CRISPR technologies increasingly require spatiotemporal and dosage control of nuclease activity. One promising strategy involves linking nuclease activity to a cell’s transcriptional state by engineering guide RNAs (gRNAs) to function only after complexing with a ‘trigger’ RNA. However, standard gRNA switch designs do not allow independent selection of trigger and guide sequences, limiting gRNA switch application. Here, we demonstrate the modular design of Cas12a gRNA switches that decouples selection of these sequences. The 5 end of the Cas12a gRNA is fused to two distinct and nonoverlapping domains: one base pairs with the gRNA repeat, blocking formation of a hairpin required for Cas12a recognition; the other hybridizes to the RNA trigger, stimulating refolding of the gRNA repeat and subsequent gRNA-dependent Cas12a activity. Using a cell-free transcription-translation system and Escherichia coli, we show that designed gRNA switches can respond to different triggers and target different DNA sequences. Modulating the length and composition of the sensory domain altered gRNA switch performance. Finally, gRNA switches could be designed to sense endogenous RNAs expressed only under specific growth conditions, rendering Cas12a targeting activity dependent on cellular metabolism and stress. Our design framework thus further enables tethering of CRISPR activities to cellular states.