One of the most difficult parts of running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign is keeping the players interested in the main story while providing them with ample things to explore during “downtimes” in the primart saga. For instance the players might be awaiting some report from an important NPC before they charge ahead. The message may take some time, so what do they do in the meantime?
Some players make it easy. “I will weave baskets by the river until we hear from the NPC.” Excellent. The Game Master then announces three weeks pass and the messenger from the NPC arrives. Oh, and you have some lovely baskets that you can sell for 2cp each if you so desire. Brilliant. Message delivered and the players now have something meatier to do than baskets.
Of course the more imaginative the players are the less likely they are going to offer such an easy contribution to the story. Instead they are going to try and tackle all kinds of whackadoodle schemes to pass the time waiting for the messenger to arrive. They might even decide to travel to someplace else and see if they can get into trouble. Haven’t they got enough problems? Apparently not. So the Game Master now has to determine what takes place in these “side quests.”
Remember that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a side quest. Take for example the Tolkien masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings.” Most of the damned story is side quests. The only true thread is what Frodo is doing. Everything else? Side quests. It all adds up to a great story, but it didn’t really do anything to help Frodo and Sam do what needed to be done.
The point is this: if the players decide to go off on a side quest while they wait for something to happen in the main story then the Game Master needs to bring their best efforts to making these side plots add to the main story. The players might discover a new villainous henchman. They might find some clues to unlock the puzzles that plague them in the main story. They might even stumble into a brand new enemy that leaves their impaled corpses on a fetid battlefield as a warning to others. Be creative. Your players crave adventure and they haven’t yet learned not to seek out trouble.
This is when the Game Master strikes.