Can creatures that lack the ability to actually speak but have the Mimicry ability (such as Raven or VGM Kenku) activate magic items that require a command word to activate?

Relevant rules I could find:

Activating an Item

Activating some magic items requires a user to do something special, such as holding the item and uttering a command word. The description of each item category or individual item details how an item is activated. Certain items use the following rules for their activation.

If an item requires an action to activate, that action isn’t a function of the Use an Item action, so a feature such as the rogue’s Fast Hands can’t be used to activate the item. Command Word

A command word is a word or phrase that must be spoken for an item to work. A magic item that requires a command word can’t be activated in an area where sound is prevented, as in the area of the silence spell.


Mimicry. The raven can mimic simple sounds it has heard, such as a person whispering, a baby crying, or an animal chittering. A creature that hears the sounds can tell they are imitations with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Insight) check.

VGM Kenku

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.


2 Answers 2


Intent matters here

. . . in other words, it's really a question of how the DM (and the players) want to roll with it.

After all, we don't really know exactly how magic item command words work.

First of all, it's magic, and second of all, we don't have a detailed specification of how command words trigger magic items. Is it the sound? Is it the intent? Some combination?

We know there are two steps:

  • You learn how to use the magic item
  • You speak a word or phrase

The basic rules say, under "Using a Magic Item":

A magic item’s description explains how the item works. Handling a magic item is enough to give a character a sense that something is extraordinary about the item. The identify spell is the fastest way to reveal an item’s properties. Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item. At the end of the rest, the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them. Potions are an exception; a little taste is enough to tell the taster what the potion does.

A kenku can clearly complete this step. Can a raven? The rules don't say. And if you teach a raven to make a certain sound, is that enough? After all, there's nothing in the rules that suggests you can trigger someone else's magic item just by saying a word, so it isn't just the sound.

And if it has a command word:

A command word is a word or phrase that must be spoken for an item to work. A magic item that requires a command word can't be activated in an area where sound is prevented, as in the area of the silence spell.

But this is very broad. You don't have to speak a specific language. Or don't even have to be humanoid. Surely a mind flayer or a lich or a ghost or a fiend speaking a command word all sound very different than a human. There are no rules in which a magic item says, "I'm sorry, I'm just not clear on what you're saying. Are you trying to say my command word? Your accent is just really very thick."


It matters more whether the DM wants to saddle a race with an inability to use many magic items than the precise wording of the race.

And note that the kenku in Volo's is legacy. The current definition of the race says under language:

Your character can speak, read, and write Common and one other language that you and your DM agree is appropriate for the character.

So for the current race, it isn't even a question. For legacy kenku, what does the DM want?

As a DM, I'm not going to saddle a player with a character that can't use a broad swath of magic items, unless that's specifically what the player wants. Even then, I have to ask, is it really more fun this way?

As aherocalledFrog said in the comments, this seems like a chance to have fun doing a standard thing, rather than a reason to not allow a standard thing.


Again, up to the DM. Does the DM want ravens to trigger magic items?

The rules just don't say. I don't think there's a player-exploitable loophole here . . . "I've taught my raven to trigger the Sphere of Doom and you can't stop me, because RAW!" . . . .

Broad strokes, even if the raven can imitate a word, is it really "speaking"? And even then, can it go through the necessary (and not well-defined) process of learning to use a magic item?

As a DM, I would not have a broad interpretation that ravens can trigger magic items as a matter of course. I might be willing to discuss it on a case-by-case basis . . . a specific character, a specific raven, a specific magic item. Maybe.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say that the magic item tells the kenku the command word, which lets the kenku mimic the voice of the magic item. Or the wizard who crafted it. Or the voice of Mystra. Honestly, it sounds like a chance to have fun doing a standard thing, rather than a reason to not allow a standard thing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 15 at 1:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aherocalledFrog That is a very good point! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Jun 15 at 2:47

Probably yes, but check with your DM

It depends on if you consider mimicry "speaking", because the rule for command words says:

A command word is a word or phrase that must be spoken for an item to work.

So are the utterances of mimicry speaking? The Monster Manual lore entry of the Kenku says:

When mimicking voices, they can only repeat words and phrases they have heard, not create new sentences.

In the case of the Kenku, there is no material difference between repeating words and speaking. In a way, everyone that speaks learned it by learning to repeat words when they were a child. And the Kenku even can do it to express the idea they have in mind. Can a Kenku use verbal spells? also explores that designer intent is that Kenku can speak by mimicking sound.

The description of the raven does not say it can repeat words, only the "sound of a person whispering", but ravens are mundane animals, and in captivity, real-world ravens can learn to imitate human speech, better than parrots (as this answer also concludes). They however lack the intelligence to use those sounds to articulate thoughts, which normally is also implied by speaking, so I think this is more of a DM call.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that spells with a verbal component "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." (and see the links on the question) Stating whether the command words for magic items have power because they are words, or because they have sounds, and whether that makes a difference with regard to kenku mimicry, would improve this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Jun 14 at 14:45
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt, I added the links. I think the description of verbal components only tangentially matters here, as command words are not verbal spell comoponents. These questions are similar, but different. The magic item rules do not discuss why command words have power, they only demand that you speak them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14 at 19:28

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