You enter a tavern. The crackling hearth warms your bones after trudging for weeks through the wet and windy mountains of Avanste. The place is a little run-down, but it was either here or the village Applebees, and you’re not in the mood for a Captain Bahama Mama.
“Two meads,” you call out to the elf polishing glassware.
He pulls out a couple of bottles and pops the tops. You take a sip while pushing the other bottle back toward the elf. You’re in search of the lost Amulet of Lucien, and befriending a barkeep never hurts the quest.
He accepts your gift, taking a gulp, but offers no information.
The elf gives your total—fifteen gold.
Your heart rate quickens. You should have seen this coming. What have you walked into?
You proudly toss down your total, including a hefty tip.
“I’m always a great tipper,” you say.
“Okay,” says the elf as he tries to get back to work, but you lean in to continue.
“Yep. Always at least twenty percent, but usually more. I’m not upset by the scourge upon the lands that transfers the responsibility of fair wages onto patrons.”
The elf makes a face like he just licked a boggle as he listens, but you continue undeterred.
“You know, I’m actually a big proponent of something I’ve seen cropping up at other taverns. A twenty percent mandatory service fee.”
The barkeep only opened a bottle. Did you need to tip for opening a bottle? You once jumped across the enchanted Chasm of Delaray, so you know a massive leap when you see one. Plus, you already bought him a mead, so that’s kind of a tip.
You put down the exact amount and head for the door. You feel good about this.
“You trying to stiff me?!” The elf yells out from behind you.
You spin around and are immediately seized by guilt. You no longer feel good about anything.
“Oh, no, it’s just…” you stammer.
“You know what? Keep the fucking fifteen gold.” The elf chucks the coins at you.
“Jesus!” you yell out, grabbing your face. “You hit me in the eye!”
“Good! I’m fucking glad!” the elf yells back. “They pay me jack shit here.”
“I bought you a mead!” you protest.
“I can’t feed my kids with mead! I have tried, and now my youngest is in AA. Is that what you like to hear? That a four-year-old elfling has a drinking problem because of assholes like you.”
“Isn’t a tip technically supposed to be optional?” you say. “If it’s going to be mandatory, it would be a lot easier for everyone if you just made it a service fee.”
The elf’s face drops in fear at these words.
A crack of lightning thunders through the room. A cackling robed figure appears in the center of the tavern.
“Oh, no,” whispers the elf. “You’ve summoned the owner.”
The owner strides over to the elf. “Did you hear that? The customers demand it. It is time I institute the service fee.”
“No! For the love of Dashyka, please no!” the elf pleads.
“It’s too late!” screams the owner. “Inform the patrons! And I do not wish to hear about the constant complaints we will begin receiving. Do they not care about the service workers?!”
You cheer along, but the elf’s forlorn face confuses you.
“Are you happy?” you ask. “There’s now a mandatory twenty percent tip.”
The elf’s eyes flash fury. “Newsflash, asshole, did he say tip?”
You are stunned and momentarily regret not being able to choose the tip you leave.
“It’s called a service fee,” the elf says. “That means they’re no longer legally required to give it to service staff. Tipping was a way to keep the owner from having to pay employees a living wage. A service fee is the owner saying, ‘Wait a minute, you’re making a lot from those tips. Give me some of that too.’”
The owner dances around the shop and approaches a group of patrons. “Would you care to buy a T-shirt with our tavern’s name? I know the price is a little steep at forty gold, but you’re supporting a small business by paying us to use your body as advertising.”
“Sure, I’ll take one!” says an enthusiastic customer.
“Perfect. That’ll be fifty-two gold.”
“Wait, but you just said forty gold.”
“Well, yes, but don’t forget the king’s tax and our service fee. You’re not upset about the service fee, are you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t normally tip to buy a retail good.”
The owner feigns surprise. “Do you not care about the service workers?”
You watch as embarrassment reddens the patron’s face. He hands over all of his gold—directly into the owner’s pocket.
The elf leans in close to you. “Instead of suggesting a system with clear pricing that funds fair wages, you’ve been tricked into advocating for owners to legally skim tips.”
Those words deliver a fatal blow of capitalist-induced shame. The owner collects a 20 percent service fee from your corpse.
You can never fully cross over to the afterlife due to anxiety about whether or not you’re supposed to tip the underworld ferryman.