I like this word.  Its Greek root gives it some ancient weight, yet the strangeness of it also sounds very sci-fi to me.

The term “panopticon” comes from the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (the same guy who had his body partly mummified so he could continue to sit in on meetings  at University College, London).  The basic idea was to design a building which would allow observation all the occupants, without their knowing if they were actually being watched at the moment but always under the threat of observation.  Bentham primarily saw this as a useful design for a prison, but also saw its possibilities for schools, asylums, hospitals, and so on. Foucault would famously adopt this metaphor for society’s other hierarchical structures and control mechanisms (physical and cultural, so one might understand even religious concepts  — “God sees all” — as ways of applying panoptic pressure).

The concept of a panopticon dungeon sounds like something I’d like to spring on players too.  My initial concept was of an ancient, high-tech prison, no longer functioning as designed but with intact defenses and surveillance equipment.  I imagine a party dealing with electric eyes, security cameras, and so on.  Perhaps an intercom would announce when the thief disappeared into the shadows or the magic user began reading his spell book, and call for monsters to interfere with any rest or respite the party tries to get.  A high priority would be disabling the cameras, and eventually destroying (or commandeering!) the control room.  Throw in multiple competing adventuring parties, who are occasionally glimpsed via closed circuit TVs or mentioned in intercom broadcasts, and you could have a hellishly paranoid game.  I’m not sure I could pull that off as DM.

But looking into pantopticons, it turns out several real prisons were built with this idea in mind.

The Presidio modelo, a Cuban prison, was built according to panopticon principles.  It closed as a prison in 1967, but the building is pretty evocative (this is inside one of the prison buildings):


Imagine winged beasties (winged eyeballs, of course) roosting in the cells, the courtyard filled with cyclopes and cyclopskin, and a beholder atop the tower (probably confined to the top of the tower, which it can gaze out of, but not leave).  Mission: topple the tower!  I smell an OPD.

Published in: on December 18, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. I once had a dungeon that a wealthy and sadistic noble had build as entertainment. He imported all kinds of nasty creatures and also introduced into it criminals, slaves, and gladiators to challenge anyone else he managed to capture. All of the ceilings of the dungeon were grates or heavy enchanted glass so that his cocktail parties could watch the people try to escape. It has sort of a panopticon vibe.

  2. That’s an evil DM idea no matter what edition you’re running! I applaud you sir!

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