Having begun to re-read the entire GURPS Basic Set – two hardbacks totalling some 575 pages – I have reminded myself of the importance of periodically doing this. The reason is a phenomena educators refer to as “learning illusions”: thinking we’ve learned something when we’ve really just become familiar with the location of information.
I’ve played enough GURPS to have internalised the core rules of the game. I know, for example, how to make Success Rolls (3d6, roll equal or under a trait’s value); I don’t have problem with Damage Rolls or Reaction Rolls either. All simple stuff… because, at heart, GURPS is simple.
But the details trip me up. Re-reading the whole of Characters (Book 1), for example, I was reminded of dozens of little details in the rules that just make me smile at the elegance of the system as a whole. Little stuff – like the fact that an unmodified Success Roll is made when the character is under “adventuring” conditions, and that routine stuff should be gaining a +4 bonus, eluded my memory. But that rule is a big deal in play.
What’s going on here? I typically explain it as a “learning illusion” to students who are preparing for examinations. In short, you get so familiar with the material you are trying to learn that it’s easy to believe that you have internalised the knowledge… when what is really happening is that you are just really good at looking it up.
This illusion is why we need to put the knowledge we are trying to internalise into use. Students should complete practice questions, take on challenges, and solve problems without reference to their books and notes. Likewise, we GMs should practice play situations without the books to see just how confident we really are with the rules in play.
I do this by practicing building characters – all of which I can potentially use as NPCs in the actual game – and then putting them through different situations. Most obviously, I run solo combat scenes to internalise the rules for fighting. But I also set up likely situations – all of which I can re-use as legit obstacles for the player characters in the actual game – to see if I know how to adjudicate them.
Running what I call solo “self-play” scenes with practice characters helps me to move beyond a simple re-reading and overcome the illusion that I know the rules. You need to use the rules before you will internalise them. It’s best to do that by using them, repeatedly… because repetition and practice help us to move information from short-term to long-term memory.
But at the very least, we should all be re-reading the books from time to time. Notice what you’d overlooked or forgotten. Make a note to revisit those details of the rules in play. Set up some practice sessions to help internalise them. More than anything, recognise that you don’t learn any complex set of knowledge overnight, simply by reading it. Unless you have Eidetic Memory.