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A Kenku can only speak by mimicry, so can a Kenku fulfill the verbal portion of spells of his class? I would assume that he could only cast a verbal spell if he has heard the spell be cast by another caster of his same class. Also, the other caster would have to have cast the spell in a way that the Kenku knew what was spoken and why.

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4 Answers 4

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A kenku should generally be able to produce the required sounds

Taking a look at what the verbal spell component consists of, we have this (my emphasis):

Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. The words themselves aren't the source of the spell's power; rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion.

As long as the kenku can cobble together sounds with the required pitches and resonances, it doesn't really matter how they do it. The sounds don't even really need to consist of speech. Even a kenku with a very limited vocabulary will have a wide repertoire of other sounds that they could mimic to fulfill the verbal components, such as birdsong, animal calls, the sounds of rushing water, etc. In short, unless the kenku was raised from birth alone in a soundproof room, they should be able to produce a sufficient variety of sounds to provide the verbal components of spells.

So, rather than making this a limitation, use this as an opportunity to add some unique flavor to your kenku spellcaster by indicating what kind of unique sounds they are using to provide the verbal component to each spell - perhaps the sound of a rushing river to cast tidal wave, the crackling of a bonfire to cast burning hands, or a bird's mating call to cast charm person. Or work it into your backstory by creating (in collaboration with your DM) an NPC mentor who taught them all the basic phonemes they would need to combine in order to cast verbal spells.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the NPC mentor thing could be a really cool plot point-- someone hears the voice of Super Old Wizard Man and bursts in, addressing the party as if he's there, but instead, it's his apprentice, and drama ensues... \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 18:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Disagree mimicry is not intended to be a walking soundboard of pitches/tones. Your supposed to mesh out words/sounds like a parrot. Really without hearing a spell being cast by one or more casters you should not be able to get away with Verbal components. As you cannot combine sounds to create the semblance of pitch/tone that's not mimicry that's speech. \$\endgroup\$
    – Spoo
    Commented Apr 25 at 13:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ My comment isn't scope for a full answer, but I think there's room for the interpretation of verbal components being specific to the caster, even if learned from another source. The difficulty of learning new spells could be "translating" the spell into what works for you - e.g. verbal components for "Fireball" are going to vary from wizard to wizard, even in the same language/tradition, in some settings. To my mind, a kenku spellcaster might be casting spells with a series of incantations and phrases made up of their patchwork speech, but those same sounds don't work for others. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 25 at 16:01
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Yes, they can cast spells with verbal components.

See this unofficial tweet by Jeremy Crawford from December 2016 addressing this exact question:

if kenku can't speak, does that mean no spells with verbal components (i.e. almost all of them)? Mimicry sufficient?

Kenku speak by mimicking sounds they've heard. They're not prevented from uttering verbal components.

This might seem confusing at first. However, disallowing Kenku from casting spells (or imposing massive restrictions on doing so) would basically render Kenku unuseable as casters. Hence, for balancing reasons, they are allowed use verbal components.

Crawford justifies this ruling by using the phrasing "uttering verbal components", which suggests that verbal components are not real words. Either way, verbal components (and somatic components, for that matter) are notoriously loosely defined, aside from being audible.

Despite Crawford's tweets being no longer official, I recommend following his advice.

There are no newer / more official rulings on this topic as far as I can tell. However, Crawford's tweets still give an indication of the design intent.

Regardless of this, it would be horribly restrictive for players wanting to play a Kenku if they then couldn't play any caster class (which doesn't leave a whole lot of options tbh). 5e doesn't restrict players like this at all, aside from the basic racial traits - which only slightly encourage certain combinations or discourage others, but don't prevent you from playing, for example, a Tiefling barbarian, despite the racial stats not synergizing at all with the class. This is in contrast to earlier editions (especially pre-3rd afaik), which imposed severe restrictions on your character choices depending on which class or race you wanted.

Thus, I strongly encourage any DM to not disallow Kenku spellcasters, especially not after the campaign has started - otherwise, a player hoping to eventually subclass his/her currently still low-level Kenku fighter into an Eldritch Knight would suddenly have his/her character concept ruined due to a lack of information upfront.
I'm personally certainly also not a fan of making it more difficult for Kenku casters to learn new spells, but that's probably somewhat personal preference.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 17:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast the current sage advice compendium doesn't include anything about Kenku, and neither does the Errata for VGtM, which is linked in the SA Compendium as well. Regardless, I think Crawford's advice still holds some weight coming from the lead designer. And either way, it would be horribly restrictive to players if Kenku were forbidden / unable to cast spells, which would be contrary to 5e's design principles, which emphasizes flexibility, unlike early editions \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 0:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, the answer looks better now. I agreed with the ruling, I was just looking for the answer to address whether Crawford's (unofficial) ruling was supported by the rules or whether the rules are silent on the issue (and thus you can argue, as you have, that it is a reasonable/fun/the best way to rule on the issue). \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 1:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ "uttering verbal components", which suggests that verbal components are not real words. I don't know how you can make that implication with that logic. Also, Balancing reasons should not be a factor in discussion for Kenku. They are intended to be to be an intentionally unbalanced race because of their curse. You can't give them a curse and then provide them every tool to completely negate the curse and really call it a curse. Just because we think it would be unbalanced not to let them play casters. Caster's should really not be a thing for them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Spoo
    Commented Apr 25 at 13:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ You may wish to update your comments on race-class pairings, given the optional rules in Tasha's. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 25 at 14:26
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Yes, but they might need to hear it first

If we're talking about a kenku PC, both Volo's Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse offer differing racial traits. Additionally, the Monster Manual also has a stat block for kenku.

In short, a kenku spellcaster using the Monster Manual stat block will definitely need to hear the verbal components first. One using the Mordenkainen stats would not need to. One using the Volo's stats would probably need to.

The Monster Manual stat block has the following relevant restrictions:

Languages understands Auran and Common but speaks only through the use of its Mimicry trait.

Mimicry. The kenku can mimic any sounds it has heard, including voices.

The extra text in the Manual gives more context, clarifying that kenku cannot synthethize new sentences:

Speech in Pantomime. Kenku can mimic the sound of anything they hear. ... When mimicking voices, they can only repeat words and phrases they have heard, not create new sentences.

(emphasis mine)

Given this, a kenku based on the Monster Manual stat block would have to hear the verbal components in full to be able to replicate them.

Volo's Guide has a similar restriction to the Monster Manual stat block:

Languages. You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait.

The Mimicry trait being identical to that in Monster Manual.

If you take the context from Speech in Pantomime from the Monster Manual to apply here as well,a kenku spellcaster based on the Volo's racial stats would need to hear the verbal components in full to be able to replicate them. If not, they might be able to cobble them together from other sounds.

The Mordenkainen kenku racial traits have no restrictions on language:

Languages. Your character can speak, read, and write Common and one other language that you and your DM agree is appropriate for the character. The Player’s Handbook offers a list of languages to choose from. The DM is free to modify that list for a campaign.

A kenku spellcaster based on the Mordenkainen racial stats would not need to hear the verbal components to be able to speak them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "If not, they might be able to cobble them together from other sounds." This sentence undercuts your entire thesis, and is the basis for the other answers to this question. Good analysis and citations, though. Welcome to the Stack. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Commented Apr 26 at 0:03
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Technically yes but virtually impossible without help.

Completely disagree with PixelMaster's advice. Part of sticking true to the lore of the world is keeping to the creature's genuine lore. I would not encourage Kenku spellcasters. It would be figuratively impossible to create a player based Kenku caster true to lore unless there was another caster present to mimic from first. Even if they could figure out and learn new spells and put it in their spellbooks i would not let them use it in battle without having first heard cast by another caster. I.E. they'd have to hear it first, thus they couldn't create new spells on their own without help. Even if they could read you couldn't read aloud a spell scroll that you haven't heard recited first. So you could copy it into your book but you couldn't cast it. So yes, you can make a kenku caster but there would be rather difficult limitations.

Reasoning is mimicry. Kenku as a race can't have original speech...period!!!

"Verbal (V) Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. The words themselves aren't the source of the spell's power; rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion.

They can only mimic speech and while they can mimic long speeches their ability to mix mimicries together doesn't function as a virtual soundboard to let them create new sounds. Think of them as trainable walking parrots. Nothing more. Kenku cannot create new sounds/pitches they haven't heard before. While they can do some degree of 'Bumbleebee' transformer style speech action to their mix multiple mimicked phrases together to create the juxtaposition of speech it is nowhere near fine tuned enough for casting without having heard large chunks of the spell. They are not walking sound mixers that have the ability to mix 30-50 different sound clips in six seconds such that they can emulate pitch/resonance of the somatic component. That's not really the intention of kenku mimicry. That's creating new sound entirely which they cannot do because of their curse.

As a DM its up to you personally but my interpretation is if your playing Kenku true to lore, the above is your limitations as a spellcaster.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this your personal interpretation of the concept of "mimicry", or is there some official source you've derived it from? In the second case, your answer would benefit from such citations. Otherwise, it seems like this definition of "true-to-the-lore Kenku" is simply your own opinion of the concept of the Kenku, which might be very different compared to other players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Commented Apr 25 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 because I think it's a worthwhile perspective, but . . . what "genuine lore"? Can you cite any rules backing up your position? I see nothing in the Kenku race description that supports your assertion. In fact, their race description says "Your character can speak, read, and write Common . . . . ", and includes no class limitations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Apr 25 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the correct answer, given how Kenku are presented in Volo's. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 26 at 0:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ so what if they can't have original speech they can still speak by cobbling together the right sounds from multiple sources, verbal components should be no diffrent. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Commented Apr 27 at 2:36

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