The answer to that question is a fluid one, changing with the player asking it. Every person coming to a table is looking for something different from the experience. It stands to reason, then, that no “perfect” Dungeon Master can really exist. I think that’s a pretty comforting thing to know, but take it how you will.
So I can’t really answer that question. I’ll try my best, though.
When you’re new to Dungeons and Dragons, it’s hard to know just what exactly you need to do when you’re starting out as a Dungeon Master.
What do the players want? How do you figure that out? Should you use an adventure book? Should you make up your own adventure? How do you make encounters fair? How do you make non-player characters (NPCs) interesting and engaging for your players?
Worst, when it isn’t going right: What am I doing wrong?
It’s an overwhelming task, and I’m not here to pretend it’s easier than it looks. Being a good Dungeon Master is difficult, it requires a lot of time investment. If you have one, be sure to thank them!
So what does a “good” Dungeon Master look like? It’s hard to pin down specific qualities, but I can list what I see as virtues to aspire to!
You Listen to Your Players
This is probably the absolute most important on the list.
Dungeons and Dragons is a social game. When you bring players to a table, you are all there to have a good time. If you aren’t, what exactly in the hell are you doing?
A good Dungeon Master is paying attention to what their players want out of the game. This means doing a lot of active listening throughout the session, and paying attention to what kinds of challenges, plots, or characters seem to be hooking each player. This also means checking in with players out of game from time to time.
Every player is going to be different!
You Look Prepared
This is important for immersion.
Nothing breaks the flow of a game faster than the Dungeon Master stumbling for a name for a random NPC. It can be funny from time to time. Some of my favorite characters were born this exact way!
Whenever it happens, people tend to laugh, but you may notice the action takes a moment to kick back in. The players are just a little less invested. You’ve reminded them that this is a game.
If they were seeing the streets of your town and the people bustling around them before, this sudden stumble has torn back the curtain for a second. The town isn’t real. The people are just nameless, faceless, filler meat for your scene painting. Hence the laughter – they’ve been shocked back to reality. Seeing behind the curtain is good fun, but it isn’t productive to let it happen more than it has to.
A good Dungeon Master does their best to maintain the illusion. Even when they don’t know an answer, or maybe didn’t know a character’s name when it was asked, they can provide information quickly. When they can’t, they can lead the players to believe the information exists somewhere in that mysterious DM binder.
You Are Along for the Ride
It’s easy to get too attached to your story as a Dungeon Master
By nature, you live with this thing for a very long time. If you’re like me and prefer writing your own campaigns, it’s likely you have committed far more time and energy to your story than you are willing to admit in public.
So when these callous players show up and swing a wrecking ball right through the central pillar of your plot, it’s only natural that many Dungeon Masters do their damnedest to keep the plot train on the tracks they’ve lovingly crafted.
A good Dungeon Master understands that they are creating a story together with the players. The story is written by the actions the players take as well as your preparation work. Prepare accordingly!
I’ll discuss in more detail my strategies for preparing for a session in it’s own article, but in a few words: Prepare for sessions in a way that allows you to adapt to what the players do.
You will not be able to predict what players will do. Your preparation needs to be adaptable enough to reflect that!
You All Have Fun!
Okay, I lied earlier, because this is definitely the most important.
A good Dungeon Master understands that if everyone at the table had fun, it was a good session.
Maybe you messed up some rules. Maybe you didn’t get to introduce that character you were hoping the party would finally meet. Maybe you didn’t get as far as you hoped. A lot can seem to go wrong when you’re sitting behind the screen judging yourself.
Did your players have fun, though? At the end of the night, that is the only measure of success that matters.