Just walk up and start talking
Sometimes the obvious solution is not only the easiest but also the best. Such as just walking up, extending your hand, and introducing yourself with no other preamble.
This only works with certain sorts of characters. Even outgoing people aren't necessarily forward enough to just walk up to a random person with a handshake and an introduction. You need someone with enough chutzpah to pull it off, and that means a character who is either brazenly fearless or just incapable of subtlety.
On the bright side, when it does work, it allows you to move right past introductions and straight on with interaction. There's no period of two people feeling one another out, just a simple introduction followed by acclimation. And it's also a good moment to establish some character traits right off. Your aggressive salesman could easily wind up accosting someone with an enthusiastic and slightly uncomfortable greeting, not only striking up a conversation but making it clear just who this guy is.
For the record, I tried this sort of greeting once in my life. I got a wife and a best friend out of it. So it worked pretty well.
Let's assume that your character does not quite have the forwardness necessary to barge up to someone and declare that a conversation is happening. You still have options for striking up a conversation, starting with the slightly more low-key version of walking up to a stranger and asking a question.
The key here is that you're asking something obvious, not just for the purposes of necessity. You're asking a man if you can buy him a drink or whether he's from another nation (in the game world) or something along those lines. The obvious implication is that the person being asked caught your character's eye, and he wants to see if the rest of the book is as interesting as the cover.
Again, there are a lot of small variations that can result in a very different message. A man could walk up to a woman and ask her if she'd like to retire to a private room somewhere, or he could walk up and ask her if he could buy her a drink, or he could just walk up and ask what she's reading. All three questions have the same end goal (a conversation), but they're very different questions and produce very different insights into the character. Not all of them pleasant, but still.
Can I borrow your something
Is somebody sitting here? Can I borrow a pen? Do you know which way I go to get to the bank? Is my face on fire? Have you seen the cops around?
Sometimes you want a conversation but lack the ability to get into the mix in even a roundabout fashion. Instead, you ask for something that you need, some piece of information or minor item. The end goal is that you can use that to produce a longer conversation, explaining why you needed directions in the first place, and the next thing you know you've got a lifelong friend.
Here's also where your entire plan can backfire not from someone being uninterested but by your not being interested enough. I've watched people dance around a real conversation because both parties were too shy to just say, "Hey, I'd like to get to know you better," resulting in an endless sequence of halting requests and the like. I've even been guilty of this myself. It's the Nice Guy error, trying to be polite and inoffensive in the hopes that someone else makes the first move.
In games as in life, you want to make sure that you are sending a clear message. And if that doesn't work, you have to stop waiting for someone else to pick up the slack. Of course, you could always have your character be intentionally bad at that... but you should know what you're getting into first.
And lastly, we come to the category of people who are too shy to even introduce themselves but still need to get involved. This operates on a very simple principle: There is nothing so immediately conspicuous as failed attempts to be inconspicuous.
No one is going to notice your character if she tries to just be a wallflower. But if she tries to sneak across the floor, crouch under someone's table, and slowly raise her head to listen in on the conversation at the table? All eyes will be on her. At that point she will likely panic and bolt, but that would inspire more forward people to come up and strike up a conversation.
Yes, you could see it as a variant on someone describing a character entering the room in flowing, pointless detail. But the difference is that no one will remember the eighth mercenary stomping in with a cold stare and a dozen weapons. Everyone will remember the unassuming guy in a robe who tries to look suave and trips on a chair.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, it's time to make bad decisions, and the week after that, I want to discuss challenging characters.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.