Someone posted a link to this paper (http://www.cse.ucsd.edu/~hovav/papers/s07.html) on Full Disclosure the other day. I had not seen it before. It discusses ret-2-libc attacks without using functions. Instead the authors use what they call 'gadgets'. Which in plain technical terms means finding unintended code sequences in executable pages of memory that can be used to string together ways to execute arbitrary code. The authors present it as a way to defeat W^X protections.
From the paper:
Gadgets perform well defined operations, such as a load, an xor, or a jump. Return-oriented programming consists in putting gadgets together that will perform the desired operations.
These gadgets can be found in byte streams from libc within a process' memory. They are not injected due to W^X constraints on most platforms. ... Each of our gadgets expects to be entered in the same way: the processor executes a ret with the stack pointer, %esp, pointing to the bottom word of the gadget. This means that, in an exploit, the first gadget should be placed so that its bottom word overwrites some functions saved return address on the stack.
The technique is an interesting one. It reminds of me certain ret-2-text techniques that may fall into the middle of a long instruction to produce a jmp %reg trampoline. Overall the technique will vary from platform to platform because libc may be compiled differently from Fedora to Ubuntu for example.
Using randomized mmap() (randomized library base mappings), PIE (Position Independent Executables) and RANDEXEC hardening make this type of exploitation technique a bit harder to pull off. The paper is worth a read if you have the time.