Excerpt from "Life and Times of Andros Fairheart"
"What is my biggest regret as a spell developer?" Whoo. That's a big one. You got plenty more ink, parchment? Good, this might take a while.
So, back when I was a young man, in my 170s, I was still working as a spellwright for High Magus Gaetsumus, Master of Divination, Holder of the Keys, Seer of the Infinite Windows, and all around kind of a tightass. Still, it was my first job, and I had already done a couple of minor spells for him; cantrips, couple of potions, a "Spell of Keyfinding"... honestly, don't know why they trusted him to hold those keys, he was constantly losing them... and one day he walks into my scriptorium with a new assignment.
"Got a client in the Army of New Highelf", he said, "who's been having a lot of trouble with deserters, layabouts, all sort of misfits joining up and then generally being a drag on resources. He wants a way to separate the vines from the saplings, look at new recruits and figure out which ones are really eager to join and which ones just want a hot meal and a down bed on the government's dole." "So," I said, "like a 'Detect Jerk' spell?" He laughed... I remember that laugh specifically, it was always this raspy, kind of hoarse laugh, always creeped me out... and said "Yeah, that's about it. Think you're up to it?"
By the way, important lesson to any young wizards out there; if your Senior Spellcaster ever asks you this question, and your immediate thought is "Yes", please stop for a moment and consider what an idiot you are. And then answer "Yes" anyway.
Well, I thought about it. On the surface of it, it seemed pretty complex, but as I thought about it there were lots of ways to cut corners; basically it would be a divination spell, like Reading Surface Thoughts, but you'd need to go deeper than that, kind of get a pull of their recent mental activity. Retrieving the subject's memories would be pretty high level arcana, nothing I was experienced with, but I was a young man and eager to work my way up the Magic Ladder. Technically, the client just wanted a simple yes or no on the target being a jerk... so, instead of having to muck about with retrieving, collating, and translating the subject's memories, I could just run that in the background, put it through some preset parsers, and then just return a "Yes Jerk" or "Not Jerk" condition. Arcana runs pretty efficiently when you don't have to translate the results into forms that the mortal mind is capable of withstanding, so I thought I had a pretty good grip on this one.
"Sure thing," I said. "Give me two months." I figured it'd probably only take a fortnight, but I had already learned the vital magics of Padding your time.
Of course, no arcane project goes without tampering. After two weeks, the first of which I had spent making sure no one else had done this before, and the second which I dedicated to developing my "Hazards and Hydras" campaign, the Magus was at my door again. Just like every project since the dawn of history, it looks like my little spell had been the victim of scope creep; Now not only did the customer want to weed out jerks, but they wanted to know which of the incoming recruits would be good choices for leadership positions, ones that would stick to the book, obey orders, that sort of thing. "Shouldn't be a problem," I said, not really thinking about it, "But I'd probably need another two months." He said that sounded reasonable. Mentally, I was dancing; I figured most of the groundwork with the spell would be done with the first bit, and plugging in some different parsers would be the work of a couple days at the most, so I had just earned myself plenty of time to really get the details straight on the Labyrinth of Perpetual Motion. Next day, he knocked on my door and told me that the Upper Council had heard about the project, and wanted a demonstration next week. He left before I could say anything.
That week was probably the most I worked in my entire life. Of course, the basic fundamental structure was nowhere near as easy as I had anticipated; I figured I could just copy a bunch of bits of some existing spells, but of course they didn't play well together, and absolutely nobody back then provided any commentary on how the various bits were supposed to work anyway. So, I did what any young wizard who wanted to keep their job would do; I fudged, and fudged hard. Hard embedded some arcane variables, covered up slow processes with flashy effects, came up with sophisticated sounding terminology... 'Jerk' didn't seem to be appropriate for the Upper Council, so I picked some terms that sounded much more serious... all to make it look like I hadn't spent the last 3 weeks mostly calculating dice percentages... one of my coworkers caught me doing that once, but fortunately I think I was able to convince them that I was just a gambling addict... and I prayed to whatever god would listen that the whole thing wouldn't blow up in my face, perhaps literally, when next Moonday rolled around. I spent nearly as much time dreaming up excuses for why certain parts of it weren't working as I did designing the damn thing, preparing myself for every criticism, every nitpicking flaw. I was prepared for every eventuality.
Except for what actually happened, of course.
Day of the presentation, I had put on my best robes and wizard hat... it was actually the height of fashion at that point to put little bells on it, before all the Jesters of other races started doing that, presumably to mock us... and strode in front of the Council in the Chamber of Truth, and my only True objective was to leave that chamber still employed. "Esteemed members of the Upper Council," I said, " I would like to present a new incantation; 'Detect Evil'!" See, I told you that would sound a lot flashier than 'jerk'.
So I did some basic demonstrations. Pulled up a bound devil... yep, definitely evil. Pulled up a bound angel... yep, definitely not evil. Got a hardened criminal... yep, evil. Got an innocent orphan... nope, no evil here. Grabbed a janitor at random, that one read as evil, but I explained that away as a minor miscast due to his birth sign, we were aware, working to eliminate it. I was prepared for a barrage of nitpicks and scoffs, but what I had no preparation for was the rapt attention I was getting from people whose combined age was nearly as long as the whole history of Magic. After the demonstration, questions streamed at my boss, and all I can remember is being so relieved they hadn't fired me on the spot that I barely noticed that he was answering every one of those questions as "yes". Oh, there were plenty of doubters, and rightfully so, but fortunately it looked like I had gotten away with it, and hopefully I could then sink back into obscurity and let my boss handle most of the politics and maneuvering... what else are Middle Magi for?
Two days later, that Janitor was caught trying to strangle his three hundredth victim. Apparently, he was the "Staughtonville Strangler", had been active for two centuries, but an anonymous tip had allowed local constabulary to catch him in the act this time. I didn't learn about his arrest until a full century later, and boy, did that put a lot of what followed in context.
Well, after that, things got Entirely out of hand. The timetable got pushed way up, and what had looked like a nice relaxing minor project suddenly had the full attention of the Council. Fortunately, my boss, attention hog that he was, was more than happy to take plenty of credit for my work; after that first presentation, he never asked me to stand before the council again, and quite frankly I was happy he didn't, because I was apparently the only one that knew how much of a house of cards the whole project was. Unfortunately, what had started as feature creep turned into feature sprint, and I worked myself to the bone trying to keep up with new demands. Apparently, Marketing had gotten involved, and a mere week after the presentation I arrived to work to find a pink slip of paper on my desk and, after recovering from a mild heart attack, discovered that it had a simple 3x3 design on it, with little filled in squares that said things like "Evil" and "Chaotic" and "Neutral". It had a little note clipped to it in my boss' handwriting, that just said "This is the design doc. Keep up the good work!" There was no further explanation. And he was in meetings all week. And was on vacation next week.
More advice to young wizards out there; if you find yourself caught in this situation, don't panic. Not panicking won't actually help any, you are completely screwed, but you'll be doing yourself a favor, blood pressure-wise, in the long term.
To my credit, at least I was right in one of my assumptions; after I got the fundamentals of the spell working, plugging in the parsing filters was fairly simple. Now, granted, those filters were entirely made up; I mean, magic doesn't know what morality is, nor do most wizards, really, so all I was doing was putting in some placeholder behaviors to look for... propensity to murder, potential to jaywalk, preference for pineapple, that sort of thing. My boss always assured me that was fine, that I was now just working on the basics and that deeper divination would be handled by much higher level wizards. He just wanted a proof of concept that would help grow the department, get some funding, and then they'd finally be able to get a word in edgewise over 'that thrice damned Master of Evocation'. I took this at face value, and kept my nose to the lectern, struggling to meet quotas while simultaneously trying to figure out how to fix the corner I had written myself into with the backstory of the Ancient Archtroll BBEG. Finally, though, six weeks after the project had started... To this day, I still can't believe I was actually praised for completing ahead of schedule... the Master of Divination said that he was satisfied with the state of the project, and would move it up the chain so that more experienced wizards could further develop it. He congratulated me on a tough project, told me to take the rest of the week off.
Imagine my surprise when before that week was out, I saw scrolls of "Gaetsumus' Detect Evil" being sold at my local Mage Market.
After my initial panic, I calmed down and thought about the situation, after which I panicked worse. There absolutely had not been time enough for any kind of testing or debugging, I can guarantee that; Spell refinement is a long and tedious process, and even spells that have been out for years and years can have bugs lying in them waiting for some luckless schmuck to discover them. Ever had a fireball that made a huge, satisfying explosion, only to learn that it did less damage than a halfling's sword swing? You probably found a bug, and I know plenty of wizards would be very obliged if you could tell them exactly what you were doing at the time, provided you are still alive, of course. So here was this spell that, according to the box, could suss out the "Alignment" of anyone it targeted, letting you know friend from foe, villain from hero, all for the low low price of a 1st level Incantation! Of course, that was patently ridiculous. People would see that, right? There was no way that people could be clustered into just 9 different baskets, that was a gross oversimplification. It would be a neat parlor trick for a couple months, people would figure out what a buggy mess it was, how it struggled with edge cases, how there were all kinds of things that could produce false positives, and either it would get laughed out of shops or someone upstairs would have to do some actual serious divination workshopping, right?
It was right around the time that the arrests started happening that I figured it was probably best to seek alternate employment. By which I mean "Pack my valuables, change my name, and see if there are any Adventurers in a local tavern looking for a new Wizard." Interestingly enough, turns out that a profession where you risk your life day in and day out attempting to murder enormous, unspeakable beasts and take their worldly possessions isn't nearly as stressful as a 9 to 5. Go figure.
Now, as it turns out, although my boss had initially put his name on the spells, they were soon simplified to just "Detect Evil" and so forth, owing to the combination of both his name being a mouthful, and the somewhat ironic fact that he had been Detected as Evil... and to this day I'm not sure if it was because of all the blood sacrificing he was apparently doing, or because I was feeling a bit put upon when I enbedded some of those placeholders I mentioned. In any case, needless to say, the spell took the world by storm, and it wasn't long before the Clerics came up with an equivalent spell, mostly just reverse engineered from mine if I'm any judge, and from there you got things like the Paladins barring anyone who didn't come up as "Lawful Good" or Assasins only hiring those folks that were reliably "Evil" or Bards colleges eschewing anyone that was too much of a Buzzkill, so on and so forth. I tried a couple times throughout the centuries to set the record straight, clandestinely, but I was afraid to try anything too obvious for fear that the spell would finally get traced back to me... I'm pretty sure you can piece together why that probably wouldn't turn out particularly well, especially given all the evil masterminds I've evidently foiled.
So why admit it now? Well, I guess a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm about to transcend the mortal realm. Not having to worry about getting shivved in the night because you'll be an incorporeal being of pure knowledge kind of takes the edge of things. More importantly, though, I think it's vital that we all stop using this insane system to try to sum up the most intimate beliefs, value structures, and behaviors of every sentient being! There's no way that simple, crude categories like "Good" and "Evil" could possibly represent the full range of sapient morality, and the idea that they can be charted out on a simple, two dimensional axis is laughable!
Now, a four dimensional axis...