Kenku Mimicry: A Word Puzzle
by Steven Franklin
I Don’t Kenku-Shame
You may have seen fan art of Critical Role’s NPC “Kiri” and correctly deduced that she’s the sweetest thing ever (yeah, I said it! Wanna fight about it?) and subsequently decided that you want to make your own jet-black, flightless, anthropomorphic crow for your next character. Fantastic! You’re in for a great time!
But before you commission an epic character portrait for the cutest little fella ever, you need to wrap your head around the kenku race’s hallmark trait, a double-edged sword that WILL come up in EVERY roleplay encounter since it doesn’t have a proverbial “off switch”. This signature feature is what makes the Dungeons and Dragons kenku special among all other races and systems, and what attracts many players to this race as they excitedly plot ways to abuse… I mean, “use” it!
Mimicry Makes a D&D Kenku Unique
From Volo’s Guide to Monsters regarding the 5e kenku’s racial features:
Mimicry. 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.
Wow! That sounds like an amazing and powerful mechanic! No wonder it’s such a hot topic! Does it make kenku the best 5e race where espionage and infiltration are concerned? Possibly so!
Does this also make them the best at all social encounters? Well, yes! But actually… no.
In fact, many prospective kenku players actually find the prospect of social encounters to be one of the more daunting aspects of playing this race, and may ultimately cast the kenku aside because of them. Why is that? To find out, we must read the next feature on their list:
Languages. You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait.
Speech Is For the Birds (Well, Except These Birds)
Aaaaand therein lies the problem. As stated in the rules, your kenku cannot express themselves verbally without having the appropriate phrase (or at least some approximation thereof) said in their presence before, and must repeat that phrase instead of voicing their own. When “parroting” such phrases, they mimic the sound precisely, copying the original speaker’s tone, cadence, and volume as closely as possible. This prospect can be very intimidating to many players, and may cause them to avoid the 5e kenku D&D race entirely. After all, how are they supposed to talk to the rest of the party, much less NPCs, if they can’t speak of their own accord?
Don’t worry, there are options. There’s a lot of grey area where the mimicry trait is concerned, and DMs will differ in their adjudication of this feature. While some will say that D&D kenku can barely form original thoughts, and must copy entire, complete sentences from others in order to communicate, others will permit them to copy individual words from various speakers, parsing them together to express themselves more articulately (even if they sound like an audio-collaged ransom note while doing so). Other DM’s will be more lenient still! For example, in my campaign setting, kenku children take formal “Common” classes where they learn the language alongside children of other races. By the time they’ve finished, they can cobble together virtually any sentence using the words they’ve heard in class (even if the entire generation of kenku all speak in the droning classroom-voice of their language professor).
Solving the Mimicry Puzzle
Regardless of your DM’s position on how to run kenku in their setting, it’s important to remember that your kenku’s ability to mimic others starts at birth, not the beginning of the campaign. kenku DND backstories involve years and years of interactions with other creatures, whose voices and sentiments they’ve stored in their cute little bird-brains for future use. Maybe they were raised as a servant of nobility, and have acquired a regal voice complete with hundreds of courtly phrases they can use to diplomatically negotiate with others or to imperiously command those around them. Or perhaps they spent a few years on the high seas, and now curse like a sailor in a gruff voice and belt out boisterous sea shanties as they travel! It might be a bit of an odd comparison, but think of it like how Bumblebee in the Transformers movies can only communicate based on what’s on the radio at the time, but still gets an approximation of his point across. Use their backstory to pre-fill their vocabulary with a myriad of colorful, if slightly-out-of-context, ways of expressing themselves!
And don’t forget that every kenku is proficient in at least 2 written languages! Whatever concept or sentiment they wish to express, they can always jot it down on a notepad and hand it off. Your little feathered friend can even incorporate the use of drawing stylistic emojis to convey emotion via these medieval “text-messages.” Or they can mime, which can be hilarious as long as it's handled correctly. By doing so you could even choose to play them as an effectively mute character, using non-verbal communication for virtually all interactions! This enables even the most self-conscious roleplayer to play as a cute bird-person without having to create a plethora of vocal personas and impersonations, all while still banking the Mimicry feature for future situations where it will be particularly useful!
Who Should Play a Kenku?
Players who choose to roll up a DND kenku can be viewed as “trolls”, seeking their own fun regardless of how their behavior will affect the rest of the table (or even at their expense!). That reputation does have a basis within the community, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a legitimate place at the table! In fact, there are two player archetypes that will LOVE this race and the advantages it affords.
Firstly, 5e kenku are the perfect race for the “Scientist” at your table. These are the players who look at a list of seemingly unrelated numbers, features, feats, and traits throughout the rulebooks and see untapped potential. They shoulder the task of finding a way to make them all work in tandem to achieve feats previously assumed impossible. They go beyond min-maxing; not merely optimizing a character… but looking to execute a plan! They enjoy pushing the boundaries of what is achievable within the mechanics of the game, and see the Mimicry feature as another cog in the machine to enable a new, untested, innovative playstyle. Imagine what these players can do with a sentient tape-recorder in a fantasy setting! If you’re one of these unsung heroes, I salute you! Find me on Discord and tell me what you’ve wrought!
Kenku are also particularly well-suited to the “Actors” at your table who relish the chance to mix up their roleplay encounters, especially those seeking a new challenge! By constantly changing voices and tone, they can embody the persona of a blushing maiden, a stalwart captain, a worried mother, and a cackling hag in a single conversation using their parroted phrases! It also gives them the opportunity to do cheeky impressions of the other characters in their party, which can be an absolute delight at some tables, and lead to mischievous shenanigans at others. For my money, the whole table wins when an “actor” plays a kenku.
“Murder” Your Party!
Calm down, it’s just the name for a group of crows, okay?
Bottom line is this: don’t be intimidated by the Dungeons and Dragons kenku! They’re a race with boundless possibilities for creative players and built-in comic relief for the fun-loving ones! Remember that the mimicry trait was added not to “nerf” an otherwise overpowered race. It’s just one of many options providing players with new ways to channel their creativity, but (I can’t stress this enough) said creativity is not a requirement to play kenku in 5e!
So go out there and make some cute little featherheads and give them some silly kenku names! Players, talk to your DM about ways you want to get creative with your mimicry feature during Session 0! Work together to make your kenku rogue or kenku artificer something unique and incredible! And Dungeon Masters, encourage your players when they come to you wanting to take advantage of such a fantastic creative outlet!
Because no one, regardless of which side of the screen they’re on, should miss out on all the kenku fun!
About the Author
Steven Franklin has been playing D&D for almost a decade, spending the majority of his time creating and playing unique characters, though he's stepped behind the screen too! He is host of the Bardic Twinspiration podcast that aims to improve the way you run and play D&D with your friends. Outside the hobby, he is a loving husband and proud father of three!