Games of Chance: What Does RNG Mean?

March 20, 2023 • Devin Partida


You may have seen the term in passing as slang or online through a Twitch stream. It’s possible the term RNG came up during a tabletop game night with friends, but that doesn’t explain — what does it mean? 

RNG — or random number generator — usually refers to a number-generating algorithm. This can be physical by throwing dice and leaving a decision up to probability. It can also be written in code within a video game. But does RNG have a meaning outside of gaming? Let’s analyze the applications and discussions surrounding the efficacy and fairness of RNG. 

The Differences in RNG Methods

Though most now associate RNG with video games because of its modern usage, there are two traditional methods of RNG. These are true and pseudorandom number generators.

True random number generators (TRNGs) measure natural phenomena with honestly unpredictable physical attributes. This type of RNG also ignores any biases that may influence measurements by relying on outside forces of entropy. An example is when scientists measure radiation, in which decay and other activity produce genuinely random numbers.

Pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs) are not as random as they seem. The PRNG contains a seed — the value used to instigate the generator. Computer scientists use this in developing Monte Carlo-method scenarios, a method of random sampling. This value could or couldn’t be truly random, but so long as the PRNG method doesn’t highly rely on that seed for the result, then it will just use probability tables. But, this is a deterministic method, whereas TRNG is non-deterministic. 

If the PRNG uses the same seed, it will produce the same number sequence. This process is used when creating encryption keys, so the decrypter only needs the pseudorandom seed. For contemporary purposes, we see PRNG most in procedural generation for video games like Hades or The Binding of Isaac, spawning random map variations and enemy distributions.

The Applications of RNG

The versatile aspect of RNG is it can fit anywhere to produce a medley of scenarios. For video gamers, RNG is why explorers do not know what Pokémon will randomly appear. It also gives games that play rogue-likes that satisfying anticipation of unknowns — what loot will drop in the next dungeon? Every aspect that is left to chance is an example of RNG.

For tabletop gamers, this is commonly associated with Dungeon & Dragons, simply because of its heavy reliance on dice-rolling as a game mechanic. Therefore, RNG can determine a party’s success. 

However, you can also consider games like Risk or Uno where dice rolls and card draws are random, but there is still a degree of skill associated with the gameplay. Using physical methods like dice or cards, this is sometimes known as mechanical hardware random number generators (MHRNGs).

There are also non-gaming applications of RNG. Alongside computer programming, it has ancient uses, from the first gamblers to fortune tellers. Consider how diviners use it in divination, such as tarot, or even shaking a magic eight ball. Cryptographers also use specialized RNG methods that are secure for their uses.

The Criticisms About RNG in Gaming

Though RNG should be random, some gamers feel it shouldn’t be employed as much because of a few significant issues.

First is how RNG can sabotage and underutilize player skills. Many games have different distributions of random chance versus skill required. Ideally, a game incorporating RNG would be well-balanced, so players don’t feel powerless when trying their best to succeed. It could negatively affect a gamer’s experience if they think they have no agency over a single outcome. 

Adversely, some gamers feel slight RNG implementations levels playing fields, especially in multiplayer games, so everyone has a fair chance regardless of time invested in the game. This is an even more debated topic as games become more skills-focused and competitive.

However, some RNGs can be influenced. Dungeon masters — individuals who control the story for games of Dungeons & Dragons — often roll dice to help inform decisions or to perform attacks. These numbers are secret from players, so lying about them wouldn’t be hard. Many algorithms can be manipulated by changing values or using a classic cheat code.

The Need for Random Number Generation

RNG will continue to be a staple fixture in programming and gaming. It paradoxically provides both security for programmers and improbability for gamers. Its uses will continue to expand past ancient coin-flipping techniques to more advanced encryption and cybersecurity methods as gamers simultaneously stay on their toes for what happens next.