Review: Hero Lab Software

An Anecdotal Outcry

As most of you may know, I’ve just kicked off a Pathfinder campaign recently and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. We’re about 5 sessions in now and most recently have begun wrapping up Crypt of the Everflame before transitioning into my homebrew world. Now, Pathfinder is a great game but it’s not without flaws (and horrible flashbacks to my 3.x days) so there have been a few hurdles. The biggest one? The creation, leveling, and general upkeep of characters.

The first night we got together for everyone to create characters involved a 5 hour session of everyone surfing d20pfsrd on their mobile devices, pencils with erasers that now resemble the surface of Kansas, and lots of “wait, what?”. To say that creating a character by hand for a system like Pathfinder can be quite daunting is something I’m sure I’m not alone in saying. Especially for one of my players who’d before this campaign had only played 1 session of D&D in his life using a pregen character no less.

I had some thoughts on the overall complexity of characters at level 1 last week, but today I can thankfully say that this issue has been mostly squashed thanks to the folks over at Lone Wolf DevelopmentHero Lab is a snazzy piece of software built by mad genius inhuman devil robot wizards with an extreme lust for the perfection of character creation and tracking. Seriously, this software is absurd in how much detail it allows you to track.

Skepticism, I’m Full of It.

I’ll admit that I was sceptical on the idea of a “3rd party” character creator at first, as in my mind often times the “official” is the only way to go. The older I get the more I learn that this actually is very seldomly true. During our panel How Technology Is Chaning Roleplaying Games for Obsidian Portal at Gencon this year, I got to meet a few of the guys from Lone Wolf and told them I had always toyed around with the idea of checking out Hero Lab and that I’d used their Army Builder for Warhammer a couple of years back (now that I’m playing Warmachine, maybe I’ll take a second look).

They were really cool guys who are really on top of their stuff, they also happen to have a lot of great ideas on how to change the face of the digital facets of the gaming world. If you get a chance be sure watch the panel from this year, I thought it was pretty insightful. Anyway, the guys at Lone Wolf were also cool enough to allow me a copy of Hero Lab to check out for the purpose of making my Pathfinder game less of a giant pain in my ass. Boy am I glad I took them up on their offer. Let’s jump in to some of the cool features and how they can make managing your band of adventurers a breeze.

Structured, Yet Flexible

First thing I should put out here is that I’m all for rolling up characters by hand, I prefer it that way and I’ve said it dozens of times. With some of today’s games though you really do need these tools, almost as if they are more of a necessity than an option. 4e D&D and Pathfinder are prime examples of that.

That being said I like to break the rules a lot, who doesn’t? Luckily Hero Lab allows you to basically add whatever you want to a character, sure it will warn you that the character isn’t legal but it didn’t stop me from giving my wife’s sorcerer a familiar. It still crunches all the numbers for the familiar and everything else too, which a great testament for tools that provide you the ease of what it intends to do without putting up additional walls or restrictions. Digital tools should provide as much room as possible for house rules and customizations without getting in the way, my primary gripe for virtual tables – but that’s a blog post for another day.

Everything You Need

To say that the character creation process is all-encompassing would be an understatement, it’s streamlined right from the moment you open up the program and will walk you through the process. Not in the nature that it holds your hand the entire way, but will notify you when you still have points to distribute and spells to pick, and so on. Speaking of picking spells, the UI for picking them is pretty simple and gives the full spell text and everything in a nice scrollable list – just double-click to pick the ones you want. You can also actively track spells, ammo, and other consumable aspects of your character if you wish to use Hero Lab in more of an “electronic character sheet” manner. The UI itself doesn’t actually lend very well to using the program this way though it seems, and the UI as a whole works but I still think it could stand a bit of a face lift.

Another cool thing Hero Lab does is allow you to designate which items in your inventory are in which container, allowing you to specify things like having a characters coins, spell components, etc in a belt pouch, and having bigger items stowed away in a backpack. A very granular thing but something that I enjoy, it’s nice to think of where your character does put all that stuff. It will track weight right down to the last copper piece if encumbrance rules are what you’re into as well. See what I’m getting at here? The guys at Lone Wolf are precision instruments of character tracking sorcery!

But Wait, There’s More!

Sure, it makes characters and levels them up, but what else does it do? A valid question. Hero Lab does two really big things for me that I love. The first thing is the journal part, sure it lets you track your XP and coins and stuff but it also has cool little tidbits of information like “You started the game at this level, since then you’ve amassed this much XP, and this much coin”. The achievement hunter in me digs fun little tidbits like this. It also gives you an at-a-glance view of all the characters in your game and the ability to swap back and forth between them all without going through dozens of save/load dialogs.

Perhaps the biggest thing for me is the ability to print out an extremely simplified version of the Pathfinder character sheet, along with spell descriptions (either full, or truncated – you pick), special ability information, your gear and its description and more. It’s nice to have all of these things be optional for one, and even nicer to be able to have them at a glance in a very readable and usable manner. This beats the hell out of surfing web pages, bookmarked PDF’s and rule books every time a question arises at the game table.

My Perception Score Is Rather Low

I’m sure there are oodles of features I’m totally skipping out on in this review. My Pathfinder game is only 5 sessions in and I guarantee you I haven’t explored the whole gamut of possibilities and ways to make my GM’ing life easier so please don’t treat this review as an all-encompassing piece of literature on Hero Lab.

You can buy Hero Lab for 30$ (PC and Mac), which comes with a license for any game the software supports and use it on two separate computers. I don’t think this is a bad price at all, especially considering I’ve easily spent more money in ink from printing out character sheets and spell descriptions. Not to mention counting the lost hours where I could have been gaming instead meticulously going over leveling up a character. The cost equals about what the core rulebook would cost you on amazon, but this is a hell of a lot easier. I’m lazy, and my players are even lazier.

If you run a game and this sort of minutia really bogs you down, I strongly suggest checking out Hero Lab. It’s more robust than any of the free character generators for Pathfinder that I found online, and beats the hell out of doing it by hand. Their customer service is top-notch, and the system supports a lot of popular RPG’s – including Savage Worlds, which will be my next Hero Lab license purchase so I can finally motivate myself to get that zombie apocalypse game off the ground I’ve been droning on about for months!

Author: Dread Gazebo

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12 Comments

  1. I’ve seen the official/unofficial divide and money is the root of all goodness and evil. Specifically, the problem with a lot of unofficial character builders was that they were infrequently updated with new material. Some could be customized, others couldn’t. Eventually you’d hit something that the builder couldn’t handle. The solution – monetize it. The problem – you need to keep spending.

    You mentioned that you could get Hero Lab with the Pathfinder module for $30. That’s true, but it only gets you the core rules. You need to pay more to use the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat, etc. It can get quite expensive if you want all of this. The way our group gets around this is that a couple people have Hero Lab with all the bells and whistles, and they help others make characters.

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    • This is very true, I would think a lot of groups would hopefully go the route of dividing it up among themselves for a chance for everyone to use the tools. It’s all a matter of taste you know? I don’t blame people for trying to make money in this industry. It’s a product that fixes a pain point in gaming, just like Obsidian Portal. We provide a service to hopefully help people’s gaming lives, sure there are alternatives but we try and make ours worthwhile enough that people might toss a few bucks our way for it y’know?

      This tool, like many others are all options so take em’ or leave em’. The thing is though, with certain games these options seem to be more of something you need. Just like DDI for 4e D&D. Not a need, but if you’re DM’ing a 4e game you probably really want access to it.

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  2. Have you taken a look at the 4E version? I’m wondering if it’ll be a good alternative for the eventual takedown of DDI.

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    • I believe that the 4e version has the names of things, but no details. Of course 4e isn’t OGL licensed.

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    • I haven’t looked at the 4e stuff mainly because I’m not playing 4e right now. I don’t see that happening again in the near future, but if it does this would be the first thing I went to. The license is a hell of a lot cheaper than a DDI subscription.

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  3. Have you checked out PC-Gen? It is very good as well and just recently had a Beta release for their new UI. I use both Hero Labs and PC-Gen to track my characters as some times one or the other has errors/bugs that I report.

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    • I’ll have to look into PC-Gen. I’ve heard good things about it from Micah.

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      • Now that the Beta of 6.0 is out, PC-Gen should be easier to make non-D20 characters like Savage Worlds, 2E and Castles and Crusades is my hope.

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  4. I’m a database guy. I used to be always creating databases for handling character creation on whatever game I was playing. I had a beautiful piece of software for creating Mutants and Masterminds 2e characters. After HeroLab came out for M&M, I put my database aside and never looked back. I’ve been very fortunate that I moved from M&M to Pathfinder and all I had to do was pick up a few more add-ons.

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  5. I’m considering HeroLab for 4e. Apparently there is a program that downloads the information from DDI. Of course you have to be a subscriber to do this, but afterwards it stays on your hard drive. Apparently it doesn’t handle essentials characters well.

    I’m on the fence because I expect that DDI will disappear some time after 5e launches. I like the compendium, and hero lab won’t be as convenient for that.

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  6. I too have concerns about the loss of the DDI character builder for my 4E games. I intend on continuing to play 4E after “next” comes out. The big problem I face is that I use Mac OS on my machine. I’ve seen a “bootleg” 4E character creator that is basically the old official creator (the one you used to download). And apparently there is a bit of “underground” community support for it. But it is a Windows-only application that requires the Microsoft .NET stuff. I have a techie friend that has it working on his tablet computer. But for me it requires not only a Virtual Machine for a Windows install, but also several troublesome “patches” to get it working.

    My point is that I’d love to see Herolab get up to speed with ALL of 4E (including Essentials) because I’d gladly pay them for this application at that point. I recall that this group had done the Hero Forge 3.x character builder (I had even done a little testing and data entry for them at one point) and they do fantastic work!

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    • Definitely! I think WotC would be doing themselves a favor to work with the Hero Lab guys rather than hand it off to someone who won’t treat it with respect and have it end up like their virtual table. Only time will tell!

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