I'm just starting a campaign for the first time with a couple of friends, and I've been told that certain classes like cleric are really strong; some people even say they're overpowered. What is it about them that makes them so strong?
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You might want to give a look at this article and its explanation, especially the part relative to tier 1 classes. Should the links ever go down, it's the famous tier system for 3.5 classes, with the explanation of why each class is in its tier and a detailed explanation of tier 1, where the cleric belongs.
To make a long story short, a cleric is a full caster, a class that can get access to level 9 spells. While lower level spells ofted deal with inflicting conditions, removing them or otherwise messing with the numerical aspects of the game, the higher you go the more spells start doing things like asking information to powerful entities, downright killing or returning to life people, mind controlling, dishing out immunities and so on. Up to the point of having any effect, as long as your deity agrees.
At lower levels, the cleric is a caster class that has no problem being a fighter type as well. It has spells that let him overcome his inherent weakness (his medium BAB progression), making him one of the best melee characters in the game.
Was this not enough, the first level of cleric is frontloaded with the whole set of class features (access to all the daily uses of Turn Undead and to both domains' related powers, often consisting in bonus feats), making it the best 1-level-dip class according to many.
Setting aside the tier system as it is well articulated in other answers, I'll draw from my personal experiences. To summarize:
Some classes reward system mastery more than others. For the expert player, certain patterns in the rules make anything possible. Spellcasting is one of these patterns.
When I've played, both when I've started playing and up to the time I stopped bothering with 3.5, I observed some people having more success at the game due to both more creativity and more options.
Most any class will reward player creativity, to a point carefully delineated (implicitly or explicitly) by the DM. However, it is the especial purview of pure spellcasters who have their spell lists well internalised and understood who can solve an astonishingly large number of problems with "I've got a spell for that."
Now, to be clear, most clerics I've seen played were forced onto the players playing them. As such, they were heal-batteries with little care for the, quite literally, hundreds of possible spell combinations that they could have. Clerics and druids, because they have all spells available can solve most any problem given sufficient in-game prep time and out-of-game research time. Unfortunately, I've played with few clerics willing to do the out of game prep for more than a single level of spells (especially with the need to establish multiple contingent spell lists for situations your DM specialises in). Furthermore, most 3.5 games I've played in have significant plot pressure combined with (what amounts to) in media res openings. Few of the players I've gamed with were fast enough on their feet to swap out spell lists in reaction to their environment in this sort of game.
The literature available online has a significant system mastery bias: in order to contribute to the literature and have that contribution noted the poster must demonstrate capabilities. As this is a well known domain with no innovation, the level of capability required for discourse is quite high.
Your milage, with a new group, will almost certainly not correspond with the theoretical and practical optimisation discussions online. While yes, given a functionally memorised SRD and Spell Compendium, the Cleric (and druid) are astonishingly capable characters. Until that system mastery is intentionally inculcated, players will have a hard time judging and achieving capability and power level.
In my experience, most clerics I've played with were so intimidated by the huge number of spells available that they found their one spell list and stuck with it. While some of the spells on that list could be good (either via other player suggestion or sheer luck), the versatility that marks the expert cleric is almost always absent in this mindset. They know what they can do, and because they know and feel comfortable with their specifically chosen spell list and little else, they certainly won't display the overwhelming strength common to clerics in high system mastery discussions.
While intelligence agencies (and seemingly theoretical optimisers) are required to assess other state actors by their "capabilities, not intentions;" players in the same game are not required to abide by that standard. Therefore, don't worry overmuch about theoretical claims on the net. While they are certainly true, they are only true after a given level of system mastery and desire on the part of the player. For my own case, they were only true after I functionally served an apprenticeship in optimisation.
At the end of the day, optimisation and relative strengths are a function of group intentions, standards, and effective communication. There are plenty of places to do the necessary readings and interact with the necessary people to serve that "optimisation apprenticeship." For a certain type of person, optimisation is a delightful exercise in building to requirements, expressing a wish for personal power, or otherwise exercising validatory psychological experiences.
There are quite a few reasons that Clerics are great. Let's look at some of their class abilities and what they do for you.
Clerics are full spellcasters, with access to a very large spell list. While not quite as expansive as the Wizard list, spells for every situation going up to extremely powerful stuff are on here. Full spellcasting is the single strongest ability in D&D 3.5, and Clerics have it.
Domains tie in with a Cleric's deity, and give you some extra powers. Some of these are pretty minor. Some of them are pretty awesome. They include things like a die reroll once a day, the ability to use Turn Undead as Destroy Undead once a day (which can flat out end Undead encounters instantly if used correctly), Freedom of Movement for free, and so on. If you use more than core books, there are some awesome ones.
Domains also give you an extra spell and spell list, including some options that you can't normally get as a Cleric. Chosen correctly, they can add a lot of versatility.
Clerics are proficient with all armor, and with shields. That's a spellcaster in full plate. They're also proficient with Simple Weapons, but there are prestige classes, domains, and races that let you get some or all Martial Weapons as well. That means they have the tools to do physical combat effectively if you want to.
Clerics have two good saves — Fortitude and Willpower. Those are the two that matter most. They get d8 hit dice, which is pretty solid. They only get 2 skill points a level (which is bad), but they don't need very many skills to be successful. No problem here.
For attributes, Clerics really need Wisdom, Strength (if focusing on melee combat), Constitution, and Charisma (if trying to focus on Turn Undead). Being able to dump several stats is really helpful in optimizing yourself, and they can get down to needing 2–3 stats to be decent.
Absurdly effective against Undead, this can end fights instantly. Can also be made to work against some other monster types with spells or domains.
But it gets really awesome if you get the feat Divine Metamagic. That lets you use Turn Undead to spontaneously apply metamagic feats without boosting spell level. Apply it with a really expensive feat like Persistent Spell, and you suddenly take some of your awesome buffs and make them last for an entire day.
This can get silly very quickly.
Clerics have access to a long list of good prestige classes, several of which give you bonuses while giving up absolutely nothing in your progression. They're just gravy on the top.
Notice how much awesome is on that list? Now what happens if you put it all together?
Clerics Can Beat Any Situation
There's a popular post with a tier-system for classes, that focuses on how good they are and how many different types of encounters they can handle. Clerics are tier 1 (the highest), because there is pretty much nothing you can throw at them that they don't have a way to handle.
Compare to something like a a Rogue, which is pretty good at a few things, and really weak when facing other things. A Cleric is good, no matter what the situation.
When optimized well, Clerics can even be better at other classes specializations. A person in my campaign right now usually plays Fighters, but wanted something with a bit more oomph. It was simple for me to make him a Cleric that's better at being a Fighter than an actual Fighter... and is also still a full spellcaster. That was done with Persist Spell on Righteous Might and Divine Power, giving this Cleric a Fighter's attack bonus, 10 bonus strength, some bonus constitution, and large size (giving reach). That's not a particularly difficult character to make, and nowhere near the most optimized a Cleric can get.
Oh yeah, and he saves money on gear because he can use spells like Greater Magic Weapon to enchant his own stuff. At level 12 he can turn simple masterwork gear into a +3 sword, +3 armor, and +3 shield. That leaves a lot of gold that can be spent on gear for other abilities. Should he get into trouble in melee, he has a full spellcaster's spell list to fall back on.
Clerics are a class with good proficiencies, good stats, good class features, full spellcasting, and the ability to be super versatile. They're good at pretty much everything, and you can never put them in a situation where they're forced to say "oh, I'm totally helpless and need another class to save me." That is what makes them so good.
It's not like this question lacks good answers, but since your experience mirrors mine so well, I'd like to share a story.
I got into my first 3.5 game in college. I'd been playing a heavily modified AD&D through high school, but we had the curious custom of having the DM handle all the rules; I barely know what an attack bonus was. So when I showed up to the group in the tunnels under the dorms, I asked what everyone else was playing to get a sense of what was open, and someone called out that we needed a tank of some kind, someone big and beefy who could defend people. I grabbed a cleric, another player grabbed fighter. We figured tower shields and heavy armor were good for that, right?
We were right. The two of us were pretty capable frontline damage sponges, but while we both absorbed damage about equally (Same armor loadout, and the fighter has only one more hit point each level on average) I could heal and he couldn't. I basically had two or three healing potions a day for free. Even though I was healing him with half my allotment of spells, he started buying healing potions wholesale for moments when I couldn't get to him.
Then came a fight against troop of heavily armored monsters. We quickly figured out the only ones who could touch them were our spellcasters, the wizard and sorcerer. Me and the fighter tried to guard them well, but we were surrounded on enough sides that our spellcasters went down with two of the monsters still standing. We were asking the bard if she had anything offensive, when someone said "Hey wait, clerics can cast damage stuff right? What did you prepare?" Turns out, I had spell damage on par with the mainline spellcasters and hadn't been paying attention. Due to the way you can convert spells to healing, I was stocked with a bunch of offensive spells that simply hadn't been used.
The cleric is very forgiving of mistakes. I hadn't even been thinking about spells until after that fight, but since you can prepare whatever you like, the next session I'd read up on my options and had a few spell lists for different situations. Meanwhile, the wizard had to pay for new spells, and the sorcerer could only change up her selection infrequently. A healbot cleric can turn into a utility mage or an offensive caster with very little notice. Adding splatbooks helps everyone else very slowly; they have to read through different options and make a limited range of choices. Me? Every splatbook we added was a new batch of spells I got for free, that I could try out today and forget about tomorrow.
At high levels of optimization, the cleric can do crazy powerful things. But for people playing for their first time, the cleric is great because you can make mistakes in your build and still do cool things. It's very hard to make a bad cleric. You're a decent tank, a good spellcaster, a decent fighter, and you don't need to plan and optimize to be that way. What makes the cleric strong is how broad their capabilities are, and how little work you have to put into it. As a first-timer, I say go for it. You're not going to be pulling out DMM Persistent Spell cheese or the like, and it will give you a chance to just enjoy the world and story without worrying about power. If you find you need a little more oomph, you can pick it up later. (If you need a panic button, Sanctuary and some Summon Monster spells are a decent fallback.)
Have fun! On an entirely unrelated note, I'm feeling nostalgic and need to go dig up an old character sheet and a sketchbook.
It’s the Spells
There are a lot of other things that are really, really nice for clerics: decent proficiencies and chassis, the existence of Divine Metamagic, Persistent Spell, and other divine and metamagic feats, the various Granted Abilities that you can get from the Domains that you choose. These are all nice. A couple of them (Divine Metamagic chief among them) are fairly overpowered, too. But ultimately, these are not what makes the cleric overpowered. Losing them would not make the cleric not overpowered. Less powerful, true. Without Divine Metamagic, in particular, it’s fairly hard to make the cleric “a better fighter than the fighter,” though by no means impossible, and the wizard starts to look a bit “strictly superior.”
But even in a core-only game, with the armor proficiencies stripped, HD downgraded, Fort save reduced, Granted Abilities removed from Domains, clerics are still overpowered.
And that’s because of the spells. Not just high-level spells, either, but spells at every level. Even just in core (actually, especially the core spells), the spells just do too much, are too flexible. It’s an almost impossible problem to fix, because you literally need to go through every spell and figure out A. if this one is one of the problematic ones, and B. if so, how to reduce it. That is an enormous amount of work. I have never seen a comprehensive homebrew attempt to do it. Paizo certainly didn’t do it, or even try to, in their Pathfinder spin-off. To date, the only 3.5 spin-off I’m aware of to even attempt to do so is Legend, and that was because they simply started from scratch with an almost-entirely overhauled system.
But so long as clerics get the spellcasting they do, with their spells, plus Domain lists to expand their repertoire and pick up some more juicy spells that they missed, they are an overpowered class.
As others have stated, Clerics are tier 1. What that means is not necessarily that Clerics are easier to play or that they do more damage. The tier system cares as much about versatility (Can you help solve this problem?) as it does power (How hard can you solve this problem?).
A player that is very strong in some areas but cannot help with every area is not first tier heroes. Clerics can help in just about every single aspect of life as an adventurer, and this is a large part of why Clerics are so great.
Clerics help you in battle with:
So they not only do damage, take damage, prevent the enemy from enemying you, heal you up afterwards, buff, and debuff all in one package.
That's a lot of versatility when it comes to fighting. Rogues try to sneak ini and do flanking damage to kill things extra hard, but they can't tank. Fighters can tank and spank pretty well, but they don't hit as hard as rogues. They're both susceptible to failing will saves. The Cleric can fail a reflex save and eat some fireball damage, which he can easily tank. The rogue fails a will save and hold person makes him dead. Yay.
In diplomatic situations, their very role of cleric grants them societal respect, and if they worship a Lawful Good God, then that respect is increased, because all the dickish alignments are now impossible. The LG Cleric vouching for the silver tongue bard helps out a lot. Oh, and churches tend to be pretty rich. And clerics can ask for help there, granting the DM plot hooks and ways to help the party if they're stuck.
Oh, looking for clues? Scrying, praying and such are perfectly within the skill list of the cleric.
No matter what you need to do, the Cleric can be very helpful.
And yes, a powergaming cleric might very well choose to be a LG Cleric following a good god for those social bonuses. Being able to say "I am a cleric of a lawful good God so you can trust me." is really useful. Yes, you can't betray the lvl 4 commoner with nothing worth stealing who'd give you ~1xp, but why would you want to? You want to go fight Xn'rzzk, Destroyer of Vowels for epic loot and XP. And world peace of course. I mean, we're LG here, not just murderhobos.
Clerics have tools for every situation. A Bard similarly, have tools for many situations. But their tools just aren't as good as the Clerics'. This is the problem with Bards. They're extremely versatile. But they're not extremely powerful.
And that is why the cleric is so useful.
Now of course you can make a guide to how to make the Fighter suck less. But the fighter will never have the sheer adaptability that the cleric has. (A good start would be to get the Fighter a ridable animal companion of some sort that can smell invisible enemies and also fly. That takes care of two of the worst problems with the fighter.)
And outside of pure in game reasons why Clerics are very powerful, a Cleric also have a lot of soft power within the group. Imagine a stereotypical group, with a Barbarian, Rogue, Wizard and Cleric.
In this group, the Cleric is the one that heals you if you're about to die. If the Cleric hates you, then Cure Moderate Wounds can sometimes fail to materialize. The Cleric is the one that the local peasants trust.
In other words, the Cleric might not be the "leader", but the cleric is the glue that keeps the party together. The rules say that if the god gets angry with the cleric, the cleric loses their powers. This paradoxically gives the cleric veto power over the group when it comes to some choices, because the party doesn't want to lose all the buffs, debuffs, heals, scrying and so on that the cleric brings to the table. So if your group wants to go and be evil somewhere and you're good, you can stop that. Easily.
If your group does the same kind of thing you want to do, why would you want to lead anyway?
Spellcasters are generally more powerful than martial, particularly at high levels.
Clerics have a number of advantages compared to many spellcasters.
1) Compare their spells (casts/day including domain, spells known (all) and spell selection) to other casters and they do quite well. The advantage over wizard increases as you use more books as clerics know more spells, but wizards know the same number of spells with a wider range to choose from.
2) Divine Metamagic is extremely powerful, particularly persist (DMM persist cleric is incredible in melee), and potentially quicken.
3) Medium BaB, d8 HD, Armour, shield and crossbow proficiencies provide the cleric with noticeable advantages over other casters, particularly at low levels.
Clerics are pretty tier 1 in standard PHB games, especially at higher levels. They're good for the party early on, but get fantastic later.
Their main Tier 1 suit comes from the other books though. Domains, feats, races and multiclassing all can be broken easily with 1-5 levels in cleric, or pure'ish cleric with a sprinkle to taste attitude. Complete Divine (the cleric's main 3.5 book) has so many broken feats it's stupendous. Be it multi/dual classing with Practised Spellcaster (yay rogue/clerics of Olidammara with Celerity/Anything), to Sacred Healing (multiplicative mass group Charisma healing, post encounter, no silly target limits) to Divine Meta-magic (a full spell list to break where you can, on any given day), it's golden.
Add all the feat-based domains from all the books. Add all the turning feats.
Then even look at the races obtained in some of the books.
My two faves are Illumians from Races of Destiny. A rogue1/cleric of Ollidammar(celerity/anything) 1/rogue the rest, with Uurkrau words, Practised Spellcaster as feat at lvl3, and if I can convince the DM, Wieldskill as a spell. Super-duper expeditious retreat skill bunny rogue. Add cleric levels to taste (mostly to use lvl 2 slots for more wieldskill and expeditious retreat). Can change spell loadout when rogue stuff isn't going to work, and tops out at +6 caster level (unless your other domain adds more). Funny, funny rogue. If it's a psi campaign, drop in a level of Psion, just to take "Up the Walls" as a feat. Make your DM cry about dungeon and city design. Or dump rogue skill points (or possibly cleric skill points, lvl 2 spells ARE awesome at +6 caster lvl) into healing and pick Sacred Healing as your 3rd or 4th feat. High dex/cha rogue/clerics are fun to play, but it just so happens they CAN heal small armies as well. Probably better than a lvl 7-8 pure cleric could normally, just with that one feat. It's a hard choice, you've front loaded combat and utility, should you keep skill bunnying or go as cleric from there on in? Either way is awesome.
The other fave is a Naenhoon Illumian cleric, with extra turning and divine meta-magic along the way. Add meta-magic feats to taste. Your race already broke the magic that broke the class that broke the spell-list. :)
Yep, Tier 1 vanilla, and keeps up with the bad-boys with all the books. So very front loaded at level 1, there's no reason to not splash it. Gets so powerful, there's no reason not to mono-class it, or splash with flavour or prestige as wanted. Plus, it gives great adventure hooks, side quests and RP possibilities anyway. So good. Can be broken so easily.
The tier system and related materials mentioned by others do a good job of explaining which classes are more powerful than others from a tactical RPG standpoint (i.e. better at killing the monsters, getting the loot, wooing the princess, rewriting the laws of reality, or doing anything else), especially at mid to high levels. Clerics have another strength, however, and one which I find to be more of a power issue than their mechanical prowess: they are more narratively powerful as well.
The first thing playing into this is class versatility. This is very different than character versatility in that it refers to the class being able to make a wide variety of different characters rather than a character being able to do a lot of different things. Fighters are the only other class whose narrative versatility is even close to what Clerics get from their domains. Clerics are as varied as the Gods they serve and can be lightly armored sneaking thief types or Guts-and-Glory front line tanks or demure robed healers or crazed Undead-leading necromancers or the Avatar: master of all four elements. It's not that these differences are large changes in power level, it's that these changes make fundamentally different characters who play fundamentally differently. Most good wizard builds could be any other good wizard build given a personality change and a few days, but Clerics don't have that luxury. Clerics are who they are and that, ironically, makes the class more powerful. Members of an all-wizard party can do different things, but members of an all-cleric party can be different things. But it doesn't stop there.
The second thing that makes Clerics better characters than any other class at low levels is a massive negative aspect: they lose their powers if they violate any of the tenets of their faith, whatever that means. This forces Clerics to take a larger role in roleplaying, running their in-character responses to situations and NPCs rather than just doing whatever would otherwise make the most mechanical sense. When a Cleric has to make a decision that rejects the mechanically beneficial option in favor of their God/Principle, they look cool and get more 'screen-time' than the other players do. In addition to mechanical advantage, many players are interested in having their characters look cool even in tactical games. Clerics (and Paladins but not really Druids) force narration onto the tactical chassis of a game, and narration is cool (or rather, coolness is a form of narration). Other classes can certainly have the same kind of cool me-only hooks and contacts and dramatic internal conflict scenes that Clerics get, but they don't have to (again, Paladins are an exception), and so often they don't, especially when played by new players.
Lastly, because, mechanically, their beliefs and actions matter, unlike those of the measly wizard or foolish ranger, the GM is encouraged to bring up situations where their moral judgement is tested, and to contrast them to other members of the same faith. Stock campaigns frequently have special little things (an interaction with an NPC, a side-quest, an unexpected hurdle, a random low-value piece of treasure) just for characters of the right (or wrong) religion-- which usually means just the Cleric.
In short, the rules force players to make much more unique characters as a Cleric than as most other classes, provide a base around which to form a cool character, and punish players for acting out-of-character if they do so. Additionally the rules encourage GMs to give more 'screen-time' to Clerics, discuss the Cleric's beliefs and motivations even if the GM doesn't discuss the motivations of other characters, develop NPCs that are more than their stat-blocks for the Cleric to interact with, and put a Cleric in situations where they have to make real, meaningful choices. Any of this could be true of all the players and the GM anyways, regardless of class, but, if it was, I don't think being 'overpowered' would be a problem anymore.
For what it's worth; most of the power estimation by analysts is on paper, that is to say, they are comparing what powers each player is granted and pondering potential effects they might have. That's a reasonable exercise, but means little compared to actually playing the classes or DM-ing a party with different classes.
I don't agree with the assertion that clerics are "overpowered", I do think they are one of the most survivable classes and more interesting due to the deep spell choices. They are often my "go to" character at a convention or other one-off game, but that's more from me just trying to be polite and friendly than because I think they are the uber-class.
In the end, the player makes the character and quick wit and good humor are more valuable to me for a fun gaming experience than optimization. With any class, you could find a game breaking combination or feature at some point, but that's why you have a DM.
This answer will be different from most. While I am well aware I'm in the minority on this, the "tier system" and the supremacy of spellcasting in 3.5 are not beliefs I agree with. In my opinion, the belief in these concepts are the result of "sub-optimal" game mastering, not sub-optimal playing or character design, in that most DMs never learn to build encounters and employ tactics that would reign in spellcaster "superiority," allowing casters to run roughshod over non-casting players. Worse, the common acceptance of the tier system has led many gamemasters to believe this is an unavoidable feature of the 3.5 system, and so not even try to correct it. Its resulted in a vicious circle of reinforcement that has carried over into Pathfinder and other 3.5 based games.
That said... even by my reckoning, the class features of the cleric are the strongest of any class in the game. This isn't because clerics can do everything better than everybody else. If the DM knows what he's doing, a cleric cannot outfight a fighter and he definitely can't outsneak a rogue, at least not reliably or for long.
Clerics do, however, have two edges that push them over the top: armored spellcasting and domain powers.
Despite Mike Mearls' latecomer downplay of it, armored spellcasting is a huge deal in 3.5. For the most part, to a noncaster, defense is just defense. It slows down the rate at which you take damage and lets you fight longer before dying. But to a spellcaster, defense is both defense and offense: it both delays your death AND allows you to finish casting your spells uninterrupted. Remember also that the ability to wear armor does more than just raise AC; over the course of your career armor gives you ten enhancements and a shield gives you ten more, up to nine of each can be devoted to other defenses than AC.
Armored spellcasting has been a staple of D&D clerics from the beginning, for two excellent metagame reasons: first, the character that heals other characters should be the last to fall, because once he falls no one can heal him. And, second, to make up for the fact that their spells are generally not directly offensive in nature.
Domain powers, though, were new to 3.5 and were, basically, a bribe to players to make clerics more attractive. Traditionally, the healer role is less "sexy" to players and those domain powers are the equivalent of two extra feats' worth of power, except these provide abilities feats can't and potentially cut across class lines. This always struck me as a little much, and it still does.