the desire to have a miracle without having to do all that praying and fasting stuff monks and priests are forced to do.  
My first glimmer of this understanding came when I first starting playing Dungeon & Dragons as a teenager, when comparing the rules for magic for Magicians and Clerics.  They could do pretty much the same thing.  If a Magic User cast a “Fireball” spell and a Cleric invoked “Holy Fire,” the end result was that something, or someone, went up in smoke. 
Some of my skeptically inclined high school friends would refuse to play clerics just because they didn’t want to align themselves with a god “just to cast spells.”  
I had a mental breakthrough on the relationship between magic and religion while reading the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Creation, an ancient kabbalistic text translated into English.  It was in one of the commentaries that accompanied the translation where the author noted that ancient kabbalists believed that “The Word” which God is referred to have spoken was purposefully left out of the Book of Genesis because if people reading the text out loud spoke the word, they would create universes, just like God!  Since the “breath of life” fills our being as creations of God, we have within is the power to do as God does.  This is echoed in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains.  
In the kabbalistic tradition, though, it takes more than just faith.  It takes saying the word, the right words, to bring such miracles about.  And since men have not the purity or perfection that God has, it sometimes takes a cabal, a group of men working in concert, to have such miracles occur. 
Replace the word “miracles” with “spells” and you’ll get a glimpse as to where I think magic and religion connect.  
Magic has to Feel like Magic
In the end, writing is an art form.  And that means, it is ultimately more important for the magic to feel correct as it expresses what the writer things is magical about our communal existence.  
I remember an event, years ago, when I played role-playing games on a regular basis.  There was one game called Castle Falkenstein, which had what I thought was a particularly good combat and magic system.  
To recreate the feel of role-playing in a world modeled after the Victorian era, the game designers opted to replace dice wit playing cards.  Instead of rolling dice to see if they hit the target with their gun, or if their spell worked, they would draw a card each round to build a hand.  This hand would be compared with that of the game master to see if they won.  Each suit in the magical system applies to a different type of spell.  Hearts are what are used for healing spells.  Spades affect the Earth.  
I remember one gaming session I was game mastering where one of the party members was injured.  They needed to heal him and quickly, because the enemy was closing in.  The magic-user in the team kept drawing cards each round.  He needed to draw hearts for a healing spell, but the last card he drew to gain enough power to cast the spell was a spade.  With no time left, he cast the spell.
“Ok...”  I made my decision on the spot.  “Your spell works, he’s completely healed.  But...  All of his clothing as turned to stone, trapping him inside.”  
“Ooohhh!”  Everyone started talking at once at one to do.  They finally decided that two of their members would bar and hold the door, while the other two stomped on their companion to break his stone clothing apart.  They were able to get him out and escape through the sewers from the basement they were hiding in.  Everyone agreed that they liked the impact of moment. 
Next week, a write up on the magical system I created for the world of Spell of 13 Years.