Inside Austin’s Fantasy Roleplaying Speakeasy With Oakda Malkuth
Straddling two worlds with Tiny Minotaur's bartending orc
Chance, as everyone knows, plays a large part in our lives. Whether literally or metaphorically, we roll the dice, we deal with the results, and – perhaps above all else – we try not to piss off the orc behind the bar.
At Austin's Tiny Minotaur tavern – a roleplaying speakeasy in an Eastside location that must remain secret – the orc behind the bar is one Oakda Malkuth, a 157-year-old exile from the pre-industrial and highly magical world of Karth. She's a badass, this Oakda, a veteran of untold mercenary campaigns and a survivor of much eldritch chicanery among her former home's nation-states. She's a well-meaning warrior who fell afoul of the imperious Karthian Council and was pushed from lawful good to lawful neutral/chaotic neutral – and into this more mundane world of ours. Of course Oakda's an orc: You can tell by those ears, right? She's –
"My name is Dana Bauerle-McKnight," the woman informs me over coffee outside a local cafe. It's a pleasant afternoon in the heart of Texas: The sun is shining, the air is cool, there's not the faintest whiff of, say, a balrog in the shadows. And Bauerle-McKnight hasn't seen even half a century of summers: She's 37 years old and a multimedia artist. Aside from a certain affable boldness of engagement, she doesn't seem much like an orc at all. Her ears are perfectly human.
"I was raised in the east side of Buffalo, New York," Bauerle-McKnight says. "That's one of the most dilapidated places around. When people think dilapidation, they think of Detroit. But, no, parts of Buffalo are in a similar if not worse state than Detroit is. And, growing up there, fantasy was my out, you know? Always comic books, always face-deep in Brian Jacques' Redwall, and Tolkien, and of course Octavia Butler. Speculative fiction, obviously, was the greatest escape. And it didn't matter what it was: I tore it up, all of it."
She also, in early adulthood, tore up the real world. Long Island University's Friends World College program sent her to Japan, where she studied cultural anthropology, and to the Netherlands, where she honed her skills as a sculptor; she also lived in London for a year. Back in Buffalo, Bauerle-McKnight co-founded the Dreamland collective, a nonprofit organization "centered on building an inclusive environment for queer, women, transgender, and minority artists in the community." Eventually, she followed her partner Ron to Austin – "We got here in 2017," she says – and married him soon after that. Which explains the hyphen.
"Bauerle is my husband's name, and instead of me just taking his name, we decided to hyphenate our names together." Later, drained by the demands of activism during Our Coronavirus Situation, Bauerle-McKnight decided to hyphenate her imaginary world of Karth to Earth.
The Tiny Minotaur, you see, is that hyphen.
"During the year we don't like to talk about," the woman says, setting down her cup of coffee, "I was kind of in a bad brain space. I was heavily involved with the police brutality protests, just in terms of being a physical body trying to show support for change, and I was exhausted and emotionally distraught and didn't have the energy to work on my own artistic projects. So, I was on my way out of that, and my husband was like, 'Remember that idea you were thinking about, three years ago?' It was going to be an immersive roleplaying space. And he was like, 'You should bring that back.' Because he knows me, he knows that I have to be forever physically busy – or else the doldrums set in. So I pulled out this ancient fucking Google doc, and all my writing was in there, all these ideas, and I started looking for a space to make it a reality."
The venue's website will tell you that the Tiny Minotaur is "a mix of performance art, live-action D&D, and immersive theatre (where you can choose how deep you want to nerd out)." The hidden venue, located in the midst of a near-Downtown neighborhood you may already be familiar with, is "a fantastic pocket-world escape from the clusterfuck that is Earth." And while you're inside its sparsely decorated space, adventurer – while you're nomming the complementary pickles and bread (sourced from baking collectives, brine-nerds, and Easy Tiger) and downing goblets of what Oakda winkingly refers to as "Swill, Grog, Cidies, and Fizzy Shit" – while you're doing that, the actual level of interaction within the otherworldly construct is up to you.
The official spiel:
"Once seated at the Bar your Adventuring Party will be given your satchel of coins and you're free to drink, chat with your party, and chomp on a pickle, annnnd you can leave it at that: a simple hangout in a rad fantasy tavern. BUT if you are at the Tiny Minotaur with the intent to Quest, you can probably convince Oakda to give you some information on a JOB. Oakda Malkuth is surly, but she's overly aware of the shenanigans happening in the Rift and inside of the Tiny Minotaur! And like most annoyed Barkeeps, Oakda can be won over with a bit of time. The more your party visits the Tiny Minotaur, the more intricate the Backstory, Quests, Rewards, and possible access to monthly campaigns!"
"It's part D&D, part war game," says Bauerle-McKnight, in the earthly light of day. "I've always been a heavy gamer – primarily Final Fantasy, but with a pretty strong base in D&D. But one of the things I've talked about with a lot of folks who are anxious, myself included, is that D&D's rule-sets can be a little too convoluted. And when you're thinking of combat on the fly, you're doing 90% of the work to ensure that combat's going smoothly. So we tightened that up by giving a very limited option of attacks and sequences – where everybody still has their own individual part to play, but is very clearly defined and simple."
Attacks and sequences, like when you roll the dice – or, at Tiny Minotaur, when you roll the one, very big, 20-sided die – and the resultant numbers will determine if you've just whacked the head off a marauder, say, or if some wandering paladin has suddenly crippled you for life.
Such playful mayhem may love company as much as misery is said to, but it's never crowded in the tavern.
"We have a maximum of six people in the space," she explains. "Last year we were doing just two at a time, and the problem with that was, like, the energy levels are a bit more subdued when there's only two people? Four is the cozy spot. When there's four, even if two of them are a couple, there's the ability for people to play off each other – which they do, having that sort of organic, interpersonal communication happening within a party. It's always fun to see: people working off each other and adding new ideas."
Recently, as a nod to Halloween, the action in the Tiny Minotaur was enhanced with an undercurrent of vampires. So into the tavern comes this, ah, this vampire slayer – who immediately suspects the night's guests of being vampires themselves.
"The slayer last night," says Bauerle-McKnight, "was a metalhead dude who is fairly large, playing this Andrew W.K. type, party hard, 15th generation vampire slayer. He was a total bro, just shotgunning beers in the corner, with his dagger out. And his dagger, he says it's called Dracula's Dick – because he cut off Dracula's dick with it – and yadda yadda yadda. And the party decided, 'We have to kill this slayer before he kills us.'" She laughs, remembering. "So all these little tweaks happen that we have to improv for, because we have to respond to shit that wasn't necessarily what the original plan was. We have to freefall it."
And freefall it they do, Oakda and her crew, making sure everything works out in-character and beyond, whether in banter or combat or ... quests. "The majority of Quests are located outside of the gates and throughout the Rift," read the venue's notes. "All Quests are led by maps, and the red X's indicated on the maps are interaction points. There is a strong bleed-over from Earth and the Rift, but we encourage Quest participants to not interact with the plainclothes denizens of Earth."
Such interactions are hard to avoid, though, when the questing party is sent into local businesses to gather items for success, and hilarity often ensues. Bauerle-McKnight's got stories, but she's insistent on protecting the tavern's location – and, instead, championing her collaborators.
"Tiny Minotaur wouldn't be as magical as it is," she says, "if it weren't for the non-player characters who are involved. They're fucking phenomenal, they are god tier. They're all my friends, and the reason I chose my friends was because A) I didn't know how long the project was going to go, and B) there's a level of safety, in that I could trust people to not be shitty. Within the level of play we're specifically going for – which is very raunchy, very malarkey play, but it's still safe? – people don't have to worry about being misgendered or having to deal with transphobic or fatphobic jokes or fucking weird racist shit from our NPCs. And, the adventurers? We can reel them in really quickly. But we rarely have to deal with that – it's been pretty smooth sailing so far."
And how long, even undaunted, is the Tiny Minotaur likely to be around?
"I've got about four years' worth of story," says Bauerle-McKnight. "And every quest so far has been building up to a main narrative background – even these Halloween slayer-quests are building into the larger world. We've got people who are coming once a month for the season, and it looks like we're gonna have a lot more repeats. People have been really, really creative, and they remember the quest they did and they tell their friends about it. Lately, when we have new adventurers coming into the bar for the first time, they're inquiring about NPCs and they already know some of the lore. The goal is to develop a strong enough background world-build to where the story is static – like in a book – but, through word of mouth and oral history and various snippets you'll find online, it's very community-based."
The Tiny Minotaur's definitely an ongoing event, then. But is that just because Austin is so nerd-friendly, so thick with the RPG, that anything redolent of DIY Tolkien will flourish?
Outside the cafe, Dana Bauerle-McKnight smiles, continuing to look not at all like a sullen orc. "Folks in Austin are kind of starved, post-pandemic, for these kinds of things in general," she says. "I've been seeing more underground, secret, you-gotta-know-somebody spaces popping up in the past few months, and they've been killing it."
To book a session of otherwordly adventure for yourself or your worthy friends, citizen, seek the Tiny Minotaur at tinyminotaur.com/book.