As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love/hate relationship with fantasy Egypt tropes. Mummies are interesting undead, period, and when done thoughtfully, Egypt-inspired adventures can be some of the best around (see the excellent Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path). On the other hand, it can be way too easy to just drop fantasy-Egypt wholesale into your Pathfinder/D&D campaign without a lot of forethought (even Forgotten Realms was guilty of this), leading to trite adventures involving pyramids, death traps, and the obligatory cameo appearance by Anubis.
The pharaonic guardian, at first glance, looks both useful (it’s the kind of monster you’d totally see in a Mummy movie but that there hasn’t exactly been stats for yet ) and pretty generic (oh great, it’s still an undead tomb guardian, no matter what kind of head it has).
But it shines in the details: A judging gaze and soul-rending wings are just cool. The fact that it can use (and even briefly hand over) a +3 ghost touch speed longsword and shield is a nice cinematic touch. Even the alignment is flavorful—not a bland N or LN, but not your typical undead NE or CE either. And why lawful evil? Because pharaonic guardians “are the product of fear and sweat wrung from slaves and other servants”—in fact, they’re made from an amalgam of these servants’ souls!
So these are creatures born of atrocity. And they probably will try to kill you. But if on the rare chance you’re actually trying to preserve a pyramid rather than loot it…maybe you’ll get lucky.
But say you’re not down with Horus and Set. It’s interesting to think of other reasons a culture might have animal-headed tomb guardians…
In the early stages of exploring a crypt, adventurers have an opportunity to step into magical mural of a garden, where they may ritually purify themselves and converse with the denizens therein. One of these figments, a foul-tempered, warthog-headed armorer, will ask them to swear an oath not to disturb a certain burial chamber. Should they do so (and keep their promise), he will come to their aid later in the depths, arriving bearing ghost touch-infused arms when the adventurers are set upon by the tomb’s more malevolent spirits.
Elves of Parnish have a taboo against being represented in images after their death. Instead, they are depicted in carvings, paintings and tapestries bearing the heads of their totem animals. To the Parnish’eya, it is an honor to have one’s soul be destined after death to become a tomb guardian. But the elves’ strict religious and funeral obligations weigh upon the souls over the centuries, and most of these guardians grow cold and evil during the course of their endless watch.
A wise ruler puts some distance between his palace and his line's necropolis. The Captive King is a lesson why. When Tarpin XII decided to shore up his faltering reign by building a palace atop the burial city of Omun-Ke, it did not occur to him the pharaonic guardians would see fit to judge the weak king according to the harsh standards of namesake. Now Tarpin XII is naught but ash in an urn, and his son Tarpin XIII has spent 30 years a prisoner in his own palace. Praying for a rescue that never comes, he appears in public only to pronounce draconian edicts dictated by his undead jailers, who are intent in restoring the faith and territory of the first Tarpin's empire.
—Osirion, Legacy of the Pharaohs 60 & Pathfinder Bestiary 5 191
I also like Mummy’s Mask because it’s one of the last APs I successfully read all of as it came out, rather than in desperate cram sessions after the fact. My life got weird, y’all.
It’s been long enough now that I bet many of you have forgotten the truly messed-up elves of Eberron. No matter what system you play, you owe it to yourself to pick up either the 3.5 Eberron Camapaign Setting, Player’s Guide to Eberron, or Races of Eberron. At time of writing, used PGTEs are a steal at $16.50, and for value for money it’s still really hard to beat a used ECS at roughly $36.
Also, old-school (or at least, middle-school) D&D fans will remember the Dark Sun novels, specifically the Prism Pentad by Troy Denning. The first three books were flat-out baller, but the fourth, The Obsidian Oracle, was a muddy, claustrophobic, and depressing read, even by Dark Sun standards. But it featured some truly horrific bad guys—beast-headed giants that got those heads through magical manipulation that (if I’m recalling correctly—I haven’t re-read these books since, like, ’94) also doomed their children’s souls. So there’s another source of animal-headed atrocities for you.