Something Different: The Kenku Rogue
“Something Different” articles explore race and class combinations that are just a little bit off-center.
You were warned that Armston’s slums were labyrinthine and treacherous, but you had business with the thieves’ guild that you felt was well worth the risk. There were fortunes to be made—with the right blend of talents—and you were, after all, an adventurer of no small talent yourself.
Once again patting the pommel of your sword, you surveyed the choked alleyways and shuttered run-down storefronts. Beggars eyed you back with wary glances as cowled figures walked in pairs, whispering to each other and glancing about themselves. You were certain you saw tiefling horns and yellow eyes, tattooed half-orcs, and possibly even a succubus—if your eyes didn’t deceive you.
Following the directions you’d been given, you headed past the fruit market and the spice merchant who you had been told was selling poisons. You turned down an alley off the main thoroughfare and found yourself accosted by a half-dozen street urchins begging you for coin. “No,” you told them. “I have no time for you. Now leave me be.”
Offering the children a bit more elbow than might have been truly necessary, you continued following the twists and turns of the dimly lit alleys past ragged laundry, cracked windows, and cavernous doorways that offered an unseemly bouquet of strangely pungent odors. The children chased after you, cursing and spitting for a short time before they stopped, appearing to have reached an invisible line they were afraid to cross.
By every measure, Armston seemed to be living down to its reputation, so you looked about yourself once again, searching for the back entrance to the baker’s shop that you had been told was merely a front for the guild. You checked to make sure you hadn’t been followed and then marched to the door. As you reached for the door handle, you suddenly heard your own voice. “No time for you.”
Startled, you looked about, hand now firmly upon your pommel. Nothing. Not typically one given to paranoia, you counted it as a trick of the mind and reached again for the handle. “No,” you heard yourself say. “Leave me be.”
No one in sight. But someone was clearly watching you. “Who are you?” you called. “Show yourself!”
“Who are you?” came the reply—again in your own voice—and a cowled figure slipped out from the shadows.
It was the size of a small, thin man, but covered in feathers and with a long, dark beak like a man-sized crow’s. It edged toward you warily; an arrow notched on the string of its finely crafted bow. When it spoke, its words were like a stew of sampled voices, all jumbled and reordered into fractured sentences. “You… are in Red Claw turf… stranger.” The creature kept its bow drawn. “I am… called…” And here it made a sound like the twang of a bow. “…Archer.”
It was all you could do not to laugh at the absurdity of such an obvious name. But given how still and true that arrow seemed to be—the one aimed right at your heart—you held your tongue.
Why It’s Different
Like our fictional “Archer,” kenku are strange, wingless bird folk who have earned a rather sinister reputation for their tendency to associate themselves with thieves’ guilds and other criminal organizations.
This reputation isn’t necessarily unearned as Kenku make excellent rogues due to their +2 bonus to Dexterity and their +1 bonus to Wisdom, but they’re an uncommon choice for Rogues simply because they are a relatively uncommon race altogether. But it’s not just their scarcity that makes them uncommon; their curse also makes them a challenge to role-play.
First introduced to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the kenku were formerly the minions of one or another dark power. The demon prince Graz’zt is one likely candidate. While they served this master, they were cunning and winged. They loved to fly, but they also loved shiny treasures, and this proved their undoing.
The kenku plotted to steal one of their master’s treasures and escape with it to the Prime Material, but their master learned of their treachery and struck them down with a powerful, three-headed curse. First, they lost their beloved wings and the ability to fly. Second, they were stripped of their imagination and creativity. And, finally, they were stripped of their voices, left with only the ability to mimic the sounds that echoed all around them.
Naturally, this far-reaching curse limits the kenku. They make poor masterminds or social characters. They can’t come up with the elaborate plans adventuring parties often need. They sound incredibly awkward in conversation. They have a difficult time reacting to the unexpected and adapting to changing circumstances. And so they most often require someone to lead them and provide them with clear, detailed instructions.
In short, the kenku is a race that places tight borders around the traditional role-playing experience and forces you to think in a much narrower way about the rogue’s trade than you might while playing a cleverer and more inventive race.
How It Can Work
For every challenge, though, there’s someone looking to tackle it. For some players, the kenku Rogue may even provide a welcome excuse to focus on dealing sneak attack damage and quoting their favorite—tangentially applicable—movie lines.
The “Archer” character introduced above serves as one possible example:
As an unimaginative character, Archer is something of a “min-maxer,” willing to invest everything in the few attributes and skills he’s going to use over and over and over… and over.
This means that as a Dexterity-driven Rogue, if Archer were using the variant for customizing ability scores found on page 13 of the Player’s Handbook, he’d begin with the maximum scores of 15 for his Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. These would then bump up to a 17 Dexterity and 16 Wisdom, meaning that with the appropriate proficiencies he’d begin his career as Stealthy and Perceptive as anyone at his level, laying the foundation for his life as an Assassin.
Archer’s not going to follow the Arcane Trickster archetype because he doesn’t have the imagination required for clever use of Enchantment and Illusion spells, and he’s not going to become a Thief because he’s going to multiclass as a Ranger in order to get the greatest possible value from his archery.
By taking three levels in the Ranger class, Archer gains valuable proficiencies in the longbow (and other martial weapons) and either Insight or Survival. Given that Archer, as a kenku, can already select proficiency in Acrobatics and Stealth, the extra Ranger skill proficiency means that—combined with the Criminal background and the Rogue’s four skill proficiencies—Archer will be proficient in no fewer than 9 different skills, most of which we would believe are used by memory.
Just as importantly, three levels of Ranger grant our would-be kenku Assassin access to a favored enemy, the Archery fighting style (and the +2 bonus it grants to attack rolls made with ranged weapons), plus two reliable sources of extra damage—the Colossus Slayer feature from the Hunter archetype (which adds 1d8 damage to each attack made against a wounded target) and the 1st level Ranger spell Hunter’s Mark, which adds another 1d6 damage to stack on top of any Sneak Attack our arrows can deal.
How to Play It
While Archer will be reliably lethal in combat, the kenku will be more of a challenge to play outside of it… And that’s where the fun really begins!
By 5th level, Archer will have 2 levels of Rogue and 3 levels of Ranger, along with Expertise in Stealth to double his proficiency bonus. He’ll begin each combat by casting Hunter’s Mark, using Cunning Action to hide, and then taking shots with his longbow for arrow damage plus Sneak Attack plus Hunter’s Mark and Colossus Slayer. What Fighters hope to deal for damage over the course of several attacks, Archer will expect to deal with every shot, though he’ll only take one shot per round.
Outside of combat, however, playing Archer requires the imagination to envision yourself as a mentally limited character. You trust others to guide you. There’s likely one member of your adventuring party you trust more than the others, and you look to that character for advice. The world is a fog to you—or if not a fog, then a flat and colorless landscape of endless sameness—and you need someone else to help you recognize the possibilities it hides from you.
This isn’t to say that you are without a personality. Likely, you are extremely dedicated to the skills you have developed. They help you make sense of your days. So you’re likely regimented in your thinking. At the same time, you can perfectly mimic the sounds and words that buzz about you. If you have a sense of humor, you might even start using them in surprising ways, and because of this, playing a kenku Rogue can be a great test of your memory—as you work to remember which words and phrases you would have overheard and can recombine in the current context.
Playing a kenku Rogue can also be a great reason to look for chances to bring your favorite movie quotes into your campaign… and to listen to your friends’ greatest lines and bring them back into your games over and over and over.
With a good bit of memory and creativity, your kenku Rogue can be one of the most intriguing of paradoxes. Staying true to the character’s uncreative mentality, you—the player—can use its mimicry to recall and summon forth the greatest lines from your campaign, along with the memories associated with them, and in so doing, you can bring a welcome depth and sense of history to your campaign.