The Kenku: Cursed Avian Race of Faerûn
Of the many races scattered throughout the Forgotten Realms of Faerûn, few share the same collective tragedy – the same scars of divine wrath and punishment – as the Kenku.
Once a proud and artistic subspecies of the Aarakocra (the bird folk from the Elemental Plane of Air), probably, the exact series of events leading to all Kenku being stripped of their flight and powers of speech, left to scratch out a miserable existence on the Material Plane are matter of some debate.
This is largely due to conflicting evidence from different editions of D&D. Kenku first appeared in the Monster Manual III for D&D 3.5e as simple monsters with a tendency towards Neutral Evil alignments.
Their appearance and temperament are likely inspired by the Tengu, a type of bird spirit or yōkai from Japanese mythology.
They became a playable race for the first time in 4th Edition, with features that included a bird-themed version of Pack Tactics, and an early iteration of their Mimicry feature.
In the 5e supplement Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the Kenku were introduced as a playable race once again and given a more nuanced, sensitive treatment compared to the cackling crow monsters of earlier editions.
The current understanding of Kenku history is that, far in the past, their ancestors were capable of flight and great feats of creativity.
The Kenku’s ancestors fell into service to a dark power of unknown origin, angering this dark master when they attempted to steal something (presumably very shiny and) of great value to their patron – thought by some to have been the demon lord Graz’zt.
They were caught and, in a punishment of truly biblical proportions, Graz’zt cursed the Kenku and all future generations.
The curse had three elements:
- Kenku’s wings withered and fell to the earth, binding them forever.
- Since the plan to steal from their master involved ingenuity and skill, Graz’zt burned away the Kenku’s spark of creativity.
- Finally, to make sure the Kenku could never divulge any secrets they learn, Grazz’t took away their voices.
Now, each Kenku belongs to a woebegotten diaspora, eking out a shadow of their former lives in the slums and abandoned quarters of downtrodden cities. All Kenku culture is focussed firmly on the past, seeking some way to hang on to – or even regain – what was taken from them.
But the present is often a source of more pressing concerns. In order to survive, the Kenku have harnessed their natural agility and talent as forgers in order to become notorious thieves and criminals.
Kenku flocks often form thieves’ guilds, or they find individual work doing what they can with the skills that Graz’zt left them: pinching and pilfering their way to their next meal.
The Kenku are a profoundly sad people. Every Kenku dreams of flying once more, or creating something new – and many are driven to the adventuring life as a way of finding what all Kenku have lost.
Kenku that remain in the cities often become rogues, whereas those who leave the civilized world behind sometimes turn their talents towards the way of the ranger.
Because Kenku don’t have voices of their own, their ability to perfectly mimic any sound they have heard before means that each Kenku speaks in a somewhat jumbled assortment of sounds they have heard before, which they can stitch back together into their own vocal collage.
As a side note, this means that in my own D&D games, Kenku are highly prized as scribes, record keepers, and town criers.
Any court or local government in the land worth its salt will pay good money to hire a wandering Kenku to record and rebroadcast important announcements. Because their lack of creativity is well-known, a Kenku recording is considered to be admissible as evidence in court.
Of course, their ability to accurately record incriminating evidence also makes them popular spies, as well as agents of political and corporate espionage.
A well-educated Kenku may speak almost fluently, whereas one who has spent less time around other humanoids may express itself in eclectic snatches of speech and sound effects.
While you don’t have much leeway in terms of your Kenku’s physical appearance (although magpies, ravens, and crows are all members of the corvid family), the Kenku’s voice – and tragic cultural history – make them one of the most interesting races in the game to roleplay.
Kenku Abilities and Traits: What Characterizes the Kenku Race?
Your Kenku character will have the following racial traits.
Ability Score increase: +2 Dexterity, +1 Wisdom
Age: Kenku have shorter lifespans than humans. They reach maturity at about 12 years old and can live to 60.
Alignment: chaotic neutral
Kenku Training: Choose two skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand.
Mimicry: You can mimic sounds you have heard, including voices. A creature that hears the sounds you make can tell they are imitations with a successful Wisdom (Insight) check opposed by your Charisma (Deception) check.
Expert Forgery: You can duplicate other creatures’ handwriting and craftwork. You have advantage on all checks made to produce forgeries or duplicates of existing objects.
Languages: You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait
Kenku Traits Breakdown
Ability Score Increase: Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1. This is a pretty great combination that can allow you to effectively play a number of different classes.
The Kenku rogue is probably the most common, although your Wisdom bonus could help you play a decent monk, or even a cleric (a Kenku cleric who speaks exclusively in scripture, or a monk who only communicates through ambiguous parable, are both really interesting character concepts).
Your high Dexterity not only makes you a potentially powerful rogue, but also a ranger (a great choice, given your bonus to Wisdom), or even a Fighter that focuses on using ranged weapons. More on potential class choices below.
Size: Kenku are around 5 feet tall and weigh between 90 and 120 pounds. Your size is Medium.
Speed: Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Age: Kenku have shorter lifespans than humans. They reach maturity at about 12 years old and can live to 60.
Alignment: Kenku are chaotic creatures, rarely making enduring commitments, and they care mostly for preserving their own hides. They are generally chaotic neutral in outlook. In light of all Kenku’s tragic past, precarious present, and bleak future, this is hardly surprising.
Kenku Training: You are proficient in your choice of two of the following skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand. This is one of the better spreads of starting skill options of any class, and can help focus your Kenku towards subterfuge, combat, or social expertise.
Expert Forgery: While this is pretty situational, if your party ever needs invitations to the local nobles’ ball, they are going to thank you.
Mimicry: It’s a shame that your racial bonuses tend towards Wisdom rather than Charisma, seeing as it’s such a key element of your Mimicry, but the ability to lure away guards, impersonate a villain, or otherwise be thoroughly tricky in social situations is well worth making Charisma your secondary or tertiary stat.
Languages: This is the core of the Kenku roleplaying experience. I’ve seen it done any number of ways at the table, from a player who used a dictaphone to record everything their companions and NPCs said, to another who typed everything into a text to speech app for a robotic, Siri-like feel.
I even played a Kenku as part of a one-shot who’d been raised exclusively around a group of traveling performers, and communicated exclusively using free soundboard apps loaded with quotes from Star Wars, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and Borat.
If you’re a real audio nerd (a fairly common overlap in my D&D groups) you could even record sounds from your sessions and then program them into a synthesizer or loop pad to play back later.
What Classes Are Well Suited to the Kenku?
A Kenku’s Dexterity and Wisdom bonus, as well as their Mimicry abilities make them well-suited to a number of classes.
Obviously, if there’s a character concept (like a Kenku bard that just sings covers, on a quest to write her first original song, whose name is Sheryl Crow – obviously) that really grabs you, you can make it work – especially given the new rules for character creation launched in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
However, below we’ve broken down some of the classes in D&D 5e that synergize best with the Kenku’s abilities, traits, and culture.
This is the quintessential Kenku build, informed both by their natural +2 to Dexterity, as well as the Kenku’s proclivity for crime and skulduggery. Their mimicry ability and Stealth proficiency make Kenku natural born infiltrators, sneak thieves, and even assassins.
If you take the Criminal background, you also gain access to a web of criminal contacts, which can be ideal for setting up a network of fellow Kenku rogues throughout the lands.
The Kenku rogue conjures images of crow-faced assassins perched on a rain-soaked rooftop deep in the heart of the city. If you want to give your Kenku a less urban-focused approach, another class that synergizes perfectly with their ability bonuses is the ranger.
With your Dexterity and Wisdom bonuses – as well as your stealthy skills – you can become a master of the wilderness, moving unseen and unheard through forests, mountains, even the Underdark.
Another class where the Kenku’s Wisdom and Dexterity synergize perfectly, the Monk matches up well with the playstyle and flavor of the Kenku.
You could even pick up the Sage background and play a member of an order of monks dedicated to preserving what scraps of Kenku culture remain.
While you could make any subclass work for your Kenku monk, the Way of Shadow is a perfect thematic and mechanical fit that blends the monk’s abilities with those of an Arcane Trickster rogue.
The cleric is another Wisdom-based class that Kenku can play effectively.
While the traditional conception of a cleric is clad in plate armor and carrying a hammer on the frontline, choosing the Trickery Domain cleric is much less frontline combat-focused, and synergizes really well with your Dexterity and sneakier skills.
Dexterity-based Fighters are just as effective as Strength-based ones. Pick up a longbow or massive crossbow, the ranged weapon fighting style and maybe specialize into Arcane Archer for the ultimate ranged damage dealer.
Kenku Appearance: General Looks Found Among Them
As I mentioned before, Kenku are pretty limited in their appearance compared to their closest cousins, the Aarakocra.
Whereas Aarakocra have the broad aesthetic remit of “like a bird” – which has meant I’ve played in campaigns with cockatoo bards, murderous toucans, pious puffins, self-righteous eagles, and even a velociraptor (I couldn’t really say no when the player cited Jurassic Park as supporting evidence) – Kenku are explicitly limited to a distinctly raven-like appearance.
You likely have a little wiggle-room within the corvid family, which contains crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers, although most Kenku tend to resemble either a raven, crow, or maybe a magpie.
These birds are expensively represented throughout folklore and mythology, with connotations that range from the mystical to the macabre.
Ravens are often messengers and spies of divine beings – like Huginn and Muninn, the ravens who perched on Odin’s shoulders, or the white raven who acted as a spy for Apollo.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman sends a flock of crows under his command to hunt for the fellowship – just one of many examples where crows and ravens act as extensions of darkness, danger and evil (nevermore?).
Magpies, on the other hand, have a well-established place in folklore as tricksters and thieves. The birds held an important place in the pagan belief systems that predated Christianity throughout both Europe and North America.
The link between corvids and the supernatural makes Kenku a rich playground of themes and tropes to experiment with.
In terms of aesthetic, Kenku are typically depicted wearing dark clothes, tending to conceal their beaked faces beneath deep cowels, wrapping their bodies in black cloaks that resemble the wings they lost long ago.
Few Kenku ever obtain any great wealth or social standing – although a Kenku with the Noble background who drapes themselves in fabulous, shiny trinkets is a very interesting take on magpie behavior in nature.
Kenku Names: Male, Female, and Gender Neutral
Kenku naming conventions are one of the most interesting facets of their expertise as mimics and lack of any language that is uniquely theirs.
Because Kenku can mimic both language and any random sounds (think the kookaburra in Australia, which mimics the sounds of chainsaws with unsettling accuracy) they may have encountered, Kenku often choose names for themselves from the array of sounds they grew up hearing.
A Kenku raised in a guild of assassins might choose the sound of a dagger being drawn, or the rippling of a cloak, or the death rattle of their first victim, just as a Kenku raised in a kitchen might choose the sound of a pot boiling, or the chef who took them in shouting “order up!”.
Think about your Kenku’s background and the sounds they would have heard while growing up.
Often, because Kenku names don’t translate well into human speech, they either choose an onomatopoeic translation (Snick, Bang – basically anything you want to steal from a Silver Age Marvel comic) or a secondary name that describes their chosen sound.
A Kenku whose name is the sound made by their first pet might choose to let people call them Barker; another, who chose the sound of a coin bounding against marble could introduce themself as Silver.
Kenku names are, for obvious reasons, largely gender neutral.
Example Kenku Names: Hammer and Stone; Ripper; Rat Yelp; Page Turn; Bush Rustle; Hoofbeat; Snarl; Water Over Coals; Far-Off Hymnal; Donkey Bray; Shop Bell Chime; Arrow Passing By; Copper; Jangle Keys; Latch; Toast.