The most successful launch of an adventuring party my gaming group ever accomplished was in a 2nd Edition D&D campaign of mine, wherein I borrowed a page from Raymond Feist for the beginning of his Midkemia series and used White Wolf's Prelude technique to assemble the party.
It went something like this:
The players rolled up the stats on their characters, rolling three sets of six stats apiece, 4d6 per stat, discard the lowest number result, in order (Str/Int/Wis/Dex/Con/Cha), no rearrangement. As a group, we reviewed the stats each player had chosen, and, based on the scores, we bounced around ideas about what type of person such a set of stats would describe in addition to the adventuring class desired for the PC.
I established that the characters were all born commoners whose families lived and interacted with one another on the lands of a baron's keep located in a remote part of the country where the main campaign was going to take place. The gaming group consented to play out the childhood of the PCs to cement their relationship, using the stats they rolled to determine their aptitude. As DM, I saw that it was my task to manage events so that the PCs ended up entering their adventuring professions as adults without taking away any of the players' free will. I made it clear that the prelude would help the players understand the roles of the adventuring classes against the normal backdrop of the campaign's society, so that if they decided to change their classes because of events occurring during the prelude, they were free and clear to do so. I also challenged the players with setting their characters apart from the societal expectations of said professions while staying true to an archetype, whatever that turned out to be.
The players chose basic classes: a cleric, a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief. As we played the two-session prelude, through the players' role-playing, the PCs personality templates were established thusly.
The future cleric had high Wisdom and Charisma scores. He was fairly empathetic, capable of intuitive understanding of human nature. Coupled with handsome features and winning personality, this the "golden boy" who was the ostensible ringleader of the pack of boys who would become the adventuring party. He and his younger brother, the future magic-user, were the sons of the baron's secretary, and thus enjoyed the advantage of literacy, as well as serving as playmates for the daughter of the baron. The scribe's faith was not the state religion, so he practiced it in private, and could be likened to Judaism during the Middle Ages. He and his family paid lip service to the Baron's faith, but kept to their own within their home. He learned basic herbalism from the keep's cook, and took it upon himself to tend to his brother whenever his infirmities bothered him. (Mind you, this was long before the Dragonlance series came out).
The future magic-user had a extremely high Intelligence score, moderate numbers for Charisma and Wisdom, but low Dexterity and Constitution stats. This PC was born sickly and with a club foot, but his mind was sharp, and while his brother's Wisdom reflected insight into human nature, the magic-user was naturally clever in addition to being a genius. He was dark and brooding where his brother was all sun and smiles. He often used his superior mental skills on behalf of his comrades, but was frustrated by his inability to step out of his brother's shadow, as well as his own fraility, and therefore was somewhat curt and impatient with everyone. His relationship with his father was intense and uncomfortable, due to the death of his mother, his club foot, and the bewilderment in dealing with such a different son than his firstborn.
The fighter was the son of the keep's cook. Having high Strength and Constitution scores, and fairly unimpressive Intelligence and Wisdom stats, he was the stereotypical jock, eating like a horse because he towered over his friends like one even at twelve summers' age. He was expected to be apprenticed to the local blacksmith as soon as the same year of the prelude. His mother was the surrogate mother for his other three companions, and hence was the object of their filial love and loyalty.
The thief started honing his skills in skullduggery very early on in his youth. He was the son of the keep's ratcatcher, and as such enjoyed a status somewhere between outcaste and mascot. He ingratiated himself with the group by being the "snoop", passing on all the information he overheard from adults' conversations because he was so easily ignored in pursuit of his job. He was an orphan, as his father died from a broken neck when a floor collapsed in a barnloft. He prided himself on being the clown for his friends, playing practical jokes wherever he could (high Dex, high Wis, moderate Cha and Int), but above all else, he was a survivor.
All of them had a crush on the Baron's daughter, who portended to be a rare beauty. The three-session prelude that ensued not only served to establish their boyhood together, but the circumstances that caused them to enter the professions of their adult selves. The first session was nothing more than the "A Day in the Life" scenario: how the characters interacted with one another and the keep's inhabitants, including the Baron and his daughter. (I happen to credit this particular facet of the prelude with teaching the players the exact role of social status in the campaign society, thus avoiding that most unpleasant of gaming phenomenae, an anachronistic and inappropriate lack of respect for the important NPCs the characters meet along the way that I've seen show up in so many D&D campaigns.) By the end of the first session, the relationships were clear and the PCs were as close as brothers by virtue of role-play, not storyline fiat.
The second session was the rite of passage. The characters had all come of an age to be apprenticed (with the exception of the ratcatcher's son) to what would have been fairly mundane professions with the idea that they would either serve at the keep or perhaps journey to an adjourning town in the barony to serve the communities there. They would all be apprenticed on the same day, and their selection recognized in a ceremony overseen by the Baron. Rumor had it that the cleric would be taken under the wing of the keep's seneschal, while his brother would apprentice as a scribe to their father, a fate none of them was particularly looking forward to. The fighter would prentice to the blacksmith, and eventually become a journeyman, while the ratcatcher's son would simply be...the ratcatcher. Two days before the ceremony, a small entourage escorting a wizard and a knight arrives at the keep to meet with the Baron, a highly unusual event in any circumstance.
During the session, the following occurs:
-The baron's daughter disappears on the day the entourages arrives at the keep.
-The wizard is alerted by his familiar to the presence of natural magical talent in the future magic-user.
-The future fighter is drawn to the woods by a winged shadow flying past the keep, and encounters a dragon, who miraculously spares his life after a strange telepathic exchange.
-The ratcatcher's son overhears a heated exchanged between the wizard and the baron, learning that the wizard is an envoy from the King's Council of Lords, who have come to escort the Baron's daughter back to the capital city and have her marry the Heir Apparent. The Baron is unable to produce his daughter.
-On Apprentice Day, the wizard and the knight choose the future magic-user as their apprentice and squire, respectively. After an emotional departure, the fellowship breaks as the friends say farewell.
-The day after the vanguard departs, the keep is attacked by a wing of dragon-riding raiders who raze the keep to the ground and take the few survivors remaining as their prisoners. The Baron's daughter is never found, the ratcatcher's son manages to escape the slavers and stows away on a merchant ship bound for the East, and the cleric is sold into slavery, conscripted into a press gang that cuts timber at the edge of a swamp.
At the start of the campaign, all the characters have achieved 1st level in their adventuring classes under the following circumstances:
-The fighter has been trained as a warrior and granted gentry status as part of his squirehood. While he is not yet a belted knight, he enjoys certain privileges as a squire of the Order of Dragons, and is encouraged to take up service with a patron, which turns out to be the magic-user.
-Magic-users enjoy a status analogous to the Brahmin (sp?) in Vedic culture. They stand apart from ordinary society, regarded with the same respect as aristocrats and exercising a great deal of personal influence as servants of the Crown. The PC magic-user has completed his studies and released from his apprenticeship, and must choose a thesis that will define the direction of his ongoing studies and career. Since this often involves travel for research, the magic-user must have a bodyguard, selected from the Order of Dragons. It is when the magic-user is provided with a selection to choose from that he encounters his old friend, the fighter.
-Having been told at some point in their apprenticeships of the raid and the ensuing fatalities, the two debate visiting the ruins to make their peace with their dead, a visit they were not allowed to make before they were released from their respective institutions.
-Meanwhile, in the slave camp, the cleric receives a vision from his father's patron deity, and, accepting the role the god bestows upon him, becomes the first theurgist to grace the land in over six hundred years. (Think Moses).
-By providence, the ratcatcher, having made his fortune as a merchant and professional thief, returns to the country, seeking out the cleric he remembered leaving behind. Finding the slaver from whom he escaped, he buys the cleric out of bondage, and both return to the keep, to discover the baron's daughter living in the ruins, living wild in the woods and driven mad by the tragedy. Searching the ruins and questioning her closely, they discover clues which lead them to believe that a greater agency arranged the destruction of the keep. Within days of their arrival, their friends arrive, leading them to believe they've been united for a purpose: to discover who is responsible for the attack, and why it occurred.
It may take a little preparatory work to start off a campaign right, but the right kind of group and keeping a perspective on the role of the GM can result in an experience that will entertain for years to come. Approaching the character party as its own separate character deserving of attention is the trick, I think. Sum of the parts, and all that. Hope this helps anyone stuck on a new campaign of any genre with insights.