The classic way to handle getting PC's together is to put the characters in a bar (or an inn) and start a brawl. Clearly the last four people standing after a bar fight will become fast friends willing to put their lives in each others hands. I have always found this to be dissatisfying and rather unconvincing.
Here I will present three ideas for how to get a party together in a more satisfying and believable way.
1. The Back story:
To pull this off takes a bit of prep work before the character generation day but in my experience is worth it as it helps to get people into their characters a bit more.
During the process of preparing the campaign sit down and write out several 1 to 2 paragraph loose back stories that would mesh together. Try and keep the back stories vague enough so that it is not tied to one specific class, although an archetype might be ok. Write more of these than you will have players; maybe number of players plus 2. Then let your players pick from these back stories fill in the details and create characters.
This has several advantages. First, you have a group of characters that has some reason, at least initially, to at least know each other. Second, I use this to intersperse various things that could be adventure hooks or character motivators later. For example one of the characters in my current campaign has a missing father and a sister she is supposed to be watching out for. Tracking down her father is in my back pocket as a potential adventure or even mini campaign that can pulled out later with satisfying character development. Third it discourages the faceless ball of hit points, you know what I mean, the barbarian who’s only personality trait is that he has the rage ability. This helps players to realize that their characters did not simply materialize in a bar 10 minutes before the campaign started.
As always the goal is to have fun so if a player wants to do something different have them submit a back story and see if you can work it into the ones you have created.
2. The Let the players work it out (in character):
This one is tricky and you definitely have to have the right vibe in your group, but if you can pull it off its fabulous.
One of my most memorable roll playing sessions was the first one in a traveller campaign. There were somewhere between 11 and 13 players (I know, right). The GM set it up so we were all on a ship together there was some tension between various factions in the world and most of the characters did not know each other at the beginning of the session. What ensued was 3 – 4 solid hours of player to player roll playing. Factions were formed spies sent out to check out other characters and their loyalties. In the end we were all on the same page (after almost dumping one of the PC’s out the airlock.) with the same goal. It was a great session, heck, I’m still bringing it up 10 years later.
To do this well you need two ingredients: a reason for the characters to doubt trusting each other and a reason they can’t just leave. Maybe on a ship during a mutiny or at a masquerade where the crown jewels have been stolen and the guards aren’t letting anyone leave. Maybe there is a siege and they are stuck in a castle when someone has poisoned the water.
Set one or two characters up as potential suspects or people to be distrusted and let them exonerate themselves to the group. The group may then have a common goal of finding the real culprit.
3. The Deal:
This way is probably the easiest to do and the least unique. I still find it more satisfying than the old “so you guys are all sitting around in an inn when…”
The Idea behind this one is that a semi powerful person desperately needs something done. Something that will take the skills and abilities of a unique group of individuals. So this patron recruits each of the characters individually making them offers they can’t refuse. Maybe the rogue is released from jail and offered a pardon if the job is done. The paladin is tasked with keeping an eye on that rogue to make sure she doesn’t skip out on her obligation. The wizard is offered a peak at a rare spell book if he complies. Maybe an old debt can be cleared. You get the idea.
When you’re using this one strive to write that first adventure so that the characters have to count on each other. Try and end the story with a sense of being better together. Also developing a common enemy that can re-occur doesn’t hurt either.
Additional Ideas (1)
A challenge is issued by a well-known lord to any who wish to attend. A grand tournament will be held, and the winner will receive a worthy prize.
The idea here is that everyone has a reason for traveling to this big town for a tournament. They can complete in melee, archery, or mage dueling. Non-combative types will be attracted to the surge of people and market goods (aka. cheaper stuff). Each contestant will have to compete in a single or double elimination type tournament against standard fare peasants, hunters, workers, a few militia, and a few off-duty city guards. It is explained that the fight is only to incapacitate or land a certain number of blows on your opponent, not to kill. Each victory should come with a small compensation, and the players will likely have to fight each other at some point. At least one of the contestants should be a disguised antagonist (covertly or obviously, your choice). I used a red-eyed figured in black armor who wielded a spiked chain and whose touch would cause burns. This figure later turned out to be a skeletal spellsword. The victor should get something worth the effort. I had a powerful seer tell the victor his future.
At the very end, you should crash the party. I had dragons drop thousands of bones onto the city and then had a necromancer animate all of them as skeletons to attack the city. This was all a distraction for the black night to kidnap someone important and run off into a sewer. While all of the others are distracted, duty calls the players to save the victim or fight the evil together. Afterwards, you can have someone hire them as a team or give them a good carrot to chase. Be careful that you don't challenge them too much to start with because many of the players will have exhausted their spells and abilities already from the tournament.
This method of getting the party together gives the players the option conversing and getting to know each other at will, and most of them will already be familiar with the roles of the others from the tournament. Players can also choose to remain mysterious while still having a good reason to stay with the party.