This has always interested me. The other seasons a covenant could be in all made total sense to me from a player (and even in-universe) perspective. Obviously, things would be hard at the founding of a covenant; you need to set up a reliable source of income, get everything built up, collect features to make the covenant stand out compared to alternative options, and keep the magi working on the project from getting bored at "good enough to lab-rat in." Summer makes sense too, for obvious reasons; "Woohoo covenant expansion! Now that we aren't struggling to survive any more, it's time to become a mover and shaker in the world! (And get rich while we're at it!)" And Autumn is an obvious and necessary conclusion; purely from a character perspective, continuing to expand could require spending too many seasons on adventures (or, worse, unproductive background seasons!) to be worth all the time you're not able to spend advancing personal goals, working in the Lab, or maintaining the advantages you already have in the mayhem, so of course preserving your current advantages and shifting into neutral makes sense. But at what point do player covenants descend into Winter? I've never seen it happen in game... In fact, I've never seen a Winter covenant in-game unless it was about magi coming in and making it not Winter anymore. I just don't see how or why a player-run covenant, or most NPC covenants even, might devolve into a Winter covenant, especially on accident.
So... How/why has it happened in your game, unless it was the game's entire opening premise (i.e., we're a Winter covenant and let's change that, or we're an Autumn covenant slipping into Winter and let's reverse that)? What kind of thought process goes into allowing a covenant that the troupe's been building up for a long time to slip away? Or what kinds of events have happened in your saga to result in a covenant unintentionally going into Winter? (I can at least imagine something like the covenant getting majorly damaged in a disaster and the magi not caring, so all the workers leave, the income is wrecked, and buildings go into disrepair, since the magi didn't jump on the issue immediately... But that's about all I've got.) Or is my original thought process correct, that generally a player covenant (or, heck, most covenants that ever got to Autumn in the first place) won't go into Winter in a natural fashion, and the transition will be artificial and forced in an effort to tell stories about the failing Winter covenant? Thanks in advance for any clarity you can provide on this issue!
Ars Magica 3rd edition had a series of four "extended adventure" supplements, each describing the transition of a covenant from a season to the next. "A Winter's Tale" was the one detailing the transition from Autumn to Winter. The idea was that if the player characters were successful, their powerful Autumn covenant would "merely" plunge into Winter - if they failed, it would be utterly destroyed.
I also vaguely remember seeing or being told of a darkish saga where the player characters were part of a powerful, but diabolically corrupt Autumn covenant. The saga was about weakening from within and "sealing off" the covenant from the rest of the world, so the corruption would not spread.
Personally, I think it's something that has to be planned out pretty well and even then there's no guarantee.
My current saga, for instance, is being split into three distinct story arcs. I'm looking to finish the first this year, then take a break, and hopefully come back with more early next year. So I have a game plan, which needs a degree of storyguide fiat to move the Tribunal and the magi on a few years between arcs. You could do the same with the seasons and the starting point has to be defining what your own seasons look like; how do you know when you've hit summer?
You could play through the building of the covenant in some detail, the finding of vis sources, the making of allies.
You could express Summer through new covenants and junior magi coming to the covenant for support or advice.
Autumn could come when the covenant hosts the Tribunal gathering, perhaps when it weathers a catastrophe that another similar covenant falls victim to. Perhaps the first of its founders goes into twilight. None of the original grogs survive.
And Winter comes when the vis sources dry up, the younger magi look to another Summer covenant for advice, when the Tribunal moves its meetings to a new space, etc.
If you plan in the high-points, like perhaps some of those above, you can move a covenant through the seasons. You could use the four seasons books as an example, but I don't feel that they guide a covenant through the stages, more a case of presenting stories appropriate for a given season.
However, I suspect that the average saga is likely to get stuck around Summer. Even a simply story about entertaining an unexpected guest can take a session. A Tribunal meeting might take two. Discovering and securing a vis source could also be one or two sessions. Then there are stories for the magi themselves. Just logistically, in order to get everything in, you're looking at a significant investment in time. I think there's a way to do it - I'd like to see some kind of documented treatment on it - but I don't think it's the kind of thing that will arise naturally through gameplay particularly often.
Winter, in my experience, tends to occur to player character covenants one of two ways:
In game reasons - you have an adventure which kills off a big chunk of characters. Following a Total Party Kill (as this would be referred to in other games), in Ars everyone should already have alternate characters in play, so you can work round this with much more ease that other RPGs, but if too many favourite characters die off in a short space of time (whether from adventuring or failed aging rolls) you end up with either a weaker covenant that needs to change course and has a wide disparity between older and newer members....or people want to quit and start a new saga.
This leads me to the other way - out of game reasons. People get bored of a particular saga and want something else, or a couple of regular players have to drop out, and it is time to draw the saga to a close. At this point, you can narrate how the magi drifted away to other covenants and this one died out, and it can enter future sagas as the name of a winter covenant (if you want to reuse old PCs as NPCs) or long-dead covenant (if you need to name failed covenants).
I saw a saga where one plot lead to a burning library, one plot led to massive Vis-loss and one plot lead to a few dead magi - each plot run by seperate SGs.
We figured that pretty much put the covenant into winter - and kinda stopped playing that saga really.
After 20 years of in-game play in our long game we entered Summer, and were setting up a College of Hermetic Magic (and avoiding Hogwort's comparisons as much as we could). Then 5th Edition came along and we restarted.
That took about ten years. At that rate we would be in the middle of Autumn now.
I'm with Darkwing.
If the covenant never really made it to Summer, then you're left with a 'failed covenant'; if it did, then you've got a Winter Covenant, to be used in a later saga - even if the new saga re-starts the clock (at 1220, or whenever), you can still use it.
Yeah, I pretty much agree with Darkwing's comments.
In play, Winter happens because there were powerful magi at the covenant, and then suddenly there aren't, and the remaining less powerful magi are not really capable of dealing with the issues that the powerful magi left unresolved. So, things start to unravel.
There can be several reasons why the powerful magi are no longer there: a) they might have just left for other covenants/Tribunals/adventures in the magic/faerie realm, etc b) they might have been killed, c) they might have entered Final (or nearly Final) Twilight, d) they might be just doing something tremendously time consuming in their Lab, e) might have died of old age.
Like Mark says, it does require "planning". In that a) the troupe has to arrange to dispose of all the powerful magi nearly at once, and b) the troupe has to want to continue the saga with a weaker, incapable generation of magi (probably the apprentices, or grand-apprentices of the departed, powerful magi).