Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gussying up the Kenku

I had decided I'd attempt to monster gussy creatures I actually encountered in my 5e Princes of the Apocalypse game, and we finally (this was the fourth session maybe?) fought something that wasn't just people or undead people: Kenku!

Now, to be honest, we took out four of them with two sleep spells so we barely saw anything particularly kenku about these kenku, but I haven't gotten a chance to do this yet so I'm starting at a suboptimal place. Also, I suspect there'll be more kenku to fight eventually.

Flipping to the 5e entry for Kenku, we immediately see they're 100% lackluster. They gain advantage against surprised creatures (had to look that up as I figured everyone might) and the ability to mimic any sound they've heard. Otherwise, they're basically gypsy goblins that don't really talk.

Language rant: its pretty outrageous/implausible that creatures (as a race) can understand languages but cannot speak them. Individuals with speech deficits, sure. As a race which can mimic any sound they've ever heard, why they wouldn't communicate with efficient language rather than some crazy pantomime is stupid. In fact, its likely that with a vocal tract that can really mimic sounds well, they'd have a language that's truly baffling in the number of subtle distinctions in speech sounds; an agglutinating language with monosyllabic words comes to mind as things like tone, voice quality, and a large array of consonant clusters are all possible. So first fix: kenku can't understand language either. A bit reminiscent of how I'm imagining treating orcs and the like in my vision of the Empire of Man.

Now that that's out of the way, we have boring, featureless bird-like humanoids with an interesting quirk of language making them a little reminiscent of the Dabus of Planescape fame. But what will make them better?

There's a few more things ravens/crows are kinda known for: pecking out eyes and stealing glittery things (we've already got mimicry down). Unfortunately Kenku (or Tengu as they're known in Pathfinder) don't have a 13th Age entry anywhere as far as I can find. They're known as Ravenfolk in the Midgard campaign setting, and I have the 13th Age version of the Midgard Bestiary, but Ravenfolk're only presented as a PC option, not a monster to do battle with.

So without further ado, here's a couple abilities to tack on:

Sticky Feathers. When an opponent rolls a natural 1-3 on a melee attack, the kenku can spend its reaction to disarm the opponent or tear free a loose garment or other posession.

Quick pick-up. A kenku can pick up any item off the ground as a bonus action.

Aim for the Eyes. When the kenku hits with a melee attack on a natural 18-19, the attack grazes the targets' face, the target has disadvantage on its next attack roll before the end of the targets next turn. Characters wearing full helmets are immune to this attack.

Blinding Critical. When the kenku hits with a melee attack on a natural 20 it may hit the targets' eye in lieu of doing additional damage. The target suffers disadvantage on all ranged attack rolls until the injury is healed. If the target is hit with a blinding critical again, it is permanently blinded.

These aren't overly well thought out perhaps, but the four traits ought to do the job. Sticky Feathers means the kenku can grab a character's nice weapon, shiny amulet, or belt pouch, and the reaction limitation means it won't be constantly. Its a pretty rare trigger (opponent flubs a melee attack) but their theft doesn't require any other rolls: they could always just try a disarm on their own. Quick pick-up allows the kenku to grab things from the ground during its turn (and flee as necessary!).  Both Aim for the Eyes and Blinding Critical do similar things, but obviously the blinding critical is a lot harsher. I had considered requiring the victim of Aim for the Eyes to require a bonus action to get rid of the disadvantage (i.e. wiping the blood from your face) but decided that was too involved. I like my afterthought of having helmets protect you from Aim for the Eyes (but not Blinding Critical).

Between the theft of items and called shots at the eyes (plus the story-based language nonsense), I think I could see kenku being used. Kenku are similar to goblins or  kobolds who are also shifty thieves but you'd fear them differently. The party might ask a lot of questions about the costs and benefits/hinderances of wearing helmets, especially because I'd specifically warn people about the helmet clause for Aim for the Eyes. I'd also have to look into what 5e effects can actually restore a lost eye.

If I were to really use these guys in a campaign, I'd look to what the Midgard setting has done with them and possibly align them with an Odin-like god, consider additional trickster powers, and/or some necromantic powers like being able to see the last visions of a corpse by eating its eyes. So a good variant of these would be paladins who hunt undead or death-priests and necromancers depending on how you want to go with the race, story. One could easily have them set up various ambushes and tricks or traps around their lair, and say their leader/magician has access to speak with dead or other divination rituals without breaking 5e. Those are largely story-based though, and the few additions above make me a little interested in actually using Kenku.


  1. I think I like your Kenku Aim for the Eyes and Blinding Critical better than the Battle Flock mechanic I came up with, and the Quick Pick-up is nice, but I might just add the pick up an item to my Sneaky-Bastard bonus actions and use GM Intrusions to simulate your Sticky Feathers. And I agree, that the big challenge of Kenku is making them distinct from goblins and kobolds in more than just appearance, because out of the book the definitely have the same "low level, sneaky, tricky monster" feel of goblins and kobolds.

    1. Yeah, I totally didn't remember you had done Kenku too.

      I've been thinking a bit more that maybe each monster should have a "Critical Failure?" line, which just might give advice for what to do in case of a critical fail (which technically don't exist in 5e maybe?). I kinda like the general low-roll plus monster reaction, but I can totally see it with a GM-intrusion as a general variant to be handed out when more dramatically appropriate rather than Random.