Our group are trying Cthulhu Dark. It's a super-simple set of rules, which makes it ideal for playing online, and for the win we have Ralph Lovegrove as our guest referee. From the reviews, it looks like one of those games where you play in an author role rather than strictly in-character:
"If there’s anyone at the table who thinks that the story or mystery would be more interesting if you fail, they can step in, describe what would happen if you failed and roll a Failure die."My knee-jerk to that kind of thing is to say, "I'll just roleplay going mad, thanks. I don't need insanity points and other players to write the arc for me."
But is that true? I have played in Cthulhu campaigns and I always take it that madness is inevitable -- though there are arguments against that view and in Lovecraft's fiction it's a characteristic of his chosen narrators that cosmic horror drives them mad; it may not be the inevitable reaction of any character to the same events.
Say it is inevitable, though. In GURPS I refuse to take mental disadvantages because they are so prescriptive, but to some extent playing insanity is going to yank you out of character anyway. As the insanity progresses, an ironic distance grows between player and character. You know that complete mental disintegration, suicide, whatever are inescapable. So you can't help thinking authorially -- "Is now the time for me to run gibbering?" "Do I leap off the building?" Unless you have the misfortune to be suicidal in real life, you can't wholly drive that from within. The character's end comes when you step aside and ordain it, more as an author than an actor.
Arguably the authorial approach is the only way to run an authentic Cthulhu game, if you take it as given that the characters are doomed to fail. Their madness can't just be a set of character quirks, like in GURPS. We're talking about the real horror of madness that leaves you absolutely helpless and bereft. And if we're simulating an HPL story there's never any real agency anyway. Against immemorially ancient and vast entities, indifferent to the "trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns", there is nothing you can do to "win". It's only when you intervene an authorial view and recast reality in the shape of a story that you can perceive it as any kind of satisfying closure.
So, it's not how I normally like to roleplay. In fact I wouldn't even quite call it roleplaying. But it may well be the only fit for the subject matter. What I'm less convinced by is the designers' attempt to avoid what they see as the elitism inherent in Lovecraftian fiction, where an uneducated and either foreign or scarily feral mob revere the powerful other-worldly beings. Instead Cthulhu Dark makes the player-characters the oppressed (not that HPL's narrators are often very privileged) and substitutes as bad guys the most empowered people: the wealthy, bankers, politicians, socialites. I've used that as a bait-&-switch trope myself, but it just reinstates the Gothic tropes of degenerate, inbred aristocrats that Lovecraft was reacting against.
And to play a character from a genuinely deprived underclass, you again probably need to go with an authorial rather than an in-character approach. Do you know what it would be like to be brought up without any exposure to education? Like the very poorest people in mid-Victorian London, say? Prejudiced, illiterate, ignorant, made unhealthy and desperate by the most brutal existence. What you most definitely wouldn't be thinking is anything like, "I am of course a victim of the unbridled capitalism of my era and am unfairly kept down by the rich." Fact is, you'd be pretty much semi-feral. I could simulate it after reading Mayhew, but it would require a hell of a leap of imagination to get inside the character's head.