we discovered a while ago that D&D has a lot of dog monsters, and not a lot of cat monsters. I speculated that might be because the European roots of D&D have a lot more stories about scary dogs than about scary cats. Well, this week I want to talk about the assortment of bird-people that D&D has produced over the years. I have the sinking feeling we have so many because we’ve never quite gotten it right: aarakocra, dire corby, gyerian, kenku, nagpa, raptoran, and tengu. (Yes, we’ve produced two bird-people based on different spellings of the same Japanese beastie.) I’m leaving out the harpy (which I’ve already discussed), the swanmay, and a couple of planar creatures: the avoral guardinal, the vrock demon, and the diakk. And I’m steering clear of creatures that are just people with wings, like the angels, the avariel elves, and so on.
Maybe I’m not being fair to these bird-people, though. Maybe we have so many because there are multiple cool angles to the concept of a humanoid bird-race. After all, I didn’t complain about how many races of lizard-people we have (though we did make some effort to make sure they’re visually distinct). Let’s have a look and see.
Of the bunch, the aarakocra are probably the most well-established in D&D lore. They appeared in the second monster book for three editions in a row (Monster Manual II for the original AD&D, the second Monstrous Compendium for 2nd Edition, and Monsters of Faerûn for 3rd Edition). They’re so close to top-tier monsters, but not quite there. Poor birdfolk.
Aarakocra are neutral good humanoids with large wings instead of arms. Hands emerge from their wings, letting them use tools and weapons while standing on the ground. Their feet are also functional as hands—the talons “unlock and fold back” to reveal another set of hands, basically. These they can use to hold weapons while flying, and they often employ javelins, even at range, before raking with their taloned claws. While grounded and cornered, they can also attack with their beaks. They can fly and are fairly maneuverable in the air. Their most devastating attack is a rapid dive from high in the air, pulling out at the last second while stabbing with a javelin or raking with their claws.
An aarakocra’s head is birdlike, with forward-facing eyes and a heavy, gray-black beak somewhere in shape between a parrot’s and an eagle’s (heavier than an eagle’s, longer than a parrot’s). The males are colored brightly (red, orange, and/or yellow), and the females are brown or gray.
Aarakocra live in small tribes in a huge communal nest. The tribe leader is the oldest member, assisted by a druid. A druid with at least four other aarakocra has the special ability to summon an air elemental by performing an intricate aerial dance for a few rounds.
The aarakocra of Dark Sun resemble vultures more than parrots. They’re taller and hardier than their kin on other worlds, but otherwise similar. Evil tribes of Athasian aarakocra are known to exist. They are more nomadic than good-aligned tribes, and they often evict good tribes from their nests to find shelter on their journeys.
On the down side, aarakocra are highly claustrophobic. They won’t willingly enter buildings and wouldn’t be caught dead underground. That pretty well rules out the idea of an aarakocra adventurer, except in a rare campaign that doesn’t involve dungeon-delving. Combined with their generally good alignment, it also limits their usefulness as opponents. I suspect that’s why they’ve always been relegated to the second monster book.
A weird-looking creature stepped out from one of the numerous side passages. It was bipedal and black skinned, with a beaked bird’s head and the torso of a man, featherless and wingless. Both of its powerful-looking arms ended in hooked, wicked claws, and its legs ended in three-toed feet. Another creature stepped out from behind it, and another from behind them.
“Relatives?” Belwar asked Drizzt, for the creatures did indeed resemble some weird cross between a dark elf and a bird.
—from Exile, by R.A. Salvatore
Another creature introduced in the Fiend Folio, the dire corby is a humanoid bird with arms in place of wings. They play a role in R.A. Salvatore’s novel Exile, and otherwise have been mostly ignored in D&D, disappearing from official monster books until the Neverwinter Campaign Setting for 4th Edition.
Despite Belwar’s speculation, there’s no blood relation between drow and dire corbies. Recent speculation suggests that they descended from predatory birds forced into the Underdark. Maybe they’re related to kenkus or tengu, or maybe they descend from aarakocra forced to the dismal fate of living underground.
Whatever their origin, dire corbies hunt in flocks and gather in large underground caverns. They don’t use weapons, relying on their clawed hands. They always attack and fight to the death, making them ideal D&D opponents but not particularly interesting for anything else.
Let’s pause a moment for comic relief, shall we? The gyerian, introduced in the Creature Catalogue for the D&D (as opposed to AD&D) game, is a Small, flightless, birdlike humanoid. Nervous and excitable, perhaps the most dangerous thing about them is the fact that a very nervous gyerian might sneeze—creating such a blast of air that it can bowl other creatures right over for 1d4 damage. Larger and stronger gyerians are called cockrobins, and their leaders are 6-foot-tall roosters.
I can’t even.
Kenku and Tengu
Basically, we’re talking about three different monsters under two different (but related) names. The distinctions among them have changed over the history of D&D.
In 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, the kenku (introduced in the Fiend Folio) was a humanoid with wings, separate arms, birdlike feet, and the head of a hawk. Accomplished thieves, kenku also have some limited spellcasting ability. They can disguise themselves as humans, and they sometimes pose as gods to collect offerings from credulous worshipers. Though they’re neutral, they favor kidnapping as a source of income.
The tengu, meanwhile, was introduced in the original Oriental Adventures, with two varieties. One has the head and beak of a crow, and feathered wings sprouting from between its shoulder blades. These tengu are cruel and evil, causing harm at every opportunity. They can mimic other voices and change their shape.
The other kind of tengu has a bright red or blue humanlike face with an exceptionally long nose. Some humanoid tengu have stunted wings. Their magical abilities are more developed than their crow-headed kin, and they also practice martial arts. Their magical fans can be used as katanas, and they can also create wind or make a person’s nose or ears grow (or shrink). Though not evil, the humanoid tengu are chaotic and often play cruel tricks on humans. Rarely, they tutor humans in swordplay.
Both kinds of tengu are Small, about two to four feet tall (with the humanoid variety growing about a foot taller than their kin). These two forms of tengu have pretty solid roots in Japanese mythology, and they were preserved in 2nd Edition’s Monstrous Compendium Kara-Tur Appendix and 3rd Edition’s Oriental Adventures.
But in 3rd Edition’s Monster Manual III, the kenku’s head also changed from a hawk’s head to a crow’s head. Uh-oh. They also lost their wings and took on the tengu’s ability to mimic voices, while remaining the scheming rogues they were in the past. That form of kenku persisted into 4th Edition, when the tengu disappeared.
The hawk-headed kenku is pretty uniquely D&D. The tengu, as I said, has strong roots in Japanese myth. My feeling is that they should remain distinct monsters as they were in 1st and 2nd Edition, with the tengu appearing primarily in Asian-flavored cultures such as Kara-Tur in the Forgotten Realms. Of course, that wouldn’t stop a DM from using tengu in any setting.
Somehow, the nagpa comes across as significantly less silly than the other birdfolk race in the Creature Catalogue, the gyerian. The lack of a sneeze attack certainly helps, as does the sinister wizard vibe.
A nagpa appears as a withered humanoid form with the head of a vulture—a lot like a skeksis from The Dark Crystal, actually. They appeared in the Mystara Monstrous Compendium for 2nd Edition, and in the 4th Edition Monster Manual 3. They also seem to be closely related to the carrin (mutated vultures) of Gamma World.
Nagpas are the result of a curse leveled upon selfish and solitary wizards, transforming them into such a hideous form and preventing them from enjoying any of the pleasures of life. Consumed with cravings for the things of a luxurious life, their curse makes their fine meals taste like filth, turns bodily pleasure into agonizing pain, fills them with paranoid suspicion about their wealth, and robs them of restful sleep. When they seek escape in the arms of death, they are almost instantly reincarnated, with their memories intact.
A nagpa casts spells like a wizard, and it usually carries a heavy staff it can also use in melee.
Finally, we come to the latest bird-person to be added to D&D lore, the raptoran. Introduced in the 3rd Edition Races of the Wild, the raptoran was intended from the start to be a playable race. That meant limiting its ability to fly, since a character with full-on flight at 1st level could wreak havoc with adventure design.
A raptoran is a humanoid with wings on its shoulders. They have long legs, which make them taller than humans, but their build is slender and their bones are light. Their legs end in bony talons that can grip weapons or branches. Feathers grow on their heads like hair, and in females this is a neck ruff that can be expanded as a display that males find attractive.
Raptorans’ wings help them jump and enable them to glide at low levels, but young raptorans (including adventurers) must undertake the Walk of the Four Winds, walking the world until they learn to fly. A raptoran gains the ability to fly at 5th level, but only for a limited number of rounds. That limit goes away at 10th level.
Like aarakocra, raptorans have a racial connection to air elementals. In ancient times, the raptorans made a bargain with powerful air elementals, gaining the ability to fly in exchange for agreeing that the most powerful warriors of the race would be at the elementals’ service in major battles among the planes. The elementals have not called on raptorans to keep up their end of the bargain in many generations, but there is certainly an interesting story hook there for a raptoran player character who reaches higher levels.
The Birdfolk in the World
I think one of the key problems with the birdfolk is that they exist wholly unconnected with anything else in the D&D multiverse. They’re not associated with any other creatures, they don’t worship any known gods, and they’re not even strongly associated with any of the many places in the multiverse. One way to start giving them a stronger place in the game might be to give them a stronger place in the world(s) by forging some of those connections.
I’m not sure that the game needs both aarakocra and raptorans, at least if concerns about low-level player characters being able to fly are not an issue. They’re similar in appearance (though raptorans have arms as well as wings), and they both have a connection to air elementals as a part of their story. If the aarakocra absorbed the raptorans, some elements of the raptoran pact with air elementals could enrich the aarakocra story. Maybe they forged a pact with a powerful djinni caliph in ancient times, and they’re strongly connected with the djinn. The pact might mean that aarakocra are often encountered alongside djinn, as foot soldiers (so to speak). That would make the aarakocra natural enemies of the efreet as well—they might actually return the efreet’s hatred of the djinn more powerfully than the djinn themselves do. That animosity could extend to other fire creatures as well.
The Wind Dukes of Aaqa are a sort of fringe part of D&D lore, the legendary creators of the Rod of Seven Parts. Maybe the aarakocra swore a pact with them, which was fundamentally about their conflict with the Queen of Chaos. That might steer aarakocra in a more lawful direction than they’ve gone before, but it would make them natural enemies of demons. That’s probably best only in a campaign that puts the conflict between Law and Chaos in a central position.
So it seems to me that the best approach to take with the aarakocra is to stress that ancient pact, while giving the DM the flexibility to determine the nature of the pact and its impact on his or her campaign. What about the other birdfolk?
Maybe the dire corbies are connected to the drow. Not descended from them, as Belwar speculated, but bred or otherwise created by them. Maybe better, they could be connected to Pazuzu, the demonic Prince of the Lower Aerial Kingdoms, and created as that demon’s attempt to gain a foothold in the Underdark in competition with Lolth and her drow. Dire corbies would pretty much be unwitting pawns in the demonic struggle, but it suggests that their leaders might be warlocks or evil priests, invested with demonic powers. I think that makes them start to feel more interesting.
What about the thieving, hawk-headed kenku? Tricky thieves with magic powers . . . they could be fey. Is that crazy? Or they could be associated with harpies in some way, but that’s not resonating in my head.
And the nagpa? Well, I like the story of their curse. It doesn’t connect them to other elements of lore, but it does give them an origin story. The 4th Edition presentation of the nagpa did tie them to other creatures in practical terms: They recruit bandits and thieves to help them acquire the things they crave, they’re served by brutish creatures such as ogres and trolls, and they cooperate with oni (ogre magi), employing them to oversee their other servants. You can imagine a nagpa as the Moriarty behind the scenes of an oni’s criminal enterprise.
And what about the gyerian? No, never mind.
What Do You Think?
Previous Poll Results
First off, are there creatures I’ve described here that you don’t ever want to see in D&D again?
What do you think about the origin of these creatures?
|You’re right, make them all celestials.
|The baku, hollyphant, moon dog, and phoenix can be celestials, but the others should be monstrosities.
|The baku, hollyphant, moon dog, and phoenix can be celestials, but the others should be magical beasts (as should most monstrosities).
|The baku, hollyphant, moon dog, and phoenix can be celestials, but the others should be some new category of creature.
Overall, how well do the descriptions of these creatures here fit with your sense of their place in the D&D world?
|1—Terrible: There’s so much more to these creatures.
|2—Pretty Bad: You really didn’t do them justice.
|3—So-So: It makes sense, but it doesn’t grab me.
|4—Pretty Good: I can see using such a thing in my game.
|5—Awesome: I might actually use some of these monsters now!
Have you used these monsters in your game before? And how?
|No, I’ve never used them, and I never will.
|No, I haven’t used them, but I can imagine bringing them in.
|Yes, I’ve used them as allies for the player characters.
|Yes, I’ve used them as allies for friendly nonplayer characters.
|Yes, I’ve used them as opponents for the player characters.
|I’ve used them basically as immortal guardians, as you described.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.