What the heck is a Milieu?
It's a fancy word that means, roughly, "state of existence."
What we mean is, the type of game you want to play.
As we were balancing and tweaking this mass of rules, we got to thinking about the "Epic" rules, and decided that it's a bit more complex than the old "low level" and "epic" way of looking at things. Heck, for that matter, it's more complex than the old "low magic" versus "high magic" way of looking at things, too.
So here's some thoughts.
The Courageous Milieu
From levels 1 to 8, most games tend to look pretty "normal." The adventurers sleep in inns, walk to dungeons, and they fight pretty ordinary things, things that you could see anybody in a magical world taking on, if only they had the courage to do so. So that's what the first eight levels are called:
The Courageous Milieu is the realm of stories about ordinary people doing amazing things. Five people meet in an inn, and decide to check out the old haunted house. Do not ever make the mistake that the Courageous Milieu is a place of dull, small adventure. Just because the bad guys aren't terribly impressive and the rewards are rather modest doesn't make the PCs courage any less amazing. Would you go into a wight's tomb on the eve of All Hallows, armed only with an old sword and a set of cojones the size of watermelons?
The Courageous Milieu is when we get to play characters as people. Utterly worthless scraps of treasure like that blue-bird feather token are immensely precious, because the priestess' daughter made it for you with her own hands. Many campaigns never get past the Courageous Milieu, because for many people, that's where the fun is. And there's nothing wrong with that! This set of rules is very careful to do nothing to upset play in the courageous milieu. The original Pathfinder rules shine at levels one to eight, and aside from some real clunkers (looking at Bards, Fighters, and Wizards here), we did very little to alter play at the lowest levels. There's nothing at all wrong with the Courageous Milieu, and many of us have fallen in love with a favorite toon because we were able to flesh them out and make them live while they were still those little Courageous tykes, all ferocious ambition and nascent, unformed powers and uncertain, wobbly role-playing hooks.
Eventually, the Courageous Milieu ends. The characters get some money, they get some fame, they get some real powers and abilities, and they ascend. They stop being ordinary people with huge doses of courage, and they become Heroes.
The Heroic Milieu
The Heroic Milieu is the realm of play from levels nine to about eighteen or so. Heroic Characters are exactly that: heroes. They are larger than life, they are obviously in a different realm than the commoners around them, and they get treated as such. Kings and rulers fawn over them, or try to manipulate them. Religions take notice, and shady characters try to hire them, or get them killed off, for nefarious purposes. Heroes fight things out of the ordinary as well. Instead of a wight's barrow, Heroes tackle vampiric cults of death worshipers, who happen to be made up of real vampires, and more often than not they have a few pet demons summoned in to help. And of course, heroes fight dragons.
What Heroic Milieu game would be complete with a dragon or six? Everybody loves fighting dragons, be it in defense of a city, to rescue an Emperor's pretty daughter, or to knock the pesky wyrm off his big pile of cash. Heroic Milieu games have a lot more money, a lot more magic, and a lot bigger scale. Players start to buy magic carpets, flying ships, or simply use spells to zap themselves around. Weapons and armor start sounding seriously bad-ass, and describing your character can take a couple of pages if you're into it.
Almost everyone has played a Heroic level game at one point or another, and they can truly be huge amounts of fun. But if you have a well-loved character, you will, eventually, reach the end of the Hero's Journey and achieve all your goals. The top end of the Heroic Milieu can see the Heroes, as they peak in their power, start to get involved in truly epic final confrontations.
But what if you still adore your character and want to keep going?
Well, that's what the Epic Milieu is all about.
The Epic Milieu
Epic Milieu games are real world-shakers. They tend to run from level sixteen or so to about level twenty-eight or twenty-nine. The events that powered you up through the Heroic levels should have gotten you noticed by the Big Leagues. Those kings that used to pester you to do things? They're still around, and they seriously want to either be on your good side, or get rid of you. So they'll do things like arrange for you your Epic Milieu characters to "bump into" the forces of the Evil Empire, glowering just on the other side of the inland sea.
You know those dragons you killed? Their drastically nastier uncle wants to know what exactly happened to little Flamesnout's treasure trove. Oh, and that dragon-worshiping cult that was always sort of harmless? Well, it turns out the dragon's freed life force has empowered them all into unstoppable evil juggernauts, hell-bent on getting revenge on you.
In the Epic Milieu, the characters usually have one or several large homes, castles, wizard towers, or the like. They have huge numbers of powerful magic items, and they can literally stride the earth like the Titans of old, granting boons and laying down their wrath with mythical powers.
And that takes us to the last of the gaming milieus, namely, the Mythic Milieu.
The Mythic Milieu
Very few games make it all the way to mythical levels, and for good reason: Keeping a simple gaming system rational at this power level isn't simple. We think we've managed it with this re-build of Pathfinder, but it's still a lot more free-form in the Mythical Milieu than before.
Mythical characters have grown too large for the mundane world to contain them, and they spill out into the realm of Myth. They do things like wake up one morning and the realm is in chaos because someone has stolen the Sun!
You know how hard it is to get your Sun back? You sure can't do it in a simple dragon's lair. Mythical Milieu games go into the Outer Dark and the characters face powers and portents. This may involve journeys into the Outer Planes, where Demons and Devils are revealed to be dim echoes of the Things that live beyond. The characters learn Truths behind the face of reality, and eventually, after struggles against beasts so mighty they could literally steal the Sun as a bauble for their neck, the characters take it back, and all is right with the world.
Adventuring in the Astral Sea, delving into the Inner World, sailing the Celestial Cascade, facing the Invincible Stone Guardian of Thrax and living to talk about it, these are the things of Legend, and this is what a Mythical Milieu game is all about.
What comes, though, when the Mythical Milieu is used up? The new rules only go up to level 35, right? Well, not exactly.
If you have a group of players that really like this sort of thing, hooray for you! And for those players, there is the Apotheosis.
Level 36 exists, and can be repeated, indefinitely. There are feats that can only be taken at level 36, which allow characters to improve indefinitely, if that's your cup of tea. The foundation of these rules is a sturdy one, but we're not going to extend them above 36th. Each game of that power is pretty much custom-built anyway, so we'd never presume to meddle.
Have fun, players! The legend awaits!