Research for Character Ideas: the Swara
First published 10/25/2000; last edited 12/22/2004
"Werewolf: the Apocalypse" is a registered trademark of White Wolf Publishing, Inc.
Research is one of the most fantastic ways to develop and get into a character, and it can be as easy as a little web-surfing or TV-watching.
I'm going to use the Swara as an example. They're a tribe of were-cats that exist in the "Werewolf: the Apocalypse" game put out by White Wolf, and you'll find information on them in the "Bastet" breedbook. They're cheetahs, fast and sleek. They're wiry, nervous, and a bit on the paranoid side. Unfortunately, this tends to put them in the "loner" category, which is never a good thing for characters that might be played as player characters. So clearly we need more information on them.
The first thing I found out is that cheetah (which is the actual plural, apparently) don't seem to be quite as popular as some of the other big cats; it took me a while to dig up good information on them. This is really too bad, as after looking at all of that information, they've become my favorite big cats.
I found two good sources of information. One was various web sites, which I'll list at the end of this article. The second was a bunch of TV shows on the "Animal Planet" TV network, and one or two on the "Discovery" channel. Perhaps the best part was an "Animal Planet" show called "Stealth Hunters," which compared leopards and cheetah. I can't guarantee that every little bit of information I picked up is correct, but then it doesn't need to be. This is a game, after all.
Here are some of the interesting things I found out about cheetah:
Cheetah are finicky eaters. Remarkably so, in fact. They won't eat the "bad" parts of their kill, unlike many other carnivores. They won't hunt old, sick, or weak animals. They won't eat other animals' kills, and they won't even return to their own kills. This suggests some interesting character traits, and perhaps a few interesting plots as well. Presumably cheetah who are partially human would be able to adapt to a certain extent, but their diet would remain limited and picky.
Cheetah have very specific hunting patterns. They have this really neat chase-trip-bite hunting sequence. They chase an animal, trip it with this odd claw toward the back of a paw, and then bite its neck--not to break its neck, but to suffocate it. This sequence has to be learned due to its complexity; it isn't entirely instinctive. Cheetah always focus on a single animal when attacking to the exclusion of all others; they'll ignore animals that end up closer and more vulnerable in order to attack the one they've focused on. Cheetah get confused when an animal is too big to trip, and particularly when animals don't run away from them. These situations tend to leave them uncertain as to how to deal. This could have some interesting implications for how Swara approach combat situations. It could also leave Swara vulnerable to enemies who understand their hunting patterns.
Cheetah aren't all loners. Females live alone, although they may have overlapping ranges, and daughters usually live in the same range as their mothers. (In practice females are almost always raising a family of cubs, so they rarely live alone for long.) Males often band together in groups of 2 to 5 called "coalitions," usually with their littermates. Males that don't do this often look rather raggedy and are more likely to get killed. This has some interesting implications for party play--a Swara coalition could be a very interesting thing to play with. Obviously Swara, with more complex minds than their strictly feline cousins, might be able to overcome some of their standoffishness, but there would probably still be conflicts. Even females would probably be able to work together with other Swara, but they'd always live alone.
This particular breed of cats may well be dying out. Cheetah have a lot of problems. For one, they hit a genetic bottleneck a long time ago, and now they're so similar that genetically speaking, any two cheetah are identical twins. This inbreeding makes them very susceptible to disease. Presumably in the World of Darkness the Swara's occasional infusion of weird genetic variation into the gene pool helps out a lot, but there must still be problems. This could present all sorts of plots, from diseases that need to be fought, to complicated attempts to introduce more genetic variation into the species.
Most cheetah don't live to adult-hood. Cheetah cubs are vulnerable, particularly to other predators such as lions and hyenas. Most cheetah cub deaths are the doing of lions (you can see how the Swara must have real problems with the Simba, the were-lions). Also, farmers and ranchers in the areas where cheetah live may kill cheetah to prevent them from feeding on livestock. Thus, the Swara must value very highly those who do live to adulthood. And those who make it must be fairly competent.
Cheetah aren't actually all that nervous and flighty. They're very careful and wary, because any injury to a leg almost invariably means death; they live by their speed. But that's different from being scared of everything. This implies that Swara are probably pretty canny, weighing the possible dangers of what they do before they do it.
Speed: You probably already know that the cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth, clocked up to about 70 miles an hour or so. They can accelerate to about 45 mph in just two seconds! They have small heads to make them more aerodynamic. Their claws are only semi-retractile, acting as cleats. The pads on their feet are tough and more like tire-treads than those of most other cats, giving them traction and enabling them to turn on a dime. The burst of speed a cheetah puts on in a chase may exhaust her, leaving her unable to chase other predators away from her kill; lions and hyenas may well take a cheetah's kill away from her. The cheetah actually becomes completely airborne (no feet touching the earth) at two different points in a single stride. Strength and stamina are not likely to be a Swara's strong points, and their speed is more complex than at first glance.
Ancestry: Cheetah evolved well before most of the other big cats. This alone suggests all sorts of interesting World of Darkness plots.
Miscellanea: Cheetah don't climb trees very well; they live on the plains. They don't have very good night vision, and unlike some other cats they hunt by sight, not by smell. The female alone raises the cubs.
Even these small details may suggest all sorts of character quirks and traits, background and plots. You can apply this way of doing things to many RPG races and groups, even if they aren't based all that heavily in the real world. Research is always handy when working on RPG material--I'd dare say there's no better way to come up with character after character and plot after plot.
Useful Cheetah Web Sites
In case you're interested in further information on cheetah, here are some of the web sites I found in my travels:
- Africat--Helping conserve Africa's big cats. While you're there, consider "adopting" a cheetah (i.e., making a donation to help keep these cats alive).
- Wild Lives: Cheetah
- The portfolio of Matto Barfuss contains some fantastic cheetah photos.
- Nature: Cheetahs in a Hot Spot
- The Cheetah Conservation Fund--another place where you can adopt a cheetah, buy t-shirts and other paraphernalia, and donate to the cause
- The Cheetah Spot