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Looking over races to play, there is one race that gets a pass way too many times. Either that or they are completely misunderstood and destined to become annoying or a joke character. Now, cheers to you who actually make this race work and make amazing characters with it. But how many ignore the Kenku’s limitations? Do you pass on the curse of no original thought? How do you handle the mimic ability? Would love to hear what you have done.
But we at the Magic Tavern have a unique view of Kenkus. Instead of being a race with too many minuses to deal with, we see the Kenku as the most amazing and rich race to play in all of D&D. Let me show you why.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters gave us our 5E introduction to the enigmatic Kenku by painting a tragic picture of a people who betrayed the wrong entity. Now, there are many versions of myth about said entity. But Wotc, as you well know, does this to allow the DM creative freedom. It’s up to you which myth you buy into. OR you can go a totally different route. We will deal with this in our own way; giving you yet another route.
Giving them a +2 to Dexterity has made them the perfect rogues. Not to mention their mimic ability, their Kenku Training (proficiency in Stealth?) and dark, feathered aesthetic. The +1 to Wisdom, however, is a conundrum. Many want to make the Kenku mindless copycats. But viewing them as wise? Once we get done, you will understand this. MIMICRY is a useful ability but misunderstood. More later also.
The centerpiece of the Kenku story is the cautionary tale of a powerful master and thieving servants and what happens because. As stated before, there are many versions of who this overlord was that the Kenku were serving. Some say Grazz’t, one of the Demon Lords. Others say the Wind Dukes of Aaqa. Regardless of who is it, the story goes that the Kenku devised a plan to steal something from their master. This goes to highlight a problem inherent in all Kenku. They ARE consummate thieves. They can’t pass up shiny objects. It’s an obsession to them. They are the epitome of the kleptomaniac. Now it’s not always something valuable. It just has to be dazzling…mesmerizing.
Their master uncovering their plan led to them being cursed not once, but three times. First, they lost their wings; forever locked to the ground, never to soar in the skies again. And this is the one they miss the most. They find high places to live; longing to jet into the wild, blue yonder. If they had a choice of one of the curses to break, it would be this one.
The second curse took their voice to insure that they would never divulge their former master’s secrets. Kenku today have no voice of their own. This is replaced by the MIMICRY racial trait that allows them to repeat sounds they have heard perfectly. To tell it’s imitation, a creature who hears it must compete; Their Wisdom (Insight) vs the Kenku’s Charisma (Deception) which the Kenku can take proficiency in as a part of their traits also.
The last curse is the most devastating both for the Kenku race and for those playing them. Their vengeful master, angry at their ingenuity and skill in plotting and planning such a betrayal, took their ‘spark of creativity’. According to Volo’s, a Kenku has no original thoughts of its own. They can copy plans and ideas, but can never plot with the genius they once had.
CURSE OR BLESSING?
Now, I won’t try and convince you that these three curses are anything close to a blessing, but there are caveats to playing a Kenku over any other race.
First of all, Kenku are perfect mimics. They can use other’s voices. This can be especially useful in a master deception. This ability also allows them to mimic ANY SOUND perfectly.
This MIMIC ability goes even farther; giving your Kenku the ability of an expert forger (VOLO’S) allowing advantage to produce handwriting of others. But don’t forget the last part of that trait. This mimicry included CRAFTWORK. YES, the Kenku can watch something crafted once and become the perfect sweatshop worker; reproducing that item flawlessly. Now, it may not be the expertly crafted item you expected, but it is a functional duplicate. This means that the Kenku us more than a copycat. The Kenku not only repeats what he hears, is an expert Forger and can duplicate items, they are also CATALOGING said sounds, printed words and items.
This is the part that most miss. Volo’s Guide even says that Kenku make great artisans; reproducing items with amazing success. And, although Kenku ‘cannot create new sounds’, they can communicate using sounds they have heard before. In fact, their elders are revered not just because they are old, but they have a larger catalog of sounds, written words and items. This would make a large nest of Kenku dangerous to any civilization or an important part of it.
This is, as always countered by their inherent shiftiness and incontrollable need to steal shiney objects. Civilization views them as nothing more than unintelligent thieves leeching off of society. It’s a catch22. Given the chance, Kenku could build something amazing. They could have a civilization like no other, but only if they have the proper example. But, because of their original sin, being natural thieves and traitors, they will always be cast out and forced to live on the fringe of society as scavengers. Once their numbers grow too great, they will probably be hunted to keep their kind at bay.
As dark as all of this is, an individual Kenku who can keep from being caught with his hands in the cookie jar long enough can do some amazing things. That’s why they make excellent rogues. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Society sees them as thieves. The Kenku, possibly through their inability to have an original thought, obliges society by becoming what they have been labeled.
But, all it takes is one person in their world to see it and show them a different path. The kindly wizard shows them the words, the motions and the books of magic. A warrior takes one such Kenku under his wings (bad pun) and creates a decent duplicate of himself in flair and fighting prowess. In fact, there is no class that Kenku can’t excel in. Even spell casters, once they learn the foundational building blocks of magic and build upon that easily. Becoming a Monk just takes a master willing to show the motions of their particular way. The hermit druid can show them the ways of nature and the green. There really is no limit to what a Kenku can be.
On top of this, they are streetwise survivors. Because of the life they’ve been thrust into, they learn to scrounge the streets for food. They know how to survive the meanest of streets. This is mostly due to their knowledge of stealth, slight of hand, deception and acrobats (Kenku Training-Volo’s Guide). They are never helpless.
It also brings so many roleplaying opportunities. As they leave their former master and draw upon the massive catalog of moves or spells, they are learning from their world. Everywhere they go, every person they meet and every victory and tragedy they experience, they are learning and cataloging. That means whoever plays them must pay attention and, possibly, take copious notes of sounds, voices, writing, etc. Get with your DM about how far this can go and how much it can effect your world.
ORIGINS OF THE KENKU AND THE RAVENLORD
There are three theories about where the Kenku come from. I am not listing them according to their probability for it is up to the DM to decide.
TENGU OR THE WINGED KENKU
Debuting in the classic 2E sourcebook, Oriental Adventures, and renewed in 3rd Edition in a book of the same name, TENGU were introduced as a race of Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms. They still had their wings and flight and were ferocious warriors. Tengu were portrayed as intolerant of humans and impulsive and ill-tempered.
Some believe this is the way the Kenku began. Although they are described as originating in ‘another plane’ serving an unknown master, this could be any plane of existence even Kara-Tur. See 3rd Edition’s Oriental Adventures for more info about Kara-Tur.
THE CREATOR RACES OF FAERUN
Since most of the focus of adventuring from 3rd Edition on was centered on the Forgotten Realms, we return to the prehistory of Faerun for one more theory. There were five creator races that arrived in Faerun in the beginning. One such race was the Aearee.
The Aearee, as you would expect, were said to be the creators of the winged races of Faerun during the mythic DAYS OF THUNDER. Some of the older editions went on to explore these in detail. There were three subraces of the Aearee:
The Krocaa division of the Aearee were said to be created in the image of the mighty eagle. Dragon Magazine #124 and MONSTER MYTHOLOGY further elaborated the deity they worshiped also called KROCAA. Although his symbol was a crimson feather due to the red feathers that adorned his head, he had golden wings like an eagle. To this day the name Aarakocra is a version of their original name as they mostly are seen as eagles.
In the early editions, Krocaa was the god of all winged races. As is the way with mythology, he was supplanted by his consort as he was relegated to the background. His consort, Syranita, the Morning Feather, was a goddess of brilliantly colored plumage. By MONSTER MYTHOLOGY, she had ascended the heights of creator god and revered by all races with wings. This also gives the player and DM a lot of room to color the avian in any fashion.
But the Quor line of the AEAREE creators is what intrests us here the most.
These were the Corvids; the black feathered flock of the sky. It is from here that many believe the Kenkus descended from. But, it goes much deeper and my favorite origin had to do with a haphazard deity whose name either is referenced or is the origin of the QUOR race.
THE RAVENLORD, GOD OF THE KENKU?
Now, only we at the Magic Tavern call this entity, the Ravenlord, as far as I know. But his story is as sorted and cautionary as that of his wards.
It is said that the unnamed god of the skies, KROCAA perhaps, created a godling that he determined was a mistake and a failed experiment. He called it QUORRLIN and tossed him aside. To win his ‘father’s’ approval, Quorrlin struggled to be an adequate godling in his creator’s eyes. Succeeding in this, his ‘father’, proud of his little mistake, created a race in his image and gifted them to Quorrlin.
Art by Mark Molnar
Well, Quorrlin wasn’t at all enthused with this new ‘gift’ for it came with the responsibility to care for these new creatures. And that was not something the black feathered god had either asked for nor was willing to take on. Abandoning them to their own devices, they became the Kenku we all know and love; cursed and consumate thieves and traitors.
So, the sins of the fathers, both Krocaa and Quorrlin, reap the whirlwind just like the good book says.
A STORY OF REDEMPTION
All of this leads me to a natural conclusion in the story. The Kenku’s story is either a story of redemption or a tragedy of epic proportions. What follows is a campaign pitch for the Kenku.
After millennia of watching his children falter, fail and dive into a spiral of poverty and rejection, QUORRLIN, the RAVENLORD, has decided to intervene. Choosing his champions, he goes about to, not only save his charges from extinction but possibly sees a way to redeem the Kenku and reverse the curse.
This is an adventure of epic proportions of which I am in the process of working on. I think I know how they may be able to get their wings back, but their voice and mind are harder. The point is this would be an amazing journey that a small group in our game has begun. Whether they fail or retain their former glory, there’s so much flavor and fun to be had along the way.
Besides the Kenku champions gathering to assist The Raven Lord in this act of ultimate redemption, I’ve also included tropes from Celtic myth dealing with the Morrigan and the cycle of life, death and rebirth; Creation, Dissolution and Recreation. It’s a them on my homebrew world and it works great with the aesthetic of the raven, the crow, the Ravenlord and his attendants that I call THE MURDER.
Tuesday night, September 7th at 8 PM on TWITCH (themagictavern), we will be discussing the Kenku further. We will also be showcasing some of these champions. From CHUGS, the drunken master, to SNAP, CRACKLE and POP, it’s going to a fun reveal. We may even possibly get to talk to my buddy Halkad who plays our resident Kenku Rogue on what it means to be Kenku and some of the nuances.
Also watch our Facebook and the blog for articles on some of the above character references.
SNAP, CRACKLE and POP- Kenku order of the Ravenlord (COMING SOON)
Forgotten Gods of the Skies for more on the winged gods mentioned above.
PICTURES FOR INSPIRATION