Say, you’re in a Half Price Books looking at the role-playing games. You’ll probably see some books that look like these. (Clicking it should show you a bigger version.)
(You may want to reference my D&D ID page and the time line in Wikipedia’s “Editions of Dungeons & Dragons” article while reading this.)
The top two represent first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published by TSR. (Of course, it wasn’t called “first edition” at the time. That came later when second edition was published.) Later books had the orange spine. Some of the early books where later printed with new covers and the orange spine, but the contents are the same.
The third and fourth represent second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published by TSR. Again, the fourth one is later books. Some of the earlier books where printed with new covers and spines to match this new trade dress but, again, the contents are the same. Note that the later books lack the handy “2nd Edition” text.
Note that all edition of the game published by TSR are highly compatible.
The fifth spine represents “third edition” Dungeons & Dragons published by Wizards of the Coast. Note, again, that there is nothing that explicitly says “third edition” here, although that’s what it is most commonly called.
The sixth spine represents “3.5” Dungeons & Dragons published by Wizards of the Coast. The “core” books did say “v.3.5” on the cover, but other books didn’t. Honestly, though, I don’t have enough 3.5 era books to tell you much about distinguishing 3.0 from 3.5. Mainly I do it through knowing pretty much all the 3.0 products, so if I don’t recognize it, it is probably 3.5. ^_^ The good news is that 3.0 and 3.5 are very compatible.
The seventh spine represents “fourth edition” Dungeons & Dragons published by Wizards of the Coast.
I believe there was only one hardback ever published for “classic D&D”. i.e. The “non-advanced” D&D published by TSR before and parallel with AD&D. That is the Rules Cyclopedia. Everything else for classic D&D was, I believe, saddle-stitched or boxed sets.
Of course, what you really need is a “pocket guide”, but this is what you get. ^_^
I’d love to do something like this for the perfect bound books as well, but I don’t actually have any of them.
Hey, Wizards of the Coast! If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll understand why I don’t think “D&D next” should just say “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover. Even if I’m playing “D&D next”, I’m going to occasionally see second-hand books, and I’d like it to be easy to tell unambiguously if a book with “D&D” on the cover is intended for the game I’m playing or not. Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re going for the “make it easy to use anything from any edition”, but as a customer, I still want every book to tell me what edition it was originally intended for. I shouldn’t have to have the knowledge of a collector for this. There is zero reason for this confusion to exist. I know everyone at TSR and Wizards thought it made sense at the time to do what they did, but you were wrong. Please, do not contribute to the confusion. Thank you.