Kenku are raven-like humanoid creatures in D&D. Typically clad in cloaks, robes, and hoods, these roguish types find themselves skulking around on two clawed talons without the ability to fly. Welcome to our DnD Kenku Guide.
The Kenku’s history is ancient and mysterious. An old legend tells of Kenku worshipping a powerful extraplanar entity. Whether this was a demon lord, an archfiend, or a legend of some other design, all the stories speak of the Kenku betraying their master.
Their deception, however, was discovered, and the Kenku were cursed by their master. The Kenku lost their flight, creativity, and voice. They were then let loose to roam the Material Plane in their new cursed forms.
Despite their raven-like appearance, the curse set upon them robbed them of the ability to fly, leaving all Kenku to stalk around on two legs like most humanoids.
They typically keep to large, decrepit cities in which they can go unnoticed. Their black feathers conceal them under the cover of night and many find work stealing or being involved in other crimes.
While many Kenku might live this way, they are not inherently evil beings. A Kenku’s deepest desire is to fly again. If this is not a possible future, they love being up high in towers or keeps so that they can at least pretend.
The loss of their creativity means that Kenku are incapable of coming up with new ideas or creating anything new. Instead, Kenku are adept at memorizing and perfectly recreating things that they encounter. Kenku make great scouts and spies for this reason. They can overhear a conversation and perfectly recreate it.
Their lack of creativity means that they are unable to improvise. Since they have impeccable memories, planning with a Kenku means giving multiple plans. If you have a Kenku in your plan, give them a plan A and then tell the Kenku what to do should the plan be altered. This could mean telling the Kenku to return to a particular location if anything changes, telling them to run and hide if they are caught, or what to do in more specific situations.
Lastly, the Kenku’s curse stole their voice from them. This is the most obvious part of the curse for anyone who’s encountered a Kenkuin a game of D&D. Kenku are incapable of speech except for mimicking sounds that they have heard. This means that a Kenku doesn’t have their own voice or speech pattern. They don’t have their own way of speaking.
Instead, every time a kenku speaks, it does so with someone else’s voice. Even an answer such as “yes” or “no” must be said by mimicking someone else who has said that.
This means that a kenku might speak with a deep, gravelly voice one moment and then a high-pitched, whiny voice the next. It can be unpredictable, random, and either very annoying or lots of fun.
Although the Kenku originally appeared in the Monster Manual as a low-level enemy one might fight, it didn’t take long before Wizards of the Coast decided that playing as one would be just as fun. Kenku were published as a playable race in 2016 in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
If you decide to play as a Kenku, you gain all of the racial traits of the Kenku. You have a slightly shorter expected lifespan than humans, reaching full maturity at 12 years old and living until about 60. Although Volo’s Guide to Monsters doesn’t give you a method of randomly determining height and weight, you stand around 5 feet tall and between 90 to 120 pounds. If you’d like to determine this randomly, use the random stats for a drow found on page 121 of the PHB.
Your size is Medium and your base walking speed is 30 feet. Your alignment is typically chaotic and most Kenku decides to look out for themselves first and foremost.
As a Kenku, you gain a +2 bonus to your Dexterity score and a +1 bonus to your Wisdom score. If you are using the “Customizing Your Origin” option from TCoE, you can put these bonuses in two ability scores of your choice.
You are an expert at forging documents and craftwork. Whenever you make a check to create a forgery, you have an advantage on the check. This ability doesn’t give you any tool proficiencies so if the recreation of some work of art requires a certain tool proficiency, you’ll need to find a way to gain it.
You are naturally gifted at a few underhanded skills. You are proficient in two of the following skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand.
Lastly, although you understand Common and Auran, you can only speak by mimicking sounds you have heard. Functionally, this means that you can understand what your party members are saying to you. However, communicating effectively to them can become a challenge.
Roleplaying a Kenku
Roleplaying a Kenku as a player character can be a unique challenge. While the lack of flight is common among player characters, the other two aspects of the curse can make roleplaying difficult.
Although the mimicry trait is the most obvious challenge to other players, there are some easy ways to overcome this. It is much more difficult to roleplay a character who’s incapable of coming up with new ideas or creating new things.
Your mimicry ability lets you mimic sounds you have heard, including voices. There is no limitation on the amount of time between when you hear a voice and when you mimic it. This means that, over time, you are growing a library of sounds that you can pull from.
This poses an interesting question for you when creating your character. How large is your library? An older Kenku has lived for longer and has many more years of sound in their library. What background did you pick? A hermit might spend years by themselves and not know many words at all. An urchin who spent their time in a merchant district would have a very different library to an urchin who spent time in a thieves’ guild.
Think about how large your library would be and consider the sort of people you would have spent the most time around according to your background and your backstory.
Playing a Kenku doesn’t mean that you have to justify every phrase and word that you say. That would be exhausting and would slow the game down. However, the company you have kept over the years will dramatically inform how you speak. When your party finds itself in a unique situation or has learned the name of a person or item, your speech will be defined by your current party members.
There are some interesting magical ways of overcoming the mimicry trait. Unfortunately, the Message cantrip requires you to whisper what you want to say so it would probably not allow you to say something you haven’t heard. However, there are many means of speaking telepathically. The most available way is the feat Telepathic. It gives you the ability for one-way telepathy, which is all you need. Then you can have fun thinking about what a character who’s never been able to speak with their own voice would say.
The other side of the mimicry trait is that it extends far beyond voices. While you may be able to perfectly mimic another person, you can also mimic a stream, a tree falling, the sound of footsteps. Similar to a druid constantly convincing the DM that they have seen the animal they want to turn into, you will be convincing your DM that you have indeed heard a fireball explosion before.
Using this ability effectively means thinking about how you might be able to trick your foes. However, this ability is not as good as Minor Illusion since you don’t have a way of making the sound originate from somewhere else. If you learn how to turn invisible, you’ll be able to mess with many enemies.
Kenku have lost their creativity. How do you roleplay this? Most of the time, you will be able to do everything that your class and the game allow. However, what do you do when your party is planning what to do next? The first solution is to not contribute anything to the plan and let the rest of the party do this. You can sit back and eat snacks while the other members hash everything out.
Alternatively, you can use this part of the game as an opportunity for you to simultaneously solve a problem your party is facing and build upon your backstory. If you, the player, come up with a plan, you tell your fellow party members about a time when you witnessed someone enacting your solution.
For example, the pirate ship in the water is dangerous and cannot be attacked head-on. You recall that in the city in which you grew up, you watched a pirate hunter wait for the crew to go on shore leave before kidnapping one and interrogating them. You could copy that plan now.
Another question to ask is this: can someone become more creative? As a Kenku, you are born with zero creativity. Does that mean you will die with zero creativity or is it something that you can learn?
If you decide the latter, you now have a great character arc for your Kenku as the party tries to teach you how to be creative and come up with new things, leading to many memorable moments.
Ignore the Challenges
There is another solution to overcoming these challenges: ignore them. If you aren’t interested in roleplaying and chose the Kenku for the aesthetic or because you want to play a rogue and like the two free skills, you can simply ignore the unique challenges playing a Kenku offers.
You can quite easily explain that your character has spent time in a busy city and has built up a library of sounds over the years. Therefore, you are able to say any sentence and assume that you’ve heard all of the words and phrases you’ve heard before. Since there’s no mechanic linked to the loss of creativity, you can safely ignore that too without much consequence.
This is, of course, a boring solution. While character optimization is a fun part of the game, D&D is a roleplaying game at its heart. To ignore these aspects of any race or class can result in incredibly one-dimensional characters. That may be everything that you want. However, if you use the traits of the Kenku and lean into the challenge, you can create a memorable and fun-to-roleplay character.
Kenku and Spellcasting
Every spellcaster in the game values their voice. Most spells in the game require their caster to incant some magical phrase as part of the casting. This is known as the verbal component of the spell.
A Kenku, despite their mimicry trait, is capable of producing the verbal components of spells in order to cast them. While this seems strange, it is the case for a few reasons. The first is that if Kenku were unable to cast spells with verbal components, no one would ever play a Kenku.
As discussed above, a Kenku who’s lived for a while will have built up a library of all sorts of sounds. Within those sounds are the mutterings needed for verbal components. These components are vague enough that it is reasonable to say you are able to reproduce these sounds as you’ve heard them before.
What class is a Kenku good for?
Without using the “Customizing Your Origin” option from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the Kenku makes for a great cleric, druid, fighter, monk, ranger, or rogue. This comes as no surprise since all of these classes rely on Dexterity and Wisdom as their main ability scores.
Thematically, Kenku fit the bill for a rogue very well. Additional skill proficiencies and the hooded, black-feathered aesthetic meshes well together.
If you are using the “Customizing Your Origin” option, a Kenku can be effective in any DnD class. A Kenku artificer could have a plethora of experience forging magical items. Pick the Criminal background and you have a shady black market goods salesman. A Kenku bard is a very interesting combination, only capable of singing songs they’ve heard. Extra skills are perfect for a bard.
Playing a Kenku sorcerer, warlock, or wizard can be a lot of fun, especially when you reach 5th level and get access to the Fly spell. In fact, this could be your Kenku’s motivation for becoming a wizard or making their warlock pact.
Question: What class is best for the Kenku?
Answer: The rogue fits both thematically and optimally for a Kenku. Additional skill proficiencies are great for a rogue and you can use your mimicry to misdirect opponents.
Question: What are Kenku proficient in?
Answer: Kenku gain two skill proficiencies. You choose from the following: Acrobatics, Deception, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand.
Question: Who cursed the Kenku?
Answer: The Kenku were cursed by a mysterious master from another plane. Leading theories include the demon lord Grazz’t and the Wind Dukes of Aaqa.
Question: Which book is the Kenku in?
Answer: The Kenku was published as a player race in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. It previously appeared in the Monster Manual as an enemy.
Dnd Kenku Guide: Summary
Kenku are one of the playable races published in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They are raven-looking humanoid creatures who make for great scouts and spies. They are most famous for their mimicry, being unable to communicate except for mimicking sounds that they have heard before.
Playing a Kenku provides many unique and interesting roleplaying opportunities. If you are considering playing one but don’t like their mimicry, consider playing a tabaxi instead.