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It depends. Some RPGs have horrible side-quests that aren't fun and all seem to be some sort of idiotic mini-game. I could care less. But if they are fun and add to the main storyline and overall experience, I usually do them as part of my personal quest
to finish the game.
I take my time. If I am allowed to wander aimlessly for a while (Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim), I will. When I come across a side quest, I will complete it. Eventually, I will get around to the main quests. I think for Fallout 3 and Oblivion, I had at
least 20-50 hours in before attempting the first portion of the main quest. I abandoned the main quest again and continued wandering.
For more linear RPGs (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), I find myself doing the side quests first too.
It's funny you bring this topic up because just this morning I came across this image and had a good laugh because it describes my RPG habits.
Like Tatakai said, I go on side quests before taking on the main quests so I can level up and be prepared for challenges ahead. The problem is I keep getting misc. quests! Every time I walk to a new location there seems to be some person who lost their amulet
to thieves or there's some giant to be vanquished....it never ends. ;)