There is a quote by Bertrand Russell that I think sums up the horror HPL felt at the universe as it was revealed: "The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, toward a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one as they march our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life. On him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness..."
HPL was, along with that other titan of early 20th century Sci-Fi H.G. Wells, one of the last of the 18th century Enlightenment era philosophers. He himself stated that he was born into the world too late, and wanted to live in an earlier age. The world he imagined that he lived as a youth in was one that was wholly material, infinite, eternal, mechanical, comprehensible, progressive, and conquerable. It had no room for the supernatural. There was nothing external to the universe and so there was nothing that was supermaterial or supernatural. It had no beginning, and so no need for a creator, nor any ending, and so no ultimate death. Man himself might live a brief life, but he could look toward the principle of evolution and imagine that it was universe continually evolving to ever higher forms at that humanity might be inevitably swept along with this progress. Science had shown the universe to be knowable and made predictions and had become for many the prophet and religion, and in the first decades of the 20th century you could imagine a time when everything was known, and all physical laws had been left subject to human will. For HPL, the British Empire represented this highest level of progress yet achieved, and in his mind the Anglo-Saxon people the highest yet evolution of humankind.
The Great Old ones are the representatives of this entire model of the universe crashing down around him in every single detail.
HPL felt he was left in a universe, one that was revealed by the cruel march of science (and the progress of history, such as Britain's involvement in The Great War), where everything he'd put his faith in was meaningless. The universe had a beginning and an end. It was unknowable. Human wisdom was not merely incomplete but inherently uncompleteable. Logic and reason did not describe the real universe. There was no ladder of evolution with higher and lower forms, with life struggling to higher states of being, just blind chance and extinction. In this universe as he saw it, truth and morality don't exist, but are illusions crafted by the human mind to protect itself from reality. Overcoming these illusions are inherently mind-shattering and dehumanizing. Everything that is real, and most particularly everything that is real in the dark mirror mythos universe that reifies his fears about reality, is insane and inhuman. Human sanity is based on a delusion that the universe is knowable, rational, and providential (whether divinely or by natural law).
So as to your questions:
1) Yes, I use the Elder Gods, but they are from human perspective insane and amoral. Those that seem friendly, such as say Nodens, are in fact diabolical in design and intent. In my imagination, the Elder Gods are essentially the most eldest and most potent of the Greater Independents - sorcerer supremes of elder races that now from humanities perspective seem god-like in power. But they are essentially as fundamentally trapped by the reality of the universe as humanity, and as fundamentally insane as a consequence. While they may be battling the Great Old Ones for the same reasons that the investigators are, they fundamentally are just as trapped in a hopeless war with reality - just on a far larger scale.
2) Yes, the Great Old Ones are always malignant and inimical to humanity.. This is because anything that is fundamental to the universe is tainted by the perverse spirit that animates Nyarlathotep. The universe as it really is is not merely indifferent, but perverse - delighting in pain and torture and violence. It's not merely that these things are possible, but that in the Mythos universe the universe exists for that reason and was created by its creator - to the extent that its creator had a purpose - for that purpose. In other words, from the perspective of the creator of the Mythos universe, life exists because it endures pain and the experience of other things in pain and distress delights it. Remember, Nyarlathotep is doing all of this because it delights the unconscious Azathoth. The Great Old Ones are working his will in one fashion or another. Yes, they are weird aliens things that barely notice humanity or really anything at all, but when they do take notice of humanity the only purpose they would find it in it is making it suffer and die. An indifferent universe would be comparatively comforting. Natural law in the mythos universe is anti-providential, and true Great Old Ones are the workers of and messengers of that will.
As a side note, I'll suggest that some of things the rules identify as a GOO to me don't actually qualify, at least as I imagine a GOO. Cthulhu is an actual great old one, inherently part of the real fabric of the universe. As such, his stat block shows that he cannot be killed, only temporarily thwarted. Anything that is listed as a GOO that is killable, isn't a GOO, but just a powerful monstrous being that is suffered to exist by the GOO or Outer Gods.
c) There are no exceptions. Any exceptions you believe exist are comforting delusions you've crafted for yourself, perhaps encouraged by the duplicity of the thing you are putting faith into. Any hope, any succor, any sanity is just your limited human mind grasping for the things it needs in its simple simian nature to maintain its nature.
I agree also with Gaffer that HPL had never, and certainly not at the beginning of his writing, codified any of this to the extent that I've just codified it here. Certainly I think there is evidence of the sort of things that were the source of his fears, but his writing didn't directly and always codify this into a coherent framework such as we - in a post RPG age - expect out of fiction and find comforting. We're far from JRR Tolkien and his disciples like Brandon Sanderson that make world building key to his stories. We're in a transition period in fantasy fiction, but HPL owes more to and is closer to the 19th century fantasy authors that he name drops from time to time in his fiction than he is to the post Tolkien fantasy where you consciously explore your view of reality through an elaborate sub-creation. I think HPL's work does work as an elaborate subcreation, but I don't think he consciously set out to create a subcreation and that his work as a subcreation only came into being as other author's started working within the mythos framework.
Like Gaffer, I also abhor the expanded mythos created by many of these 'disciples' of that universe (a sort of fan fiction really), which I think don't "get" the real horror of HPL's vision and humanize the whole system by giving the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods human traits like spouses, siblings, parents, politics, tribes, and so forth. I use none of that in my CoC games, except where I want to have ravings by some human madman that also doesn't "get it". I believe what I've described above is truer to HPL's numinous horror of the revealed 20th century world that brought down all his previously comforting views with uncomfortable and often unwanted discoveries - compare with Einstein's declaration "God does not play dice with the universe." and keeping in mind that for Einstein God was not a being or a person but a metaphor about the fundamental nature of reality. HPL is I think saying, or working at sayings, that Einstein's God is Azathoth, and as such anything you find uncomfortable is true.
That said, everything I've just said is also just "fan fiction", and tainted by my biases and preferred ways of looking at the "canon" and there is no right or wrong answer because the canon itself is contradictory confused and incoherent, because fundamentally the canon is just a body of fictional literature that was never intended to present a coherent world view even of a fictional universe, much less the real one.
Edited by Celebrim, 04 December 2017 - 04:51 PM.