The kenku are a mysterious race of bird-people that can be found in the multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons.
They are often misunderstood and many know little about them. In this article, we explore their history, physiology, and culture. And at the end, I throw in some of the best ways to roleplay this fascinating race. So if you’re interested in learning more about the kenku, keep reading!
By the end of this article, you will understand:
- the origin and culture of the kenku
- what kenku look like
- how kenku are named
- kenku racial traits and ability score bonuses
- fun builds to try
Kenku Lore—Where did the kenku come from?
The exact origin is up for debate due to the conflicting stories from different editions of D&D.
They first appeared in the Monster Manual III for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e as evil little cackling crow monsters. They became a playable race for the first time in 4th Edition with an early iteration of their Mimicry trait.
In the 5th Edition supplement, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, they were introduced as a playable race again. This time they were fleshed out to give them more depth as living beings.
The legend we’re rolling with
The kenku are flightless avian humanoids who started out with wings and the ability to fly. The true account of what happened to them was lost, but legend has it that they were cursed by a deity for their trickery.
According to legend, the kenku were created to serve their master, a powerful deity. At one point, the kenku hatched a plan to steal a valuable treasure from their master and escape to the Material Plane. Unfortunately, their master discovered this plan and became enraged with his creations.
Fall from grace
As punishment for their betrayal the deity cast three curses on them in a fit of rage:
- Their cherished wings shriveled up and fell off of their bodies, leaving them grounded forever.
- The spark of creativity was snatched from their souls because they had used it to conspire against their creator.
- Their voices were silenced to ensure that they could never divulge any secrets.
Their patron then released them onto the Material Plane, believing them to be sufficiently punished. Since that time, they have wandered the Forgotten Realms, looking for a place to call home.
Due to their nature, they tend to exist on the fringes of civilized society. They prefer run-down metropolitan areas, typically rife with crime and suffering economic hardship. They are clever thieves and make excellent spies and assassins thanks to their affinity for stealth and deception.
Playing a kenku is a rewarding challenge because they can only mimic others, they cannot speak with their own voice. But don’t let that detract you from roleplaying a kenku, there are plenty of fun and creative ways to work around their curse.
The Kenku Culture of Fallen Outsiders
Kenku are often money-oriented, secretive, and involved in conspiracies to obtain money and power. They are also opportunistic and unscrupulous, not stopping at illegal or immoral acts. And they’re followers at heart so they’ll go to any length to be liked.
All of the above explain why they’ve acquired a reputation as excellent spies, thieves, and assassins in the criminal underbelly of cities across Faerûn.
They are small and quick, so they operate in small gangs for protection and to overpower their foes. As a result, it’s hazardous for a lone kenku to stray too far (which you may use as an incentive to join an adventuring group).
A longing for the open sky
Because they are now grounded, kenku dream of flight and these aspirations lure them skyward. Many search for magic items and study magic to break their curse and take to the sky one day (cough fly spell cough).
This obsession with rejoining their bird-kin in the clouds even influences where they live. Flocks of kenku gather in lofty locations like crumbling castles on hill tops, or tall abandoned buildings on the outskirts of cities where they will be left alone.
Kenku have no cities or empires to call their own. They get by using their exceptional talents: mimicry, cunning, deception, and thieving.
And their stealth and agility keep them from getting caught!
Every kenku can repeat what they hear flawlessly, but they cannot use their own voice (except when speaking in their heads so telepathy works). They construct their vocabulary and speech patterns out of sentences, words, and sounds they’ve encountered. This makes their speech sound like a jilted collection of different voices, tonalities, and sound effects.
And that brings us to their names.
Kenku 5e Lore—How do the kenku name themselves?
Since they can only mimic sound, kenku names are sound effects typically related to an individual’s profession or role.
In my current campaign I named my ninja kenku Shink after the sound of a blade being sheathed. Warriors have names that represent the sound of battle, like the clang of two swords making contact.
Kenku in cities frequently imitate animals found in slums and alleys, like cats hissing or rats skittering around. This also helps them stay undetected when one calls the name of another.
And kenku with “normal” professions usually take a name related to it, such as the swirl of liquid in a vial for an apothecary, or the sound of a book being slammed for a bookstore owner.
Your name is… what?
For the kenku, calling each other by sound effects is easy because of their mimicry ability. But for anyone else, those sound effects would be near impossible to replicate. And considering most of civilized society chooses not to associate with the kenku, normal folk wouldn’t have much incentive to learn to pronounce the sound effect names.
The kenku know this so they provide non-kenku with literal translations of their names. A kenku whose name is the sound of a shield being smashed would be “Shield Smash.” And a kenku whose name is the sound of a cat hissing would be called “Cat Hiss.” So on and so forth.
The following list contains the literal translations for many kenku names:
Kenku Names: Badger Run, Bat Swoop, Bee Buzzer, Book Slam, Cat Rustle, Cutter, Clash, Clink, Crocodile Hiss, Dove Swoop, Flopper, Growler, Knocker, Mallet Crash, Potion Gush, Ruffler, Ship Creak, Tree Creak, Tree Fall, Whipper, Wind Chime
What do the kenku look like?
The kenku lost their wings but they are raven-like in appearance and humanoid. So they have arms in place of wings, bird-like claws for hands and feet, and black eyes with a long beak. Their head and torso are bedecked with soft, dark russet-brown feathers, while their talons are bare and scaled like a bird’s.
Kenku are slightly smaller than the average human, standing at around 5 feet (1.5 meters). Because they have partially hollow bones, they are lighter than most creatures their height, averaging only 105 pounds (47 kilograms). They are therefore not as strong, but they are more agile and dexterous.
They typically wore nondescript brown robes, under which they concealed tools and weaponry.
Your kenku character has the following racial traits:
Ability Score Increase
Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1. These ability score increases make for good Rangers, Clerics, Druids, Monks, Rogues, and Dexterity-based Fighters. But if you want to take advantage of the Wisdom bonus for spellcasters, be aware that spellcasting as a kenku is not as straightforward as it is for other races.
Kenku have shorter lifespans than humans. They reach maturity at about 12 years old and can live to 60. This doesn’t matter unless your campaign stretches out over decades.
Kenku are chaotic creatures, rarely making enduring commitments, and they care mostly for preserving their own hides. They are generally chaotic neutral in outlook.
Kenku are generally self-centered and make decisions based on what the individual thinks is right. They follow their own moral code rather than that of others, but because they are flock animals, they make sure to protect those they look up to or share a bond with.
Kenku are around 5 feet tall and weigh between 90 and 120 pounds. Your size is Medium.
Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
You can duplicate other creatures’ handwriting and craftwork. You have advantage on all checks made to produce forgeries or duplicates of existing objects.
Make sure you grab a Forgery Kit (and the proficiency to go with it) if you want to take advantage of this ability. You have to think creatively to spot opportunities to use it, but those opportunities are worth it.
At the very least you can use it to earn some gold by creating new versions of important documents for a local official, or religious texts for a monastery. And if you need to get into a guarded city, make a copy of a document to pass through the city’s gates without raising suspicion.
Or indulge in your desire for chaos by getting a sample of the King’s handwriting and seal. Then write a declaration of war in the king’s name, make a ton of copies, and post them around every town and city you visit until the entire kingdom is up in arms. Don’t get caught though, or you’ll be executed
Kenku Training—Two Free Skills!
You are proficient in your choice of two of the following skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand. Kenku Training is an incredible trait because there is no such thing as too many additional skill proficiencies, especially when all four skills contribute to a great rogue.
The simple choice is to go with two skill proficiencies that aren’t already specified by your class or background. Start dominating those skill checks!
Mimicry—Watch out for Verbal Components when you cast spells…
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.
This iconic ability forms the core of their identity. It’s an ability designed for deception and trickery. The mimicry trait has potential, but it requires some thought to use effectively. Keep notes on the specific sounds, words, and sentences your kenku wants to use later so you have a go-to list you can refer to.
You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait. If you gain the ability to communicate telepathically, you can speak through your thoughts as if you’re speaking normally. And don’t forget that you can write normally as well.
Fun Builds for Your Kenku Character
No class or background you pick will be bad. As long as you play something that sounds fun, you will have fun playing a kenku. But if you want a good place to start, you will find some great ideas below and in our kenku class guide:
A bard makes for an interesting choice since kenku lack the spark of creativity necessary for playing music. However, because they can perfectly mimic sounds and voices, your bard could mimic an instrument playing an entire song.
And when it comes to roleplaying, their entire story arc could tackle the nature of creativity in a person. What does it mean to be creative? Where does creativity come from? Is it possible to regain your spark of creativity without lifting the curse?
The additional skill proficiencies and ability score increases make for a great monk! Since you get bonuses to Dexterity and Wisdom, focus on Constitution as your next highest ability score so you can survive the battles ahead.
Then choose a Monk subclass that fits your playstyle. Drunken Master, Kensei, and Open Hand amplify your melee options. And Ascendant Dragon, Four Elements, and Shadow Traditions give you great magical abilities (like breathing fire)!
Remember though, to learn new magic and cast spells as a kenku isn’t simple as it is for other races.
The kenku abilities will allow you to play a stealthy monk. You can scout out ahead, get a feel for your foes, and even distract them while your companions get into position to attack. In essence, you’re a ninja monk.
The ability score increases work in favor of the cleric as well. Everyone benefits from Dexterity and Wisdom is the spellcasting ability for clerics. On top of that, since a deity cursed the kenku, your cleric might see it as a test of her faith. A kenku could go on a mission to prove his faith to the chosen deity in exchange for getting his voice back.
A kenku cleric’s story could revolve around trying to find a way to lift the curse and return to their true forms. They could also try to learn more about the deity that cursed them in the first place.
The additional skill proficiencies and stealthy nature are perfect for the trickery domain. Between Expert Forgery, Invoke Duplicity, and Minor Illusion, you’ll be the ultimate prankster in and out of battle.
In a Nutshell—Kenku 5e Lore Makes for Great Roleplaying
The kenku have come a long way from simple monsters in the Monster Manual III to player characters in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. But they’ve always been a race with great roleplaying potential and capable of some truly memorable moments. I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to play your kenku character.
Want to take your kenku experience to the next level? Check out our series of guides for this amazing player race:
- Roleplay a Kenku in 5e: Simple Tips for Epic Adventures
- Make Your Kenku Unique With These 9 Unusual Tips
- The Best Classes for Kenku in Dungeons & Dragons
- Kenku Monk 5E: Unparalleled Master of Spirit and Agility
What do you think about the kenku? What have been some of your favorite memories roleplaying as a kenku? Let us know in the comments!
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