Starting a new saga.

So I haven't run a game in quite some time do to life. I'm finally at a point that I can get back to the old Ars Magica as a storyteller, but most of my games have been about young magi setting out to found a covenant. I was thinking about taking this one in a different direction of young magi being recruited by a covenant of a couple of older magi who are more established so I can shoehorn them into stories more easily with the older magi as a spring board. I wanted some input on the possible advice/pitfalls/experiences I can get from my fellow storytellers who might have more experience than I with this sort of saga.

A great way to run a "missions" style of saga.

Hoplites working for a Q, a Tremere task force, a secret cult slavishly devoted to Dear Leader...

Consistent form prologs and epilogs help reinforce the style. (If you deviate, the players instantly know that the upcoming arc will be especially interesting.)

I really like that idea It leads to a lot of investigation and combat oriented stories, great for a party who wants high levels of conflict. I was also considering a magus odd job crew who makes their money and vis off doing odd jobs other older covenants don't want to. Anything from, meh we don't really want to make 20 magical light sources for our covenant, here's some money and vis to do it for us. Up to, that dragon has been pestering us for a while, be a dear and go get rid of it for us.

My current idea revolves around an old civilization isolated in a regio where 2 magi have set up shop and are now recruiting younger magi get some of the burden of running the covenant off them so they can pursue their own endeavors in peace. The inhabitants have taken up the new magi because it has opened up contact to the outside world, but very few of the inhabitants actually want to leave the regio. The magi set up a trade network with another covenant that decided this would be a great place to host a hermetic market once a year in return for their services, which did nothing but create more headaches for the 2 current residence. So they are desperately trying to push all this onto some younger more naive magi.

I want to make it sandboxy enough that they can instigate their own stories, but have enough power to say "go do this", or anyone else who wants to run a story can make it happen without to much of a fuss. My worry is balancing it. I don't want to make it feel to hand of god like. That's where I wanted to get some advice, if there is any to be had.

The best way to avoid the mission-style scenarios is to ask your player to define a short term and a long term objectives for themselves and a hobby or center of interest.
Then you can introduce stories based on that.
Example, a Redcap approach PC1: "I heard that you would be rewarding somebody who could give you information on the mysterious Tarot of the Burnt Moon ? How much would you pay for 3 cards from it and the story on how I managed to get them ?" -> Introduction to possibly a long investigation.

Example 2: "During your season of Artes Liberales study, you found a mention to the Cult of Ptah, God of Magic". It seems that the author of this book knows quite a bit on this topic unfortunately, he did not elaborate much in this chapter."-> introduction to find a initiation script.

Example 3: "As you are aligning the equipment of the old lab, discarding broken pieces and moving furnitures, you notice what seems to be a secret compartment in the writing desk that opened accidentaly. Is it the design of an invention of Hieronimus the Insane?"

The challenge will be if you have truely passive players who only wants to do lab. Otherwise, if they have some longterm goals, encourage them to pursue them by leaving some breadcrumbs. PCs will take the initiative and you wont have to resort to hand them mission from an elder mage.

Alternatively, they can start a Covenant, but this one is sponsored by an Archmage or a Primus who is setting the covenant with a clear purpose like one of the Hermetic Project. PCs will start with a brand new Covenant, which can be early Summer without going through the Spring season, but on the other hand PC have to make regular progress and report. Their sponsor want to remain in low profile, so they will have to deal with mundanes, quaesitoris and so on without obvious support of their sponsor.

I will preface this by saying I'm not a "more experienced SG."

Both for the characters and the players, reward is king, whether that reward be allies, knowledge, or physical resources like magic items and books. Make the covenant a hierarchy deal with an Archimagus at the top of the food chain, with most of the library locked to the new players and vis being given to them as a salary (which increases as they climb the ladder). Then they'll have real motivations to go through with that their higher-ups assign them, because the potential profits for doing exceptionally well could be enormous. Things like getting a vis raise for a job well-done or being allowed to keep any vis they find along the way, or getting access to portions of the library you previously locked them out of, or even promotions to get all of the above. The covenant's season will play a huge role in the types of stories the players will want to partake in. No Spring covenant will have those old magi, but the other seasons...

Summer: Anything that expands the covenant's power and influence will be received positively by the superiors. Less collecting outside items for study and inventing convenience-improving spells, more forging friendly relationships with nobles and finding vis sources. This is probably the stage where your "liked by the higher-ups" rating matters the least; you can be an astronomical prick, as long as you don't appear disloyal of course, and your aptitude can push you through the ranks. This is best if most of your players don't like internal politicking, though Winter can also work for that.

Autumn: Solidifying the power the covenant already has and keeping your sodales strong and comfortable is the name of the game. Any job in which you protect the covenant's resources or increasing the efficiency of using them will acquire some recognition, but the best thing is empowering the covenant's niche. If, say, they're a "dedicated" covenant (described in Covenants) whose job is improving the creation of Longevity Potions then making an experimental discovery or finding items with properties that could be integrated into Hermetic Theory to improve the process would accrue huge amounts of renown for you. There's an extra catch, though; in an Autumn covenant you also need to be liked by the most and/or most powerful people if you intend to rise very high in the ranks. So unless the PCs are running the place, there will pretty consistently be some politicking.

Winter: This is a WEIRD season, because there are so many reasons and ways for a covenant to reach and be in Winter, yet few really help what you're looking for. Sort of a "limited versatility" thing. Anyway, this is for sagas taking perhaps a more exotic or at least different/bizarre direction, as the magi of a winter covenant tend to, with a few exceptions of course, dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to obscure and often strange projects. Providing for those projects will earn you a lot of acclaim, but most of advancing in the ranks will be based on people liking you. It's usually more personal at this level, though, so this can be the most political setting for a saga or it could be completely lacking in internal politics and they just need to approve of your spunk or whatever. Or something in-between. But the point is, a Winter covenant would usually be a good route for this sort of thing if you don't mind roleplaying the old guys as stereotypes, because the players can be very interested in receiving "junk" that doesn't matter to a given magus anymore since he started his new "big project." There will probably be a lot of dialogue, as direct contact between the highest-rankers and the lowest-rankers tends to be much more common in Winter covenants if they want to get out of Winter. (If they don't... Then the players might not have anything worth doing there anyway).

Hope I helped at all. Good luck!

The advice is, don't worry about it.

If you create the proper scaffolding for a mission saga, like starting every story with a mission briefing or even with a Clone Wars style "Newsreel Voice" plot summary to start every session in media res, then you easily justify "Hand of God." Players know exactly what the game is about and know what to expect. If you want them to have time for their own stories, you can have the cult leader declare that the next year or 7 is inauspicious for the Next Phase, so player magi are free to do their own thing, or your Q has to resolve political matters and you're on your own for a while, or mandated sabbatical (House Tremere insists that you pursue your own interests for a time, because Doctrine calls for agents to be rotated from high stress roles...)

And anyone can create a mission.

Clone Wars is an excellent example of a mission saga, in which characters slowly develop yet the major plot arc does not eat the missions (which happened on B5, DS9, others).