I don't envy game designers who get assigned undead, particular in a latter-day creature collection. Once you’ve covered the basic archetypes—skeleton, zombie, vampire, etc.—and then hit the deep cuts and specialized variants—bodak, dullahan, juju zombie—I imagine it’s easy to feel boxed in. By the time you get to a third or fourth collection, even international haunts like the manananggal are largely played out.
That’s why I’ve been so impressed with the Bestiary 5 undead we’ve seen so far. By and large, they've managed to feel very fresh and delivered fun abilities to try at the gaming table—no mean feat after five volumes. The bone ship is ridiculous but also ridiculously cool in the right adventure, the caller in darkness leverages the new psychic magic rules, and the crone queen risks being basic but supplies an undeniably useful build, combining a witch’s hexes with a suite of cold powers. These are all good monsters, all the more so more showing up in a book with 5 on the cover.
Which brings us to the cursed king. This is such a smart monster, and one that is so well concepted that after you read its entry, its creation seems inevitable—“Of course there should be a monster like that”—but that feeling of inevitability actually obscures the labor that went into it. (For another example, a lot of Decemberists songs do the same thing—they skip right from “I don't know that song” to “I’ve always known that song” with no in-between period.) The animal-headed gods of Egypt are truly iconic—so much so that many designers lift them wholesale for their campaigns without even a name change—but they’ve almost never been mined for monster inspiration before. (Mystara’s jackal-headed Hutaakans are a rare exception.) So in hindsight, it makes forehead-slappingly obvious sense to come up with an animal-headed mummy variant. And yeah, the Demanding Aura (Su) and Berserk (Ex) abilities makes sense too.
But the fact that these animal-headed mummies are created as horrible punishments for usurpers and false prophets? That’s some nice flavor. And Bestial Curse (Su)—if you kill a cursed king, you risk being baleful polymorphed into the animal whose head the mummy worse? That’s just genius. That’s just right. It seems so obvious now…but someone had to think of it first.
Adventurers are raiding the tomb of the Pharaoh of Sunrise when they are confronted by guardian undead, including a crocodile-headed cursed king. However, the spirit that animates the cursed king—formerly the pharaoh’s treacherous vizier—is dangerously close to going berserk. If it does, it will begin smashing adversaries, allies, and canopic jars with equal ferocity. Worse still, the four jars that contain the Pharaoh of Sunrise’s organs are in the room, and if they are smashed eternal night will fall over the kingdom. Apparently the pharaoh’s title was no mere honorific…
The Queen of Cats takes care of her heralds. Not only do they have nine lives, but each of their nine corpses also reanimates as a cat-headed cursed king. There is a story that the assassins who struck down Queen Angela’s astrologer (and consort) did not know they were murdering the Feline Lady’s beloved as well. The rogues were tracked down the very next night by the astrologer’s corpse, now wearing the face of a Wayangese. Even those who survived the fell undead’s assault did not survive wearing their original bodies…
In Caerduwin, everyone has a familiar. Tied to the person’s soul, the animal presents itself sometime during adolescence and remains by her master’s side for life. Caerduwin criminals who earn the death penalty are buried with their familiar’s head swapped for their own. This terrible fate explains much about Caerduwin’s low crime rate, but those criminals who are so executed and interred often rest uneasy in the grave, returning as cursed kings to haunt the barrowlands.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 5 63
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