The Kenku are a race of Raven-Folk originally introduced in 3e as a monster race of humanoid birds with a propensity for thievery and inability to speak. They have evolved dramatically since then, even within just 5e, and have become a unique and popular playable race for players to consider when making a character. So, whether you are considering playing a the race featured in this DnD Kenku Guide for the first time or want to know more about the race you’ve already decided to play, here is everything you need to know about them.
Key Info Up Front
- Book: Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse
- Editions: 3, 3.5, 4, 5
- Appearance: Kenku are Raven-Folk that stand around five feet tall and are covered in feathers but no longer have the ability to fly
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.
This also means they have are unable to improvise, but their impeccable memories more than make up for it. When you plan with a Kenku as part of your party you should give them multiple plans. For example: give them plan A but also a plan B should things go awry. 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.
The Best Kenku Classes
Regardless of which stat block you choose for the Kenku, the race can thrive in nearly any class found in 5e. However, there are some classes in which the race’s unique features can have a significant impact. My personal three favorites for the Kenku are below.
The Rogue is the class with which Kenku’s are typically associated the most. Since the race was originally introduced as a stealthy race that survived by sneaking and stealing, the Rogue made the most sense for a Kenku to thrive. Even with the new options and changes made to the Kenku in Monsters of the Multiverse, this still holds, so if you want to equip your Kenku with a dagger and shadowy cloak, you should feel free to do so.
Kenku also work well as Rogue’s because of the unique features that help them copy the voices of others or forge documents. I have used a guard captain’s voice to relieve soldiers from their posts around the corner or created false qualifications and passes to get into areas I shouldn’t have been in.
The Kenku’s two free skill proficiencies from either stat block are a massive tool for the Rogue because the class tends to use skills so heavily. These also allow you to customize your Rogue even more, especially if you use your Expertise to become an even greater force to be reckoned with when it comes to skill checks. This can allow you to cover multiple skill-based roles for your party at once, such as Scout, Face, or Knowledge.
- Arcane Trickster (Player’s Handbook): The Arcane Trickster brings some magical flair to the Rogue with spells that help your character deal more damage and avoid detection. Taking this subclass as a Kenku can give you even more options to adapt to situations in addition to your skill proficiencies and racial features. This subclass also fits easily with a Kenku character, as their interest in the arcane makes a lot of sense when fueled by the hunger for flight that the arcane can satisfy.
- Assassin (Player’s Handbook): This subclass doubles down on the Rogue’s ability to avoid detection and deal massive amounts of damage. This subclass is pretty simple, so I recommend taking it if this character is your first time playing a Rogue or Dungeons and Dragons, as otherwise, its gameplay can be a bit repetitive. I also don’t personally like this subclass much for a Kenku, just because it focuses so much on the killing parts of being a Rogue and not the thievery parts.
- Inquisitive (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything): The Inquisitive subclass can be a lot of fun in the right campaign and makes a lot of sense with the curious nature of the Kenku. It focuses entirely on gathering information and piecing together clues, so if your campaign is primarily combat-focused, I advise steering clear of this option.
- Phantom (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything): The Phantom Rogue speaks with the ghosts of dead creatures to gain information and power from them. This subclass is cool flavor-wise and mechanically and has some fun opportunities for a Kenku character to speak with their dead ancestors about the wounded history of their race.
- Mastermind (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide): The Mastermind subclass is similar to the Inquisitive that I only recommend playing it in a campaign with a lot of social interactions otherwise, you won’t get much out of it. However, it also seems like a bit of an odd choice to me for a Kenku since the race doesn’t naturally lend itself that well to being a criminal mastermind of a mob of goons.
- Scout (Xanthar’s Guide to Everything): The Scout is a very useful subclass for a party in any campaign. Since it focuses on sneaking, gathering information, and detecting hidden things, it makes sense for a Kenku to fulfill the role. However, I would personally have it focus on more urban environments since Kenku aren’t known to live in nature much.
- Soulknife (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything): The Soulknife is my favorite Rogue subclass and has some great mechanical options and features. However, it doesn’t make much sense with a Kenku from a roleplay perspective, so if you care about keeping your character well-aligned with the race’s lore, you may want to go another route.
- Swashbuckler (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything): The Swashbuckler is essentially a pirate. It brings some cool features to play around with, and it also puts a fun twist on the Kenku by having them steal with a crew more brazenly rather than alone in the shadows.
- Thief (Player’s Handbook): The Thief is the classic Rogue subclass and is a great fit for the Kenku. Its features aren’t as flashy as the Soulknife or Phantom, but it does come with some solid mechanics that players can build on, and it makes a lot of sense flavor-wise for a Kenku.
If you hope for your Kenku to fill a more traditional spellcaster role within your party, I recommend the Warlock. The Kenku’s racial features don’t offer as much synergy with the Warlock as they do with the Rogue above or the Bard below. However, they are universal enough to be still useful, and a Warlock’s power source is very interesting for a Kenku character to explore.
Since the Kenku were punished for serving a Dark Master and trying to betray them, the race tends not to favor deities or powerful forces much. This makes playing a Warlock Kenku all the more interesting, as the character is repeating their species’ past, which many of their peers will likely advise them against or warn against. This brings up some exciting roleplay opportunities, especially if it turns out that your Kenku’s patron is the same one responsible for forsaking them for beginning.
- The Archfey (Player’s Handbook): The Archfey can be an excellent subclass for a Kenku Warlock because of its focus on illusions and deception. This meshes very well with the Kenku’s racial features and can lead to exciting Face builds that revolve around deceit and subterfuge.
- The Celestial (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything): This subclass effectively works as a healer Warlock, but it doesn’t do so very well. If you want to play a healing Kenku, I recommend opting for a Cleric, as this subclass will likely leave you feeling unspecialized and underpowered.
- The Fathomless (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything): This subclass can be a ton of fun in the right campaign style, but if your Dungeon master doesn’t plan on sending your party to the water at all, you won’t get very much out of this one. However, keeping a few bottles of water or a magical container around can be interesting to always have access to water for encounters. However, it doesn’t work very well with a Kenku since they are already Raven-Folk, which don’t tend to swim around too much.
- The Fiend (Player’s Handbook): The Fiend is a classic Warlock subclass that accentuates the class’ innate offensive and defensive capabilities. It is an excellent subclass for first-timers to pick up and is strong enough that any player will have a good time with it. It also makes sense for a Kenku to take this subclass, and the Fiend patron is an excellent option for the Dark Master that originally punished the race.
- The Genie (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything): I love this subclass for a Kenku Warlock for several reasons. Firstly, it makes a ton of sense for a Kenku to find a shiny lamp, steal it, and then discover a genie of some sort in it and enter a contract with them. Secondly, the subclass eventually gives the warlock flight, which is a huge moment for any Kenku and can lead to great roleplaying opportunities.
- The Great Old One (Player’s Handbook): Effectively a Lovecraftian Warlock subclass, this patron is all about gaining power from an unknown source of power and slowly drives the character mad in exchange. The subclass is solid and can be a fun option for a Kenku character who went too far in their search for power and is slowly paying the price.
- The Hexblade (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything): This subclass is for Warlocks that want to wade into melee combat. It has some fun options and is generally pretty strong, but I don’t think it fits Kenku very much. However, it is still a solid option if you want to go for that playstyle.
- The Undead (Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft): The Undead patron is a great option for horror-themed campaigns and gives Warlocks some great complexity and variability to use throughout the campaign. It also can mesh pretty well with the lore of Kenku, so it looks like a fun option to you there is no reason not to go this route.
- The Undying (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide): The Undying patron attempts to make the Warlock more of a tank class, but its options are pretty poor and not fun to play. Its playstyle is almost entirely reactionary, and its flavor doesn’t mix very well with a Kenku, so I wouldn’t suggest going with this subclass.
A Kenku Bard might very well be my favorite option of the three because of how well the Kenku’s racial features mix with it. While the Kenku’s stealth abilities will be more or less useful depending on your chosen subclass, imagining a Bard giving a one-person show or being in a perfect acapella group with the Kenku’s mimicry abilities is almost too good to pass up.
Mechanically, the Bard also focuses heavily on skill usage, similar to the Rogue, so the Kenku’s increases in that department will also be indispensable if you decide to go with this class. It also provides some interesting roleplay opportunities since the Kenku have struggled to establish their own culture for so long that your character being a Bard, could be a beacon of hope for their entire race.
- College of Creation (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything): This college comes with some attractive mechanical options and fits in well with the Kenku since it focuses on creating copies of objects similarly to how the Kenku culture does for most of its art and entertainment.
- College of Eloquence (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and Mystic Odysseys of Theros): This subclass is about doubling down on what makes a Bard a Bard and is a perfect combination of the Kenku to act as the party’s Face.
- College of Glamour (Xanthar’s Guide to Everything): This subclass focuses on fulfilling a support role, and while it isn’t weak by any means, it doesn’t shine in any particular role. So, I recommend going with a different option to have a bit more fun with your time as a Bard.
- College of Lore (Player’s Handbook): This subclass focuses on Bard’s ability to use skills effectively, making it an excellent fit for Kenku’s bonus skill proficiencies.
- College of Spirits (Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft): This subclass has a lot to keep track of and can be pretty complex, so I don’t recommend taking it unless you are an experienced player. It also has a lot of randomness build into its mechanics and doesn’t fit especially well with the Kenku, so only pick this subclass if its flavor excites you.
- College of Swords (Xanthar’s Guide to Everything): This subclass allows Bards to focus on martial prowess and melee combat, but it isn’t as effective as the College of Valor and doesn’t with a Kenku very well.
- College of Valor (Player’s Handbook): The College of Valor is about staying in martial combat and allowing the Bard to fill multiple party roles. However, it doesn’t excel at any of them in particular, so I would only take this one if you’re playing with a small party that needs roles covered.
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.