Hero Lab™

By Lone Wolf Development

I Know Kung Fu

Once upon a time, Gamer Bling asked Rob Bowes, founder of Lone Wolf Development and critically acclaimed expert in how to keep a toothpick in your mouth while remaining (a) intelligible and (b) uninjured, how Lone Wolf Development got its start with Army Builder, its first commercial release. His response was, unlike this paragraph, terse and to the point.

“I’m a big miniatures gamer. Unfortunately, of the two guys I played with, one couldn’t remember the roster rules, and the other couldn’t do math.”

Thus Army Builder was born to ensure that his friends obeyed the army-composition rules and stayed under the scenario’s point limit. That led to three versions of Army Builder, then one and a half versions of Card Vault (Army Builder for TCGs), and, after several years in total, to the point of this paragraph. To wit: Hero Lab.

But you already knew that. You clicked the link. But you may not know what Hero Lab does, which is kind of the point of this review. So, without further ado:

Hero Lab is a great new program to help you create a character in Your Favorite Role-Playing Game™ without scratch paper, eraser marks, flipping through various books to find that reference you want, and (best of all for gamemasters) cheating.

E-tools was not slow, but neither was it fast. It was kinda half-fast.Many of you may remember E-Tools, the half-realized attempt to bang out a utility for 3e D&D. Then there was the Code Monkey project that said it would launch, among other things, “if the stars align.” Why is Hero Lab any different? Because all that development time that the other developers spent with art and sound effects and voice acting and stargazing, Lone Wolf spent creating something that actually works.

Maybe Hero Lab doesn’t look as good, and maybe it doesn’t have a vaguely English-sounding gentleman reading the labels of the buttons to you as you mouse over them, and maybe it’s not your astrological sign, but it is what you actually want out of a character-generation utility. Because a character-generation utility should be all about utility and not character (that is, function and not fashion).

And you can try it for free.

Hero Lab promises to be the default utility for any number of systems (any number being equivalent to the quantity of licenses signed plus the number of fan mods, plus one for the OGL). That is, N = qty.rpg(lic) + qty.rpg(mod) + 1. Lone Wolf has a track record of delivering on this promise, because Army Builder currently supports 34 games, and Card Vault has files for 65 different collectible games.

However, as of this writing, N=1.

Patience. Soon Lone Wolf promises new data sets based on licenses signed with Green Ronin (Mutants & Masterminds), White Wolf (World of Darkness), and Mongoose (RuneQuest). The first, World of Darkness, will be previewed at Gen Con 2007, with M&M a few months after.

In the meantime, we have the OGL material, which was plenty enough to keep us all busy when 3e first released. Plus there’s the psionics OGL stuff, too! And you can still try it all for free.

Perhaps the best way to show you how easy Hero Lab is to use is to step you through how Gamer Bling created his first character using the OGL.

To begin with, Gamer Bling downloaded the Hero Lab file from www.wolflair.com, which is already on version 1.1k and keeps evolving. It’s a 14Mb file, so those without a good cable connection might want to grab a flash drive and use a computer at work the library or a friend’s house.

Installation was quick and easy, with the sole curious exception of a dialog box that opened in the middle of install and said, essentially, that it was going to continue to install. Hokay. (Lone Wolf assures us that this was done for legal reasons. Apparently they are legally required to adopt some of the odd programming quirks of the other products mentioned above.)

Once the install was complete—total elapsed time: not much; total money spent: none—Gamer Bling fired it up.

First, Gamer Bling slogged his way through a variety of dialog boxes so common to all programs these days. These are the software equivalent of the FBI and Interpol warnings at the start of your DVDs that you can’t use the Next Chapter button to skip past no matter how hard you push the button or shake the remote.

All things considered, Gamer Bling would select “spin the bottle” with Natalie Portman and Hayden Panettiere, but it does not appear that this will be an option in the near future.That done, Gamer Bling chose the game system. Since Hero Lab was running in demo mode, the choice was easy, even for Gamer Bling. Note that this is the 3.5 version of the OGL. Version 3.0 is so 2003… I mean, we’re talking back when Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Gamer Bling likes menu options, especially when discussing pizza.Once the system opened, Gamer Bling chose the character generation method from a submenu with eight options:

Because he was running Hero Lab in demonstration mode, there was a preset limit to the complexity of the characters Gamer Bling could generate. But since he was only testing the product, he didn’t much care. Gamer Bling just wanted to see how quickly he could create a starting character. He entered his character’s base attributes, as shown:

Yes, that’s right, with Hero Lab you can take your character to the next level.

Notice that “race” and “alignment” are red: that’s because Gamer Bling hadn’t yet chosen them, therefore they show up as validation errors. Gamer Bling selected Aasimar as his race to demonstrate his higher destiny to bring news and reviews of gaming excessories to the world, and also an alignment to match the madness of his method. He added a class level, as well, resulting in this:

See? Gamer Bling indeed has roguish good looks.

Mad skillz, happy skillz, Galen B. Grim has them all.A few skill clicks and feat selections later, Galen B. Grim is ready for action! Ta-daaa! Look at those amazing skill totals in gather information and appraise. And bluff.

Better yet, if Gamer Bling were not satisfied with the result he’d gotten, making changes just takes a few clicks. Experimentation has never been this easy.

But Galen B. Grim is more than just a semi-divine scoundrel with a keyboard. He has the very best gaming accessories adventuring equipment. Let us postulate that a cunning Karrnathi artificer sent Galen a wonderful piece of adventurer bling to review. Could Hero Lab handle it? And how much would the program take before it broke under the stress?

One of the equipment options is to create a custom magic item. Gamer Bling proceeded to come up with one of the most ridiculous magic items conceivable, and Hero Lab kept pace, as shown here:

How exactly does cold iron have a flaming burst? Wouldn’t that make it a branding iron?

Sadly, it ended up costing more than Galen could afford (he has a measly 950 platinum pieces left) so he had to return the item after a favorable evaluation.

Now—and yes, this is getting to be a review as thick as many an RPG core rulebook—one of the beauties (and horrors) of the RPG industry is the prevalence of house rules and third-party source material. Can Hero Lab handle these? You might think the answer would be no, given that there’s no way for Lone Wolf to license your house rules, much though many a would-be game designer wishes it would be so.

But you’d be wrong. Hero Lab can do it (to a point, although with further upgrades, that point gets further along on a regular basis).

As an example, Gamer Bling decided that he would create a Kobold race file as a sort of companion piece to the forthcoming AvatarArt review of Gleek’s artwork. This is accomplished by using the Editor (them Lone Wolf guys, they sure can name their tools).

Having had no previous experience with the editor, Gamer Bling quickly skimmed the Editor Tutorial, spending maybe five minutes’ time and placing himself ahead of 80% of the computer-using public. Thus armed with knowledge, he launched the editor, which, aside from the fact that there are no fundamental buttons (like Load and New) in the welcome screen, is pretty easy to use.

In roughly ten minutes, Gamer Bling had created a special Kobold race profile with proper attribute mods, favored class, darkvision, the martial weapons proficiencies (detailed in a web enhancement), craft: trapmaking as a racial skill, natural armor, proper speed, small size, and resistances. Aside from some funky tab-key navigation and a lack of mouse wheel support, the process was quite easy.

Note that Gamer Bling did not add Gleek’s light sensitivity, wings or fiery breath, nor did he bother to figure out how to give Gleek a flying speed of greater than zero. But, having learned how to create feats as part of, oh, say, reading the tutorial, he is confident that he can create new racial abilities, as well.

And creating a new class looks no more difficult than creating a new race.

What else is there? Well, it can automatically warn you if there are new program or data file updates. And it has adaptive summary panels. And you can get a secondary license for your laptop and use Hero Lab to track in-game status changes, like poisoning and the like, which GB will test this fall. And it has a journal feature. And it prints to paper or PDF. And each game will have its own unique skin. And there are certain to be other features, both now and in the future, but it’s late and Gamer Bling has to generate some graphics before he can put this review up and he wants to go to bed.

Weak Points

The greatest weak point of this otherwise wonderful program is the fact that it is reliant on source data to be useful. You can have an incredible toolbox, but without nails and planks, you can’t build a thing. The nails and planks are the data sets that are made available. As of this writing, the only data available is everything released under the OGL, which basically means the D&D v3.5 core book value meal with a side of psionics.

Adding all the material in unlicensed properties may look like a daunting prospect. In fact, it is daunting. Horribly daunting. Fortunately, you only have to add those pieces that the players want to use. This at least puts the workload at a manageable level. But it still has to be done.

As mentioned, Lone Wolf promises new data sets based on licenses signed with Green Ronin (Mutants & Masterminds), White Wolf (World of Darkness), and Mongoose (RuneQuest). But even when these licenses are executed, there may be a lag between release of a sourcebook and its availability for Hero Lab. Gamer Bling doubts that Lone Wolf Development will be given pre-publication source material in enough time to have it programmed and debugged by launch date. Gamer Bling knows from experience that some changes are made right before going to press.

The biggest gap will be the availability of non-OGL D&D material. Gamer Bling fervently hopes that WotC will execute a license like the other visionary companies listed above. Perhaps they’ll test the waters with Eberron; that’s less risky a proposition for WotC than, say, unleashing the whole of Forgotten Realms. If they don’t, Gamer Bling predicts that gamer die-hards will haxxor together fans mods and share them, cutting WotC out of the QA loop.

The other weak point is not so much weak as annoying: the idiot-proofing of the product.

For example, consider the opening dialog box. Now, Gamer Bling has worked software support (though only for a mercifully short time), and he understands fully why the opening dialogs are there: because of those people that IT support guys call “lusers.” Still, having these dialogs makes Gamer Bling feel somewhat insulted. Consider the very first dialog box, which Gamer Bling paraphrases as follows:

•Where to start for new users – Try the tutorial or the manual. Tough concept, we know.
•Where to find data – Try finding it automatically, which you’d know if you’d actually read the manual.
•What else – Well, you could read the darned manual or do the stupid tutorial!

But of course, people who don’t want to use the manual or tutorial will not even bother to read dialog boxes. There is no force on Earth greater than willful ignorance.

The program opens with several of these luser-friendly dialog boxes.

• The Intro box: Where to find stuff.
• Disclaimer box: It’s the data, not the program.
• Welcome box: Tells you what you’re about to experience if only you can get past the dialog boxes.
• Upgrade reminder: Kind of premature since you haven’t started the program yet.
• Update Checking Preference box: Not that you know why updates are important yet.
• Update Retrieval box: See previous entry.
• Update Retrieval denial box: See previous entry.
• System Selection box: Ah. We’re getting close. Except you have to choose the OGL stuff.
• System Release Notes box: Tells you what you just chose to open.

Then, and only then, are you allowed to start actually tinkering with a hero.

Sigh.

Fortunately, you can disable most of these boxes the first time you crash your way through the dialog gauntlet.

The Bottom Line

You want the bottom line? Here’s the bottom line:

TRY IT FOR FREE.

That’s right. You can download the program and take it for a test spin at no cost whatsoever. You have nothing to lose but a few minutes of experimentation. So do it.

Gamer Bling commands you.

Summary

Bling Factor: 5 (it makes nice print-outs and PDFs)
Quality: 9
Utility: 9 +/- (depending on which game you use)
Price: $29.99
You Need: 1

The Future

With the OGL and soon three more very popular games with loyal fan bases, Gamer Bling believes that Hero Lab will quickly develop a solid user base, allowing Lone Wolf to evolve the program further with fan input. Lone Wolf is good about fan input; they’ve already implemented a feature that Gamer Bling suggested.

Then hopefully WotC will follow the crowd.


2 Responses to “Hero Lab™”

  1. I take issue at the price-point – because while $30 isn’t a huge amount of change to drop in one place, it’s certainly not cheap.

    I kind of see this being deployed on the DM’s laptop, used to create and track the whole table’s worth of characters (and NPCs, and encounters, etc.) and in this scenario, the price is okay. For an online tabletop this won’t work nearly so well and everyone who wants to really benefit from it will need a copy.

    And then they will be like: Oh NO.

    But, seriously: $30. That’s how much we pay for a single rulebook at the store, when we’re lucky. A book is also susceptible to no meaningful degradation save the abuse of the user; as a computer-literate gentleman with several Expansion Packs to his credit, Gamer Bling is no doubt painfully aware that later versions of a library or Windows release can absolutely break the living [BZZT! expletive deleted] out of software.

    Which isn’t a problem -now,- given that they’re still actively developing; but give it ten years and suddenly maybe you’re there, falling to bleeding knees; raising claw-like hands to the sky, screaming for vengeance as arcane error message mocks you from the liquid crystal future-glow of your future-screen.

    Plus, I bet finding data packs for this thing is going to be a bitch in that timeframe as well.

    I’d have few reservations paying $20 for this, but I’d pay $15 no questions asked.

    • You bring up several valid concerns in your well-reasoned and artfully hyperbolic response. Allow Gamer Bling to reply.

      First of all, yes, Windows is a [expletive replaced with “First Edition Official Companion”] of a development environment to work with. However, the design platform in which Lone Wolf builds their products is XML based, which makes it fairly impervious to the capricious whims of They Who Hopefully Will Not Slap Gamer Bling with a Libel Lawsuit.

      Second, any prognostication about the future of Hero Lab would be just that. So instead, Gamer Bling will point to the real-life track record of Army Builder, one of the other fine products offered by the good people at Lone Wolf. Judging by the copyright dates at the bottom of each web page, Army Builder is approaching its 11th anniversary. It has been well maintained in that time, now on version 3.1c. There are independent groups that maintain the Army Builder data files for massively complex games (like these guys).

      And while your rulebooks will never give you the Blue Screen of Death, they can go obsolete, be it from a minor upgrade like 3e to 3.5, or a quantum leap like 3.5 to 4e. But your data files can always be updated.

      There is indeed little reason for everyone to have one, other than to have the chance to tinker with your PC on your PC whenever you want. Then again, there’s little reason for everyone to have a 3.5 PHB, but everyone does.

      Ultimately, you must weigh the cost/benefit ratio. With the extra DM tools available—tracking hp and conditions, etc.,—Gamer Bling thinks it’s a slam-dunk for any worthy DM.

      So you players who are getting off Scot free, pitch in $5 a piece and give your DM a surprise.

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