I have a friend who is fond of saying that give any simple task to PCs and they'll find the most complicated way to do it. I'm part of a Star Wars group that legit started their plan to rescue twelve (12) Wookies from Kashyyk by commandeering an Imperial Interdictor Cruiser and buying out a down on it's luck Slaving Company with a license to "hunt" on the Wookie homeworld. Fact is, you give PCs an inch of rope, and not only will they run off with a mile but they'll spin it around most folks' neck along the way. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes it can bog the game down in a way you don't like. Fortunately, RPGs have a way to deal with that. Today I'd like to talk about it.
Every Waking Moment
The problem often comes in from GMs and PCs wanting to account for every waking moment the PCs have. Sometimes this is good. If the PCs are stuck defending a keep from an army of darkness and they have 2 weeks to prepare before the largest army ever seen descends upon them, then having every waking moment accounted for can be a big deal and allowing PCs to use it can be the difference between a TPK and an amazing end game battle where everyone knows neither side left anything undone or untried.
However, when you have six players killing time in a city while they wait the 10 days for their custom armor order to be finished by the local armor smith you can end up with events that not only bog down the game, but can ruin the scope and scale of other events or cause myriad other problems. Why? Well, they say idle hands are the devil's tools, and with PCs being idle can quick become an excuse to burn half the city down "just because..."
Time Is A Plaything
Fortunately, unlike in the real world, in RPGs we can play with time. It's a simple trick, and one we frequently use to cover for travel time. I rarely see GMs cover every waking moment while the PCs make the 3 month long trek to the Ancient Lost City of Phandor, or during a 2 week hyperspace trek to the unknown regions beyond the outer rim of Star Wars. No, we just kind of hand wave it. You travel. Perhaps a truly enterprising PC will ask if they have time to read a book or craft an item along the way. Bioware likes to progress romance arcs, especially near end game.
So yeah, you can just pass the time. Fun, no?
But My PCs Want To Do Things
And here is the crux. 10 days in a city provides lots of opportunities for PCs, and unlike with traveling they aren't just in transition from one thing to another. They actually have time to delve in and explore things. However, we don't want the game to become sidetracked, right? Nor do we want the 10 days spent in the city to take 6 months of sessions as combats are started, urban wars begun, and peace has to be negotiated. So what do you do?
Limit the interactions.
A Set Number of Things
Give each player a set number of things they can work on. I really like the number 3 for this, as it gives some reach but also feels managable. I will let the players organize these things together if they want to accomplish larger tasks, and I generally don't require a "thing" to be used to just hang out with PCs.
So what happens is I have a week, or ten days, or a month of time to progress. I ask each PC to come up with 3 things they want to accomplish around their normal day to day routine. The Players take some time to deliberate and think, and then we go around the table. Each person says the three things they want to do, I write them down and move on. After, I think about what could happen and resolve things as if the player had just brought up the thing as something they wanted to do.
I like this because not only does it save time and let me move things along, but it lets the player speak to larger goals. A player can use a thing to "join the local Thieves' Guild" instead of just "finding it." it also gives a sense of time to the tasks at hand. Sure, meeting someone at a bar and flashing thieves signs at them might onyl take 10 minutes, but first you gotta find the right place, figure out who the contact is, make contact without scaring them off, and so forth.
At the end of the time period, the PCs may have some rolls to make, or a couple small scenes to handle, but for the most part we move forward and they have progress on their goals. Everyone is happy, and the game gets back to it's main quest.