Man I absolutely love when I have a chance to make a really weird or fun character to roleplay in any given campaign. If you’re going to be diving into a major fantasy world why not go all out? At least that’s my thought when looking at the possibility of playing a kenku as a player character (PC).
While the Kenku offers some really interesting opportunities, it’s important to go into any attempt to play a Kenku with open eyes and an understanding of everything that will end up entailing.
Roleplaying a Kenku in 5e Dungeons & Dragons involves making the restrictions on the racial class a strength instead of a weakness, and getting creative so you’re more than just a sideshow. Referring to past lives, using multiple character voices, and using sound effect tools on your smartphone or laptop are great ways to keep your Kenku fresh and interesting.
If you avoid the common pitfalls, and do a little bit of creative planning following the advice in this article, you’ll play a great Kenku character in your 5E campaign that the table will be talking about for years after the campaign is over!
Check out our Unqualified Experts Episode on Tabaxi & Kenku Roleplaying!
We really enjoyed making the above video on roleplaying Tabaxi and Kenku.
While playing a great Kenku does take extra work and planning, keeping a few main cornerstones in mind can help you carve a character you love to play, that is very unique, and doesn’t run into the common Kenku problem of making your tablemates want to kill you by the 10th session.
Avoid the Glorified Parrot Pitfall (aka Stupid Mimic)
For the first couple sessions, playing a kenku like a mimic will generally be funny. If you have good timing and keep some notes on what the party says, that can be enough to enjoy your weird little song and dance for a while, but eventually that will get repetitive, boring, and in some cases even really annoying.
Most players fall into this mistake of ending up as little more than a glorified parrot with a few skills to throw in here or there. What at first was a novel restriction that seemed interesting (not being able to talk – only mimic sounds or people they’ve heard) but it then becomes that: a restriction.
The act gets old not only for the player but others at the table, and unless it was a one shot or a short 3-6 session mini-campaign, it can be easy to grow resentful of the character.
This doesn’t mean you can’t throw in some good mimicking every so often when it’s funny, inappropriate, or you just want to help the DM cause a scene because you like chaos. Kenkus can be absolutely marvelous when used this way.
But you need to have a lot more than that, too.
What Was Your Life Pre-Adventure?
Chances are your Kenku isn’t going on his or her first adventure. This is key to playing a great Kenku!
Knowing your character’s life pre-campaign can open up an amazing array of opportunities for incredible role playing in your D&D game. Seeing as how one of the most frustrating parts of playing a Kenku in 5E
Prepare Multiple Character Voices
This goes hand in hand with the above tip for roleplaying a kenku in 5E. If you’re joining an adventuring party then it makes sense that at various times you have been on adventures, received training, or otherwise seen and heard many things before this. That’s not only crucial to keep your character interesting, but also gives you the opportunity to voice multiple characters from your Kenku’s past.
- The dwarf with a thick brogue accent cussing up a storm during merchant/haggling negotiations.
- The elegant clearly noble voice of a noble lady elucidating the court training you are to receive.
- The barbarian roar of a raging half-orc barbarian.
- An old guy who is clearly off his rocker telling rambling Grandpa Simpson type stories, or exclamations of 30’s slang that is hilarious.
- An old lady who speaks in random sweetheart expressions, because “Aren’t you precious, doncha know?”
By building your character’s backstory you can have a series of voices or way of speaking that speaks of your character in the 3rd person, gives a hint as to your past, but doesn’t necessarily give away everything since you can only mimic things you’ve heard them say.
Discuss with Your DM
There are a few things you’ll want to discuss with your DM. One is how you intend to play your Kenku character, and what they’re comfortable with. They may say that you can toss out several lines at a time in a voice, or restrict you to around 10 word phrases. You want to discuss with them various thoughts about how you can play the Kenku, but also make communication a plus and not a headache for the party or campaign.
A little bit of planning with setting expectations and understanding the preferred rules or borders for how to play your character in a way that will interact well with the party and the campaign will make everything run way more smoothly.
Set Up Sound Effects
One of our friends had an amazing idea for playing the Kenku, as she’s been doing this during the online sessions (pandemic safety and all). She took the sound board from Darkest Dungeon, and used many of those sound effects. After all, being a mimic doesn’t just refer to voices.
For example, the name of her Kenku rogue isn’t a name – it’s the actual sound of a heavy knock on a door – one of the very distinctive sounds from the video game Darkest Dungeon.
This is also an awesome and completely in character way to create a great Kenku name as that is her character perfectly mimicking a sound for its designation.
The soundboard from Darkest Dungeon isn’t the only one that’s available online. For those playing via computer there are multiple opportunities here to put together sounds that can mean a variety of things. The sound of a cackling fire for suggesting to set camp, the sound of a clock ticking to hurry, the sound of a command trumpet to distract guards – there are many ways to create a sound board you can use to add a lot of flavor to your Kenku character.
Sometimes you just want a workaround. Fortunately for players, there are a few options though they may be dependent on the situation, your player’s class, or some of the spells/items available from your group.
It’s important to note the wording in Volo’s Guide of Monsters on how Kenku communication works. They can’t speak verbally due to their curse, being forced to mimic.
Why does this matter?
Because it’s been asked, and confirmed multiple times, that Kenku think normally but they can’t speak. That means if you have any type of spell or item that allows you to communicate telepathically, you can speak completely normally, in full thoughts and sentences.
This also means if you approve having some sort of “sign language” in your world, then it’s possible for the Kenku to sign in full sentences or full details.
These are great ways to work around the most aggravating part of playing a Kenku character while also allowing you to highlight fun sounds, mimicking, or hilarious traits to accentuate your roleplay, when appropriate.
In other words, there are legitimate workarounds that can make roleplaying a kenku a lot of fun while dodging the obvious “This is going to get old fast” series of problems that have dogged this character class since its release into 5E.
Describe Actions + Give Interpretation
This has been the most consistent compromise I’ve seen with DMs and players who have figured out how to make a Kenku character work really well. This is where the player describes (or even mimes, depending how into RP you are) something, then you quickly give an explanation that explains what it means.
A few examples of what playing a Kenku character this way might look like:
Rooster-Crow puffs up his feathers then stretches his wing up, indicating that the enemy is very tall and very broad/muscular.Kenku ranger describing an enemy he saw while scouting
Knock opens her mouth and the sound of coins spilling off a table comes out. You know from the length of the sound that you’re looking at a substantial amount of loot ahead.Kenku rogue Knock is looking for her payday!
Whispered Sighs opens his beak and the sound of rumbling thunder and lightning comes out. Based on that and the eyes turning a cloudy purple, it’s pretty clear your warlock is about to go off and you should look for cover if you’re not defusing the situation.Oh those Kenku warlocks…I say from behind a barricade of overturned thick oak tables
This compromise is a really fantastic way to play a kenku character that is a great addition to the table without becoming annoying. You get the flavor text of the kenku and the positive added spice to the campaign without becoming a heavy anchor that weighs everything down.
This is great way to play these characters and makes things better for you as a player, for the DM, and for the fellow players. You still get to choose your moments for making actual sound effects or creating some of that great creative neutral chaos without driving everything to a screeching halt or repetitive schtick that loses its luster quickly.
Kenku Character Trait Ideas
Yeah, I have no shortage of these. A couple from actual campaigns, some from friends with a lot more experience roleplaying than me (6 years and counting as of 2021). Adding in some weird traits based on the tragic backstory of the Kenku race can actually lead to a treasure trove of amazing roleplaying moments, comical, tragic, or anything in between.
You could have a Kenku obsessed with finding flying magical items, so every time he/she finds something magical they throw it, hoping it will start flying.
Maybe your Kenku rogue is always stealing books but then destroying these valuable items by ripping out pages to make paper airplanes.
One of my favorite ideas for a Kenku actually blends the funny and the tragic of backstory. This character is a Kenku that is obsessed with flying with bad gnome-like inventions, who gives his name as “MaiBoi” in the friendly voice of an older gnome. You find out he’s referred to as “The bird who thinks he’s a gnome” because of all the times he crashes off roofs with wooden wings, bamboo wings, or bed sheet like parachutes.
The local paladins do a lot of their daily charity healing him after another flying mishap.
It’s funny, it can come up at the most inappropriate of times, and it’s in character. This can also become a really twist in the heart emotional moment (if you have a table that likes those deep moments) when the party visits a cemetery and MaiBoi goes to the gravestone of an old gnome.
For the first time you then hear the Kenku speak in the same voice as his name and the old gnome voice says: “Don’t worry, my boy, just a bit longer and we’ll get you flying again,” followed by the sound of a very sick wet cough. MaiBoi gives a look of deep sadness and lets out a sound of mourning.
That’s a ton of depth from a great tear-inducing scene from a character race you’re not expecting it from.
Don’t Overlook “Likes to Follow Orders” Trait
This can be used to hilarious effect when done right. Maybe he gets sidetracked because at the dock a foreman yells “All of you, start unloading the boat.” Obviously he means his workers, but the kenku just jumps in line and starts helping with unloading the boat.
Maybe when a bad guy yells “Stop!” or “Wait!” The Kenku player skips his turn to comply.
Maybe “I wish someone would dump a beer over that pompous jerk’s head!” Results in the kenku dumping an ale over the noble’s head.
This can be a very fun trait to play around with for comic relief and a little bit of Chaotic Neutral goodness that can add the perfect spice to an otherwise slow part of the campaign.
Or throw it into complete chaos. Whatever.
It’s understandable to me why the Kenku gets a bad wrap from many in 5th Ed. They sound really interesting and are often entertaining for the first one or two sessions but often become glorified parrots or the player struggles to create a character that’s any more than a sideshow. However, as this blog post shows, there is plenty of potential for some seriously good roleplaying.
A good kenku character offers some really great opportunities for roleplaying and although it takes a lot more work to do well, don’t let that throw you off a potentially great character and storyline.
Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.