Alright, full disclosure: today’s post was supposed to be about the new player options presented in The Explorer’s Guide to WIldemount. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as much time to look over the Wildemount book as I’d have liked, so I wasn’t able to get that post written just yet. I’ll certainly be discussing that book here, but not until next week!
I thought long and hard this morning about what to write about instead, and ultimately I decided to stick with D&D. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m usually the Dungeon Master for my group, and that means I pay a lot of attention to monsters. The Monster Manuals have always been my favorite D&D products; years before I actually started playing the game, I would spend entire bookstore visits just flipping through 3rd Edition monster books, gazing in wonder at the strange creatures within. In fact, the beautiful illustrations in the 5th Edition Monster Manual played a large part in tempting me away from Pathfinder and back to Dungeons & Dragons. Therefore, I thought it might be fun to take a look at an individual monster as the topic of this post. If this goes well, I’ll turn it into a recurring feature.
I don’t want to play favorites (if I did, every post in this series would be about some kind of undead), so I’m going to start at the top: the very first monster listed in the Monster Manual. As it happens, that’s the aarakocra!
Aarakocra are, if you’ll permit me to be a bit reductive, bird people. They’re a bit of an odd duck (or eagle, or whatever) for this post, to be honest, because I’m much more used to seeing them as player characters than as monsters. I don’t think I’ve ever run any as enemies, but I’ve had two as PCs. Still, let’s check out what the Monster Manual has to say about them.
Right away, it becomes apparent why I haven’t used them as monsters – they’re classified as neutral good, and their backstory paints them as benevolent defenders of the Elemental Planes. They seem like all-around nice guys, so there’s not much cause to have my players fight them!
Tying them to the Howling Gyre within the Elemental Plane of Air also makes it a bit less likely that players would run across them. Granted, their entry does go on to say that they make homes in the Material Plane as well, often atop mountains; still, remote mountain aeries aren’t necessarily going to crop up in the average adventure.
That being said, there are a lot of ways you could introduce an aarakocra NPC into the game. First and foremost, if your players need to cross a mountain range for any reason, why not add in a small aarakocra outpost? It could be a good opportunity for your players to rest up or restock if they need it. On the other hand, if you’ve got evil-aligned players, or if you just feel like making the aarakocra a little less good than their default fluff paints them as, a village of angry bird people could be a fun obstacle for your players to overcome.
Of course, there’s no need to limit our feathered friends to faraway peaks. A lone aarakocra, or perhaps a small scouting party, might well make its way to ‘regular’ civilization. The legendary Rod of Seven Parts, a powerful magic item, is tied to the aarakocra’s history, and the Monster Manual notes that many of them are seeking to reassemble it. That’s a perfect hook for introducing a wandering aarakocra! Additionally, if your players are going to be fighting evil elementals of any kind, aarakocra could serve as powerful allies, as they are sworn foes of Elemental Evil.
If you do plan on bringing in some aarakocra, it should be noted that – at least as the Monster Manual presents them – they aren’t actually much of a threat. They clock in at a Challenge Rating of 1/4; not terribly impressive. Even a party of first-level players could safely take on a group of CR 1/4 monsters. That said, they have a few neat bits in their stat block. First and foremost, they’ve got an impressive fly speed, which could be a real challenge to some parties at low levels. They can also take advantage of that fly speed to perform a diving attack, boosting their damage a bit. Imagine a group of aarakocra harrying your party through a mountain pass, dive-bombing your players as they desperately rush across the icy summit – pretty intimidating despite the low CR!
Perhaps the most interesting capability of the aarakocra, though, is their ability to summon air elementals. It requires a group of five aarakocra standing in close proximity and sacrificing several turns in a row, but if they can do so without interruption, they can call forth a CR 5 monster. That’s a significantly greater threat than the aarakocra themselves. If the players are fighting against the aarakocra, having a group of them attempt the summoning while others engage the players more directly could add a fun ‘countdown’ aspect to an encounter. On the flip side, if the players have teamed up with their avian pals, they may need to protect the summoners during an enemy onslaught. Either way, it’s a pretty neat ability to toy with!
But what if you want to make aarakocra relevant at higher levels of play? In that case, you can probably disregard their entry in the Monster Manual. What you’ll want to do instead is build an NPC using the aarakocra’s stats as a playable race. In 5th Edition, their debut as a player option was in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, a booklet that was meant to help players build characters for the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure module. You can download this booklet for free on the official D&D website; there’s also a print-on-demand option available. If that’s too much of a hassle, you can instead find the aarakocra’s racial features on D&D Beyond. However, if you’re like me and have been awaiting the aarakocra’s publication in an official hardcover sourcebook, good news: The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount features not only the aarakocra, but the genasi and tortle races as well! I’ve been eager to have all of those in a physical book for quite some time.
The aarakocra’s traits are nothing too fancy: they receive bonuses to Dexterity and Wisdom, as well as a natural attack in the form of talons. The thing that really sets them apart is, of course, their fly speed. As the Explorer’s Guide notes at the beginning of the racial trait entry, giving a player the ability to fly at first level is fairly powerful. However, their walking speed is a bit lower than average to compensate, and being able to fly won’t save your players from archers or spellcasters! Just keep in mind that any NPCs you create using these stats will have to worry about the same things.
I was curious to see if the aarakocra were based off of any particular myth or story, given that so many of D&D’s monsters are. From what I can tell, aarakocra don’t derive from any one specific tale. There are certainly many legends pertaining to bird-like humanoids, such as the Japanese karura (and the garuda from which it derives), but none seem to map directly to the aarakocra.
In terms of its origins in D&D, the aarakocra has been around for quite awhile, premiering in 1981’s Fiend Folio for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Its entry in that book was credited to Lawrence Schick. It’s cropped up in every edition since, first becoming a playable race in 2nd Edition AD&D’s The Complete Book of Humanoids. I hadn’t realized these guys had such a long history in the game!
Digging into some of the weird and wonderful monsters of D&D is one of my favorite aspects of the game, and just doing this write-up gave me a lot of ideas about how to use this under-utilized avian in future games. This is definitely something I’d like to keep doing in future, so keep an eye out – especially because the next Monster Manual entry is for a creepy creature that I’m quite fond of, the aboleth!