Last Updated: April 25, 2022
Kenku are mechanically solid, and excel in a variety of builds due to their excellent ability score increases and free skill proficiencies. They are defined more by their Dexterity increase than their Wisdom increase, and the Kenku is a go-to race for stealthy characters. With the custom origin rules or the updated version of the Kenku published in Monsters of the Multiverse, the Kenku is defined primarily by its skill proficiencies and Mimicry.
Thematically, the Kenku is a fantastically unique race with some interesting quirks. They are spectular imitators, but lack creativity. They can mimic sounds and ideas, but don’t have their own voices and can’t come up with plans on their own. This is an interesting roleplaying challenge; how do you play a game that’s so dependent on clever thinking when your character can only regurgitate ideas which it heard elsewhere?
Of course, the updated version of the Kenku published in Monsters of the Multiverse discards much of that. While kenku are still fantastic at mimicry and imitation, WotC removed the Kenku’s inability to devise novel ideas or to speak without mimicking other sounds and voices. There’s nothing to stop you from playing a kenku who relies entirely on mimicry, plagiarism, and duplication of other creatures’ behaviors, ideas, and speech, but it’s not longer the expectation. That does remove some of the novelty of the race, but it also means that players might not feel as restrained in their actions when playing a kenku.
Table of Contents
- Kenku vs. Tabaxi
- Kenku Speech
- Kenku Versions
- Kenku Classes (Customizable Origins)
- Kenku Classes (Classic Rules)
RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational. Nearly never useful.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
- : Good options. Useful often.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.
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Kenku vs. Tabaxi
The Kenku and the Tabaxi have a lot of overlap. Their ability score increases are similar and they recieves similar skill proficiencies. However, the minor differences between the two leave some room for one to excel over the other depending on the needs of the class or build.
Kenku’s unique method of speech is probably the most iconic feature of the race, and playing with this limitation draws many players to the Kenku over the Tabaxi or the Wood Elf, which offer similar racial traits. However, many players misinterpret how the Kenku’s speech mechanics work.
Kenku are capable of perfectly reproducing sounds which they hear, including voices. There is no written limitation on how many sounds and voices you can remember and mimic, which means that any given kenku can build a nearly limitless library of sounds to imitate.
In an absolute worst-case scenario where a kenku has been exposed to trivially small amounts of speech, they can either repeat words or short phrases in their entirety. Imagine only being able to speek in star wars prequel memes. Sure, you can respond to nearly any situation with one of the lines you know, but you lose a lot of nuance and specificity. This is the way many players portray the Kenku’s Mimicry trait, and again: this is the absolute worst-case scenario. A kenku which speaks this way has likely never met a non-kenku capable of speech.
A more normal scenario would be a kenku who has heard several conversations between other speaking creatures over the course of their lifetime. Based on real-world research performed on speech patterns for natural language interfaces like Siri and Alexa or for things like “deep fakes”, a computer can replicate the speech of a real human with reasonable accuracy based on recordings of just a few seconds of speech. Kenku are natural mimics biologically predisposed to this capacity, and I have absolutely no doubt that a race of natural mimics could replicate natural human speech after a hearing a few minutes of speech.
In extreme cases, kenku might learn speech in the same way that natural language interfaces do. Spoken language is composed of a collection of specific sounds rearranged in different orders to create sounds that we recognize as words. People whose voices are used as the basis for computerized speech (Siri, Alexa, etc.) participate in recording sessions where they record a library of these sounds. These sounds are then arranged by computers to produce audible speech which can be adjusted in a few ways to sound like real speech. Kenku can do the same thing. A smart master could sit down with their kenku minions and read off a bunch of sounds, allowing kenku to speech almost naturally. Kenku could then perfectly mimic this teaching session, spreading the original master’s voice throughout the population.
However, even in the best of cases it’s not clear if kenku are creative enough to alter the inflection of their voices. A kenku which has been coached with a full range of sounds to replicate speech might still only be able to speak in monotone, and kenku that assemble speech from a broad collection of sources might sound disjointed and fluxuate wildly in tone and pitch like an old Speak & Spell. Individual families of kenku might all share one voice which has been passed down for generations, allowing outsiders to identify regional kenku populations by their shared voices. These concepts aren’t explored in the official text, but it’s an interesting thought exercise, and it’s great fodder for roleplaying.
There are effectively three versions of the Kenku. The original was published in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They were later reprinted in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount without any changes.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced the option Customizing Your Origin rules, which gave us the second version and allowing players to reassign the Kenku’s ability score increases and removing the limitation on their two racial skill proficiencies.
Most recently, Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse re-published the Kenku, making major change to their lore and their racial traits. In addition to the standard changes to Ability Score Increases (everyone gets their choice of +2/+1 or three +1 increases), the Kenku’s other traits improved significantly. Kenku Training previously allowed 2 skills from a fixed list, but while other races went back to fixed proficiencies or a list of options, the Kenku now gets any two skills of their choice. Kenku Training also offers an Advantage mechanic which makes the Kenku very effective at using skills. Mimicry was also updated to use a DC based on your Charisma rather than expecting you to be proficient in Deception in order to use it successfully. Altogether, this was a nice quality of life improvement to the Kenku, but not such a huge buff that it would cause problems.
Kenku Classes (Customizable Origins)
This section assumes that you’re using the option updated versions of the race, including the “Customizing Your Origin” rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and/or the updated version published in Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse. Because the race changed so little between those two versions, I have decided to combine these two sections. If you’re not using those rules, scroll down to the “Classic Rules” section.
The Kenku doesn’t bring anything unique to the Artificer.
Tragically, Kenku Recall’s Advantage mechanic only applies to ability checks which use a skill, so you can’t use it with the Artificer’s abundant tool proficiencies.
Kenku Recall’s Advantage mechanic can be helpful for Athletics checks to grapple when you can’t Rage for whatever reason, and two additional skills offer additional options to be useful outside of combat which the Barbarian sorely needs.
Two skill proficiencies, the Advantage mechanic from Kenku Recall, and Mimicry all work very well for the Bard, allowing you to more easily cover multiple skill-based roles in the party. Combining with Expertise with Advantage from Kenku Recall makes it easy to be nearly unstoppable with skill checks without resorting to Enhance Ability constantly.
Two skills offer some more options for the Cleric, but few clerics can do a lot with skills. Trickery Domain might allow you to take the place of a rogue in the party, and coupled with mimicry that feels thematically appropriate.
Druids don’t usually do a lot with skills, but since their armor options are poor many druids will have good enough Dexterity to also serve as a Scout if you take skill proficiencies similar to a rogue.
Two additional skills offer some sorely-needed options for the Fighter to be useful outside of combat. Strength-based builds can use Kenku Recall’s Advantage mechanic effectively for Athletics checks to grapple, and Dexterity-based builds can potentially serve as a Scout if you select the right proficiencies.
Two skills and the Advantage mechanic from Kenku Recall (if you’re using the updated version of the Kenku) do a lot to close the skill gap between the Monk and the Rogue.
Two additional skill proficiencies will help you expand beyond Face skills. If you’re using the updated version of the Kenku, Kenku Recall offers a helpful Advantage option for important skill checks which paladins can’t replicate using spells or similar options.
Two skills and the Advantage mechanic from Kenku recall do a lot to close the skill gap between the Ranger and the Rogue.
Two additional skills gives you even more options, and Kenku Recall works with any ability check where you proficiency in a skill applies, so your abundant skill proficiencies will give you even more opportunities to apply Kenku Recall. Just try not to blow through the limited uses too quickly.
Two additional skill proficiencies will help you to expand beyond Face skills. If you’re using the updated version, the Kenku Recall’s Advantage mechanic is good, but not as good as Enhance Ability. Still, it may be enough that you might skip Enhance Ability or at least wait to get it a few levels longer than you might otherwise.
Two additional skill proficiencies will help you to expand beyond Face skills. Warlocks also can’t cast Enhance Ability, so the Kenku Recall’s Advantage mechanic is a decent substitute if you’re using the updated version of the Kenku.
There simply aren’t enough Intelligence-based skills to make two additional skill proficiencies a major advantage for the Wizard. If you want Advantage, either have your familiar Help you or cast Enhance Ability.
Kenku Classes (Classic Rules)
Bad ability spread.
Bad abilty spread.
A Kenku bard is a really interesting concept, but without a Charisma increase your core class features will lag behind other races.
Dexterity and Wisdom are a decent combination for a cleric, and the Kenku’s extra skill proficiencies can give you some extra capabilities simialr to a rogue. A kenku trickery cleric would make excellent rogue replacement.
You get the critical Wisdom increase, and a Dexterity increase helps with the Druid’s notoriously terrible AC. The extra skill proficiencies don’t play especially well to the Druid’s skillset, but like the Cleric you can easily fill in for a rogue with the right skills and background.
Dexterity-based builds work really well, and the Kenku’s extra skills and unique flavor are great for a class which often feels dull when you’re not fighting.
Dexterity and Wisdom are perfect for the Monk, and the Kenku’s additional skill proficiencies help the Monk to serve as a scout.
Dexterity-based paladins are possible, but very little about the Kenku plays to the paladin mechanically or thematically.
Kenku are sneaky with Dexterity and Wisdom increases. You can hardly ask for a better ranger.
Rogue fits the Kenku very well thematically. The racial skill options give you room to customize your build more than the Tabaxi, and the theme of the rogue is absolutely perfect for a race suited to forgery, mimicry, and appropriation.
No Charisma increase.
No Charisma increase.
No Intelligence increase.