DnD 5e - The Kenku Handbook
Last Updated: January 8th, 2020
I will use 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.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.