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!