In 1996, TSR was unable to pay its printer, meaning that, if something were not done, Dungeons & Dragons would go out of print for the first time in 22 years. For nearly six months in late 1996 and early 1997, TSR released no new products in any of its many game lines. Even publication of Dragon and Dungeon magazines ceased for time. For all intents and purposes, it was a gamer Apocalypse.
On April 10, 1997, Wizards of the Coast of Renton, Washington acquired TSR and its properties, saving D&D from extinction. However, it was clear that the game had suffered both creatively and financially during the latter days of TSR. WotC decided that the best course of action was to release a new edition of the game -- a fresh start to herald a new beginning for the venerable fantasy RPG. That new beginning happened in August 2000, with the release of Third Edition. "Advanced" was dropped from the title, but it was clear that 3e was primarily a successor to Gygax's AD&D line begun in 1977 rather than the D&D line inaugurated by Tom Moldvay in 1981 (or earlier, depending on where you wish to draw your lines of creative demarcation).
A new beginning required a new look and 3e's graphic design was very different both from 1e and from 2e. The Player's Handbook, shown below, sports a faux "tome" cover, lacking a cover illustration at all. The clear intention here was to make the PHB (and all the other 3e books) look as if they were gilded, jewel-encrusted librams of great value.
In 2003, the infamous v.3.5 revision was released, with a slight variation on the original 3e cover. My friends called it the "super pimp" edition, because the faux gilding and jewel-work was even more prominent and elaborate.
I'm going to take liberties and treat the 3e and v.3.5 covers as a single cover for the purposes of the present discussion. The differences between them are more of degree than of kind. Both have the same basic appearance and attempt to evoke the same feel from viewers. More to the point, I'm not sure the few differences are enough to justify two separate entries, so I hope I can be forgiven this one indulgence.
I'm really of two minds about these covers. On the one hand, they're rather garish and more than a little silly. In general, I'm not at all fond of faux antique veneers. At their best, they make you wonder why you should choose a faux antique when you can just as easily get a real one. At their worst, they come off as kitschy and the 3e PHB covers certainly do veer toward kitsch. On the other hand, I can completely understand the thought processes that lead WotC to choose this as the cover design for the books. They wanted covers that made D&D "special" again and that conjured up images of spell books and grimoires.
This was, after all, the relaunch of the first RPG ever created and I have no doubt that WotC wanted to give the game not just some spit and polish, but also a look that expressed something of what D&D meant to them and to the hobby. WotC may have been richer than God thanks to the success of Magic: The Gathering, but their experience as a RPG publisher was limited and certainly not anywhere near as successful as even TSR had been in its dying days. Thus, the 3e covers, goofy as they definitely are, were likely born out of love and respect for the game they had inherited and no small amount of awe at what they were undertaking. The WotC of 1999 and 2000 was simply a different beast from the one that emerged in later years, or so it seems to me. They may have hit it big, but they were still gamers, through and through, and they were geeked to high heaven to be captaining the hobby's flagship.
So, for me, the 3e era covers are a wash. I don't hate them but neither do I love them. The faux tome concept was silly even when Ars Magica did it back in its own third edition. Nevertheless, there's a certain rough charm to it; these covers are the kinds of things a twelve year-old would, in his naive enthusiasm for the game, think were really cool. I have a hard time faulting WotC for giving in to such enthusiasm themselves, even if there should have been an adult somewhere telling their art department that this probably wasn't the best look for the game.
A few sour notes before closing. Both covers have the new Dungeons & Dragons logo and, not only is the logo rather uninspired, it also seems to me to yet more evidence of the treatment of the game as primarily a brand rather than an entertainment. This approach is not unique to WotC, so I don't mean to single them out. However, in light of their eventual acquisition by Hasbro, it is nevertheless ominous. Both covers also have the words "Core Rulebook I" and that too bothers me. As it turns out, I don't believe any 3e books other than the Big Three ever used the words "core rulebook" to describe themselves (though I could be wrong), but it set the stage for what would reach full flower with 4e: the serialization of the D&D rules and the elevation of supplementary material to necessary components for playing the game.