I was thinking last night about what level new characters to a campaign should start at. My knee-jerk old-school instinct tells me "Level 1", as my preference really is for characters to be built from the ground up. And while I get the feeling that can work in earlier editions of the game, particularly in sand-box play, I don't think it's a viable option for a 3rd Edition campaign that's mostly plot-driven. Either that first level character is going to die very quickly, or the campaign plot is going grind to a halt while that character is nursed to the higher levels.
My current method is to start a new character at two levels below the lowest level character in the party. This keeps new characters useful, while still a little bit less powerful than everyone else. But I've recently gotten annoyed with the necessity for these mid-level character to just pop up out of nowhere. And as I said above, I don't like starting characters at higher than first level. It's kind of like cheating if you don't play through it.
So I'm thinking of methods that I can use for players to sort of simulate the experience of playing through those low levels. In my younger days I might have contemplated just running the character solo, but time is at a premium now, and besides that there's always a chance that the character could die. Another much quicker method would be a simple chart that determines your character's starting level. Like this:
Roll : Result:
1 Start at Level 1, loser!
2-5 Three levels below the lowest level PC in the party
6-10 Two levels below
11-14 One level below
15-17 Equal to lowest level PC
18-19 Equal to highest level PC
20 One level higher than highest level PC
That gives a greater spread of potential levels, but doesn't really solve the problem I have with these characters springing up out of nowhere with no background.
Here's another thought I had. Get together with the player and hash out the rough background of the character. I generally don't require a background for first level characters, but I always like one for characters of higher level. From this background, work out a number of pivotal moments in the character's life equal to the amount of levels he could start at (for me, this would be equal to the highest level character in the party). For each of these levels, design a simple encounter that represents that moment, possibly a combat or a skill check or even a bit of roleplaying. The result of that encounter determines whether the level was gained, and possibly if the character gets some other benefit like treasure or a magic item. If the encounter is botched the character won't die, but he won't get any benefits either. Play through every encounter, and eventually you'll have a history for that PC and some levels that feel like they've been earned.
This is all pure thought experiment on my part at the moment, as I haven't tried it out yet. And it does require some prep work. But I like the idea, and I might try and work up an example in the next few days to test out.