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What play-by-mail (or email) RPG had the largest number of players?

I've recently been looking into "Net Games", play-by-post (not email) RPGs run by a company called Youentai in Japan in the 90s that seem to have peaked around ten thousand players, and was wondering if anything was larger. Looking around I could find a few English-language games, like Saturnalia, that claim to have had about 3000 players at one point, but nothing larger.

Because of the age and niche status of these games information is often not online, and I know any numbers will generally be unsubstantiated, but I'm curious about the history of large games.

To clarify: by "largest game" I don't mean a network where there are, for example, ten thousand people playing with the same rules but different sessions (like a network of chess players), but rather the largest number of people in a single shared world where all characters could (at least in theory) interact, much like a modern MMO server.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By a single PBM RPG, I take it that you mean a single instance of a game, not on a per-system basis? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Dec 13 '17 at 9:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, as in a single shared-world game - "game" as in "a month-long game of Diplomacy", not "game" as in "D&D and Diplomacy are games". I'll edit the question to try to make that more clear. \$\endgroup\$ – polm23 Dec 13 '17 at 9:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do organized play programs count? Pathfinder Society and RPGA have a significant online following. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyrad Dec 13 '17 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cyrad "Online" is very much not PBM. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Dec 13 '17 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Organized play seems really different because the actual "play" happens synchronously, so I think that's out. That said, I would consider PBeM games with slow-paced turns (weekly or so) basically the same as PBM RPGs. The Net Games I was referencing above had monthly turns. \$\endgroup\$ – polm23 Dec 14 '17 at 7:58
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The Dark Eye has in its motherland Germany a very old "Briefspiel" that started in 1988 and is run by the publisher. Nowadays it is exclusively play-by-email. At the hight of its life, it had far over 100 people that were in the same, organized game at the same time. It mainly focussed around playing a landed noble and organizing your own land, and started 2009 into the 4th instance, in 2014 they reported about it in their official magazine, so it was running strong even then. Over the more than 20 years it has run, at least 7 members of the redaction have been recruited from the Briefspiel to join the writing team, while at least 5 members of the redaction/writing team have been very active in the game.

Short game history

Two of the oldest lands that never changed hands and are still actively played by the first generation players are Ferdok and Beilunk (since 1988!), which belong to categories that hadn't been given out since the second recruitment in the early 1990s. The third run in 1996 changed from "apply your hero to become noble" to "invent a noble's history" and then one would be given an appropriate land, which is still the official process. While the game had no official organizer from 1997 to 2009 (ca 12 years), the players just continued and stemmed the organization effort themselves till 2009.

Offshoots

Many of the big (officially sanctioned!) nobles did spawn sub-games to organize their court and attracting unofficial landed nobles that are chosen upon by these officially sanctioned nobles. At times these governers tie the acts of their subordinates into their own emails to their superiors and peers, increasing the number of tied in players at times massively - and lead to the rise of the regional wikis. It is hard to gauge the actual size of the unofficial crowd, just as hard as it is to get a list of the official nobles. My careful guess is though, that it is a number in the high 3 to 4 digit range.

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