Underpowered: Kenku

I’ve said before that the power level of racial powers can be ranked roughly like this:

  • The dwarf
  • Minor action encounter powers that attack enemies
  • Immediate-speed powers
  • Minor action encounter powers that affect enemies without an attack roll
  • Minor action at-will powers
  • Powers that help the character using them
  • Standard action powers

However, there was one option I forgot, one rare enough that it didn’t even come on my radar until somebody pointed it out:

  • No power at all

It took me a minute to accept “no power” as a power, but zero is a number and black is a color, so here we are. Luckily, there are only two races with no racial power (the half-elf and human technically have “some class at-will” as their racial power), and I’ve already addressed one of them. This leaves us with only the kenku.

The kenku, debuting for 4E in the Monster Manual 2, is the best of a bad lot. The duergar and the bullywug might as well have not had any racial traits at all, and the kenku gets one of the most powerful racial traits in the system:

Flock Effect: You gain a +3 bonus to attack rolls against a creature you are flanking instead of the normal +2 bonus, and you grant a +3 bonus to attack rolls or skill checks when aiding another instead of the normal +2 bonus.

4E has a very tight constraint on attack rolls because any variance in them is a serious power shift. 3E can survive a player who hits on a roll of 3, because that character’s later attacks need an 8, 13, and 18 respectively and a single attack rarely carries a devastating, fight-ending effect. 4E doesn’t have this variance; instead of having multiple attack bonuses from a single character, the game expects everybody in the party to have comparable attack bonuses and for those bonuses to fall in a narrow band. The system doesn’t know how to deal with a player who hits 90% of the time, and a character who discards even the meager +1 bonus/tier from expertise feats is fairly unoptimized. Into this environment comes the kenku, who gets a +1 bonus to attack rolls against almost every enemy in the game, and the only restriction is that another ally must be in melee? Where do I sign up?

But the rest of the race is fairly mediocre. A +2 bonus to two stats with no opportunity for choice (a trait of almost all races until Player’s Handbook 3), no racial power, and a second racial trait that keys off a single skill. Yes, it’s a skill for which the kenku gets a bonus, and the kenku’s ability score bonus feeds into the skill also…and actually that’s the problem. The kenku is built for one and only one type of character. The kenku only works in melee (to flank), using Bluff (to use the other racial trait), as part of a class that uses Dexterity and/or Charisma. That’s a short list:

  • Ardent (Charisma-only)*
  • Assassin*
  • Bard (Charisma-only, melee-only)
  • Paladin (Charisma-only, preferably blackguard)*
  • Rogue (melee-only)
  • Vampire*
  • Warlock (Essentials version, potentially Charisma-only)*

Everything with an asterisk was published after the kenku. Heck, four of those seven options are from the same book, Heroes of Shadow. If you need supplemental material to make the race viable, the race isn’t viable.

Arguably there’s still lot of opportunity here for a non-optimized character. With a single feat (Skill Training) any character can gain training in Bluff. A character doesn’t need to use both Dexterity and Charisma to be worthwhile, and they also don’t need to use the flanking bonus. Sure, other races are better options numerically by almost every standard, but if a character really wants to play a kenku they can play a kenku.

And therein squats the toad: nobody wants to play a kenku. This is the full and complete description of the race from their monster entry:

Sly and secretive, kenkus thrive in the underbelly of the civilized world. Like the ravens they resemble, these avian humanoids are opportunistic. They do not allow laws or morality to stand in their way.

That’s not a race description, that’s a class description. Kenkus are written to be rogues and nothing else. There’s nothing about the race itself that seems fun, unique, approachable, or even appropriate to a D&D party—further reading suggests that their interaction gimmick is “if you’re not family, we don’t like you”. If we want people to play the kenku we have to give them a good reason from both numerical and entertainment standpoints.

As usual their monster entry provides more information if you check their lore and read between the lines. It gives us this picture of the kenku: they live mostly in cities, often in secret; they don’t put stock in laws or morals; they run criminal enterprises; they live, work, and socialize in kenku-only clans; their racial traits rely on kinship and deceit; they’re mostly low-level so they work in numbers; and they don’t like fighting but can do it well when needed.

This…is starting to sound an awful lot like kenkus are the D&D mafia.

So let’s roll with that, because at least it’s something unique in 4E. The racial traits can stay; one assists in working with close allies, one assists in trickery, and both make sense for a member of a tight-knit band that trades in deceit. But instead of providing the Bluff bonus to all kenkus and hard-coding the race to one and only one skill, let’s provide some options based on an individual’s skills within the organization. We can also leverage the loyalty with a defense bonus, and we can give them an encounter power that demonstrates the will to punish anybody who harms a kenku’s allies. As always, we adjust the ability score bonuses to fit the new model, so let’s give kenkus an Intelligence bonus to represent their scheming opportunistic nature.

So we end up with this:

Average Height: 5′ 0”- 5’ 6”
Average Weight: 110-150 lb.

Ability Scores: +2 Charisma, +2 Dexterity or +2 Intelligence
Size: Medium
Speed: 6 squares
Vision: Low-light

Languages: Common
Skill Bonuses: +2 Bluff
Flock Effect: You gain a +3 bonus to attack rolls against a creature you are flanking instead of the normal +2 bonus, and you grant a +3 bonus to attack rolls or skill checks when aiding another instead of the normal +2 bonus.
Loyalty: You have a +1 racial bonus to Will. In addition, you gain a +2 racial bonus to saving throws against effects that dominate.
Criminal Expertise: Choose one criminal expertise: discretion, mimicry, or protection. Each criminal expertise offers particular benefits.
     Discretion: Once per encounter, you may automatically miss one creature with a close or area attack you make. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Streetwise checks.
     Mimicry: You can mimic sounds and voices. A successful Insight check opposed by your Bluff check allows a listener to determine that the effect is faked. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Stealth checks.
     Protection: Enemies marked by you take a -3 penalty to attack rolls when making an attack that does not include you as a target instead of the normal -2 penalty. In addition, you have a +2 racial bonus to Intimidate checks.
Proportionate Retaliation: You have the proportionate retaliation power.

Proportionate Retaliation Kenku Racial Power
The blood of your allies spurs you onward, giving you and your allies the resolve you need to enact swift vengeance.
Immediate Reaction Close burst 20
Trigger: An enemy damages your ally with an attack.
Effect: You and your allies gain a +2 power bonus to damage rolls against the triggering creature until the end of your next turn. If the attack was a critical hit, you and your allies gain a +3 power bonus instead. This bonus increases to +4 and +6 at 11th level and to +6 and +9 at 21st level.

I’d like some more options for criminal expertise, but I could only come up with two I liked (and the grandfathered mimicry). The options we have relate to using wide-ranging attacks, sneaking, and defending respectively, so there’s room for something more in line with a leader or very loud melee striker. I expect a racial paragon path would provide bonuses or powers based on the criminal expertise, allowing for even more variance among different types of kenku.

With that, I’ve looked at every race in the Monster Manual 2 and come up with versions that are hopefully a little more powerful and a lot more interesting. I’m not sure what else could use this sort of treatment, so I’m open to suggestions. If everything in 3E and 4E is solved, perhaps I’ll keep this article line on hold until I start seeing problems in 5th Edition.

This entry was posted in D&D 4th Edition, Underpowered. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Underpowered: Kenku

  1. Gloves says:

    Reminds me of the Good Feathers from Animaniacs. Sounds like a good enough premise for a one-shot.

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