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Looking at Hero Lab: A Review

Looking at Hero Lab: A Review

Hero LabAs a writer, a GM, and player, I need tools to help me get to the game table faster while making play smoother and easier.

Hero Lab is one of those tools.

For this review, I used my workhorse machine—a Pentium dual-core, 2.20 GHz, 4 GB RAM, Windows 7 on an Asus K60IJ notebook. We won’t get into real technical jargon, like CPU cache or graphics cards because, truthfully, I don’t think they matter for this application.

Because we’re a sort of Switzerland here at KQ, I reviewed this tool for both 4E and Pathfinder, putting it through its paces. I made PCs, NPC fodder, minions, and even a few complex villains. Let me say straight up, before we get into the nuts and bolts of this review, this is a solid product. It downloaded easily, verified the license without heartache, and even performed updates and pulled down data files without so much as an irritated curse from me. And you may or may not agree with the process, but I also like to tackle these programs without reading the manual—call it foolish, but I call it the unrestrained glee of someone with a new toy. However, I did reference the manual if I ever got stuck. And there were a few moments where I fought a little with the interface, but those moments were brief. What do I mean? Well let’s talk about it…

Walking the Path

I personally find 3.5E and, by extension, Pathfinder to be the most complex iterations of game to date, so I really had high hopes going into my test of the Pathfinder option for Hero Lab.

The interface is a series of tabbed windows, set in a logical sequence that leads the user through the creation process. Once I’d spent a bit playing with the options for the half-fiendish couatl sorcerer, other concepts came easily and popped out of the Hero Lab without so much as a peep. Really, the toughest part was figuring out how to apply a template to my couatl. That required me spending 5 minutes (including registering a new user ID) searching the well populated and frequently posted Wolf Lair forums, where a quick search on template provided the answer quickly (you use the class advancement option). With the template assigned, I proceeded to crank out casters, NPC warriors, kobold artificer/rogues… nothing seemed beyond reach here, and that was awesome. I could generate PDFs and stat blocks in text, html, even bbcode or wikitext. I was a kid in a candy store.

And so, riding that high of accomplishment, I went to work on the 4E aspect of Hero Lab.

This portion of the tool wasn’t quite as complete although the interface remained very fluid. The data downloaded flawlessly through my DDI account, and I plunged into recreating a character I run in a play-by-forum game. Generic backgrounds were absent, which was an unfortunate but small issue. Slightly more irksome was the fact that there was no button within the tabs to level up, but I found that feature quickly enough in the settings menu option. The Bardic Dilettante feat didn’t work quite right, but I found a workaround that provided me the bonus appropriately and posted a note about it to the forums. Skill powers remain unavailable, but this apparently has something to do with the fact that the compendium doesn’t necessarily match the character builder, and Hero Lab draws its data from the compendium. Oddly enough, it wouldn’t let me lower my character’s height below a suggested racial minimum, but this bug appeared to have been already noted.

So while the overall experience was still great for the 4E tool, it was not as smooth as a Keith Stone beer-commercial. I should really stress that while there were bugs requiring a little research, Hero Lab worked quite nicely and when I did run into an issue there were either ways to implement a work-around or the resources to find the answer. One aspect open for improvement was Wolf Lair’s response time on their forums (4 days & still waiting!); but that has nothing to do with Hero Lab’s great user interface or functionality. I easily found my way through the tool without need of the manual at any point, and Hero Lab allowed me to generate my output in any one of 5 possible formats. That feature alone made me consider Hero Lab a win, especially when my latest downloads from the Character Builder allow me to see my sheet and print it, but won’t save a PDF I could send a friend.


With a price tag of $30, Hero Lab rolls in a little more on the inexpensive side of tools like source books or adventures. It’s roughly equal to a print copy of most supplements. In that sense, Hero Lab is a no-brainer if you plan on generating a character for any one of the eight supported systems! Comparing between Pathfinder and 4E, Hero Lab is a much stronger purchase for Pathfinder, simply because no initial DDI subscription was required and the Character Builder is still slightly more complete. However, if you enjoy playing multiple systems, there is no question—regardless of which side of the screen you spend more time. You want this tool, and you want it yesterday!

11 thoughts on “Looking at Hero Lab: A Review”

  1. And I should note that shortly after my response to Scott about the wait time, a senior member of the Wolf Lair staff did respond, verifying my bug within the Bardic Dilettante feat. The response to posts on the Pathfinder forums was faster, but those forums see more traffic.


  2. I’m curious as to what systems you are, or aren’t familiar with, and what you tested other than D&D/Pathfinder with this product.

    Back in the mid 90’s my school had a sponsored gaming club, and we tried Lots of games, and lots of systems, that love of variety has stayed with me, and my experience with Hero lab, was much different.

    Thoguh I did find Hero lab adequate of D&D, keep in mind, one needs only pay one month, then cancel to get a full copy of the 4th ed Character builder. You wont get further updates, unless you pay again, but the files are installed locally to your computer, nothing prevent you from using your full copy.

    Pathfinder as decent, but there are other, more elegant, and free solutions out there, PCgen for instance I found to be more streamlined, and inclusive of more source material.

    White-wolf game,s (Vampire Mage Werewolf etc) I found the character generation to be rather clunky and awkward, I was able to make characters by hand in less than 1/3rd of the time it took to make them in Hero-lab.

    And again there are many free, more well done character generators out there, just take a look at http://anathema.sourceforge.net/ for their white-wolf/exalted Character software.

    All in all I found the product, to be only passable, for some systems, and horrible for others, and far FAR from being worth it’s price-tag

  3. Theeo123, thanks for your different take on Hero Lab! As the Kobold readers are mostly D&D and Pathfinder players, the review’s emphasis on those systems serves the needs of the audience here.

    Fun to see a different take, though, and glad to know that someone is spinning up free Exalted/WW PD software.

  4. One of the things for the Pathfinder side of HL, is the user created data. ShadowChemosh has created many of the feats, traits, items and such from several of the Player Companions, while others have been working on a Pathfinderized version of d20Modern. When an issue arrives, it seems that either a fan or an official source arrives quickly to help clear up an issue or ask for more information – so that they can help.
    With HL/Pathfinder the $30 doesn’t include the Bestiary or the APG (both are add-ons), and they are also planning on adding in many of the Player Companions for $5.
    HL also has several other gaming systems including d20/3.5SRD, Mutants & Masterminds 2e and 3e beta, the Cortex System and Savage Worlds.
    In all, I believe it to be a very useful gaming tool – even for one without at netbook at the gaming table.
    Be Well.

  5. I’ve got substantial experience with 1E/2E/OD&D, Ars Magica, Rolemaster, d6 Star Wars, the older version of Deadlands, and a firm grasp of Cthulhutech, d20 Modern/CoC and Mongoose’s Conan d20 variant– all systems not covered by Hero Lab (although I know Ars is covered by Metacreator). My experience with White Wolf is limited to a five-year long WoD LARP in the 90s and reading the old Changeling and Exalted books (I could never find a group, but Manacle and Coin is still a favorite). I intend on picking up the Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds extensions for Hero Lab in the coming weeks, and would be happy to add to this review for those systems.

    Looking at PC-Gen, it seems to only cover d20 material and doesn’t provide access to the new Pathfinder material. The DDI Character builder has its associated monthly charge for updates, won’t allow me to export to pdf (it used to allow me to use CUTEpdf to print into a pdf, but that seems to been removed with my last update), and I personally find the updates important– many tables like to use errata in their games. I didn’t like the Metacreator interface as much (I think the tabs in Hero Lab flow better than the windows in Metacreator), but its cost for add-ons is comparable. I have not tested Metacreator for systems other than Ars Magica. I even used the old Liquid software provided for 3.0 d20 long ago and far away– I think they had a decent interface from what I remember. Anathema looks like its laid fallow for quite a while (until just recently) and only handles Exalted. Yes, there are a number of freeware tools out there, but they’re not for as many systems as Hero Lab. Plus, Hero Lab has working support and a company actively trying to answer bugs and expand the material. I think that’s important, too. Hero Lab’s strength lies in the fact that it covers 8 different systems or games, and that’s something I specifically mentioned.


  6. The problem with Hero Labs supporting a lot of different system is that you have to pay for a license of each of those systems, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say the product costs 30$ and supports 8 systems.

    I only use it for Pathfinder and I’m really happy with it. The ability to add new content is also very nice.

  7. J Christopher Harris

    I’ve been using Hero Lab for Pathfinder for several months and have found it to be very useful and easy to use. Can’t speak to the other game offerings, but I’m quite satisfied with the amount I’ve spent and the use I’ve gotten out of it with just Pathfinder.

  8. I have been using Hero Labs now for several months and I have to say as a tool it is very useful. It is not the cheapest solution out there but as Ben mentioned it is updated on a regular basis. Customer support is fast and useful. Not only that but the community puts out content on a regular basis as well.

    Others have mentioned the costs of adding other content to the Hero Labs like the Bestiary and the Advanced Players Guide. It might be mentioned that this is NOT mandatory but optional. While it is 14.99 for the Bestiary and 9.99 for the APG they can be added for free IF you do so yourself or even someone from the community. But that means you are taking a lot of time to do so and it is faster and more convenient to just buy the tons of crunch that comes with those updates and know that with each errata that comes out for either the APG of Bestiary that it is free and for life.

    So while free, PC-Gen… it is just an excel sheet and that is it. Nothing more or nothing less. The updates for Pathfinder are very very slow and not nearly as complete or quick on the fix if needed via errata and the like. So free is NOT always better nor is pay for tool either. It is a matter of what you the user of the tool wants to do. Personally as a DM and long time player. It is an extremely valuable time saver and NPC creator!! I could NOT live without it now :)

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