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RPG – Tools of the Game Master: Hero Lab

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As I mentioned in my September post, I have recently begun to GM again, in a Pathfinder game with five friends and my SO. In the ten years since I last played tabletop, there’ve been a lot of technological advancements, and I am now looking for ways to enhance my GM experience using software and mobile apps to use at the game table. I might also post about game products that I find incredibly helpful, but we’ll see. It’s a bit of a departure from my normal game posting, but it’s what I am currently excited about.

Today I want to talk about the first investment I made in this area which I started using right around the time that my players were ready to create their characters: Hero Lab.

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Hero Lab is the officially sanctioned character creation software for Pathfinder. You can use it for plenty other systems as well, e.g. D&D 4E, 3.5, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, etc. The software costs 29.99 USD and comes with one core rulebook enabled. Naturally, I picked Pathfinder. It also comes with free rule additions from the Paizo website, e.g. the player companions for Adventure Paths, including traits and items from there plus all the content from the Inner Sea Guide. If you want to use any additional sourcebooks for your character building, you have to purchase them. Prices range. I bought access to a couple player companion books (the races books) because my players wanted to use traits from there, and paid like 15 bucks additionally for those. If you are a completionist who wants to have access to every single splat book beyond the core rules, Hero Lab might be a bit pricey all in all.

So what does Hero Lab actually do? Above all, it’s a tool to create characters. You can then keep track of the characters and advance them with experience and level them up as you go. You can print out full character sheets, add images, have room for a full detailed background, etc. That makes it a sweet tool for players to keep track of their characters. It also makes it incredibly easy for me as GM who is quite admittedly really rusty when it comes to rules. I am still learning all the intricacies of the Pathfinder core rules, and the rules part has never been my biggest strength, I’ll be honest.

I installed the trial to test-roll a character, and was so happy with it that I bought it before the players showed up to create their characters. Character creation is quite easy. When you create a new character, you choose which rulebooks you want to include, which advancement track to use, but it also allows you turn off stuff like encumbrance rules if that’s what floats your boat. Hero Lab has 15 tabs for each character, which sounds overwhelming but to me is very organized. They range from Classes to Abilities to Feats, Gear, etc. When creating a character, the software always makes it fairly obvious when something has been forgotten.

In this example, the stalwart paladin Phileas forgot to pick a language.

In this example, the stalwart paladin Phileas forgot to pick a language.

What makes this so wonderful for me is that it calculates everything. Player picks Improved Initiative feat? Without me having to think about it at all, Hero Lab calculates the correct Iniative values for me. You can also easily keep track of which spells have been used up, how many arrows are left, how many rounds the barbarian’s rage will last and how this affects his health and combat rolls. And so on and so forth. The In-Play tab of each character lets me easily keep track of things like that, or apply damage or heal them.

Here I can fiddle with the barbarian's options. He's been injured, and hasn't raged any at all yet.

Here I can fiddle with the barbarian’s options. He’s been injured, and hasn’t raged any at all yet.

Hero Lab offers a tactical console that will handle combat rounds for you. It will roll initiative for the PCs and determine attack order that way. But as my players roll initiative themselves, and it’s very awkward to adjust the order, the tactical console didn’t really work for me. If your players don’t enjoy rolling their own initiative, it might be an idea. To help me out with combat, I bought Paizo’s Combat Pad instead. We’ll see how that goes. I might test other software options as well.

Another Gamemaster tool is the encounter builder, which allows you to build encounters based on the desired challenge rating, from a wide list of NPCs included in Hero Lab. You can then import them as enemies and control them via the tactical console as well. You can also add friendly NPCs that way as allies and use them to assist your group with a few mouse clicks. Quite handy.

Here I am in the process of building an encounter with goblins, for my party. APL 2, desired CR 3.

Here I am in the process of building an encounter with goblins, for my party. APL 2, desired CR 3.

For those of you who are playing Pathfinder online via either D20pro or Fantasy Grounds, Hero Lab is integrated and any character created can be easily transferred to the virtual tabletops. I haven’t used either and think Roll20 is more widely spread than those two, so there’s that.

Me, I am happy I sprang those 30 bucks on the software. I run Hero Labs on the laptop at the gaming table and feel like it helps me a lot more with the rules-end of things, for sure. Hero Lab is also available for ipads, so I am sincerely hoping they’re going to release an Android version eventually as well.

If you want to give the software a shot, a trial version for Windows and Mac is available.

2 Comments

  1. By any chance does the program have ways to share information with or give tasks to (level your character) your players? And do they have to own a full version of the program to do it?

    One of the things I’ve been hesitant about these types of tools is while I might be comfortable buying it myself, I’m not comfortable asking my players to shell out to integrate them in the system.

    • Oh cool, I thought I’d drive the last of my readers away with the talk about GM tools. I am not sure what you are getting at with the question, do you have an example for me? It probably does not support something like that. There are many ways to export player data (PDF, HTML, BBCODE, etc.) but other than sharing portfolio files, I don’t think you can share infos.

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