[if this is tl;dr for you, there's a summary at the end]
Scourging the internet I am astounded all the time at the sheer amount of complete social cockups that gaming generates. This is commonly known as dysfunctional play, but it's not a game issue but a social issue. It's all about power and status and authority and expectations and that kind of stuff. It's about what we want out of a game and how we fail to communicate it and then people start fucking each other's shit up and really bad counter-measures are taken to avoid that.
A prime example: railroading. The GM is usually someone who has a vivid imagination and wants to put stuff in front of people. The common mistake of the young, newbie GM is to present a whole story. They have a whole epic in mind, beginning, middle and end. They come to the table with all that, failing to communicate the intent to the players. (I'm speaking from personal experience here, it took me a long time to learn.) And then the players make characters that don't fit in the story and the GM's like "oh, this is a problem" but he doesn't want to be a dick and he lets them. And then play starts and characters do all sort of crazy shit that doesn't fit and the GM's all like "oh fuck". Then the campaign either falls apart or the GM resorts to railroading, keeping the players on track.
There's also the kind of soft railroading where the PCs just "pop" into the world, without anchors and direction and they just follow the GM's path and hooks, because, hell, there's nothing else to do, right? This is the most common mode of play really, and there's nothing inherently bad about it: it provides a good time. Except
a) the players can still feel disempowered because if they wander too far off the path, they're quickly put into place and
b) the campaign can flounder if the players don't pick up on the GM's hooks the way he wants them to.
It all goes back to the moment where we decide we're going to play. It is in that moment that intentions should be communicated properly. We usually don't do it, for various reasons: because we forget, because we think we have this cool thing and need to keep it secret until the opportune moment, because we simply don't know any better, because we're scared to put our desires in front of other people...I'm not talking just about GMs here, but players as a whole.
Anyway, the above issues (hard railroading and soft railroading) have an alternative. It is just that we are often oblivious to it because of how some of us have been brought up in the hobby (mostly through the influence of videogames). Let me point out a few methods.
1) Collective setting creation aka "World Burning"
Find out where you'll be playing. Exploring an unknown world is fun, but this gives the group a common ground to vibe off. If you're all familiar with a published setting and want to use that, cool. If you want to drop into an unknown world, cool. But consider making the game a group effort from the start.
Tools: Google or devise your own set of questions about the world and answer them collectively. Shoot down ideas you don't agree with, but don't be a dick. Try instead to say "Yes, but..." and "Yes, and...". Sample questions can include: "Where is this place?" "What is it like to live there?" "How do the people make a living?" "What threatens their way of live?" etc. These questions are really basic, but they should start you off. Here's a really great set of questions for world (or city) building by Judd, it kicks ass: How to make your own New Crobuzon
2)Campaign Pitch or "Campaign Burning"
There is no reason why all the players shouldn't sit together at the beginning and discuss what the game will be ABOUT. "We're bounty-hunters!" is a start. "This will be a game where we fight against the evil baron!" is even better. Aim the game in a direction. It doesn't matter if during the game it turns out you actually want to side with the baron or that he's actually good or that he's your long lost brother. That's why we PLAY, to find out what happens. What you need is that initial kick that puts everyone on the same page. Contrast this with "you all meet in a tavern" method where a lot of handwaving and pulling strings has to be done to start off play.
Tools: Again, ask questions. Ask leading ones. Say things that you think are cool, be enthusiastic by other people's proposals. Talk about shows, movies and books you like. Steal ideas like crazy. You liked Rambo 4, but want to play it in a fantasy setting? There you go.
3) Collective character creation
Once you've got your genre, theme, setting, tagline down, you make characters. Characters that are created in a vacuum (ie. by a person alone at home) often lack the same amount of momentum and flesh that characters created collectively at the table do. And I'm not just talking about creating characters in the same room, that can just as easily be a bunch of individual attempts. I'm talking about creating a group, a party, together. I doesn't even need to be a party if the game doesn't really play that way. But make characters that are connected. Also, make suggestions to make other people's characters cooler. Ask people what they think about your character.
Tools: Relationship maps. Names on a piece of paper, lines, families, debts, rivalries, bonds, friendships, romances...link the characters up. Give them something that makes them care about each other.
4) Character anchoring aka Positioning
When you play Baldur's Gate you've got this big cool story and the characters are part of that. You can't immediately recreate that at the table if the GM just brings the world and the story and the players bring the characters. If you want to run/play a game that feels epic in that kind of way, the characters have to be interwoven with the world and situation from the start. Empire of Dust does this cool thing where you can take traits that make your character part of the setting (for example a love interest of a famous NPC). But you don't need a whole game for this, you can do it in any game, give the characters a place in the world. Where do they live, who did they work with, who owes them, who do they love? Who and what are they to others and what are others to them. Again, use relationship maps, this time PC-NPC ones. Make triangles and webs. Make the characters part of the setting. Back in the day we used to write background stories but that's just a bunch of fluff and (probably boring) fiction that no-one cares about. Trim the fat, don't over-explain your character's history. What we're interested in is where he is now, and who cares.
5) Character orientation aka Drives
Where is the character going? Much as with the "you all meet in a tavern", a lack of direction requires a bit of initial floundering. This is also the main reason for "soft railroading". The character pops into the world, an empty shell with no desires and starts picking the breadcrumbs. It is awesome to discover your character through play, so don't overload him at the beginning, but give him a desire, belief or something that points him in a direction. Now, this can work only if you've used all the previous points. If the GM wants to run a localised game about courtly romance and I make a pig farmer whose desire is to sail overseas, that's just not going to work. Step 5 could easily be step 2, too. They riff off each other a lot. It would not be impossible to create character desires first and then build a campaign around that (in fact it's preferable to do it that way). The GM shouldn't build a world and the characters shouldn't wander into it aimlessly. Either the GM presents a world and campaign (upfront, clearly, transparently) and the players make drives based on that, or the players make drives and the campaign is built around that or both. Again, communication and collective endeavour are important. Make character drives that complete, cross or help each other (step 3, 4).
Tools: the most obvious would be Burning Wheel's Beliefs, but Shadow of Yesterday's Keys or even FATE's Aspects can be helpful here, too. Again, you don't really need to switch games completely, you can combine elements.
That's it for now. I guess for most people coming across this blog this is rather old stuff, but I had to vent.
[summary of the whole post: Just fucking talk to each other.]
(P.S.: I don't take my own advice, because I'm stupid. I swear I forget like all of this every time I run a game. Conditioning.)