There are many important pieces to being a good Dungeon Master. The ideal Dungeon Master is able to think on their feet, come up with interesting situations that inspire player actions, create sprawling dungeons that don't get boring, and a million other things. Trust is perhaps one of the less noticeable elements, but nevertheless is an extremely important thing for a Dungeon Master to have. However, it's also a nebulous thing that greatly depends on the players, and scenario. And it's that topic that I hope to explore today.
What Is Trust In Tabletop Games?
I think the best place to start is to go over what trust means in tabletop games. In regards to the Dungeon Master, trust means that the players feel that you are both against them and for them. Things could go badly for the players due to pure luck, a bad decision, or for some other reason. Even so, the players expect that they have a real chance to succeed (whether actually win or able to escape), and feel the Dungeon Master isn't playing favourites. For some groups it also means that if things go off the rails because things turned out to be more difficult than expect, the Dungeon Master will bring things back on track. For others, it's that the Dungeon Master will let things fall where they fall. Regardless, there is a sense of consistency and players know abstractly what to expect.
The Social Contract
Entering into a tabletop role-playing game is also entering into a social contract. The specifics can vary from group to group but there tend to be some common basics. The Dungeon Master should be “fair”, whatever that means in the given context. One campaign may be more or less deadly than other but the idea is that there should still be multiple ways out of a situation. They won't be thrown into unwinnable situations and all die just because the Dungeon Master felt like it. It could be that the players expect to die a lot in the game. It's set up to be deadly. However, since it's part of the social contract they aren't blindsided and know at a very abstract level what to expect. That's not to say things can't change, and I've seen quite a few times where they do. One such example is with a new group of players. Often times I've seen Dungeon Masters hold back with them as they get used to the rules. After they get the hang of things, the training wheels come off.
Doesn't Mean No Danger
There tends to be a second competing condition as well. Players expect to be challenged in some way. It could be through combat, through puzzles, through interesting role-play scenarios, or whatever else. Having the trust of your players doesn't mean you can't kill player characters off or challenge them with difficult encounters. However, it means that they will expect you to do so in a fair way and understand that it is a possibility.
How To Get It?
It's a steady thing that gets built up over time. It's also one of the reasons I find playing with the same group tends to go smoother. You have that built trust ready to go, even for a new campaign. It also important to know that it doesn't mean you need to be right every time. Making a mistake and correcting things in a satisfactory fashion will help as well. When doing so, however, I want to make a clear distinction that the players shouldn't always be happy. Depending on your players, some may push for what is beneficial instead of what might be fair. There are still compromises to be made.
Even if it may be for dramatic effect, I would be very wary of trying to break the trust of your players. This is not to say that a character can't betray the players. However, they shouldn't feel that the Dungeon Master betrayed them. Part of this is making promises. I've seen before where a Dungeon Master might make promises to individual players that they can't keep. Don't do this, especially where items are concerned. A list of items they want isn't a guarantee that they will get them. Instead, it's the start of a compromise and the players should understand that too.