Now, given that I've seen a lot of characters built on the fly lately, and have had several discussions about what concepts to build characters on and what skills characters should take and the like, a thought occurred to me: could a campaign that builds "on the fly" work?
There have been other attempts to start at nothing and build a character from the ground up. TSR did the module Treasure Hunt, which featured 0-level characters that had no class abilities, and over the course of the adventure, the character picks up points towards certain character classes, and eventually they have their class.
While it is an interesting approach, my personal thoughts are that this kind of open ended building in a very closed level based system like AD&D kind just added an extra step to character creation, with the option of having some minor ability from another class, which later versions of D&D made much easier to pick up.
(Goodman Games also put out a "start at 0-level" adventure for 3rd edition under the OGL, with Heroes are Made, Not Born, though I'm a bit less familiar with the process by which the characters end up mainlined into their eventual 1st level classes. Super Genius Games also has a supplement for 0-level Pathfinder characters, and Spycraft makes provisions for starting out at "less than one," but this is drifting a bit from the concept.)
Despite the options in d20 games, I think the biggest potential you would have for a game like this would be in a very simple game with quick character creation to begin with. I may be biased, given that I've been running it a lot lately, but I think Savage Worlds works really well for this.
Savage Worlds Stat As You Go Rules
Very simple. You don't start out with anything filled in. In Savage Worlds, that would give you a d4 in everything, a Toughness of 4, and a d4-2 in all of your skills.
You have your standard 5 points for attributes, and 15 points for skills. At any point in time before you roll a die, or before the GM rolls a die that affects one of your stats, you spend points. Once you spend the points, you can't reassign them.
You can still get a few points later in the process, before things are final. If you take a hindrance, you get the benefits of taking the hindrance, which may let you increase skills or attributes. If you raise an attribute later, and you have already paid for a skill at a higher rate because of your attribute, you get your points back, but you cannot lower the die type once you buy it up to a given value.
Thus, your character's first action in the campaign leads him to a band of thugs. Instead of fighting them, he wants to sneak by them, so you buy up your stealth to d10. You spend 7 skill points at this point because you haven't assigned your agility yet. If you later assign your agility to be higher, you get the extra points back, but your stealth must still be at a d10 and paid for.
Once you have spend all 5 attribute points, all 15 skill points, and chosen one major hindrance and two minor ones, the character is locked in. You must lock in the character before you gain your first advance at 5 xp. If the campaign is also using the "many languages" option, you have to assign you "one half smarts" languages before your first advance as well.
So what does this do for me?
One of the reasons the above outline appeals to me is that it allows you to pick up skills organically. The first person that wants to sneak around can be the sneaky person. The first person that wants to pick up a giant club and cronk someone over the head can be the berserker.
Similarly, it allows for drawbacks to be chosen organically as well. If a character falls off of a boat in the course of an adventure, he may develop a fear of water. He may leap into combat with an orc chieftain with only a broken chair leg, and assign himself the heroic hindrance.
Finally, it can let you jump into a campaign even more quickly when people don't quite know what they want to do yet with their characters. Conceptually, it does demand a bit of pre-existing reason for the whole group not to know what the rest of the party can do. The above Pandorum idea, characters that had skills before, but forgot them due to some external force, is one way to do it. Characters could be "commoners" that just dabbled in some activity or another, only to become "instant experts" when pressed into a dangerous situation.
I may actually try this method out if I end up running another Savage Worlds one shot in the future, in lieu of creating the very skeletal pregens that I make up for those games.
I'm also curious, if anyone does read this and cares to chime in, what other systems besides Savage Worlds would accommodate this kind of character building.