It was in the midst of the swinging of weapons, the paeans to the gods and the occasional harassment by orcs during the Great Battle of Bicolline last summer that Bart Brizee knew that his business plan — LARP Box, a monthly, subscription-based gift box for live action role players, aka LARPers — could work.
Brizee, 25, a Machias native who now lives in Bangor, was at the battle, a yearly gathering of nearly 3,000 fantasy LARPers, held each August just outside Saint Mathieu du Parc, Quebec, for the first time last year.
Bicolline, consisting of two villages composed of nearly 200 buildings stretching over 350 acres, is one of the largest medieval immersion venues in the world. There are LARP events held there all year long, but the battle is the largest of them.
“Just the sheer number of people there is pretty amazing. It’s a huge community. There’s nothing else like it in North America. It’s like Disney World for LARPers,” said Brizee. “When I went last year, I asked all kinds of people from all over the world if they’d subscribe to something like LARP Box, and they pretty much all said they absolutely would.”
LARP is a form of role-playing game where the participants physically act out their characters’ actions while in full costume. Some LARP settings are combat-based, in which participants use foam weapons to engage in battle, while others are more “theater”-based, and rely more on interaction between characters.
All LARPs aim to immerse the player in another world. A majority are fantasy-based, with participants playing knights, wizards, elves and other fantasy characters. Others are geared towards things such as zombies, steampunk, vampires and aliens. Still others are directly inspired by specific movies or books, including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or H.P. Lovecraft, movie franchises such as Mad Max or Harry Potter and shows including “Downton Abbey” or “Westworld.”
“You’re only limited by your imagination, in terms of what you can do with it,” said Brizee. “[LARP isn’t] that different from the things you’d do as a kid. I remember doing stuff that was essentially LARPing — you’d dress up and run around in the woods. I made wooden swords and costumes, even back then.”
About five years ago, while majoring in psychology and minoring in studio art at the University of Maine, Brizee decided to try his hand at making a piece of armor in sculpture class.
“I started making an armored gauntlet to see if I could do it,” he said. “It wasn’t until after that that I realized LARPing was a thing in Maine, and that people wanted this stuff, and you could make money doing it. It took off from there.”
Brizee initially got involved with Maine Adventure Society, a nonprofit organization that helps organize LARPs around the state. There are currently four active LARP campaigns that occur at Maine Adventure Society’s 80-acre site in the Lincoln County town of Jefferson, including Mystwood, a fantasy LARP run by Dylan Sirois and Bob Dunham.
“The Maine LARP scene has exploded since I began 20 years ago. The Maine Adventure Society was the only game in town in a very literal sense back then. Now there are several sites with a variety of games, as well as many gamers who leave Maine to play [elsewhere],” said Dunham via email. “In our neck of the woods it’s as much individual ‘geeks’ of high school and college age as it is families, with parents and children choosing to enjoy a fun pastime together.”
Brizee also began crafting his own LARP gear, such as cloaks, leather armor, shields and weapons. He learned to sew and how to work with leather, and also learned how to use power tools to carefully shape the latex foam used for LARP weapons. Additionally, he took items made by other LARP designers, including Dark Knight Armoury and Epic Armoury Unlimited, and customized them to his own tastes by adding new hilts to swords or painting intricate designs on shields.
Soon enough, he started his own LARP gear design business, Eastern Front Designs. He initially hoped it could be a side business while he worked a day job.
“There are really only a few companies out there that make LARP items. I wanted to carve out my own little niche,” said Brizee.
The idea for LARP Box — modeled on other popular subscription box services, such as Loot Crate, which is geared towards gamers, fans of pop culture and nerds — came early last year.
“Loot Crate was nerdy stuff, but it wasn’t always stuff I liked. What I really wanted was a box for LARPers, and there wasn’t one,” said Brizee. “So I started it.”
After doing extensive research online and at events, Brizee had amassed a huge network of designers and makers able to supply him with goods to put in the boxes, and at a reduced price for bulk orders.
He also felt confident that there was a strong market out there for something like LARP Box — though he didn’t know for sure until he launched a Kickstarter last October to get some seed money for his business.
“By the time I launched the Kickstarter, I was pretty sure I was going to get funded. But I didn’t think I’d get fully funded in a day,” said Brizee. “In less than 24 hours we raised $15,000. And we went on to raise over $35,000 in total … it was a huge relief. I had kind of put all my chips on the table and decided that this was going to be what I was gonna do. If it didn’t get funded, I didn’t have a job. So … phew.”
Brizee, with the help of several friends and his wife, Chrissy (who is also a LARPer), last week packed his first shipment of LARP Boxes in his basement headquarters — 287 boxes in total — and sent them off to subscribers all over the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Australia, Israel, Holland, Brazil and elsewhere around the world. The box retails for $39.99 per month, though purchasing multiple months at a time lowers the overall cost.
Brizee also sent out 33 “legendary” boxes, which sell for $275 per month and feature significantly upgraded gear, such as weapons and armor.
The first box, set to arrive in April, features classic fantasy LARP gear such as leather pouches, sword holders for belts, a steel tankard for beverages and a LARP Box T-shirt. The May box will feature gear for post-apocalyptic LARPs, and future boxes will be tailored towards LARPers that play elf characters and to steampunk-themed LARPs.
Subscriber levels have dropped for box two, but Brizee expected that — the first box was sent out to Kickstarter backers, and he expects subscribers will wait to see what the first box is actually like before they decide to sign up for a regular subscription.
“I know that the things I’ve put in the box are really high quality. These are things I’d personally want,” said Brizee. “If I don’t think it’s valuable I won’t put it in there. A $15 sword you bought at a convention will probably break really quickly. I only put things in the box that I’ve personally tested. No filler junk.”
The immersive worlds that LARPers create are a form of escapism, to be sure. But they’re also intensely imaginative, creative endeavors, with the little details — the sort of unique items you might find in a LARP Box — adding to the overall immersive experience.
Monique Bouchard, co-founder of the SnowCon tabletop gaming convention in Bangor, hosted Brizee and the LARP Box at the most recent convention in January. As someone intimately involved in the gaming scene in Maine — be it traditional role playing, or live action role playing — she’s thrilled to see Maine businesses like LARP Box spring up around gaming.
“I think it’s fantastic for people to grow up and see that you might have a really boring desk job, but that doesn’t stop you from being a hero, or a villain, or a magician, or from going to Hogwarts,” said Bouchard. “What I really love is that here I am, 42 years old, and I don’t need to put my imagination away in a box.”